Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1


Granted, the celebration was quiet, even subdued. There wasn't a fatted calf in sight. But the diverse people who crowded into the Lilly Library's Lincoln Room at Indiana University Bloomington on this particular autumnal Wednesday night were feeling festive nonetheless. They were congregating to celebrate a homecoming. A long-lost leaf belonging to the Lilly Library's Gutenberg Bible had surfaced and been purchased by the library, finally reuniting with the book into which it was initially bound more than five hundred years ago.

As curator of books Joel Silver congenially explained to those assembled, the Gutenberg Bible is "the most famous book on this campus. It's the book everyone wants to see when they come into the Lilly Library, and it's the book they know the most about, even though most of what they know is wrong."

Joel Silver, Curator of Books, Lilly Library, with the Gutenberg Bible (The New Testament in the Latin Vulgate, Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, 1455) and long-lost leaf. The Gutenberg Bible, probably the first major work printed from movable metal types in Western Europe, was printed in Mainz, Germany, in the mid-1450s by Johann Gutenberg, most likely with the help of Peter Schoeffler. The Lilly Library's copy contains the New Testament only, and lacked twelve of the 128 printed leaves. It is not known how many copies of the Gutenberg Bible were originally printed, although estimates usually range between a total of 180 and 225. Copies were printed on both vellum and paper. (The Lilly Library copy of the New Testament is on paper.) The copy now at the Lilly Library was discovered in 1828 on a farm near Trier, a small city in the Rhineland about six miles east of the Luxembourg border. It was acquired by Indiana University in 1958 as part of the collection of George H. Poole, Jr. --credit

So, to clear up any misconceptions: the Gutenberg Bible, also known as the 42-Line Bible, is famous as the first substantial printed book to emerge from western Europe. It's the book to which Johann Gutenberg first applied his vision of movable type, the new system in which pieces of type could be reused in multiple combinations to print a variety of texts. Gutenberg produced the Bible, written in an abbreviated Latin and printed in a rich black ink that remains vivid even after the passing of centuries, in Mainz, Germany, over the course of several years in the 1450s. He printed it on paper and vellum using a machine that might have resembled a wine press of the era. It was a sold-out bestseller even before its run of about a hundred eighty copies finished printing‹this although one highly decorated copy sold for 100 guilders, which at the time would also have bought you a large stone mansion.

Many of the copies Gutenberg produced survive today, though most are incomplete. The Lilly Library's Bible is only the New Testament and is missing twelve‹well, eleven‹of its original 128 printed leaves. The story of how the Lilly Library's copy was divorced from its Old Testament counterpart and lost its leaves is, as Silver describes it, "a long and sad history. Not until the eighteenth century did people realize the Gutenberg Bible should be treasured. It didn't say anywhere in the book, 'This is the first printed book.'"

After having been discovered in a German farmhouse in 1828, the Lilly Library's Gutenberg Bible passed eventually to Sotheby's in London, perhaps transported there in the 1930s by a Jewish refugee using it as a means to get his money out of Germany. Then it circulated in America, losing chunks as dealers sold them to clients and collectors used them to complete other copies. Finally David Randall, IU's first Lilly librarian, bought the copy for Indiana University in 1958; in 1960, the Lilly Library opened with its Gutenberg Bible on display.

"We never thought we'd ever get any of the missing leaves," Silver recalls. Then, this past June, a fax came from Christie's in London, suggesting that the leaf 262 about to go up for sale was from the Lilly Library copy. The Lilly Library researched this suspicion by examining the style of the illuminated initials and the rubrication (the red text offering helpful hints to the reader) and purchased the leaf through a London agent. It arrived in Bloomington via highly insured mail, darker in hue than the bound pages and with evidence of repair done over the centuries. Silver describes the opening of the package with understatement: "It was pretty exciting."

Lisa Browar, head of the Lilly Library, says, "Those who fear the demise of the book should be greatly reassured by the interest and enthusiasm generated by the acquisition of this missing leaf. The printed book, as we have known it for the past five hundred years, has been a most effective tool for the democratization of knowledge and is clearly an important cultural icon. In a market-driven economy, where the law of supply and demand pertains, it is clear that demand for the book will continue and the book will remain a viable commodity."

Original leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, 1455. This leaf, which contains II Corinthians, I:1­III:18, was acquired by the Lilly Library in June 1997. It is believed to have originally been part of the Gutenberg New Testament now owned by the library and was one of the leaves missing from the Lilly Library's New Testament. --credit

The leaf includes Paul's extolling of "devout and godly sincerity" over "worldly wisdom," but the mercenary character of the item's history doesn't faze Silver. "I've been in rare books for long enough that it doesn't surprise me . . . One of the basic things in the history of books, even the Bible, is that the printers and publishers weren't usually in it only for altruistic purposes." It's been a commercial enterprise, then, from the beginning.

At any rate, none of the buying and selling in its pedigree taints the effect the book has on visitors as both a historical artifact and a repository of scripture. "Most of the people who come to look at the Gutenberg Bible can't read it‹it's in Gothic type, and it's in Latin," Silver observes. "But they know that they're looking at the Gutenberg Bible, and they approach it with reverence."

As one young man at the gathering noted, there is always the chance, however slim, that the newly bought leaf does not belong to the Lilly Library's copy; all Silver can categorically confirm is that it doesn't seem to belong to any of the other forty-seven extant copies. If the enthusiasm at the Lilly Library that night is any indication, however, most people are willing to employ a little faith: their leaf was lost, and now is found.--Eric Pfeffinger

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