Printed Antecedents: Fifteenth- and Early Sixteenth-Century Bibles and Indulgences

By the time of Luther’s birth in 1483, printing presses were operating in several locations in Germany as well as in other European countries. In the early 1450s in Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1398–1468) began his experiments of printing with movable type. He likely produced several brief tracts, schoolbooks, and single-sheet indulgences prior to the publication of his magnificent Latin Bible in 1454-1455. By 1470 printing with movable type had migrated to at least thirty cities within and outside of Germany and at the end of the fifteenth century more than 240 European locales had presses. The total output of these establishments before 1500 exceeded thirty thousand editions consisting of several million individual books and broadsides.

The fifteenth-century German-language Bibles and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century indulgences in this section, all printed prior to Luther’s earliest publications, represent two types of texts closely connected to his renown as a translator and polemicist. These genres also exemplify the range of publications issued by European presses, from large, illustrated, and hand-colored folios intended for wealthy collectors and institutions to single-sheet job printing on commission for institutions such as the Church.

Early printed Bibles represented not only a significant text but also a significant investment of capital for labor and printing supplies, particularly paper, before any return could be expected. In comparison to book production, single-sheet indulgence forms were easy to print in vast numbers and payment to the printer was insured by the sponsoring institution. Sold by Church representatives to individuals seeking remission from sins, forms included spaces for the name, date, and location of the buyer to be completed in manuscript as well as official marks such as a seal or signature. Often published in thousands of copies, the number of extant copies of specific indulgence printings is extremely low. The indulgences here on display are true survivors from the first half-century of printing in Europe.