A leaf from the world’s most famous book

This month marks the 550th anniversary of the death of Johannes Gutenberg (1397?-1468), blacksmith, goldsmith, inventor and printer. To celebrate this, we have digitised our fragment from the Gutenberg Bible.

Leaf printed on vellum in black ink with manuscript rubrication in red

Recto of folio 317

The 42-line Bible in Latin was Europe’s first substantial book printed in ink on a printing press using moveable type, a technique of printing which Gutenberg invented. The ambitious work was completed by Gutenberg and his associates in Mainz, Germany, in around 1455. It is widely cited that about 180 copies were printed, comprising around a quarter on vellum with the rest of the edition on paper. Only 48 reasonably intact copies now survive (12 on vellum and 36 on paper) in addition to a number of fragments.1

Gutenberg’s masterpiece of printing was bound in two volumes. The Library holds a single leaf only from the second volume, folio 317 (end of Apocalypse), the final printed leaf of the Bible. Our leaf is printed on vellum in black ink with manuscript rubrication in red. The text is set in two columns in a design emulating the appearance of a medieval manuscript. Rubrication, which differs from one copy to another, was carried out after the printed sheets had left Gutenberg’s workshop with the aid of instruction leaves from the printer (attempts to print the rubrics were abandoned at an early stage in the print run).

Our fragment shows signs of damage which bear evidence that it was once used as binder’s waste in part of the binding of a now unknown volume. Bookbinders, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, often recycled manuscript and printed parchment from damaged or discarded books in their construction of new bindings; fragments were used within pasteboard layers or as spine linings, end leaves or even as outer wrappers. Our leaf was repaired by the Library’s Preservation and Conservation Department in December 1983; prior to that conservation treatment the leaf had been previously repaired, probably in the 19th century, but those earlier repairs had been causing active damage to the vellum.

The research of Dr Eric Marshall White, Curator of Rare Books at Princeton University Library, has thrown invaluable light on the Library’s fragment, identifying the copy of the Bible from which our leaf appears to have originated.2 The Hessische Landesbibliothek in Fulda, Germany, holds a single volume of the Gutenberg Bible which it acquired in 1776. It is the first volume only, printed on vellum and bound and illuminated in Erfurt in around 1460. The second volume of Fulda’s Gutenberg Bible, lost before 1723, was evidently taken apart for use as binder’s waste in the 17th century presumably due to damage. It is to this lost volume that Dr White has attributed our leaf.

Leaf printed on vellum in black ink with manuscript rubrication in red

Verso of folio 317

The image above shows the verso of our leaf with red headline ‘Apocalipsis’ in neat Gothic textura script, red Lombard chapter initial and red chapter numeral in textura script preceded by the abbreviated word ‘Cap.’ Dr White notes that the style of this manuscript rubrication precisely matches that of the first volume of the Fulda Bible and also matches another surviving fragment from the lost second volume. That fragment (folio 38, Ecclesiasticus) was found in the mid-20th century covering a 17th-century document at the Bibliothek des Bischöflichen Priesterseminar in Fulda.

For a comparison, the first volume of the Fulda Bible is available to view online. Other digitised copies of the Gutenberg Bible are listed in the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (Union catalogue of incunabula).

Notes:

  1. For a discussion of the edition size see Paul Needham. ‘The paper supply of the Gutenberg Bible.’ In The papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. Vol. 79, Third Quarter, 1985, pp.303-374. For a census of vellum fragments see Eric Marshall White. ‘The Gutenberg Bibles that survive as binder’s waste’, in Early printed books as material objects. Proceedings of the conference organized by the IFLA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section. Munich, 19-21 August 2009. Bettina Wagner and Marcia Reed, eds. (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2010), pp.21-35.
  2. A detailed account of the provenance of the Fulda Gutenberg Bible and a description of the Library’s leaf and the other surviving fragment is given in Eric Marshall White’s recent work Editio princeps: A history of the Gutenberg Bible (New York: Harvey Miller, 2017), pp.164-166 and p.308.
    We wish to thank Dr White for supplying details from the above work.