Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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A handwritten Bible similar in format to Gutenberg's Bible, produced contemporaneously with his printing.
Detail from the Giant Bible of Mainz, folio 187r.

Image from a 15th-century German block book, Ars bene moriendi.

Text from a 15th-century German block book, Ars bene moriendi.

Interactive Map: The Spread of Printing

Printing Before Gutenberg
The earliest books were written by hand on scrolls. Beginning in the second century C.E., the first codex books (bound at one edge) appeared. This is the form of book we are accustomed to today. During the Middle Ages, books were produced entirely by hand by monks who used quill pens and ink. With this method, even a small book could take months to complete, and a volume the size of the Bible would have taken years.

In the mid 1400s, block-printed books incorporating pictures became popular in Europe, although they had originated in Asia many centuries before Gutenberg's time. An entire page, usually featuring one or more illustrations, was engraved on a wood block, inked, and printed. The engraving and printing of block books was a cumbersome process that was unsuitable for books consisting primarily of text.

Spread of Printing
Gutenberg's invention revolutionized the distribution of knowledge by making it possible to produce many accurate copies of a single work


INTERACTIVE MAP: The Spread of Printing

in a relatively short amount of time. His contemporaries called it "the art of multiplying books."

The process soon spread throughout Germany and from there to Italy, France, and the rest of Europe. By the end of the fifteenth century, hundreds of book titles were being produced each year on wooden handpresses like Gutenberg's. The design of such presses stayed remarkably similar for centuries, although more efficient iron handpresses were developed around 1800. Today automated machine presses produce almost all of our printed material.

Changes after the Gutenberg's Invention
The rapid spread of knowledge made possible by Gutenberg's printing press contributed to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Protestant Reformation. The distribution of printed text was directly responsible for a sharp increase in literacy. For this reason, Gutenberg is recognized as one of the most important figures of the past thousand years.