Scholars often cite February 23, 1455 as the original publication date for the “Gutenberg Bible,” the first mass-produced book in Europe. This elegant, two-volume Latin Bible was one of the earliest works made using movable metallic type, a system of individual letters and character pieces that could be rearranged and reused during printing. Its popularity signaled a global revolution for the written word. Books previously had to be laboriously copied by hand, yet only a half-century after the Gutenberg Bible became the world’s first printed bestseller, millions of different volumes were flying off presses across Europe. On the 560th anniversary of its publication, explore seven fascinating facts about one of the rarest and most influential books in world history.
1. It wasn’t the world’s first printed book.
While the Gutenberg Bible helped introduce printing to the West, the process was already well established in other parts of the world. Chinese artisans were pressing ink onto paper as early as the second century A.D., and by the 800s, they had produced full-length books using wooden block printing. Movable type also first surfaced in the Far East. Sometime around the mid-11th century, a Chinese alchemist named Pi Sheng developed a system of individual character types made from a mixture of baked clay and glue. Metal movable type was later used in Korea to create the “Jikji,” a collection of Zen Buddhist teachings. The Jikji was first published in 1377, some 75 years before Johannes Gutenberg began churning out his Bibles in Mainz, Germany.
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2. Johannes Gutenberg didn’t make any money off the Bibles.
Johannes Gutenberg has been called the most influential figure of the last millennium, yet he stands as one of the great question marks of history. Scholars don’t know when he was born, whether he married or had children, where he is buried or even what he looked like. Almost all the information about Gutenberg comes from legal and financial papers, and these indicate that the printing of his Bibles was a particularly tumultuous affair. According to one 1455 document, Gutenberg’s business partner Johann Fust sued him for the return of a large sum of money loaned to help in the production of his Bibles. Gutenberg lost the lawsuit, and the final ruling stipulated that he had to turn his printing equipment and half the completed Bibles over to Fust, who went on to peddle them along with one of Gutenberg’s former assistants, Peter Schoeffer. Gutenberg was driven into financial ruin. He later started a second print shop, but it’s unlikely that he ever turned a profit off his most famous work.
3. The print run was surprisingly small.
By studying the size of Gutenberg’s paper supply, historians have estimated that he produced around 180 copies of his Bible during the early 1450s. That may seem miniscule, but at the time there were probably only around 30,000 books in all of Europe. The splash that Gutenberg’s Bibles made is evident in a letter the future Pope Pius II wrote to Cardinal Carvajal in Rome. In it, he raves that the Bibles are “exceedingly clean and correct in their script, and without error, such as Your Excellency could read effortlessly without glasses.” Thanks to their obvious quality, the Bibles all sold before Gutenberg and Fust had even finished printing them. Some copies supposedly went for around 30 Florins—an enormous sum at the time.
4. There are several different variations of the Gutenberg Bible.
Most Gutenberg Bibles contained 1,286 pages bound in two volumes, yet almost no two are exactly alike. Of the 180 copies, some 135 were printed on paper, while the rest were made using vellum, a parchment made from calfskin. Due to the volumes’ considerable heft, it has been estimated that some 170 calfskins were needed to produce just one Gutenberg Bible from vellum. The books also vary in their typography and degree of decoration. Gutenberg originally used red ink to print title headings, or rubrics, before each of the books of the Bible. When this process proved too time consuming, he abandoned it in favor of simply leaving a blank space in the margins. Professional scribes later added unique title and chapter headings by hand, and many owners also hired artists to add lavish illustrations and written characters into their copies.
5. The Soviet Red Army looted two copies from Germany During WWII.
During the Soviet occupation of Germany at the end of World War II, the Red Army organized “Trophy Brigades” to seize priceless cultural artifacts from museums and libraries. The Russians considered the plunder an act of revenge for Germany’s own looting and war crimes, and they eventually confiscated millions of book and works of art. Chief among the booty were two copies of the Gutenberg Bible, which were taken from the German Book and Script Museum and the University of Leipzig. The Soviets denied any knowledge of the missing Bibles’ whereabouts until the 1980s, when it was revealed that they were being held in libraries in Moscow. Since then, the German government has made several unsuccessful attempts to secure their return. In 2009, a Russian government agent stole one of the looted Bibles and tried to unload it on the black market for $1.5 million. The man was later captured, however, and Russian authorities recovered both volumes.
6. A thief once tried to steal a Gutenberg Bible from Harvard University’s library.
In 1969, a man named Vido Aras hid in a bathroom in Harvard’s Widener Library until after the building had closed. He then slinked to the roof and used a rope to climb into the window of the room where the University kept its copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Aras succeeded in prizing the two volumes from their case and stashing them in his knapsack, but when he tried to climb back up the rope, he found that the 70-pound tome weighed him down. After struggling for a time, the would-be thief lost his grip and tumbled six stories to the ground below, where he was found the next morning. The Gutenberg Bible was recovered with only minor damage. Aras, on the other hand, suffered a fractured skull.
7. Only 49 copies have survived to today.
Out of some 180 original printed copies of the Gutenberg Bible, 49 still exist in library, university and museum collections. Less than half are complete, and some only consist of a single volume or even a few scattered pages. Germany stakes the claim to the most Gutenberg Bibles with 14, while the United States has 10, three of which are owned by the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible took place in 1978, when a copy went for a cool $2.2 million. A lone volume later sold for $5.4 million in 1987, and experts now estimate a complete copy could fetch upwards of $35 million at auction.