Indulgence form printed by Guttenberg (Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel)
“Since the eleventh century, indulgences and pardons had been awarded by the Church for the remission of sins, earned either by prayer or through donations. An indulgence took the form of a preset document with a space left for the name of a penitent as proof of his or her right to divine forgiveness. For the Church, this involved costly, labour-intensive procedures where thousands of identical documents would be written by hand.”
—Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type
We‘ve all heard that Johannes Gutenberg created movable type circa 1450, but others in southern Germany were working toward similar goals. Gutenberg was the first to have success with movable type, but he was aiming at creating something less majestic than his famous Bible.
The invention of movable type made it possible to produce indulgences inexpensively in quantities. A goldsmith, Gutenberg created a durable alloy of lead, tin and antimony and a way of making molds for letters. Type was composed into a frame and then inked and pressed onto paper or vellum. Letters could be rearranged and reused. Gutenberg may have been printing these indulgences from 1452, but the earliest extant are from 1454.
The first fonts (typefaces)
The indulgences Gurtenberg printed show two sizes of metal type (blackletter textura and smaller text in a bastarda which resembled the common script of the era). The versals (large initial caps) were carved in wood. The larger textura typeface, as Paul McNeil points out, was used a year later for text in the great 42-line Bible printed in 1455.
Though tens of thousands of these indulgences are believed to have been printed only a few dozen remain.