The Gutenberg Bible

Western civilization’s first large-scale typographic book gave readers throughout Europe the unprecedented opportunity to consult virtually identical copies of a major text, the Vulgate Bible. Printed with a square gothic type that corresponded to the most formal liturgical script, the Bible consists of 643 Royal folio leaves, intended to be bound in two volumes. The printers began setting the text in 40-line columns but soon adopted a reduced type-height and 42-line columns. Four compositors worked concurrently on four near-equal sections of the Bible: Octateuch, Kings through Psalms, Proverbs through Prophets, and Maccabees plus New Testament. Eleven quires into production, the printers increased the edition size, reprinting those quires to arrive at a final total of at least 120 paper and perhaps 40 vellum copies. Sold widely across Europe, the Gutenberg Bible and its descendants remained the standard version of the Latin scriptures into the 16th century and beyond.

The individual Gutenberg Bibles provide important insights into the original dissemination of the edition. Six surviving copies were sold in Erfurt, Germany. The Scheide Library copy, beautifully illuminated and bound there, belonged to Erfurt’s Dominican friars until 1522, when the city adopted Lutheranism. Forgotten for three centuries, it was discovered in an ancient chest of the former Dominican church in 1838. In 1872 the Bible was purchased by a Berlin bookdealer. A year later the American dealer Henry Stevens sold it to George Brinley of Hartford, Conn. Subsequent owners were Hamilton Cole, Gen. Brayton Ives of New York, and James Ellsworth of Chicago. In 1924 the Philadelphia bookseller A. S. W. Rosenbach sold it to John Scheide, whose son William bequeathed it to Princeton University in 2014. Exhibited is the illuminated beginning of I Samuel, and the original stamped calfskin binding from Johann Fogel’s workshop in Erfurt.

Historical Sources

Three fifteenth-century sources appear to mention Europe’s first large-scale printing endeavor, a Latin Bible printed in Mainz, ca. 1454-55:

· A Miraculous Man:Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s letter of 12 March 1455, sent from Wiener Neustadt to Cardinal Juan de Carvajal in Rome, mentioned that the previous Fall a ‘miraculous man’ in Frankfurt am Main had shown dozens of sheets from multiple Bibles, all featuring clearly legible letters; eyewitnesses claimed 158 copies were being produced for sale; others put the number at 180 copies.

· The Work of the Books:The ‘Helmasperger Instrument,’ notarized on 6 November 1455, summarized a lawsuit brought by Johann Fust in Mainz, claiming that Johann Gutenberg owed him repayment of immense loans intended for the ‘work of the books’ involving paper, vellum, ink, and an unnamed apparatus; Gutenberg countered that most of the contested money was an investment in their mutually profitable venture, not a loan with interest.

· Printed with Large Letters:The ‘Cologne Cronica’ of 1499 recorded the recollection of Ulrich Zel, a venerable local printer, that typography had been invented in Mainz in 1450 by Johann Gutenberg, whose first publication was ‘the Bible in Latin, printed with large letters like those now used in Missals.’ This is the only fifteenth-century account to link Gutenberg’s name to a printed Bible, which is unmistakably the exhibited 42-Line edition.