Gutenberg Bible and its "Noble Fragments"

Fri, 08/19/2016 - 10:55am -- lwhite

   Between 1454 and 1455, Johannes Gutenberg would complete a total of approximately 180 copies of his 42-line Bible that would come to bear his name today. The Gutenberg Bible would be the first example of mass produced moveable type in the Western World and would usher in the age of printed books into Europe. Since its publication there are about 49 copies, some incomplete, that are still in existence and even though none have been sold since the 1970’s it is still considered one of the most valuable books in the world.

   Gutenberg was born in the German City of Mainz around 1398. He was the son of a well-to-do merchant family. In 1411 there was an uprising and the Gutenberg family was forced to flee Mainz, after which little is known about young Johannes, historian presume that at this time he began to receive his education or apprenticeship. He appears again in 1434 with records indicating that he was living in Strasbourg, working as a goldsmith and teaching merchants how to properly polish gems. 

   After a failed business venture in 1449, Gutenberg switched gears and developed a printing press that went beyond the block printing that was the then dominant form of printing. Using his training in metalworking, Gutenberg created casts of letters that could be moved and rearranged for printing purposes. The result, when used in tandem with his printing press, created pages beautifully printed. 

 Starting with smaller works and poems, Gutenberg in a bid to make more money began to print Bibles. When completed, a single copy would have over 1200 pages bound into 2 volumes. The paper used was of the highest quality imported from Italy and each sheet contained a watermark. After production, several copies were illuminated by hand, adding to the desirability of such a historic work. Sadly, Gutenberg would die a financially unsuccessful from his printing venture and passed away in 1468, his contributions to history unknown and his grave lost to time.

    The Redwood Library is lucky enough to have a page from one of the original Bibles in our special collections. How it came into our holdings is quite an interesting story. As the years went on  after the original bibles were printed  they became less and less common, owing both to the fact that printing boomed in Europe during the Renaissance, and that Gutenberg never put his name on his printed works. Of the 49 copies still in existence most are incomplete and one such copy would be purchased in 1921 by a rare book dealer from New York named Gabriel Wells. He dismantled the work and sold it in sections and as individual pages along with an essay written by A. Edward Newton. He referred to these new pieces as “Noble Fragments” and began to sell them to the rich. Our page comes from the Old Testament book of Ezra and was given to the Library by Mr. and Mrs Verner Z. Reed, where it remains in our special collections for safe keeping.

      It’s a fitting place for a fragment of the most important printed work in History. With Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type world changing events like the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution could take place and the exchange of ideas more easily done. Without Gutenberg there would be no Redwood Library, and for that we are thankful!