Centuries-Old Gutenberg Comes Up For Air

Allan Appel PhotoA rare Bible came out of its case and time-traveled viewers back to the techie revolution ... of 1455.

It was one of those hold-your-breath moments as the rare book emerged from its climate-controlled case Thursday at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Two dozen scholars from Yale’s wide-ranging Renaissance areas of study, a few members of the public, and a curious reporter who is also a drop-out from a theological seminary in decades gone by gathered in the library’s downstairs study room to watch.

The rare occasion was part of a course on “Jews, Christians, and Renaissance Bibles” taught by Bruce Gordon, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale’s Divinity School.

The Gutenberg Bible, created by the Mainz printer Johann Gutenberg, was the first significant book printed from movable type in the West. It triggered wider and faster dissemination of knowledge and altered forever how people receive and pass on information.

How fully loaded Gutenbergs were marketed back then was one of the fascinating revelations that emerged Thursday at the Beinecke.

If you ordered up one of the newfangled Bibles that Johann Gutenberg was hawking, a mere 180 of them on a strickly pre-ordered basis back in 1455, you had to be pretty wealthy.

Still, all you got for your money would be the loose pages printed with history-changing movable type.

A Mercedes to be sure, but without the accessories.

“You paid for it according to how wealthy you are,” said Gordon.

You want illumination? Can do. Rubrication or special hand-done red lettering at the beginning of Genesis? You bet. Specially painted capital letters throughout? No problem. Now let me show you a beautiful set of covers.

Gordon was surrounded by an array of other Bibles in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and varying polyglot combinations. He challenged his class to explore how an “authorized” notion of a text evolved over time.

There are lots of mysteries about the Gutenberg, Gordon said, including how many presses the German artisan had, how many workers, and what his manuscript Bible source was.

Not a mystery was the beauty of the text, and its freshness on paper that seemed to gleam still after a mere 550 years.

According to Kathryn James, the curator of early modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, the Gutenberg comes out perhaps just a few times a year, on such ocassions. It’s standard practice for most scholars to work from a facsimile of the two-volume Gutenberg or other fragile texts in order to preserve them.

She was thrilled the Gutenberg, along with the other examples like the Daniel Bomberg-printed Hebrew Bibles of 1517 and 1524, were being used. She encouraged further use. “The Gutenberg has not come out of its case enough,” she said.

Yale’s is one of 22 complete copies known in the world, with five in the United States. Yale’s copy is pretty loaded, according to Gordon. The monks at the Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria, needed cash and sold it after World War I to the Harkness family, who gave it to Yale.

Andrew Hui (pictured at the top of the story) thought he might have noticed a finger print of one of those monks, or someone’s, at the mid-point of a page, where a turning would take place.

“The red ink is still gleaming,” Hui said. He is a professor of humanities currently in town to prepare curriculum for Yale’s new university outpost scheduled to open in Singapore next year.

Eva Allan, a graduate student in art history, showed up Thursday morning because she considered it an opportunity “to see famous works up close and personal before I graduate.”

Brad Holden (pictured), a student in Gordon’s course, is working on a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. He had seen among the university’s treasures other iconic works including a 1623 folio of Shakespeare’s works.

“These books get you close to history,” he said as he looked over the Novum Instrumentum Bible, of 1516, which was used by Protestant reformers Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli.

In another week or so, after 100-plus students from the Divinity School and perhaps other groups get to be close to it, the Gutenberg will return to its case, where the facsimile is now its placeholder.

Asked which was the greater thrill, to be close to a 1623 folio or a 1516 Bible, James replied: “No one ever died for Shakespeare.”

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posted by: Lisa on March 1, 2013  12:51pm

I am surprised to see that they let you touch the text with your hands.  I would think the oils would be detrimental.