The German Holy Bible
Religion has played a major role in human history, and the Holy Bible helped form the modern Western world. In early modern Europe the Catholic Church was the center of life, everything revolved around the religion and the Pope’s word was law. This gave the church enormous power over the people of Europe. The Pope could call a crusade, which would cause the deaths of thousands, on both Christian and Islamic sides. The church would torture a person for not being religious, one of the most famous cases was the Spanish Inquisition. It was these cases that showed the power of the church, but what gave the church that power? The power rested on the church’s ability to read the Bible. The Bible was the basis of the church and its power over the people, but if the majority of the people in Europe can not read the Bible, then the church has the authority to determine the Bible’s meaning. The priest helped this situation because they were the ones rewriting the Holy Bible in Latin, a language that only a few could read. Most people in Europe spoke vernacular languages, such as French, Italian, and German, but very few people could read. The Catholic Church used its ability to read and interpret the Latin Bible to wield its power over the people in early modern Europe. An inventor and a priest would change the Church forever.
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around the year 1450, making movable type printing possible. Before Gutenberg’s printing press, all books had to be hand written. This was a long and expensive process that made books incredibly rare and costly for the common person in Europe. In fact, church clerics reproduced most books, including the Latin Bible used by the Catholic Church. But Gutenberg’s printing press changed this by allowing one person to arrange a page of type before applying ink and pressing it on a paper. This drastically reduced the time and the cost of a hand written book, and this made books more easily published and more readily available for people. In 1513 roughly a hundred books were printed, but by 1523 more than nine hundred books were printed.  According to historian Ruth Sanders: “The cost of a printed book, although high by modern standards, was low enough to make their purchase practical for prosperous city folk and farmers.” Besides the printing press, one of Gutenberg’s greatest contributions was the spread of knowledge and the need to have an ability to read. His invention promoted education. By the 1600s about half of the German population could read.  This number is misleading because the standards for literacy were so low that most people could not read the Bible in its entirety. This did not stop people from purchasing books. But the problem of the Holy Bible written in a foreign language – Latin — still remained.
A German monk, Martin Luther, changed the Bible when “[he] translated it from Latin – the language of scholars and clergy – into the German vernacular.” Luther helped create a unified German language, because before Luther the German language had a variety of dialects. Luther chose to write the Bible in a common dialect of Saxon chancellery “…which all the princes of Germany imitate.” But Luther’s real reason for the translation was to put the Bible in the hands of the people so they could read and understand their religion, not have some local priest or distant Pope interpret the Latin Bible for them. In one of Luther’s letter he said “I was born for my fellow Germans, it is them I wish to serve.” This translation could threaten the church’s power. Luther explained how his translation did not go unnoticed by the church: “It is evident, indeed, that from my German translation they are learning to speak and write German, and so are stealing from me my language, of which they had little knowledge before.” Gutenberg and Martin Luther made it possible for the common person in central Europe to be able to buy a German Bible. Over the years the German Bible became a common household item. This changed the use of the Bible to become a diverse object that differed from family to family.
The German Bible came in different sizes, the larger the Bible the greater the social status of the family. It became a source of family pride. These Bibles were used to display family wealth and power; often the Bible would be placed on a pedestal in view of family guests. The Bible was a decorative piece, because in 1500 only about 10 percent of the population was literate. The standard to determine literacy was if a person could write their name, which was usually the only thing they could write. This lack of being able to read caused the Bible to be printed with
detailed pictures that depicted the story of Jesus Christ. The pictures allows the “reader” to still be able to understand and follow the story of Jesus Christ. Luther was particular about the pictures used in the Bible. Luther stated that his translation of the Bible was made “for simplicity’s sake we are fashioning it for the eyes.”  Three hundred woodcuts were made and three times Luther issued the Bible with new illustrations. The title page of the New and Old Testament were printed in black and red. This was to symbolize the start of the new book in the Bible. The start of the book often had a detailed picture on the opposite page. The picture was hand carved into a block of wood and was pressed into the paper by a wooden imprint press. This illustration in the Bible did cause the price to increase. The Luther Bible cost more than the monthly wage of an average person. However, this steep price did not discourage people from buying the Bible. Luther’s Bible was the equivalent of a modern best seller.
Early books, especially the Bible, were assembled with a process called the codex of parchment. One printed sheet of paper was laid over another and then the pages were bound into the book’s spine. The paper was made out of rag cotton linen paper, which was more durable and lasted longer than modern paper. A leather or a protective covering would bind the pages of the book together. This allowed the book to be handled over the years and still be able to function as a book.
The Bibles were used to read the Holy Scripture, but it was also a place for the family to keep important information. Some of the Bibles had blank pages before or after the scripture for the family to write in. This space was used to keep date of family members wedding day or the date of a family member’s death. If a person had a favorite passage in the Bible, then a memoir would have been written on the margin next to the passage. On one account someone left human hair inside the Bible of their favorite passage after a loved one had died. These Bibles could be used as a primary source for genealogy to find out who got married or their date of death. The German Bible was a multi-purpose object that kept the family history together.
The creation of the German Bible was a product of an era where the Catholic Church was the ultimate authority. Without Johannes Gutenberg and Martin Luther the vast majority of people living in central Europe would not be able to have a Bible. The result of a cheaper Bible meant that the general population could afford one and allowed them to begin reading. This took away the power of the Church and put it in the hands of the people. The German Bible was more than just a book, the family would write important information into the blank pages; thus, it tied the book to the family and to the faith.
Footnotes:[1,] Ruth Sanders, German: Biography of a Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 121.  Ruth Sanders, German: Biography of a Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 121.  “The Bible of Martin Luther,” Paper, Leather, Clay & Stone, Cornell University Library, accessed December 5, 2016, http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/Paper-exhibit/luther.html.  Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation 1521-1532, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 48.  Richard Friedenthal, Luther: His Life and Times (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1967), 303.  “Luther’s Translation of the Bible,” Lutheran Reformation.org, accessed December 5, 2016, http://lutheranreformation.org/history/luthers-translation-of-the-bible/.  Ruth Sanders, German: Biography of a Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 121.  Richard Friedenthal, Luther: His Life and Times (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1967), 303.  Rudolf Thiel, Luther, trans. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), 463.  Stephanie Gardner, Special Collections curator, Alexander Mack Library, interviewed by author, Bridgewater, VA, October 5, 2016.  Rudolf Thiel, Luther, trans. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), 463  Andreas Reichert, “Book”, in: The Brill Dictionary of Religion, Edited by Kocku von Stuckrad. Consulted online on 12 December 2016 http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1872-5287_bdr_COM_00049  “History of the Gutenberg Bible,” The History of the Bible in English, accessed December 10, 2016, http://www.gutenberg-bible.com/history.html  Stephanie Gardner, Special Collections curator, Alexander Mack Library, interviewed by author, Bridgewater, VA, October 5, 2016.
Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation 1521-153., trans. James L. Schaaf. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990.
Friedenthal, Richard. Luther: His Life and Times. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1967.
“History of the Gutenberg Bible.” The History of the Bible in English. Accessed December 10, 2016. http://www.gutenberg-bible.com/history.html.
“Luther’s Translation of the Bible.” Lutheran Reformation.org. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://lutheranreformation.org/history/luthers-translation-of-the-bible/.
Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Bible, 1723. Alexander Mack Memorial Library Special Collections. Bridgewater College. Bridgewater VA. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://bridgewater.pastperfectonline.com/library/BC9A2A8B-8358-4F23-9AB3-239893808469
Reichert, Andreas. “Book” in The Brill Dictionary of Religion. Edited by Kocku von Stuckrad. Accessed December 12, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1872-5287_bdr_COM_00049.
Sanders, Ruth. German: Biography of a Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Stephanie, Gardner, Special Collections curator, Alexander Mack Library, interviewed by author, Bridgewater, VA, October 5, 2016.
“The Bible of Martin Luther.” Paper, Leather, Clay & Stone. Cornell University Library. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/Paper-exhibit/luther.html.
Thiel, Rudolf. Luther, trans. Gustav K. Wiencke. Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1955.