In the mid 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg invented a specific type of printing press that would play a major role in the world’s trajectory. Without the printing press, mass messages regarding religion, philosophy, politics, and history would struggle to make it beyond the elite.
Before the advjent of the printing press, books were written by hand and then copied meticulously by scribes. A single book could take months to copy by hand, making it extremely expensive to own and copies of just about any book were only available in limited supply. Only those who were wealthy and literate could truly appreciate the content written on the pages of each handwritten book.
This limited supply of books caused a myriad of problems in Europe. Only priests could access Bible scriptures, relaying their unchecked interpretations to the masses. Scientific communities had no way to easily access each other’s findings and it was not lucrative to publish scientific findings in the first place. Political thoughts and ideologies had little hope of spreading beyond word of mouth.
Cue Gutenberg, the first European to invent a system that used movable type built from an easily molded metal alloys and oil-based ink to print books en masse. He and his financial backer printed 180 copies of the Bible.
Gutenburg and his financial backer eventually clashed with one another, leading to a slew of legal battles.
Today, you can look at two of the 49 surviving Gutenberg Bibles at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. The Gutenberg Museum is a regal building just steps away from Mainz’s town square.
The Gutenberg Bibles are intricately crafted and flourished with hand painted accents. It’s surreal to think that despite being the most common book across the globe when it comes to content, these particular Bibles rank among the rarest and most valuable books in the world. In 1987, an incomplete copy of a Gutenberg Bible sold for $5.4 million US dollars. In 2006, a single leaf sold for $47 thousand US dollars.
The Gutenberg Museum is not only dedicated to Gutenberg’s achievements but also to the printing systems developed by Asian inventors centuries before Gutenberg’s birth. Guests can also try their hand at using a Gutenberg printing press for themselves. While the museum itself isn’t flashy when it comes to high-tech features or a logical floor plan, being able to put your hands on a machine that was a catalyst for countless paradigm shifts, philosophical movements, scientific discoveries, and revolutions make the museum worth a visit.
The tension and history of Gutenberg’s printing press becomes even more tangible when you step outside of the museum and into the shadow of the Mainz Cathedral, a Catholic cathedral that is over 1,000 years old.
When Gutenberg printed 180 copies
of the Bible, it created religious upheaval. Those who were literate were able to read scriptures for themselves, noting inconsistencies between the printed word and the official teachings of the Catholic Church.
In 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the doors of Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany, dividing the Catholic Church and forever changing the course of Christianity. Martin Luther also took advantage of Gutenberg’s technology, printing thousands of religious pamphlets challenging the Catholic Church’s ideology.
The effects of Gutenberg’s printing press are immeasurable. It has contributed to every major movement of our time, including the internet — where we publish, share, and translate ideas millions of times globally per day.
The Gutenberg Museum costs €5 for adults and €2 for children. An audio guide is an additional €3.50 per person. The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 11am to 5 pm. Address: Liebfrauenplatz 5, Mainz.