Noble Fragments of the Gutenberg Bible

In addition to printed Bibles, The Rare Bible Collection @ MOBIA also holds leaves that illustrate the history of the printed book. That story begins with the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with moveable type in the west. This Bible is named for Johannes Gutenberg (1395-1468), the innovator of that revolutionary system of printing. Of the 180 copies of the Vulgate Bible completed by Gutenberg and his shop in 1454, only 48 documented copies still exist, most of them incomplete. Due to its large size, the Gutenberg Bible was usually bound in 2 volumes.  Incomplete is a relative term that can mean anything from a single missing page to a whole missing volume, so some of these so-called incomplete copies are only volume I or only volume II.

There are two documented cases of incomplete volumes taken apart by dealers and sold either as individual leaves or small groups of consecutive leaves. The book dealer Gabriel Wells took apart a volume II in 1921, and the publisher and book seller Charles Scribner’s Sons dis-bound another volume II for sale in 1953.  These particular dealers would surely argue that selling smaller fragments was a good thing because more individuals or institutions would be able to see and hold at least one page of this monumental tome. Wells published a large-format pamphlet, fully bound in leather, to accompany the individual fragments he sold. And indeed, the noted collector A. Edward Newton, who wrote the essay published in this fine press edition, describes the pages thus: “Reader: pause a while. For you look—and it may be for the first time—upon an actual page of a Gutenberg Bible, the most precious piece of printing in the world; and, admittedly, the earliest. Truly a noble fragment!”1

Part of the story of the fragmented copy sold by Scribner’s, however, is an example of why most dealers and librarians today disdain the practice of separating pages of a book in order to make more sales. After the fragments were sold, volume 1 of the same copy was discovered in Mons, Belgium.

The Rare Bible Collection @ MOBIA includes four noble fragments, two each from both the Wells and Scribner’s dismantled copies. Printing made the black printed text more or less the same2 but, each individual copy was illuminated for its subsequent owner, making each copy unique. Below is a picture of the headlines from two of the modestly decorated pages. The Wells fragment has the headlines written with alternating red and blue pigments and red rubrication; the Scribner’s fragment is simply written in black ink at the top of the page and has been trimmed on three sides, especially at the foredge. It is hard to tell if the trimming happened before or after the book was taken apart:

These leaves were taken from storage for conservation treatment. The leaves are in good shape, despite one of the Wells fragments having been cut, presumably long ago, when something was sliced out of an adjoining page. The page was repaired with a rather large piece of paper, which partially obscures the text. This repair will be left in place.

The leather pamphlet bindings commissioned for the editions sold by Gabriel Wells were in need of treatment. The bindings hold a single section with A. Edward Newton’s essay, followed by blank pages between which the fragment leaf was hinged (either for the publication or a by a subsequent owner). These bindings are now part of the history of this Noble fragment from the Gutenberg Bible and required treatment in order to retain their function as books. The spine leather and headcaps were abraded and damaged on one copy and the spine was detached on the other. In order to repair the missing leather, the original leather was lifted off the covers and new leather was adhered underneath. The original bindings were by Stikeman & Co. and seemed to be rather frugal, considering what that bindery was capable of.

Not all the bindings for these pamphlets by Stikeman were the same. Another one of these bindings, with a slightly different design, is shown on conservator Jeff Peachey’s website along with additional information about the noble fragments and a description of the conservation treatment performed on the binding:

For a comparison of the two copies of the Gutenberg Bible held by the British Museum and a good description of the working practices of his print shop check out the excellent website “British Library, Treasures in Full, Gutenberg Bible.”

Other examples of Stikeman & Co. bindings, which operated in New York from the end of the 19th through the first quarter of the 20th century can be found here:

If you live in or are visiting New York City, the copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the New York Public Library is on continuous display, you can see it, for free, anytime the library is open. Thank you NYC!

1 Newton, A. Edward, A Noble Fragment|Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, Gabriel Wells, New York, NY, 1921. p.1.

2 The practice of printing with moveable type, especially during the early period, required that corrections and changes be made to the text as it was pressed. The result was that even though printed books were meant to be exact copies, corrections to the typesetting and irregularities of imposition made copies similar but not identical. For a brief explanation of some of these irregularities and changes in the Gutenberg Bible (and much, much more) see the British Library’s “Treasures in Full” website (link above).

– C.M. for MOBIA

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