4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

Gutenberg Prints the 42-Line Bible (1455 – 1456)

The 42-line Gutenberg Bible, completed in in 1456 by Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Fust & Peter Schöffer, is the earliest European book printed from movable type, by a process of Gutenberg's own invention. (View Larger)

During 1455 and 1456 Johannes Gutenberg, working in Mainz with merchant and money-lender Johann Fust and former scribe turned printer Peter Schöffer, completed printing the 42-line Bible (B42) (Gutenberg Bible), the first book printed in Europe from movable type. It is thought that Gutenberg may have begun the first, experimental printing of the Bible as early as 1452. To accomplish this monumental task Gutenberg, previously a goldsmith, invented a special kind of printing ink, a method of casting type, and a special kind of press derived from the wine or oil press. This complex set of integrated technologies has been called the first invention in Europe attributed to a single individual. Printing books was also the first process of mass production—the process that centuries later became the model for the Industrial Revolution.

Yet the process of printing from movable type, for centuries attributed to Gutenberg, without supporting documents on the technical aspects of the process, except for the surviving examples of his printing, seems to have evolved in stages from the early 1450s, and may or may not have involved other inventors besides Gutenberg. In 2002 physicist and software developer Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Paul Needham, Librarian of the Scheide Library at Princeton University, working on original editions in the Scheide Library, used high resolution scans of individual characters printed by Gutenberg, and image processing algorithms to locate and compare variants of the same characters printed by Gutenberg.

"The irregularities in Gutenberg's type, particularly in simple characters such as the hyphen, made it clear that the variations could not have come from either ink smear or from wear and damage on the pieces of metal on the types themselves. While some identical types are clearly used on other pages, other variations, subjected to detailed image analysis, made for only one conclusion: that they could not have been produced from the same matrix. Transmitted light pictures of the page also revealed substructures in the type that could not arise from punchcutting techniques. They [Agüera y Arcas and Needham] hypothesized that the method involved impressing simple shapes to create alphabets in "cuneiform" style in a mould like sand. Casting the type would destroy the mould, and the alphabet would need to be recreated to make additional type. This would explain the non-identical type, as well as the substructures observed in the printed type. Thus, they feel that 'the decisive factor for the birth of typography', the use of reusable moulds for casting type, might have been a more progressive process than was previously thought. . . . " (Wikipedia article on Johannes Gutenberg, accessed 02-08-2009).

When the punch-matrix process of typefounding which became dominant was introduced, and by whom, remained an unsolved problem in 2010.


Blaise Agüera y Arcas and Paul Needham, "Computational analytical bibliography," Proceedings Bibliopolis Conference The future history of the book', The Hague: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, (November 2002).

Agüera y Arcas, "Temporary Matrices and Elemental Punches in Gutenberg's DK type", in: Jensen (ed) Incunabula and Their Readers. Printing , Selling, and Using Books in the Fifteenth Century (2003) 1-12.

ISTC no. ib00526000

It has been determined that there were three phases in the printing process of the B42:

1. The first sheets were rubricated by being passed twice through the printing press, using black and then red ink. This process was soon abandoned, with spaces left for rubrication to be added by hand.

2. Some time later, after more sheets had been printed, the number of lines per page was increased from 40 to 42, presumably to save paper. Therefore, pages 1 to 9 and pages 256 to 265, presumably the first ones printed, have 40 lines each. Page 10 has 41, and from there on the 42 lines appear. The increase in line number was achieved by decreasing the interline spacing, rather than increasing the printed area of the page.

3. The print run was increased, probably to 180 copies, necessitating resetting those pages which had already been printed. The new sheets were all reset to 42 lines per page. Consequently, there are two distinct settings in folios 1-32 and 129-158 of volume I and folios 1-16 and 162 of volume II. As the work contains 1,282 pages it is thought that the printing process took roughly two years as the press could make between eight and sixteen impressions per hour.

It is believed that  approximately 180 copies of the Bible were produced, 135 on paper and 45 on vellum. When illuminated, the vellum copies would have even more closely resembled traditional medieval manuscripts. 47 or 48 copies survived, but of these only 21 are complete. Others are missing leaves or whole volumes. The 48 copies include volumes in Trier and Indiana which seem to be two parts of one copy. There are a substantial number of fragments, including numerous individual leaves. Twelve vellum copies survived, of which four are complete, and one is the New Testament only. 

See White, Eric M. "The Gutenberg Bibles that Survive as Binder's Waste," Wagner & Reed (eds) Early Printed Books as Material Objects. Proceedings of the Conference Organized by the IFLA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Munich, 19-21 August 2009 (2010) 21-35.

"Customers paid around 20 gulden for a paper copy of the Gutenberg Bible and 50 for a copy on vellum. By way of comparison, a stone-built house in Mainz would have cost between 80 and 100 gulden; a master craftsman would have earned between 20 and 30 guilden a year" (Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance [2010] 29).

♦ When I checked the ISTC in January 2010 there were four different digital facsimiles available online, from the British Library, Keio UniversityNiedersächische Staats- und Universitäts Bibliothek Göttingen, and the Library of Congress. The British Library site offers the opportunity to compare in a virtual sense their copies printed on paper and on vellum.

In 2008 Stephen Fry made a 60 minute film on Gutenberg's development of printing by movable type for the BBC entitled The Machine that Made Us. For the film Fry's team reconstructed what may have been Gutenberg's original press, cut punches, made matrices, cast type, and even made paper, before printing a page on the press. The film did not take into account the discoveries at Princeton in 2002 regarding the method that Gutenberg probably used to cast type for the B42.


Peculiarly, in 1952 the United States Post Office issued a 3-cent stamp commemorating the "500th Anniversary of the printing of the first book, The Holy Bible, from movable type, by Johann Gutenberg." The correct 500th anniversary would have been 1955 or 1956, as the 42-line Bible was completed in 1455 or 1456. 

(This entry was last revised on 11-14-2014.)