Last week, we brought out an assortment of materials from our collection to show to the visiting ‘Egypt Camp’ class. It is always a pleasure to see so many fascinating treasures on display, but for me there are few more remarkable than our leaf from the Gutenberg Bible.
As our visiting class knew, credit for the invention of the printing press goes to Johann Gutenberg (c. 1347-1468), a German smith and printer from Mainz. His press came into operation in 1450 and the immense project of printing the Bible began soon after. Though not the first book to be printed, the Gutenberg Bible marks one of the most significant moments in the history of writing and, indeed, human history itself. Although this was not the beginning of printing – wood and metal block printing had developed in Asia more than a millennium earlier – Gutenberg’s movable type was revolutionary in reducing the time, cost, and skill needed to create copies.
It is not known precisely how he made his first types, but modern research points to the use of sand-casting to create molds which his unique metal alloy would be poured into to create the nearly 300 different characters used in printing the Gutenberg Bible. Like the movable type-pieces, the press itself greatly improved on older methods such as rubbing by shortening the time needed to produce a copy and allowing for writing on both sides of the page. The oil-based ink Gutenberg developed was also innovative. This ‘printer’s ink’ more closely resembles paint than traditional ink and was able to adhere to the metal types better than water-based inks. The excellent condition of our leaf is a testament to the quality of materials used, with the ink still vibrant more than five and a half centuries later.
The lettering of the type-pieces imitates the Gothic script that dominated Europe at the time. Some believe that Gutenberg created his type-pieces to specifically mimic handwriting in order to make his novel style of writing more palatable to a new audience, but the evenness and consistency of the letters surpassed even the best scribes.
Of the roughly 180 copies, three-quarters were printed on paper – including our own leaf – with the rest on vellum. Initially, Gutenberg chose a double-columned, forty line format, and the rubrication (the red lettering) was intended to be a second pass through the printing press after the black ink had dried. However, Gutenberg shortly after opted to increase the lines to forty-two per page and abandoned the colored press, leaving the copies to be rubricated and illuminated by hand. Although ours is rubricated, it lacks illumination – not uncommon to many extant copies of the Gutenberg Bible.
Once plans to rubricate the text with a press were abandoned, the process was outsourced beyond Gutenberg’s shop. Some extant copies of the Bible are accompanied by Gutenberg’s instructions for rubrication. Completed sometime in late 1454 or early 1455, it took nearly five years for the Gutenberg Bible to be printed. The final production held 1,286 pages and each volume weighed roughly 14 pounds!
This leaf, from the Book of Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach), is an artifact of astounding cultural and artistic significance. While we know few details of its history as it crossed the Atlantic and came to us, we do know that it came from a damaged copy purchased by a New York book dealer named Gabriel Wells in the 1920’s. After acquiring the copy, Wells disassembled it into sections and leaves which he sold individually.
Regardless of its provenance, we and the entire Miami University community are extremely fortunate to have this little piece of history here in our library, and it was a true pleasure to share it with our visiting class.
Special Collections Librarian