600 years ago, book were luxury items – something similar to precious works of art. They were produced used painstaking methods and processes: producers of parchment, scribes and illustrators all worked for many years on one book. All books were unique and were therefore valuable one-off items.
The goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg developed a new process in around 1450. From this, an industrial product was developed within a few years for the first time: the book as a mass commodity. At the centre of this new process was the printing press. The writer sets the movable hand-moulded, metal letters and new, blank paper is printed on both sides. The first book that was printed in an edition of several dozen copies is a Latin Bible, which came to be known as the Gutenberg Bible. Printing processes were already known in China and Korea but the mass production of books is a European event.
It was printed in Mainz. Gutenberg could only sell his Bibles at fairs, especially in Frankfurt. The first mention of a Gutenberg Bible that we know of comes from a cardinal in Rome, who, after a visit to the Diet in Frankfurt in 1454, speaks with fascination about the “good Frankfurt Bible” he saw there. Frankfurt am Main plays a significant role in the dissemination of the new printing process. In the display case you can see a reproduction of the Gutenberg Bible from Berlin – you can imagine that this book, too, came from a sales fair in Frankfurt am Main.
These printed books also first appeared in Latin for the most part. In around 50 years, the inventory of books in German lands had quintupled thanks to the new technology. The first printed Bibles in the German language contributed to this. One example is the Sorg Bible of 1480. Here you can see a page from the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, in one of the Upper German translations. All pre-Reformation translations of the Bible adhere closely to the Latin template. At this point, there was no standard German language – the Bible was published in Alemannic, Rhenish or Westphalian. 18 pre-Reformation printed German Bibles are known.