The first printed work to emerge from Johann Gutenberg’s press in Mainz, Germany was the Ars Minor: a Latin grammar guide intended for schoolmasters and students. The success of the Ars Minor—and of a sideline in printed papal indulgences—convinced Gutenberg to risk embarking on the ambitious project of producing a Bible in 1455.
The Gutenberg Bible did not make its printer’s fortune; he was declared bankrupt later that year. But it was a formidable advertisement for the potential of printing. In March 1455, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, reported that he had seen the new Bible and was mightily impressed. He found that all available copies had already been sold. The book was not cheap, but was considerably less expensive than a handwritten manuscript.
Gutenberg was not the first printer. The Chinese had been printing books since at least the ninth century AD. The most common method was to carve a woodblock to reproduce an entire page. After the block had been inked, a piece of paper was laid over the top and rubbed to ensure the design was uniformly applied. Later, in China and Korea, printers began to use moveable type made of wood, ceramic, and even metal.
Paper was another Chinese invention, in use there since at least the second century AD. It reached Europe via Muslim…