A second look at Gutenberg
Stephen Eskilson’s “Graphic Design: A New History” gives us limited information on the individual Johannes Gutenberg. The text does mention that the German publisher of the famous Gutenberg Bible was a business minded goldsmith from Mainz. It does also inform us that Gutenberg’s printing press was a modified winepress, that Gutenberg combined elements that others had already invented to create a singular printing machine and that the new technology culminated in an explosion of book printing at significantly reduced speeds. What we don’t learn from Eskilson is who Johannes Gutenberg was, what stroked his curiosity, and even more importantly, how local vernacular contributed to his invention.
Gavin Moodie, in a paper titled Gutenberg’s Effects On Universities raises important points on the role of language in the developing technology. He notes that Latin had been the language of instruction, and retained scholastic prominence half a century after the invention of the printing press. “Latin persisted partly because many languages were rarely learned by foreigners, such as Dutch and even German” (Moodie). That implies that someone interested in any academic exploration had to first become a linguistics student. Not only did such a situation enhance class divisions among peoples, it also curtailed progress in many respects. Disseminators of religious doctrines, for instance, had to translate text from Latin to local vernaculars or their audiences wouldn’t understand.
Bible reading was not part of everyday practice, neither for the clergy nor for the laity. Gutenberg’s incentive to print the Bible must have had its origin in a personal experience outside of his Mainz community.