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Gutenberg, Johannes (Johannes Gensfleisch Zur Laden; C. 1400–1468)

GUTENBERG, JOHANNES (Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden; c. 14001468)

GUTENBERG, JOHANNES (Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden; c. 14001468), the first European printer, inventor of movable type. Throughout the Middle Ages texts continued to be created and transmitted the way they had been in ancient Greece and Rome: by handwriting. Each manuscript (literally, 'written by hand') was a unique and individually made object. If one copy of a text existed, and a second was needed, it required a fresh round of handwork, taking about as much time to complete as the first copy had. Then about 1450, an entirely new technique of text-creation, typographic printing, was developed in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg. Through his invention, multiple copies of the same text, whether of a single-page document such as a church indulgence, or of a massive book such as the Bible, could be produced in a workshop as part of a single, mechanized process of production. Within the next quarter century Gutenberg's invention took firm root in Europe, and printed books became familiar objects for educated readers. Printing radically changed the tempo and scale of bookmaking: contemporaries remarked in amazement that as much could be printed in a day as a scribe could write in a year. This in turn affected the systems of book sales and distribution, book prices, readers' expectations for the appearance of their books, and eventually all aspects of book culture.

In their layouts and letterforms the earliest printed books closely resemble, as they were meant to do, professionally written manuscripts of their time. Yet the way in which they were made is so different from handwriting that, although we know almost nothing about Gutenberg's personality, we must believe that he had a rarely creative mind. The underlying idea of typography is the creation, in cast metal alloy, of multiple copies of every letter form in reverse, each standing on a rectangular shaft of about one-inch height so that they could be easily picked up and placed side by side to form lines of words, which then were arranged and blocked together to form entire type-pages of words. These type-pages were dabbed with a sticky black oilbased ink; a sheet of paper (or vellum, as the case may be) was laid over the page; and the paper and types were put under the plate of a screw-action press. The plate pressed the inked, reverse-image types strongly into the paper, leaving a sharp, forward-reading image of a full page of text in the paper. By successive inkings, as many copies as desired of that same type-page could be printed off, and gradually, multiple copies of a complete book were created, page by page.

The critical feature of Gutenberg's invention was that after all the needed copies of a given page had been printed off, the types were cleaned of ink, loosened, and returned, one by one, into the type cases, each character going into its appropriate box, ready for setting more text. By means of this constant recycling, a relatively small amount of type, and thus a relatively small investment in time, labor, and metal, was sufficient to print hundreds of copies of a book of any length. For instance, a single type-page of the Gutenberg Bible would have amounted to about twenty pounds of metal, and a typical full case of type in one of the early printing shops may have weighed about sixty-five pounds. However, if the entire text of the Gutenberg Bible had been set in standing pages, the total weight of the types needed would have been more than twelve tons.

Fragments survive of several crudely produced editions of a Latin grammar, Donatus, and of a German prophetic poem, the Sibyllenbuch, which are probably the results of Gutenberg's earliest typographic experiments. The massive Latin Bible commonly called the Gutenberg Bible, completed in 1455, was a much more expensive and ambitious project: a two-volume work, beautifully printed, of more than 1,200 large pages (approximately 16 by 11 inches). The Italian humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II (reigned 14581464), saw sample sheets of the Bible in Frankfurt am Main in the fall of 1454 and wrote enthusiastically to a friend in Rome about the high quality of the workmanship. He was told that some 180 copies were being made.

The chief investor in the Bible project was a wealthy Mainz citizen, Johann Fust (d. 1466). After the Bible was completed, Fust brought a successful lawsuit against Gutenberg, claiming that his investment had been partly diverted to other projects of Gutenberg's. Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schoeffer went on to form their own successful printing shop in Mainz.

After the breakup with Fust, Gutenberg was able, with the aid of another Mainz investor, to continue his experiments in typography into the late 1450s. A potential drawback of his first invention was that, because the pages of type were only temporary, if a new edition of a text was called for, it had to be reset from the beginning, with time and costs equal to that of the first edition. In response to this, Gutenberg developed a second system of printing, whereby the composed pages of type were not printed from directly. Instead, the set types were used to make moulds, into which were cast thin metal strips, each bearing on its surface the raised impression of two lines of text. These strips were blocked together to make up type-pages, which went under the printing press. When the printing was done, the strips could be stored, page-by-page, so that if a new edition was called for, they could be quickly reassembled, without the time and cost of new composition.

Using this system, Gutenberg and his workers produced in 1460 two brief religious tracts and a massive Latin dictionary, the Catholicon. After Gutenberg's death, the strips of the tracts were printed from once again (1469), and of the Catholicon twice again (1469 and 1473). Unlike the first invention of recycling types, this second invention of "frozen" types did not spread to other printing shops. Its near equivalent, stereotyping, was not developed until some 250 years later.


In Gutenberg's lifetime the technology of printing spread slowly, to Strasbourg, Bamberg, Cologne, and into Italy, reaching Rome in 1467. In the year he died, 1468, it may not have been clear to contemporary eyes that printing would soon become a substantial replacement for, rather than just a parallel alternative to, the traditional system of handwritten books. A much broader and more rapid spread began in 1469 and after, when printing was first introduced to the great trading city of Venice. By 1500, printing shops had been introduced to more than 250 European cities and towns, although many of these were the sites for only brief experiments. Concurrently, a strong consolidation of shops began to form in a dozen or so citiesVenice, Paris, Milan, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, and otherswhich among them produced nearly twothirds of the approximately 28,000 surviving printed editions of the fifteenth century. By contrast, from about 1475 onward, there was a rapid fall-off in the production of manuscript books.

In essence, the fifteenth-century printers and publishers produced, in the totality of their output, a kind of résumé of all the written culture of the western world that still had a wide currency in their own age: ancient authors and the Bible; the major writings and commentaries on theology, law, and medicine; sermon collections; liturgical and devotional books; confessionals and other manuals for priests. Many of the "best-selling" authors of the period, such as Cicero, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, had been dead for centuries. At the same time, the printers were capable of giving quick and wide currency to the events and concerns of the day. When Columbus returned from his first voyage to the New World in 1493, his report to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella was rapidly translated into Latin and published in three Rome editions as a kind of brief newsletter.

The role of printing, from the earliest years, in creating a mass circulation of almanacs, prognostications, indulgences, and small vernacular writings of many kinds has often been underestimated because of the very low survival rate of these genres. For example, we know from a document that in 1500 a printer in Messina had produced more than 130,000 copies of indulgences for the bishop of Cefalù, yet not a single copy is known to survive.

See also Bible: Translations and Editions ; Caxton, William ; Printing and Publishing .


Davies, Martin. The Gutenberg Bible. London and San Francisco, 1996.

Ing, Janet. Johann Gutenberg and His Bible: A Historical Study. New York and London, 1988.

Paul Needham

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