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Bible de Gutenberg 

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg is known in the West as the inventor of the printing press. Letterpress printing was already a phenomenon in the Far East when it first became known in Europe in the 15th century. The first movable type printing tests can be traced back to 15th-century China where movable characters were made out of baked clay. Characters were imprinted on a wet clay tablet with a stylus which explains their poor resistance. Given the structure of language (i.e. the large number of characters), letterpress printing simply did not develop and woodblock printing remained the most common method of printing for a long time. The first books to have been printed in metallic type were published in Korea in the 13th century.
We have long asked ourselves whether this invention was indeed sent to us. Europe and Asia were in contact with each other in the 18th century. The embassy was sent to Mongolia by the Pope in 1245 and again in 1253 by King Louis IX of France. Twenty years later, Marco Polo reached Beijing. Despite this, there is no tangible evidence to support the hypothesis of what today would be called a “technology transfer”.
The invention of printing with movable characters in Europe is attributed to Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg. His biography is inaccurate. Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz at the very end of the 14th century and was the youngest son of an upper-class cloth merchant. His sound knowledge of Latin suggests that he attended a monastic school and most likely a university. In 1428, following a uprising in his hometown, he was forced into exile. Nothing is known of his life once he left Mainz, until 1434 when he sent a letter indicating that he was living in Strasbourg. This choice of city was probably not a coincidence since, in the mid-15th century, Strasbourg was one of the largest cities in Germany after Cologne, Vienna, Nuremberg and Lübeck, boasting 25,000 inhabitants. Gutenberg had many professions in his lifetime; he was a stone-polisher, he spent time making polished metal mirrors during the Aachen pilgrimage, and he conducted research on letterpress printing. Upon his return to Mainz in 1448, he continued his work with the financial help of a wealthy moneylender, Johann Fust, and with the support of Peter Schöffer. The result of this collaboration was the Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42), which was completed in 1454. A financial dispute then ensued between Gutenberg and his associates, resulting in Gutenberg parting ways with Fust and Schöffer and each continuing to print. Gutenberg died in Mainz on 3rd February 1468.
Named after the number of lines per column, the 42-line Bible is considered in the West as the first major book printed using mass-produced movable type. The Bible was not Gutenberg's first work. He produced some small-scale prints previous to the Bible, such as certificates of indulgences.
Given that each letter of the alphabet has uppercase and lowercase forms, and the number of various punctuation marks and ligatures, the Gutenberg Bible needed a set of 290 master characters before it could be printed. Gutenberg started printing at a rate of 40 lines per column. He then increased this to 41 lines per column and then finally 42. He also wanted to print the work of rubricators using red ink. Given the difficulty of the job that required the sheets to be rubricated by being passed twice through the printing press, the number of lines per page was eventually increased from 40 to 42, presumably to save paper. 
We have known since the late 15th century that the first book printed was a Bible in Latin, but it was not until the 18th century that this was identified accurately. French bookseller Guillaume-François Debure once said: “it is by pure chance that we have discovered this valuable edition of the Bible [...] and we will not waste another moment in granting it first rank, not only out of all Bibles, but all editions of books.” Debure made the mistake of giving this print to Fust, one of Gutenberg’s ex-collaborators, and not to Gutenberg himself.
It is estimated that Gutenberg printed nearly 200 copies of the Bible, but only 49 survive today. The copy in the UMONS library, the only one in Belgium, is unfortunately incomplete. It consists of 440 pages, compared to the complete Bible of 1282 pages, and contains only the beginning of the first volume and ends at the end of the Book of Ezra. It is missing the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus as well as the first Book of Kings and the beginning of the second Book of Kings.
Canon Edmon Puissant (1860-1934) came into possession of this copy in 1926.

René Plisnier


Maurice-Aurélien ARNOULD, L’exemplaire de la Bible de Gutenberg conservé à Mons. Étude critique, Mons, Société des Bibliophiles belges séant à Mons, 1960 (Publications in-4°, n° 2); Guy BECHTEL, Gutenberg et l’invention de l’imprimerie. Une enquête, Fayard, 1992; Guillaume-François DEBURE, Bibliographie instructive ou Traité de la connaissance des livres rares et singuliers, Paris, Debure, 1763; Stephan FÜSSEL, Gutenberg and the impact of printing, Ashgate, 2005; Albert KAPR, Johann Gutenberg. The man and his invention, Scolar Press, 1996.