Whether you’re a certifiable bookworm or not, the vast majority of us have benefited significantly from the ready availability of print media in this day and age. But if you’ve always thought that we have the Gutenberg Bible to thank for that, think again: Johannes Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type, and the Gutenberg Bible wasn’t the first book ever printed.
Indeed, the history of books, printing, and the printing press goes back a lot further than you might think—largely because you don’t actually need a printing press in order to print a book. While the press did allow for the mass production of books, which certainly helped get everything from fiction to biographies out to the masses, books existed long before the means to mass produce them did.
Here’s what your history classes didn’t teach you about the history of books.
Woodblocks and Early Printing Methods
Woodblock printing—prints made from carved blocks of wood painted with ink or other pigments and then pressed onto a material such as cloth or paper—was developed in China in the early centuries of the last millennium. The earliest surviving examples of Chinese woodblock prints date back to around the year 220 (that is, the end of the Han dynasty, which spanned the years 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.); however, these examples were printed on silk instead of paper.
Meanwhile, paper-making in China is usually credited to Tsai Lun, also known as Cai Lun, an imperial official who introduced a method of making paper from a pulp of bamboo fibers and mulberry tree bark to court sometime around 105 C.E. But although Cai Lun undoubtedly made great strides in the advancement of paper-making techniques, recent archaeological evidence has emerged indicating that paper-making had already developed in China several centuries earlier: A map printed on what has been described as a piece of yellow paper discovered in a tomb at the Fangmatan archaeological site in the Gansu province has been dated as far back as between 179 and 141 B.C.E.
In any event, woodblock prints produced on paper began to appear in China by the seventh century. The earliest known woodblock print made on paper was produced sometime between 650 and 670 C.E.; discovered in a Tang dynasty-era tomb in Xi’an City, Shaanxi province, this piece—a Buddhist dharani charm written in Sanskrit—was printed on hemp paper. (The Tang dynasty spanned the years 618 to 907, although it’s worth noting that there was also a brief interregnum of 15 years between 690 and 705.)
The earliest surviving book printed using the woodblock technique arrived just about 200 years later: A scroll containing the Diamond Sutra—one of the most historically and philosophically important Buddhist texts in existence—was printed in 868. According to the British Museum, the scroll is comprised of several different sections which were printed separately, then joined together to create a scroll that measures a total of about five meters in length—which, notably, makes it “not only the earliest surviving dated piece of printing, but also the most substantial one” per the museum’s page on the sutra. A dedication note at the end of the scroll provides the information about the date of printing: Translated, it reads, “On the 15th day of the fourth month of the ninth year of the Xiantong reign period, Wang Jie had this made for universal distribution on behalf of his two parents.” According to our current calendar, that means that this copy of the Diamond Sutra was printed on May 11, 868.
The Invention of Movable Type
Woodblock printing was, of course, not a particularly quick or efficient process—which, in turn, spurred on the interest in further developing printing technology as time went on. Movable type—a method of printing components that are, well, movable; each piece typically contains one letter or character, with their movable quality meaning that they can be arranged in any order to produce any piece of work—was the next logical progression; accordingly, several varieties of movable type were invented in quick succession.
Around 1040, during the Song dynasty, Bi Sheng created ceramic movable type, while the invention of wooden movable type in 1297 is usually credited to Wang Zhen of the Yuan dynasty. However, the earliest known book printed with wooden movable type to have survived from this era is the Auspicious Tantra of All-Reaching Union—another Buddhist text, this time written in the Tangut language. Dated from roughly 1139 to 1193 during the Western Xia empire, the nine-volume text was printed on paper made from ramie and hemp fibers.
But although China did eventually develop movable metal type—likely by the 12th century—the earliest known books actually printed with such type emerged not from China, but from Korea.
We have evidence of one 50-volume set having been produced in Korea during the Goryeo kingdom (918 to 1302), but unfortunately, these books have not survived. We do know quite a bit about them, though: Commissioned in 1234, they contained the Buddhist text known as Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun, or The Prescribed Ritual Text of the Past and Present. According to M. Sophia Newman’s piece on the Buddhist history of movable type published at Tricycle in 2016, Choe Yun-ui, a civil minister, altered a method usually used for making bronze coins such that it became possible to make not coins, but pieces of type containing individual characters. These pieces of type were then arranged, inked, and pressed in a similar, yet quicker manner to the techniques already used for printing with woodblocks and wooden type. The books were finished by 1250.
Meanwhile, the oldest surviving example we have of a book printed with movable metal type came along about a century and quarter later. Bearing the full title of Baegun Hwasang Chorok Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeo (in English, The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings)—frequently shortened to just Jikji––this book, also printed in Korea, dates back to 1377. It’s currently held at the National Library of France, although there has recently been a large push for the book to be returned to Korea.
The Gutenberg Bible and the Print Revolution
Originally from Mainz in the Rhine-Main area of Germany, Gutenberg wound up in Strasbourg, France by 1430. While there, it’s believed that he began developing his printing press, which—like the printing systems developed in China and Korea centuries earlier—used a movable type system. He was still working on it in 1448 when he returned to Mainz—and by 1450, he had seemingly cracked it: The press worked. Initially, he just used it to print poems, pamphlets, and other short texts; indeed, according to a biography of Gutenberg published at ThoughtCo, the earliest surviving piece we have printed by Gutenberg is a small piece of a poem titled “The Sibyl’s Prophecy,” which dates to around 1452 or 1453. But soon, he turned his sights to bigger ideas—like, for instance, the Bible. Gutenberg’s Bible would go on to become the first book printed in Europe using movable type.
During the early 1850s, Gutenberg produced around 180 copies of the book now known as the Gutenberg Bible. 135 of these volumes were printed on paper, while the remainder were printed on vellum. Holding 1,300 pages, the book is also sometimes called the “42-Line Bible” due to the fact that each page contained 42 lines of text printed in two columns of Gothic type with the occasional colorful letter thrown in. Of the 180 copies, 48 copies have survived—36 of the paper ones and 12 of the vellum ones—but only 20 are complete.
As M. Sophie Newman noted at Tricycle, what Gutenberg’s press did that the earlier movable type systems from China and Korea didn’t was mechanize the process:
“Both printing operations involved placing metal letters in a frame, inking them, and then pressing paper to the surface. But only Gutenberg’s method included mechanisms modified from wine or oil presses that allowed for lowering a metal frame over the top of the paper. This method was even, reliable, and fast. Goryeo printing, created in an area without such presses, involved pressing paper to the metal type by hand, a considerably slower method.”
Although Gutenberg himself actually fell into financial ruin due to the cost of creating his invention, it was this development that led directly to the Print Revolution—which had a direct hand in pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.
These days, we may use screens and digital books more frequently than actual printed books—but spare a thought for the history of printing the next time you crack open your next bestseller. Without it, we wouldn’t be where we are now—with a whole world of information and stories at our fingertips.