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The Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress : A Resource Guide

Printed in Mainz, Germany in 1454/1455 by Johannes Gutenberg and Johannes Fust, the Gutenberg Bible is the first large-format typographic bible produced in Europe. This guide provides digital and printed resources from the Library of Congress Collections.


[Bible in Latin]. [1454-1455]. Mainz, Germany. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

A monument in the history of typography, the Gutenberg Bible was the first large-format typographic book printed in Europe. Crafted in Mainz, Germany in 1454/1455 by Johannes Gutenberg and his partner, Johannes Fust, the Gutenberg Bible enjoyed a print run of perhaps as many as 180 copies. About a quarter of those copies (one of which survives in the collections at the Library of Congress) were printed on vellum rather than on paper.

In a world where scribes labored for months or years to copy a single manuscript, the Gutenberg Bible and its creators suddenly offered European culture the ability to study multiple versions of nearly identical texts. The impact was both immediate and lasting.

Sifting historical documentation from between the many legends that surround Gutenberg, the Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible), and the birth of printing in Europe can be challenging, but early documentary sources do exist. The first reference to this new technology of printing in Europe dates to 1455, when Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the Imperial secretary to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, wrote a letter to a cardinal in Rome. In the letter, Piccolomini writes that he encountered a man with a number of bibles for sale, and that he and numerous witnesses were shown examples of quires (folded gatherings of ten leaves) from several different books where the text was clean, legible, without error, and could be read easily. Though Piccolomini wished to purchase a copy of one of these bibles, buyers had already been found for the works had even been completed. Piccolomini's letter was itself printed in 1480, and a copy of it is available through the Bavarian State Library. External

This letter does not mention Gutenberg by name, nor does it provide details about printing technology, but it does serve as a witness to the excitement over this seemingly miraculous means of making multiple copies and the immediate popularity of the printed material, which was already created and sold by March 12, 1455.

[Printing Press mural in Evolution of the Book series, by John W. Alexander. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. [mural c1896; photographed 1990]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A document from November 6, 1455, however, known as the "Helmasperger's Notarial Instrument," does mention Gutenberg by name in association with the enterprise of printing. A notary summarized the judicial hearing between Johannes Gutenberg and Johann Fust. A copy of this document is available though the Göttingen State and University Library,External where the physical document is also housed. Patrons interested in learning more about the history of the Gutenberg Bible are encouraged to read Eric M. White's study on the subject, Editio Princeps: A History of the Gutenberg Bible.

Patrons are often surprised to learn that every Gutenberg Bible looks different, even though the text is printed from the same press. The differences are the product of fifteenth-century workshop practices. While printing brought enormous and irrevocable social change throughout Europe, printing technology was introduced into a manuscript culture.

As a consequence, production in this period continued to resemble manuscript production in certain ways. For example, before a purchaser could use a Gutenberg Bible efficiently, the printed text needed to be finished by hand. A rubricator was needed to supply initial letters, chapter numbers, headlines, and prologue titles amongst other things. Because the rubrication in different copies of the Gutenberg Bible was done by different artisans in different workshops, specific copies of the Gutenberg Bible look different from one another. Purchasers could pay extra to commission illuminations for initials or the borders of the text, rather than just the simple penwork initials that adorn the Library of Congress' copy.

[Bible in Latin]. [1454-1455]. Mainz, Germany. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The stylistic variation of the rubrications, illuminations, and bindings from surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible indicate that the post-production elements of the Gutenberg Bibles were not created at the same print shop in Mainz, Germany. It is therefore likely that the Gutenberg Bible was sold widely outside of the region. The individuals lucky enough to purchase the text of a Gutenberg Bible paid local artisans for services such as illumination, rubrication, and binding. As a result, scholars and book historians are able to use these variations along with marks of ownership to learn more about the reception, readership, and material history of the Gutenberg Bible over the centuries.

In addition to being a monument of early European typography, the Gutenberg Bible is culturally significant as a means of textual stabilization for its particular presentation of the books of the bible. Scholars have yet to identify the exact manuscript model (known as an exemplar) used in the printing of the Gutenberg Bible; however, scholars do know that the source manuscript was a textual variant of a Vulgate bible common to the Rhine region. Through the new medium of printing, this local version became something of a new standard. With very few exceptions, bibles printed after the Gutenberg Bible were versions of the text printed by Gutenberg. In terms of European media history, the Gutenberg Bible represents an important moment of textual proliferation with lasting consequences.

About the Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room

The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling over 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815. The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. This room is home to the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference staff. Collections are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults.