Gutenberg Bible of the New York Public Library. Bought by James Lenox in 1847, making it the first copy to come to the United States. According to tradition, the officers at the New York Customs House removed their hats upon seeing it.

The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42) was the first major book printed with movable type in the West and the first major book produced on a printing press anywhere in the world. It marked the start of the "Gutenberg Revolution" and the age of the printed book in the West. Widely praised for its high aesthetic and artistic qualities,[1] the book has an iconic status. It is an edition of the Vulgate, printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s. Forty-eight copies, or substantial portions of copies, survive, and they are considered by many sources to be the most valuable books in the world, even though a complete copy has not been sold since 1978.[2][3] The 36-line Bible, believed to be the second printed version of the Bible, is also sometimes referred to as a Gutenberg Bible, but is likely the work of another printer.

Printing history

"All that has been written to me about that marvelous man seen at Frankfurt [sic] is true. I have not seen complete Bibles but only a number of quires of various books of the Bible. The script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow—your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses."

Future pope Pius II in a letter to Cardinal Carvajal, March 1455[4]

The Bible was not Gutenberg's first work.[5] Preparation of it probably began soon after 1450, and the first finished copies were available in 1454 or 1455.[6] However, it is not known exactly how long the Bible took to print.

Gutenberg made three significant changes during the printing process.[7] The first sheets were rubricated by being passed twice through the printing press, using black and then red ink. This was soon abandoned, with spaces being left for rubrication to be added by hand.

Spine of the Lenox copy

Some time later, after more sheets had been printed, the number of lines per page was increased from 40 to 42, presumably to save paper. Therefore, pages 1 to 9 and pages 256 to 265, presumably the first ones printed, have 40 lines each. Page 10 has 41, and from there on the 42 lines appear. The increase in line number was achieved by decreasing the interline spacing, rather than increasing the printed area of the page.

Finally, the print run was increased, necessitating resetting those pages which had already been printed. The new sheets were all reset to 42 lines per page. Consequently, there are two distinct settings in folios 1-32 and 129-158 of volume I and folios 1-16 and 162 of volume II.[7][8]

Our most reliable information about the Bible's date comes from a letter. In March 1455, the future Pope Pius II wrote that he had seen pages from the Gutenberg Bible, being displayed to promote the edition, in Frankfurt.[9] It is not known how many copies were printed, with the 1455 letter citing sources for both 158 and 180 copies. Scholars today think that examination of surviving copies suggests that somewhere between 160 and 185 copies were printed, with about three-quarters on paper.[10][11]

The production process: Das Werk der Bücher

A vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the U.S. Library of Congress

In a legal paper, written after completion of the Bible, Gutenberg refers to the process as 'Das Werk der Bücher': the work of the books. He had invented the printing press and was the first European to print with movable type.[12] But his greatest achievement was arguably demonstrating that the whole process of printing actually produced books.

Many book-lovers have commented on the high standards achieved in the production of the Gutenberg Bible, some describing it as one of the most beautiful books ever printed. The quality of both the ink and other materials and the printing itself have been noted.[1]


First page of the first volume: The Epistle of St. Jerome from the University of Texas copy. The page has 40 lines.

The paper size is 'double folio', with two pages printed on each side (four pages per sheet). After printing the paper was folded once to the size of a single page. Typically, five of these folded sheets (10 leaves, or 20 printed pages) were combined to a single physical section, called a quinternion, that could then be bound into a book. Some sections, however, had as few as 4 leaves or as many as 12 leaves.[13] Some sections may have been printed in a larger number, especially those printed later in the publishing process, and sold unbound. The pages were not numbered. The technique was not new, since it had been used to make blank "white-paper" books to be written afterwards. What was new was determining beforehand the correct placement and orientation of each page on the five sheets to result in the correct sequence when bound. The technique for locating the printed area correctly on each page was also new.

The folio size, 307 x 445 mm, has the ratio of 1.45:1. The printed area had the same ratio, and was shifted out of the middle to leave a 2:1 white margin, both horizontally and vertically. Historian John Man writes that the ratio was chosen to be close to the golden ratio of 1.61:1.[5] To reach this ratio more closely the vertical size should be 338 mm, but there is no reason why Gutenberg would leave this non-trivial difference of 8 mm go by in such a detailed work in other aspects.

A single complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible has 1,272 pages; with 4 pages per folio-sheet, 318 sheets of paper are required per copy. The handmade paper used by Gutenberg was of fine quality and was imported from Italy. Each sheet contains a watermark, which may be seen when the paper is held up to the light, left by the papermold.


In Gutenberg's time, inks used by scribes to produce manuscripts were water-based. Gutenberg developed an oil-based ink that would better adhere to his metal type. His ink was primarily carbon, but also had a high metallic content, with copper, lead, and titanium predominating.[14]


The first part of the Gutenberg idea was using a single, hand-carved character to create identical copies of itself. Cutting a single letter could take a craftsman a day of work. A single page taking 2500 letters, crafting per page was unattainable. A less labour intensive method of reproduction was needed. Copies were produced by stamping the original into an iron plate, called a matrix. A rectangular tube was then connected to the matrix, creating a container in which molten type metal could be poured. Once cooled, the solid metal form was released from the tube. The fundamental innovation is that this matrix can be used to produce many duplicates of the same letter. The result of each molding was a rectangular block of metal with the form of the desired character protruding from the end. This piece of type could be put in a line, facing up, with other pieces of type. These lines were arranged to form blocks of text, which could be inked and pressed against paper, transferring the desired text to the paper.

Each unique character requires a master piece of type in order to be replicated. Given that each letter has uppercase and lowercase forms, and the number of various punctuation marks and ligatures (e.g. the sequence 'fi' combined in one character, commonly used in writing) the Gutenberg Bible needed a set of 290 master characters. It seems probable that six pages, containing 15600 characters altogether, would be set at any one moment.[5]

Type style

The Gutenberg Bible is printed in the blackletter type styles that would become known as Textualis (Textura) and Schwabacher. The name texture refers to the texture of the printed page: straight vertical strokes combined with horizontal lines, giving the impression of a woven structure. Gutenberg already used the technique of justification, that is, creating a vertical, not indented, alignment at the left and right-hand sides of the column. To do this, he used various methods, including using characters of narrower widths, adding extra spaces around punctuation, and varying the widths of spaces around words.[15][16] On top of this, he subsequently let punctuation marks go beyond that vertical line, called Hanging punctuation, thereby using the massive black characters to make this justification stronger to the eye.

Rubrication, illumination and binding

Detail showing both rubrication and illumination

Copies left the Gutenberg workshop unbound, without decoration, and for the most part without rubrication.

Initially the rubrics — the headings before each book of the Bible — were printed, but this experiment was quickly abandoned, and gaps were left for rubrication to be added by hand. A guide of the text to be added to each page, printed for use by rubricators, survives.[17]

The spacious margin allowed for illuminated decoration to be added by hand. The amount of decoration presumably depended on how much each buyer could or would pay. Some copies were never decorated.[18] The place of decoration can be known or inferred for about 30 of the surviving copies. Perhaps 13 of these received their decoration in Mainz, but others were worked on as far away as London.[19] The vellum Bibles were more expensive and perhaps for this reason tend to be more highly decorated, although the vellum copy in the British Library is completely undecorated.[20] There has been speculation that the Master of the Playing Cards was partly responsible for the illumination of the Princeton copy, though all that can be said for certain is that the same model book was used for some of the illustrations in this copy and for some of the Master's playing cards.[21]

Although many Gutenberg Bibles have been rebound over the years, nine copies retain fifteenth-century bindings. Most of these copies were bound in either Mainz or Erfurt.[19] Most copies were divided into two volumes, the first volume ending with The Book of Psalms. Copies on vellum were heavier and for this reason were sometimes bound in three or four volumes.[1]

Early owners

The Bible seems to have sold out immediately, with initial sales to owners as far away as England and possibly Sweden and Hungary.[1][22] At least some copies are known to have sold for 30 florins.[23] Although this made them significantly cheaper than manuscript Bibles, most students, priests or other people of ordinary income would have been unable to afford them. It is assumed that most were sold to monasteries, universities and particularly wealthy individuals.[17] At present only one copy is known to have been privately owned in the fifteenth century. Some are known to have been used for communal readings in monastery refectories; others may have been for display rather than use, and a few were certainly used for study.[1] Kristian Jensen suggests that many copies were bought by wealthy and pious laypeople for donation to religious institutions.[20]

Influence on later Bibles

The Gutenberg Bible had an incalculable effect on the history of the printed book. Textually, it also had an influence on future editions of the Bible. It provided the model for several later editions, including the 36 Line Bible, Mentelin's Latin Bible, and the first and third Eggestein Bibles. The third Eggestein Bible was set from the copy of the Gutenberg Bible now in Cambridge University Library. The Gutenberg Bible also had an influence on the Clementine edition of the Vulgate commissioned by the Papacy in the late sixteenth century.[24][25]


"A notable possession of the General Theological Seminary Library is a complete and excellent copy of the Gutenberg Bible."[26] The copy of the Gutenberg Bible held by the General Theological Seminary Library, was found to have a forged leaf. The forged leaf was discovered by Mr. Joseph Martini, a New York book dealer. The leaf carried part of Chapter 14, all of Chapter 15, and part of Chapter 16 of the Book of Ezekiel. It was impossible to tell when the forged leaf had been inserted into the volume. In the fall of 1953, a generous friend of the Seminary gave a copy of the missing leaf to the General Theological Seminary Library, "...and the Seminary's great Bible became the first imperfect Gutenberg Bible ever restored to completeness. The substitute leaf was taken from a defective copy of volume two, which was being broken up for sale in parts and leaves."[27]

Surviving copies

Another Gutenberg Bible
Locations of known complete Gutenberg Bibles.

As of 2009, 48 42-line Bibles are known to exist, but of these only 21 are complete. Others have leaves or even whole volumes missing. In addition, there are a substantial number of fragments, some as small as individual leaves, which are likely to represent about another 16 copies. Many of these fragments have survived because they were used as part of the binding of later books.[22] There are twelve surviving copies on vellum, although only four of these are complete and one is of the New Testament only.

The country with the most copies of any kind is Germany, which has thirteen, while the United States has eleven, and the United Kingdom eight. New York has four copies, Paris and London have three each, and Mainz, the Vatican City and Moscow have two each. The country with the most complete copies is the United Kingdom with seven, the United States five, Germany three, and France two. Institutions which have copies on permanent display include the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the British Library and the Library of Congress.

Copy numbers listed below are as found in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, taken from a 1985 survey of existing copies by Ilona Hubay; the two copies in Russia were not known to exist in 1985, and so were not catalogued.

Substantially complete copies of the 42-line Bible
Country Holding institution Hubay
length material Notes,
Austria (1) Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna 27 complete paper Online images Template:De icon
Belgium (1) Bibliothèque universitaire, Mons 11 incomplete paper Vol. I. Part of the same copy as the volume in Indiana (see below)[10]
Denmark (1) Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen 12 incomplete paper Vol. II
France (4) Bibliothèque nationale, Paris 15 complete vellum
17 incomplete paper Contains note by binder dating it to August 1456
Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris 16 complete paper
Bibliothèque Municipale, Saint-Omer 18 incomplete paper
Germany (13) Gutenberg Museum, Mainz 18 incomplete paper One copy is vol. I; the other both vols. It is unclear which is which.
Online images of the 2 volume copy Template:De icon
Landesbibliothek, Fulda 14 incomplete vellum Vol. I. Two individual leaves from Vol. II survive in other libraries.[22]
Universitätsbibliothek, Leipzig 14 incomplete vellum
Niedersächsische Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek, Göttingen 12 complete vellum Online images
Staatsbibliothek, Berlin 13 incomplete vellum
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich 15 complete paper Online images of vol. 1 vol. 2 Template:De icon
Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main 16 complete paper
Hofbibliothek, Aschaffenburg 17 incomplete paper
Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart 10 incomplete paper Online images Purchased in April 1978 for 2.2 million US dollars (ex General Theological Seminary)
Stadtbibliothek, Trier 11 incomplete paper Vol. I
Landesbibliothek, Kassel 12 incomplete paper Vol. I
Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig - incomplete paper The Rendsburg Fragment[10]
Japan (1) Keio University Library, Tokyo 45 incomplete paper Vol. I, Purchased in October 1987 for 4.9 million (plus an auction house commission of $490,000) for a total of 5.4 million US dollars[28]
Online images
Poland (1) Biblioteka Seminarium Duchownego, Pelpin 28 incomplete paper Online images of vol. 1 vol. 2 Template:Pl icon
Portugal (1) Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Lisbon 29 complete paper
Russia (2) National Library of Russia, St Petersburg - incomplete vellum
Moscow State University, Moscow - complete paper
Spain (2) Biblioteca Universitaria y Provincial, Seville 32 incomplete paper New Testament only
Online images Template:Es icon
Biblioteca Pública Provincial, Burgos 31 complete paper
Switzerland (1) Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, Cologny 30 incomplete paper
United Kingdom (8) British Library, London ? complete vellum Online images
? complete paper Online images
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh 26 complete paper Online images
Lambeth Palace Library, London 20 incomplete vellum New Testament only
Eton College Library, Eton 23 complete paper
John Rylands Library, Manchester 25 complete paper Online images of 11 pages
Bodleian Library, Oxford 24 complete paper
University Library, Cambridge 22 complete paper Online images of vol. 1 vol. 2
United States (11) The Morgan Library & Museum, New York 37 incomplete vellum
38 complete paper
44 incomplete paper Old Testament only
Online images
Library of Congress, Washington DC 35 complete vellum Online images
New York Public Library 42 incomplete paper Lenox copy
Widener Library, Harvard University 40 complete paper
Beinecke Library, Yale University 41 complete paper
Scheide Library, Princeton University 43 paper
Lilly Library, Indiana University 46 incomplete paper New Testament only. Part of the same copy as the volume in Mons (see above).
Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA 36 complete vellum
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin 39 complete paper Purchased in 1978 for 2.4 million US dollars.
Online images
Vatican City (2) Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana 33 incomplete vellum
34 incomplete paper Vol I

Recent history

Binding of the copy at the University of Texas at Austin

Today, few copies remain in religious institutions, with most now owned by university libraries and other major scholarly institutions. After centuries in which all copies seem to have remained in Europe, the first Gutenberg Bible reached North America in 1847. It is now in the New York Public Library.[29] In the last hundred years, several long-lost copies have come to light, and our understanding of how the Bible was produced and distributed has improved considerably.[22] The only copy held outside Europe or North America is the first volume of a Gutenberg Bible (Hubay 45) at Keio University in Tokyo. The HUMI Project team at Keio University is known for its high-quality digital images of Gutenberg Bibles and other rare books.[30]

In 1921 a New York book dealer, Gabriel Wells, bought a damaged paper copy, dismantled the book and sold sections and individual leaves to book collectors and libraries. The leaves were sold in a portfolio case with an essay written by A. Edward Newton, and were referred to as "Noble Fragments".[31] In 1953 Charles Scribner's Sons, also book dealers in New York, dismembered a paper copy of volume II. The largest portion of this, the New Testament, is now owned by Indiana University. The matching first volume of this copy was subsequently discovered in Mons, Belgium.[10]

The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible took place in 1978. It fetched $2.2 million. This copy is now in Stuttgart.[29] The price of a complete copy today is estimated at $25−35 million.[2][3] Individual leaves now sell for $20,000–$100,000, depending upon condition and the desirability of the page.

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e Davies, Martin (1996). The Gutenberg Bible. British Library. ISBN 0-7123-0492-4.
  2. ^ a b MSNBC: In the book world, the rarest of the rare
  3. ^ a b The World of Rare Books: The Gutenberg Bible, First and Most Valuable
  4. ^ Childress 2008, p. 62
  5. ^ a b c Man, John (2002). Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-21823-5.
  6. ^ University of Texas -The Gutenberg Bible
  7. ^ a b British Library, Three phases in the printing process accessed 4 July 2009
  8. ^ British Library, The differences in line lengths per page: pictures showing differences between differences between the Keio copy (40 lines per page) and the British Library copy (42 lines per page) in Genesis 1. Accessed 10 July 2009
  9. ^ British Library, Gutenberg's life: the years of the Bible accessed 10 July 2009
  10. ^ a b c d White, Eric Marshall (2002). "Long Lost Leaves from Gutenberg's Mons-Trier II Bible". Gutenberg Jahrbuch. 77: 19–36.
  11. ^ Lane Ford, Margaret (2010). "Deconstruction and Reconstruction: Detecting and Interpreting Sophisticated Copies". In Wagner, Bettina and Reed, Marcia (ed.). Early Printed Books as Material Objects: Proceedings of the Conference Organized by the Ifla Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Munich, 19-21 August 2009. De Gruyter Sur. pp. 291–304. ISBN 978-3-11-025324-5.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  12. ^ British Library, Gutenberg Bible: background accessed 10 July 2009
  13. ^ British Library, Making the Bible: the gatherings accessed 10 July 2009
  14. ^ British Library, Making the Bible: the ink accessed 18 October 2009.
  15. ^ Television presentation, "The Machine that Made Us", presenter: Stephen Fry
  16. ^ Torbjørn Eng, "InDesign, the hz-program and Gutenberg's secret",, retrieved 2009-10-08
  17. ^ a b Kapr, Albert (1996). Johann Gutenberg: The Man and His Invention. Scolar Press. ISBN 1-85928-114-1.
  18. ^ British Library, The copy on paper — decoration, accessed 18 October 2008.
  19. ^ a b Estes, Richard (2005). The 550th Anniversary Pictorial Census of the Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg Research Center. p. 151.
  20. ^ a b Jensen, Kristian (2003). "Printing the Bible in the fifteenth century: devotion, philology and commerce". In Jensen, Kristian (ed.). Incunabula and their readers: printing, selling and using books in the fifteenth century. British Library. pp. 115–38. ISBN 0-7123-4769-0.
  21. ^ Anne H. van Buren, Sheila Edmunds: Playing Cards and Manuscripts: Some Widely Disseminated Fifteenth Century Model Sheets, In: The Art Bulletin 56. March 1974, p.12-30, ISSN 0004-3079
  22. ^ a b c d White, Eric Marshall (2010). "The Gutenberg Bibles that Survive as Binder's Waste". In Wagner, Bettina and Reed,Marcia (ed.). Early Printed Books as Material Objects: Proceedings of the Conference Organized by the Ifla Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Munich, 19-21 August 2009. De Gruyter Sur. pp. 21–35. ISBN 978-3-11-025324-5.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  23. ^ Cormack, Lesley B.; Ede, Andrew (2004). A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility. Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55111-332-5.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  24. ^ Needham, Paul (1999). "The Changing Shape of the Vulgate Bible in Fifteenth-Century Printing Shops". In Saenger, Paul and Van Kampen, Kimberly (ed.). The Bible as Book:the First Printed Editions. British Library. pp. 53–70. ISBN 0-7123-4601-5.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  25. ^ Needham, Paul (2010). "Copy Specifics in the Printing Shop". In Wagner, Bettina and Reed,Marcia (ed.). Early Printed Books as Material Objects: Proceedings of the Conference Organized by the Ifla Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Munich, 19-21 August 2009. De Gruyter Sur. pp. 9–20. ISBN 978-3-11-025324-5.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  26. ^ Sonne, Niels H. America's Oldest Episcopal Seminary Library and the Needs It Serves. New York?: s.n, 1953. Page 8.
  27. ^ St. Mark's Library (General Theological Seminary). The Gutenberg Bible of the General Theological Seminary. New York: St. Mark's Library, the General Theological Seminary, 1963.
  28. ^ 500-year-old Bible sold for $4.9 million; Ellensburg Daily Record; Oct. 23, 1987
  29. ^ a b Clausen Books Gutenberg Bible Census accessed 7 July 2009
  30. ^ "The Gutenberg Bible Online Digital Facsimile", Keio University These are low resolution thumbnail images only, approximately 350x500 pixels in size, useless for close examination or reading of the text. Even though a few of the thumbnails are hyperlinked, where the links exist, they only produce blank screens and do not bring up full-size images.
  31. ^ Kenyon College Library

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