Sunday, July 18, 2010

Religion does good case study: The Gutenberg Bible

Printing originated in China, including early experiments with movable type consisting of wooden blocks with individual characters held together by wax.  But with thousands of characters, the technique did not go far for printing text.  The Muslim world had the technology next, but calligraphy was too central to be displaced.  It was up to Johannes Gutenberg of Germany to make the needed advancements and assemble them to create what we now call printing.  A goldsmith and builder of coin mints, Gutenberg created die from which to cast the numerous pieces of type (tens of thousands of little metal blocks of exact dimension with raised characters), and he solved problems dealing with applying ink and pressing the image.  He produced less than 200 printed Bibles around 1455, but the effect was wide and immediate.  By 1500, European presses had printed between 8 million and 20 million volumes of thousands of books.  The effect is difficult to underestimate.  Technological and scientific progress, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, government reforms, the rise of the middle class and other advancements are attributable to print.  Printing is one of the main reasons leading to the rise of Europe ahead of other parts of the world.  And it all started with a Bible.  But did it have to be a Bible?

There is little biographical information about Gutenberg. (Yes, Gutenberg is a Jewish name, meaning "Jewish Hill" in old German.  It was also the name of the estate of Gutenberg's wealthy family, which had been a Jewish area until a pogrom in the 1200's.  His full name was Johannes Gensfleisch zu Laden zu Gutenberg, meaning Johannes Gensfleisch of Laden of Gutenberg.)  His motivation appears to have been half artistic and half monetary, not religious.  The pages are some of the best examples of artistic printing to date.  With the page and column dimensions carefully shaped into Golden Sections, and hand-drawn initial letters and flourishes added to every page (over 1,000 pages per volume).  And the print run sold for the equivalent of millions of dollars in today's money, although Gutenberg lost the money when his financial backer foreclosed.   The Bible was a hefty volume that lent itself to artistic flourishes, would show off the capabilities of his new printing technology, and that he could sell to institutions and the wealthy (the price was still tens of thousands of dollars in updated money).  So the Bible was the best candidate for print for its time.  And perhaps ironically, the Bible was able to start the force that would finally downgrade its power after over one thousand years of supremacy.

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