A LEAF FROM THE GUTENBERG BIBLE
Biblia Latina. [Mainz: Johannes Gutenberg, between 1453 and 1455, not after August 1456].
Royal folio. 1 leaf, 15½ x 11½ inches. Printed on paper; black letter gothic (1:146G), double column, 42 lines. Headline on both sides, chapter numbers, initials, and sentence strokes added by hand in red and blue. § BM I 17 (IC.55); DM 6076; GW 4201; Goff B-526.
The Gutenberg Bible, the first major work printed with movable metal type, represents a significant technological achievement. By changing the way human beings communicate, the printing press fundamentally altered the course of intellectual and social history. Gutenberg's invention has been likened to a revolution—and its impact on humanity is surely greater (and more meaningful) than any single revolution in world history. The product of new technology, the printed book burst on the scene and heralded a new age. And yet there is nothing new in the format of this remarkable book. It looks like a beautiful hand-decorated medieval manuscript [4.1]. After all, what other model existed in fifteenth-century Europe for book design?
In every way, Johannes Gutenberg attempted to conform to the standards of the scriptoria that had produced Latin Bibles up to that point. His font was cut to replicate the gothic hand of northern European scribes; the text was printed in double columns according to the prevailing style in manuscript Bibles; and chapter headings, capitals, and any decorations in individual copies were put in by hand by a rubricator. It should be noted, however, that Gutenberg attempted to imitate even the rubricator by printing in red on the early pages of some copies. This time-consuming task was soon abandoned in favor of one-color printing throughout. Chapters are usually numbered by hand with Roman numerals and also marked by the use of alternating red and blue capitals. Although the verses are not numbered, the initial letter of most sentences is highlighted with a stroke of red.
The large format of this Bible is understandable, given the newness of the idea of setting type—although, surely, Gutenberg thought the letters quite small when setting each individual line! But the folio size would also appeal to the intended audience: monastic communities, wealthy individuals, and church officials. And there are indications that such customers did buy the Bible. Of the 48 copies that survive (9 complete copies in the U. S. as well as various partial copies, including a 31-leaf fragment in Bridwell Library) several have elaborate marginal decorations and rubrication indicating the wealth of the owners—whether private or monastic. Also telling are the notes one sometimes finds in the margins marking off text for readings—evidence, perhaps, of the monastic practice of having someone read aloud from the Bible during mealtimes or at other gatherings.
Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz around 1397. After training as a goldsmith, he set up a foundry and press in Mainz, experimenting from 1448 to 1455 with the idea of printing with movable metal type. It is not known what metal he used to cast his font, but it was certainly an alloy of some sort. A few books and broadsides had probably been printed on presses before Gutenberg, but they used woodcuts in which image and text were left in relief on the woodblock. These "blockbooks," though impressive because multiple copies could be made, did not allow the kind of flexibility that typesetting with movable type would bring to the manufacture of books.
Finally, around 1453, Gutenberg began to print the editio princeps of the Latin Bible. In the years before he came to this point, however, his debts had mounted. In 1455 his creditor (and, by then, partner), Johannes Fust, called in the loans. Gutenberg finished printing the Bible, but he lost his pressworks to Fust. In addition to the famous Bible seen here, it seems likely that Gutenberg played a role in the production of the 36-line Bible which appeared by 1461 and, perhaps in cooperation with others, in the 1460 printing of Joannes Balbus de Janua's Catholicon. His whereabouts from 1456 to 1465 are not known, although it is thought that he may have wandered to other cities and taught others the new art of printing. According to city records, Gutenberg received a pension from the Archbishop of Mainz in 1465 and died in his native town in 1468.
The leaf in the Charles Caldwell Ryrie Collection includes Deuteronomy 6:16 to 8:15, in which Moses reminds his people of their status as God's chosen ones and warns them to honor the Ten Commandments.
The leaf is preserved in A Noble Fragment, Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible 1450–1455 issued by Gabriel Wells, with an accompanying essay by A. Edward Newton (New York: Gabriel Wells, 1921).
Literature: Franz 1988, 31–36; Gewirtz 1993, item 1; Hotchkiss and Price 1996, 90–91; Ing 1988; Needham 1985; Pelikan 1996, 13; Ruppel 1967.