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The Gutenberg Bible, 550 Years after Gutenberg

As of the 550th anniversary of Gutenberg’s death (2018), forty-eight reasonably intact 42-Line Bibles, or volumes of this Bible, remain bound between their covers. Another copy survives as scattered ‘Noble Fragments’, and fifteen or so individual copies are witnessed by fragments of binder’s waste – copies cut apart during the centuries of oblivion for use as binding material within later books. As we have seen, the identification and study of surviving copies from this Bible edition began at the end of the seventeenth century, and eighteenth-century experts knew the whereabouts of at least two dozen additional copies. The continued dissolution of Europe’s monasteries during the early nineteenth century brought several more copies to light, as did the simple reality that the Gutenberg Bible was by then both a major topic of scholarly interest and a highly valuable collectible. A handful of copies slumbered long enough to be discovered during the twentieth century, along with a large number of fragments, while other fragments continue to emerge within old bindings in the present century.

See Also: Editio princeps: A History of the Gutenberg Bible (Turnhout & London: Harvey Miller, 2017).

By Eric White
Princeton University Library
April 2018

The Gutenberg Bible, printed in Mainz c. 1455, is the most famous, expensive, and closely scrutinized of all typographic books. As the earliest significant product of Europe’s first printing press, this beautiful multi-volume folio Latin Bible has come to symbolize the ‘invention of printing’ with moveable metal typefaces, a technological development that proved crucial for Western civilization in that it powered the rapid spread of learning that eventually gave rise to religious reforms, scientific revolutions, political upheavals, and the birth of modern thought. This essay offers an overview of the mercurial historical trajectory of the Gutenberg Bible through the lens of its physical survivals, tracing the evidence for its historical priority, its widespread monastic usage, its eventual fall into oblivion, and its gradual resurrection as the most important and prized of all rare books.

Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, the only viable candidate for the title of ‘inventor’ of European typography, died in 1468. We do not learn much about Gutenberg and his Bible from fifteenth-century documents. The Bible itself bears no statement concerning its mysterious origins, and only one truly contemporary document mentions that Gutenberg was a printer: in a lawsuit filed in Mainz in 1455, Gutenberg testified that he indeed intended to repay with interest the immense loans provided by his financial backer, Johann Fust of Mainz, but that much of the money spent on the ‘work of the books’ was not a loan, but rather Fust’s capital investment in their joint venture, made at his own risk in the hope of personal profit, therefore not subject to repayment. The lawsuit does not identify the ‘work of the books’ as the printing of a Bible, yet numerous surviving Latin Bibles printed with 42-Lines of text per column show every sign of having been produced in Mainz during the 1450s, and one copy has the date 1456 written at the end of each volume by its rubricator, who finished painting in its red and blue initials in Mainz in that year.

Only one surviving document from the fifteenth century mentions Gutenberg in connection with a printed Bible: the Cologne Chronicle of 1499, in which the venerable Cologne printer Ulrich Zel recalled that Gutenberg had invented printing in about 1450, and that the first book from his press was the Latin Bible, which he printed with ‘large letters like those now used for printing Missals.’ This clue provided future bibliographers with a vivid picture of Gutenberg’s Bible, as only two fifteenth-century Bibles exhibit the requisite tall Gothic letters. One of the candidate Bibles, featuring 36 lines per column printed with another early Mainz typeface, fell out of contention when it was shown to have utilized the 42-line edition as its copy-text. The true Gutenberg Bible, with 42 lines per column, was printed with a similar, slightly smaller Gothic typeface that also shows up in fragments of the undated Donatus schoolbook and single-sheet indulgences dated 1454 and 1455. This 42-Line Bible almost certainly was the edition offered for sale in Frankfurt am Main in 1455, when Aneas Silvius Piccolomini (the future Pope Pius II) wrote that he had seen multiple gatherings of leaves there from a Bible featuring large, legible letters; others on the scene told him that something like 158 or even 180 copies of this Bible were being printed, and they were selling quickly.

The only surviving sixteenth-century source that mentions Gutenberg and his Bible was the Annales Hirsaugienses, a manuscript chronicle completed in 1514 for the Benedictine abbey of Hirsau by Johann Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, who recalled that in the late 1480s the printer Peter Schöffer had told him that Gutenberg began experimenting with printing in 1450, and that with the help of Johann Fust and Schöffer he printed a Bible that required the huge expenditure of 4,000 florins before the completion of its third gathering (quire) of ten leaves. Unfortunately, Trithemius did not describe the Bible. Moreover, neither he nor the compilers of the Cologne Chronicle of 1499 mentioned where a copy of the Bible could be found. During the Reformation, as Gutenberg’s old Latin Bibles gradually fell out of use, the historical record failed to preserve any mention of specific copies. Throughout the seventeenth century, the few discussions of the invention of printing focused on other editions from Mainz, dated 1457, 1459, or 1462, and historians conceived of the Bible that Gutenberg was supposed to have printed as an abstraction – a lost book that may have existed only in legend.

The rediscovery of the Gutenberg Bible after two centuries of oblivion had several false starts, and the first successes were neither widely circulated nor met with universal recognition. The earliest known identification of the Gutenberg Bible was that of Christoph Hendreich, head of the Electoral Library in Berlin, who at some point during the 1690s noticed that the beautifully illuminated vellum 42-Line Bible in his care featured large Gothic ‘Missal’ letters. When he inscribed the Bible’s front flyleaf with the relevant passages from the Cologne Cronica and Trithemius’s Annales Hirsaugienses, Hendreich thereby became the first scholar to associate the 42-Line Bible with Gutenberg’s invention of printing. However, Hendreich’s observation was not published until 1747, by which time further discoveries had been made.

Samuel EngelSamuel Engel, the first scholar to publish a description of a Gutenberg Bible. Engraved portrait, unsigned, c. 1810.
Collection of the author.

In 1744, another copy of the 42-Line Bible was discovered, this time at Mainz. A visitor to that city, Samuel Engel, a librarian from Bern, took interest in the question of Gutenberg’s lost Bible and was intrigued by the 42-Line Bible he found at the Carthusian monastery just outside the walls of Mainz. Comparing this Bible to an undated (Strasbourg) Bible in his care in Bern and Fust and Schoeffer’s dated Bible of 1462, Engel concluded that the 42-Line edition’s ‘Missal’ typeface qualified it as Gutenberg’s edition, the earliest of all. Engel described the Bible in such detail that we know unequivocably that it is the paper copy that the Archbishop of Mainz moved to his own library in Aschaffenburg in 1794, where it remains today. Engel’s findings, which appeared in the Journal Helvètique in 1745, offered the first verifiable identification of a Gutenberg Bible ever published.

Further discoveries followed quickly. In 1760, Abbot Martin Gerbert of the Benedictines of St Blaise in the Black Forest compared his monastery’s 42-Line Bible against a copy of the 36-Line Bible found in Memmingen, and in 1761 Baron Gerard Meerman of Rotterdam wrote that the 42-Line Bible in the library of the Benedictines of Mainz must be the earliest of all the undated fifteenth-century Bibles, notwithstanding the claims on behalf of the 36-Line Bible. In 1763, the fifth Gutenberg Bible that came to light also became the first to attain international fame, as the Parisian bookseller Guillaume-François De Bure le jeune declared that the Bible in the library of Cardinal Jules Mazarin in Paris was the earliest of all Bibles, printed before Fust and Schoeffer’s Bible of 1462 and even before their Psalter of 1457. Although De Bure attributed the Cardinal’s Bible to Fust (not Gutenberg) and mistakenly considered an old Dutch edition of the Speculum humanae salvationis to be Europe’s earliest printed book, his account reached a wide audience and provided the byname by which the 42-Line Bible came to be known throughout Europe: the Bible Mazarine.

Cardinal Mazarin and his seventeenth-century librarians had no inkling that his Bible might be Europe’s earliest printed edition. To them it was a handsome and curious old Bible, but not one of the great highlights of the collection. Interesting though Cardinal Mazarin’s ownership may be today, it is not crucial to a deeper historical understanding of Gutenberg’s edition. Similarly, the current locations of the surviving copies are well worth knowing, but in most cases, they are not relevant to our larger historical questions. Significantly more important are the original (or the earliest known) owners of each of the recorded specimens. The remarks that follow identify the earliest owners of the sixty-four recorded Gutenberg Bibles and summarize what this data tells about the original distribution and use of Europe’s first major printed edition.

As of the 550th anniversary of Gutenberg’s death (2018), forty-eight reasonably intact 42-Line Bibles, or volumes of this Bible, remain bound between their covers. Another copy survives as scattered ‘Noble Fragments’, and fifteen or so individual copies are witnessed by fragments of binder’s waste – copies cut apart during the centuries of oblivion for use as binding material within later books. As we have seen, the identification and study of surviving copies from this Bible edition began at the end of the seventeenth century, and eighteenth-century experts knew the whereabouts of at least two dozen additional copies. The continued dissolution of Europe’s monasteries during the early nineteenth century brought several more copies to light, as did the simple reality that the Gutenberg Bible was by then both a major topic of scholarly interest and a highly valuable collectible. A handful of copies slumbered long enough to be discovered during the twentieth century, along with a large number of fragments, while other fragments continue to emerge within old bindings in the present century.

For a handful of the surviving intact copies, their unlocalized decoration and lack of early documentation leave us without good evidence of their contexts prior to their late recognition in major collections: Cardinal Mazarin’s copy first emerged in Paris in 1651, and we lack telling clues regarding its earlier location; the British Library’s vellum copy goes back only so far as the collection of Louis Jean Gaignat in Paris c. 1766; likewise lacking earlier provenance, the two paper volumes now at the Gutenberg-Museum in Mainz were sold by Justin MacCarthy-Reagh of Toulouse in 1789; the battered copy later dispersed as ‘Noble Fragments’ was first described at Mannheim’s Hofbibliothek in that same year; the Lisbon copy rebound for Cardinal Loménie de Brienne came to light at Sens c. 1790; the New York Public Library copy emerged from the library of Abbé Jean-Joseph Rive in Marseille before 1791; and the mysterious vellum copy at the Vatican, first recorded at the Biblioteca Barberiniani in 1822, truly seems to have come out of nowhere. Finding earlier historical traces of these copies remains a priority for future research.

The evidence of illumination styles or original bindings associate both the Berlin copy (perhaps from Magdeburg?) and the Huntington Library’s copy (found near Prague c. 1813) with Leipzig in the fifteenth century, while the vellum copy at the Vatican appears to bear Dutch illumination. Both the vellum copy at the Morgan Library (which surfaced in 1858) and the New Testament in Seville (noticed c. 1909) were dispatched to Spain after receiving their colorful illumination in Flanders. The vellum New Testament at Lambeth Palace (identified in 1872) was illuminated in fifteenth-century England. Several copies were illuminated in Erfurt workshops, including the copy that emerged in Edinburgh in 1796, now at the National Library of Scotland. The vellum copy now at Göttingen University (identified c. 1775) was illuminated in Mainz, but its earliest known location was the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel c. 1580. Similarly, the Burgos copy (found c. 1909) was illuminated in Mainz by the ‘Fust Master’, but by the late sixteenth century it was in a monastery in northern Spain. The illumination and binding tools suggests a Netherlandish provenance for the University of Texas copy at Austin (first recorded on the English market in 1816), and although the vellum copy at the Library of Congress came to light at a Benedictine abbey in the Black Forest in the 1760s, its sixteenth-century binding points to earlier ownership far to the northeast in Saxony. The first volume in Tokyo’s Keio University was illuminated and bound in or near Mainz, but we know nothing of its whereabouts until 1840, when it was consigned from somewhere in Germany for sale in London.

Gutenberg BibleThe Bible, f. I:5 recto (Genesis 1:1), with illuminated border. Mainz: Johannes Gutenberg, c. 1455. The Scheide Library, Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections.

Gutenberg Bibles that were owned by churches from an early date include the copy in Frankfurt am Main (recorded in 1803), from St Leonhard’s in that city; the Stuttgart copy (first mentioned in Antwerp in 1798), which was used in Offenburg’s Heilig Kreuz Kirche until the late sixteenth century; the Morgan Library’s Old Testament, kept in a parish church in Klein-Bautzen, Saxony, from at least 1767 until 1874; the Scheide Library copy at Princeton, kept in the old Dominican church in Erfurt long before it was discovered there in 1838; the Lübeck-illuminated copy found in 1897 within the Seminary Library in Pelplin, Poland; the copy now at Kassel, noticed at the Evangelical Reformed Church in Immenhausen in 1958 (but identified in 1975), which appears to have been used by the local Sisters of the Common Life during the sixteenth century; and the partial copy now at Schloss Gottorf, hidden at the Marienkirche in Rendsburg from the sixteenth century until its discovery in 1996.

Four copies exhibit markings for liturgical use by Carthusians: the Aschaffenburg copy, as we have seen, belonged to the Carthusians near Mainz from an early date; the copy at Eton College (found in 1797) almost certainly was the Bible described in the fifteenth-century catalogue of the Carthusians of Erfurt; the Austin copy appears to have been used into the seventeenth century within one or more charterhouses (including ’s-Hertogenbosch?) in North Brabant; and a single illuminated leaf at the British Library (identified in 1898) demonstrates that a vellum copy was used by Carthusians in England at an early date. Augustinian owners included the Augustinian friars of Colmar, whose inscribed copy, found in 1790, is now at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and the Canons Regular of Rebdorf, whose magnificent copy, catalogued there in 1787, is now at the Morgan Library. Three copies indicate Franciscan ownership: the vellum copy in Leipzig was owned by the Observant Franciscans of Langensalza (found in 1780); the copy now at the State University in Moscow belonged to the Franciscans of Altenburg before 1529; and the Vatican Library’s first volume on paper emerged in 1799 with other books from the Franciscans of St Anne in Bamberg. The Gutenberg-Museum’s single volume II, acquired from the Counts of Solms-Laubach (first recorded in 1911), probably belonged to the Cistercians of Arnsburg before 1803, and the dozens of vellum binding fragments preserved in Stockholm belong to a Bible that almost certainly was owned by the Brigittines of Vadstena.

At least eight copies were owned by Benedictine abbeys at an early date: Yale University’s copy (first recorded in 1839), preserved for centuries at Saints Peter and Paul at Melk in Austria; the first volume in Trier (found in 1803), apparently from St Matthias in that town; the Saint-Omer volume (found in 1807), previouly owned by the abbey of Saint-Bertin; the much-dispersed copy from St Maximin in Trier, found in pieces beginning in 1812; the Munich copy (known since c. 1794), annotated at Tegernsee in Bavaria before 1504; the Cologny copy (recognized by 1800), illuminated at Augsburg or Scheyern; the British Library’s paper copy (purchased by George III c. 1798), illuminated in Erfurt but inscribed at Würzburg’s Schottenkloster in the seventeenth century; the copy now in Moscow, from Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain (finally noticed in 1878), probably acquired via Flanders, where it was illuminated; the Fulda volume I (mentioned in 1797), almost certainly owned by the local abbey long before 1723; and perhaps also the odd volume in Copenhagen, illuminated in Lübeck and owned before 1713 by either the Benedictines of Cismar in Schleswig-Holstein or the Augustinians of Bordesholm, further to the west.

Several copies may be assigned to specific datable fifteenth-century owners: the Eton College copy (noted in 1797) has been associated convincingly with the printed Bible catalogued by the Carthusians at Erfurt before 1498; the Vienna copy (noticed c. 1790) was owned by Benedikt Wegmacher of Tyrol near Meran in 1490 and perhaps much earlier; the Bodleian copy at Oxford (known since 1791) was owned by Erhard Neninger at Heilbronn, c. 1474; Harvard University’s copy (traced since 1813) belonged to Canon Johannes Vlyegher of Utrecht in 1471; Cambridge University’s copy (found in 1889) was used in Heinrich Eggestein’s printing shop in Strasbourg c. 1469; the incomplete Paris copy (identified in 1789), rubricated in 1456, was at the parish church in Ostheim in 1467; and Leipzig’s vellum copy may have been owned by the Franciscans of Langensalza as early as 1461, the date written near the ownership inscription. Finally, the magnificent vellum copy now in Paris, owned by the Benedictines of Jakobsberg near Mainz, may have the earliest datable provenance of all. Given that these Benedictines were the earliest documented patrons of Fust and Schoeffer, and that the first typographers in Mainz would have given up on their enterprise had they failed to receive at least one advance order for their Bible from the wealthiest of the local monasteries, this copy almost certainly was promised a home from the very outset of the ‘work of the books’.

Gathering the many fragmentary survivals of the Gutenberg Bible into groups based on their distinctive styles of rubrication adds three attested paper copies to the thirty-seven recorded paper Bibles, and it adds no fewer than twelve vellum copies to the dozen Bibles that survive relatively intact. The fifteen fragmentary copies, now defined, enhance our understanding of the duration of the Bibles’ active use and the extent of the initial geographic dispersal of Europe’s first major printed book. Their numbers indicate that Gutenberg printed somewhat more than the commonly estimated thirty vellum copies, and they rule out the suggestion that Piccolomini’s letter of 1455 referred to issues of precisely 158 paper copies and only twenty-two on vellum to arrive at a total of 180 copies. All told, after centuries of destruction and neglect, about forty percent of the original edition has survived to some extent.

Binding waste provides our only evidence for the provenances of at least ten otherwise lost copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Several vellum fragments point to the demise c. 1700 of a Bible within Mainz itself. Another lost vellum copy apparently came from Murbach Abbey in Alsace. Other groups of fragments come from the vicinities of Dresden, Leipzig, and Paderborn across the north of Germany, of Durlach in the southern Rhineland, of Strasbourg in Alsace, of Zürich in Switzerland, of Eichstätt in Bavaria, of Vienna in Austria, and of Esztergom in Hungary. Most of these locations (excepting Dresden, Leipzig, Durlach, and Zürich) were the seats of fifteenth-century bishoprics or archbishoprics. These localizations offer important hints that these centers should be counted among the probable destinations of Europe’s first printed books, at least until more conclusive evidence comes to light.

Thus, the Gutenberg Bible enjoyed a wide distribution through Germany and along the Rhine, as would be expected, with quantities of copies traveling to Erfurt, Leipzig, and Lübeck, where they were illuminated and sold to buyers further afield. Legends of Fust’s deceptive dealings in Paris notwithstanding, France is not well represented by the provenances of the surviving copies. We know from Piccolomini’s letter that quires of the first printed Bible were sent to Wiener Neustadt c. 1455, and copies from Vienna and a Hungarian archbishopric appear to be attested by binding waste. Illumination from Flanders appears in at least three copies, all three of which ended up in Spain. Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Poland each imported at least one copy, while England was home to at least two vellum copies. As far as we know, no copy crossed over the Alps during the fifteenth century, although the provenance of the Vatican Library’s Barberini copy remains a mystery. Whereas the great majority of the Bible’s first owners were monasteries and churches, some of the earliest known contexts involved pious donations from clerical owners or private individuals, and several fifteenth-century printers must have owned copies, at least temporarily, from which they typeset their own Bible editions. Ownership of such luxurious volumes required considerable wealth,

Vellum fragmentVellum fragment of a lost Gutenberg Bible, f. I:195 (I Chronicles 5), used as binding waste on a book printed at Cöthen in 1666. Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections.

institutional or private, and it would be decades before small-format Bibles were printed for common people. Regular usage of the Gutenberg Bible for religious purposes declined precipitously during the Reformation and probably ceased altogether by the end of the seventeenth century. Whereas some Protestant institutions took possession of Gutenberg Bibles during the sixteenth century, private ownership by Protestants commenced only in the 1780s, when the book emerged as a collectible, principally for wealthy French and English bibliophiles. Naturally, the United States came into the picture very late. The New York philanthropist James Lenox acquired America’s first copy (now at the New York Public Library). Eventually, fifteen copies arrived in the United States, although two later were sold off to institutions in Germany, another went to Tokyo, and American booksellers dispersed one nearly intact copy in 1921 and parts of another in 1952 as distinct biblical books or single leaves.

Today, 550 years after Gutenberg’s death, the great printed book that he introduced to the world c. 1455 remains the subject of keen scholarly and public interest. A vast literature spanning two centuries continues to flourish, and scholars young and old are providing important new studies of Gutenberg’s secret printing techniques, the ownership histories of the individual copies, their hand-decorations, annotations, and original bindings, and the sources and later influence of the edition’s Latin text. A second momentous invention, the internet, has facilitated this study with its searching capabilities, and scholars have benefited profoundly from the online availability of 28 different copies of the Gutenberg Bible that have been digitized for page-by-page display. In 2017, two exciting discoveries were announced online: a vellum leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, still serving as the cover of a lawbook printed in 1666 for local use within Saxony, was obtained by Princeton University; and another vellum leaf, enclosing Lutheran tracts of the 1620s, was found in the State Library in Augsburg. Whereas the Princeton specimen matched up with several other fragments from the vicinity of Dresden, the Augsburg fragment appears to represent a previously unknown Gutenberg Bible. The ongoing study of the Gutenberg Bible, in all its complexity, is certainly far from over. Indeed, it may just now be entering its golden age.

For further reading on the Gutenberg Bible’s impact, value, creation, rediscovery, and history:

Barbier, Frédéric. Gutenberg’s Europe: The Book and the Invention of Western Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017).

Folter, Roland. ‘The Gutenberg Bible in the Antiquarian Book Trade’, in Incunabula. Studies in Fifteenth-Century Printed Books presented to Lotte Hellinga, ed. by Martin Davies (London: The British Library, 1999), 271-351.

Ing, Janet. Johann Gutenberg and his Bible. A Historical Study (New York: The Typophiles, 1988).

Needham, Paul. ‘The Discovery and Invention of the Gutenberg Bible, 1455–1805’, in The Medieval Book. Glosses from Friends & Colleagues of Christopher De Hamel, ed. by James Marrow, Richard Linenthal, and William Noel (’t Goy-Houten: Hes & De Graaf, 2010), 208-41.

White, Eric Marshall. Editio princeps: A History of the Gutenberg Bible (Turnhout & London: Harvey Miller, 2017).

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