The Gutenberg Bible the first major work printed in Europe takes its name from Johann Gutenberg, a native of Mainz, Germany, who began experimenting with casting movable or reusable type in the 1440s. By about 1450 he had perfected a technique that allowed him to produce enough type to print small grammars and other ephemeral works, and soon afterward he began work on a full Bible. With financial backing from Johann Fust, a wealthy Mainz lawyer, Gutenberg and his workmen produced some 160 or 180 copies of the large folio Bible; about a quarter of the total were printed on vellum (fine parchment made from calfskin) and the remainder on paper imported from northern Italy.
We know that the Bible was finished by March 1455, when Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, described it in a letter to a friend, saying that the script was large and easily read even without glasses. Each copy consists of nearly 1,300 pages, measuring approximately 16 by 12 inches (400 x 300 mm). Most of the Bibles were bound by their first owners in two volumes, but in the early sixteenth century the copy now in the Library of Congress received a new binding of pigskin over wooden boards, and at that time it was divided into three volumes.
The Library of Congress Gutenberg Bible is one of three perfect examples printed on vellum that are known today; the others are at the British Library and at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. In all, forty-eight more or less complete copies of the Bible survived into the twentieth century, although two of these both very imperfect were later wholly or partially disassembled and marketed as single leaves or individual books. A few Gutenberg Bibles have never strayed far from the libraries of their original monastic purchasers, but the majority are now housed in the large research libraries of Western Europe and America. Within recent years two copies that disappeared from Leipzig at the end of World War II have surfaced in Russia, and another consisting of a single volume only was acquired by a Japanese library in 1996.
The earliest owners of the Bible now in Washington were the Benedictine monks of St. Blasius, in Germanys Black Forest, who acquired it soon after it was printed and kept it in their monastery until the French Revolution. In 1768 the monastery burned to the ground, the Bible and other books narrowly escaping by being thrown out the library window. During the Napoleonic era, as French troops advanced eastward over the Rhine, the monks moved the Bible to a Benedictine abbey in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. Shortly thereafter it, too, became unsafe, and the monks fled across the Alps to another cloister on Mt. Pyhrn in Austria. In 1809 the friars found safe haven at the abbey of St. Paul, where the Bible stayed for over a hundred years.
Following World War I, the abbey became desperate for funds and in 1926 sold the Bible to Otto H.F. Vollbehr. Vollbehrs collection was brought to the attention of the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, in 1929. The Bible, along with 3,000 other incunables, was obtained in 1930, creating the foundation for the nations collection of fifteenth-century books. Even though the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, Congress readily appropriated the funds when Putnam requested $1.5 million for the purchase of the book.
Today the Gutenberg Bible is on permanent display in the Great Hall of the Library, and is seen by about one million visitors each year.
The original books imaged for this digital edition:
Volumes One and Two: 15 3/4 x 11 3/8 inches (400 x 289 mm)
Volume Three: 15 7/8 x 11 3/8 inches (403 x 289 mm)
No records remain – if indeed they ever existed – that shed light on
Gutenbergs education or training, or suggest how and why he turned his
attention to typecasting and other mechanical pursuits. What little we do
know about him comes almost entirely from legal and financial documents that
show him receiving annuities, paying taxes, borrowing money, apparently
breaking an engagement to marry, and near the end of his life securing a
handsome pension from the Archbishop of Mainz as a reward for his “agreeable
and willing service,” a phrase often interpreted as a reference to his
having printed the Bible.
Although we cannot say precisely when work on the Bible began, we know that
it had reached an advanced stage by October 1454, and that the book was
apparently complete by the following March, when it was described by a
reliable eyewitness, the Italian humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomimi (later
Pope Pius II). In a letter addressed to the Spanish Cardinal Juan de
Carvajal, Silvius referred to a “miraculous man– who had displayed several
ten-leaf quires of a Bible the previous autumn at Frankfurt, near Mainz.
The script was clear and large enough to be read without spectacles, he
reported, and he had found no errors in the text; some people had told him
that 158 copies had been finished, while others said the total was 180.
Silvius also noted that several quires had been sent to the Emperor, and
remarked further that he had heard that buyers had been found for all the
copies even before the volumes were completed.
Research continues on topics connected with Gutenbergs life and with the
production and reception of the Bible. A team of scholars based at the
University of California at Davis has analyzed the changing composition of
the ink during production, while other researchers have concentrated on the
paper of the Bible; both lines of inquiry have led to new insights into the
production chronology and the relationship of the Gutenberg Bible to other
examples of the earliest European printing. In a new study still in
progress, two Princeton scholars, Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas,
are attempting to determine the way in which Gutenberg cast his types, using
computer-enhanced images of individual printed letters to examine the actual
outline of the metal type that was impressed on the page. Printing
historians have long attributed to Gutenberg the invention of a type-casting
mold in which hundreds of virtually identical copies of a single letter
could be produced from a copper matrix, but the great variation in the forms
of the letters seen in the magnified images suggests that in the earliest
days of printing a cruder method of typecasting was used, and that the
handmold familiar to printers well into the nineteenth century was developed
only after Gutenbergs death.