Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | August 20, 2011

Gutenberg Bible

On August 24, 1456, Johannes Gutenberg finished printing his 42-line Bible, perhaps better known as the Gutenberg Bible, in Mainz, Germany. It is also often named as the first book Gutenberg printed by moveable type on a printing press, but that is not true. It was his first big book, what we pedants call a double folio; it is a lectern Bible, meant to stay on the lectern at the front of the church for the readings. It is slightly over 17 inches tall; paper copies were often bound in two volumes, and the vellum, due to their weight, usually in four. This was not your study Bible.

Initially, Gutenberg tried to print the rubrics, the headings of each book of the Bible, by passing the paper twice through the press, once with black ink for the body of the text, and the second time with red ink for the rubrics, but getting the text to line up correctly is devilishly difficult, even in 21st century handpress. He soon gave up the process, and left gaps for the rubrics to be handlettered after printing was done.

In 1456, books left the printer in much different shape than they do today. Books were not bound at the printer, but folded into the correct order and wrapped in a vellum sheet, Binding, illustration, and in the case of the 42-line Bible, rubrication was the responsibility of the buyer; the amount depended on the amount of money the buyer wanted to spend. Some copies were never decorated.

The Bible seems to have sold out immediately, with initial sales to owners as far away as England. Although the printed Bible was much cheaper than manuscript Bibles, people of ordinary income would have been unable to afford them. Most were probably sold to monasteries, universities and particularly wealthy individuals.

There are 11 copies of the 42-line Bible in the United States, of which only 5 are complete. The Library of Congress has a complete vellum copy on display in the lobby of the Jefferson Building. In a building that has untold beauties in every corner, wherever one looks, it is stunning and awe-inspiring. The complete paper copy held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin was purchased in 1978 for 2.4 million dollars.

My library does not hold one of the 11 copies, but we do have a page from a work printed by Gutenberg in 1460. I love to bring it out for students to see, because they are always amazed at how fresh and beautiful the paper is, how the letters are pressed so firmly into the page, how clearly one can read it (or could, if one could read Latin in black-letter Gothic type). The students who are part and parcel of the born-digital generation are knocked off their pins by the beauty and durability of this old technology.

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Responses

  1. I love this post, Elizabeth, and I especially love hearing that the page from the 1460 Bible is still intact. It boggles my mind to imagine something so fragile and vulnerable to the elements continues on.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jamila. I love to bring out the old stuff; people are always amazed at the condition of the texts. It does amaze me that as much has survived. I am hoping to add illustrations to the posts as soon as I have a real computer again! Thank you for coming by and commenting!

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