Gutenberg in Melbourne: Inventing the Bible

From the Manchester Gutenberg Bible: the beginning of
Paul's Letter to the Romans
The rare and valuable character of the Gutenberg Bible, an example of which is about to be exhibited at the University of Melbourne's Baillieu Library (on loan from the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester), belies its real significance.

What is most remarkable about this first book printed with movable type is that it heralded an era of plentiful and cheap books. For all its passing resemblance to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of its own time, the spiritual offspring of Gutenberg's project are the aesthetically modest Bibles of modern hotel-room drawers, and indeed mass-produced paperbacks in general.

Before Gutenberg or what Gutenberg and his Bible represent, much of what is now taken for granted about books, secular and sacred alike, was impossible. The new technology, based on a flexible and reusable type whose expense could be recouped not just in multiple copies of a single work, but in an infinite number of works, ushered in new possibilities beyond Gutenberg's intention or imagination.

Prior to the invention of movable type, books in the West were of course rare and expensive. This meant not only that they were largely in the hands of wealthy individuals and powerful institutions, but also that the purposes of books were largely focussed on the public liturgy and private devotions of Christianity.

The contents of those older scriptural books conformed only rarely to the modern idea of a "Bible". Gospel books, epistolaries, psalters, lectionaries, and other collections and selections from a biblical library, were the tools of trade of those who led liturgy, and the media through which most heard scripture read. But they were not "Bibles".

Johannes Gutenberg's project was not intended to change this social and religious reality, so much as profit from it; his market was still an elite section of society, as the impressive "rubrication" (supplementary decoration and adornment) of the Gutenberg Bible makes clear enough. After all, relatively few had the level of education that allowed them to read. And while Gutenberg's Bible heralded a new level of access to the biblical text, his own publication was still the traditional Vulgate, the canonical Latin scriptural text of the Roman Catholic Church. The new printed Bible preceded the German Reformation by the best part of a century.

It is hyperbolic to say that Gutenberg "invented" the Bible; but without him the Bible as it is now understood in many places - as a single and particular book synonymous in content with the canon of Christian scripture -  simply could not have come about. Christian scripture, of course, is very much older, but these sacra biblia ("holy books") hitherto constituted not a single book but an inspired library, which most heard communally rather than read individually. As already noted, the conjunction and collection of different scriptural works in one binding was determined mostly by liturgical use. When the whole of scripture could readily be encompassed in a single volume (or two, as most Gutenberg Bibles were bound), a new possibility emerged; the library of scripture now became a single book, and canon itself, rather than devotional and communal use, determined its internal architecture.

The disruptive character of the new technology, and its potential significantly to increase access to scriptural and other texts, thus did not appear overnight, and required other social and intellectual developments to catalyse it. The emergence of a bourgeoisie whose interests, material and spiritual, did not sit easily with the traditional alliance of Church and old aristocracy, was crucial. As a larger group of educated and increasingly powerful merchants and professionals found themselves able to ponder scripture, as well as the classics and other sources encouraging critical reasoning, they were ripe also for the ideas of such as Luther. The new printing technology then allowed the very writings that fomented reform to circulate rapidly, too.

While it is impossible to imagine Protestantism, or the place of the Bible in it, without these complementary social and technological developments, there were further changes before distinctive modern forms of western Christianity, with their assumptions about faith and spirituality based on personal Bible reading, could emerge. Gutenberg's movable type did not yet create mass literacy, or make Bibles cheap enough for typical households. Yet it had allowed the idea of a "Bible" in a hitherto almost impossible sense.

While this technological revolution in printing was a necessary condition of democratising literacy in general and the Bible in particular, the same developments were at best a two-edged sword for the centrality of the Bible, and for the place of Christianity in western culture. For the infinite variability of moveable type heralded a new and open-ended set of textual possibilities; if the Bible were indeed a "book", it would now have many other books alongside it, and form part of an increasingly complex  and competitive library of meaning.


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