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Pearls from the Pend No.10

Munificence from Mainz


Duncan McAra

‘… of making many books there is no end …’

Eccles 12:12


A good friend of the Priory of Scotland is Herr Olaf Dankert, a Knight of Grace of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg, Johanniterorden, who travels from Mainz to attend each year’s Festival of St John.

During the Reception on the eve of the 2018 Festival hosted by Dundee Council in the impressive surroundings of the City Chambers, Herr Dankert confided in the Librarian that he had a personal gift he wished to present to the Priory of Scotland.

The box he presented to the Prior contained two magnificently bound facsimile volumes of the Gutenberg Bible of 1454, together with a matching-size beautifully illustrated English-language version commentary by Stephan Füssel on the life and work of Gutenberg, the printing of the Bible and the distinctive features of the Göttingen original. Professor Füssel is the holder of the Gutenberg Chair at the Johannes Gutenberg  University in Mainz and a member of the board of the International Gutenberg Society. The Librarian is grateful to his predecessor, Confrère Charles Burnett KStJ, for kindly adding in each of the three books an elegant calligraphic inscription recording Herr Dankert’s gift.

It is appropriate that Taschen have produced this facsimile this year, 2018, which marks the 550th anniversary of the death of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, the youngest son of a patrician merchant, blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher. As S.H.Steinberg pointed out in Five Hundred Years of Printing: ‘What is perhaps Gutenberg’s greatest claim to fame is the fact that, after the early experimental stage … he reached a state of technical efficiency not materially surpassed until the beginning of the nineteenth century.’

Drawing on his earlier experiences as a blacksmith and goldsmith, Gutenberg created an alloy which melted at low temperature and cooled quickly to form durable replica type from a matrix. He also devised an oil-based ink – or, more accurately, a varnish – which could adhere well to metal type and transfer well to vellum or paper and a new screw-press, adapted from those used in producing wine, oil or paper. None of these features existed in Chinese or Korean printing.

In 1449, Johannes Fust, a goldsmith and businessman, loaned to Gutenberg an initial sum of 800 guilders (at that time 200 guilders could purchase a town house in Mainz) to enable Gutenberg to acquire the necessary implements. On this sum Gutenberg was obliged to pay interest of 6 per cent.

Gutenberg assembled his team: Peter Schöffer, his deputy, was a skilful  compositor; Berthold Ruppel and Heinrich Kefer were his printing assistants; and Heinrich Günther, a former priest, had the role of proofreader. Three years later, Fust made available a further 800 guilders, but this time not as interest-bearing credit but rather as an investment in the joint venture. Gutenberg and Fust became business partners. Bells should have rung in Gutenberg’s head.

The Gutenberg Bible is a printed version of the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. It was not the first book to be printed by Gutenberg’s new movable type system, but this incunabulum [any book printed before 1501] is his major work acclaimed for its aesthetic and technical qualities. Like a Mercedes-Benz S-class luxury saloon, Gutenberg’s Bible, aimed at liturgical use, did not come cheap. Early evidence suggests that one copy sold for 30 florins – the equivalent of three years’ wages for a clerk.

The first edition of 180 copies comprised two volumes, each of which had 300 pages with each page containing two 42-line columns set in textualis, an elegant form of  black letter, or Gothic, script.  Watermarks indicate the high-quality paper chosen by Gutenberg was manufactured in the Piedmont region and transported down the Rhine to Mainz. When customers bought a printed set of the Old and New Testaments, they would then arrange for the addition of rubrication (the addition of red ink to highlight letters or headings) and decorative illumination and their preferred choice of binding.

Of the original 180 bibles – 30 printed on vellum, 150 on paper – 49 are known to exist, 21 of which are complete; these complete copies are thus rarer than the 57 surviving Fabergé jewelled eggs. Of the 21 surviving complete copies, nine retain their fifteenth-century bindings. In the United Kingdom complete copies are held by the National Library of Scotland, thanks to the Advocates’ Library’s purchase from David Steuart for 150 guineas in 1805/6; British Library, London; Bodleian Library, Oxford; University Library, Cambridge; John Rylands Library, Manchester; Eton College Library. 

In a legal paper, written after the completion of the Bible, Gutenberg refers to the process as Das Werk der Bücher [The Work of the Books]. Sadly, however, within four years of the issue of the Gutenberg Bible, the Fust-Gutenberg partnership was foundering on the rocks; by 1458 Gutenberg was no longer in a position to make payments of the interest still owed by him to Fust and, following a court case, the partnership was dissolved with Fust being awarded control of the printing workshop and half the stock of the printed bibles. After 1460 Gutenberg appears to have withdrawn from the art of printing, no doubt exacerbated by deteriorating eyesight. He died in 1468.

Just as Tim Berners-Lee’s invention in 1989 of the World Wide Web developed exponentially with startling ramifications, so Gutenberg’s printing process was adopted rapidly throughout Europe. Johannes Mentelin in 1466 published the first printed Bible in the German language; William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament was printed in Worms in 1526; Martin Luther’s complete Bible in the German vernacular appeared in 1534. In Scotland biblical works were printed by Robert Lekpreuik, Thomas Bassandyne and Alexander Arbuthnet in the 1560s and 1570s. But, of course, the full significance of the revolutionary technological innovation of Gutenberg’s invention is that a wide variety of textual material could be printed and disseminated. Not only was the Bible no longer restricted to the clergy, but much other material would usher in the Reformation, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, as well as facilitate newspapers, pamphlets and manipulative political propaganda.

And the price of a Gutenberg Bible were it to come on the market today? An estimated £18-26 million. Let the beggar in Gutenberg’s coat of arms have the last laugh.


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