A Noble Fragment

The 42-line Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455) is one of the most valuable books in the world. Of a print run that may have numbered between 160 and 180, only 49 copies have survived, complete or “substantially” complete – an important distinction, as it turns out.  Fragments from another sixteen or so Bibles survive, copies that were taken apart long ago so that the paper could be used in the binding of other books. But there is also at least one copy that was deliberately dismantled for sale.

Gabriel Wells (1861-1946) was an antiquarian bookseller in New York who, in 1921, purchased a Gutenberg Bible (the “Mannheim” copy) from Frank M. Sabin. Although the Bible contained both the Old and New Testaments (not all surviving copies did), it was missing 50 out of an original 643 leaves and a good portion of its illuminations had been cut out. Wells decided to take the Bible apart entirely, selling or donating sections and individual leaves to the general public. This allowed institutions to acquire leaves for teaching purposes or to complete their own copies of the Bible, and gave individual buyers a chance to own a piece of bibliographic history.

The Noble Fragments, as Wells called them, were slip-cased in morocco leather portfolios and accompanied by an essay Wells commissioned from the scholar and bibliophile Alfred Edward Newton titled “A Noble Fragment, Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455).” The Grolier Club acquired one such Fragment from Newton himself, a Club member, in 1922.

This Fragment consists of Isaiah 65 verses 22-25, Isaiah 66, Jerome’s preface to Jeremiah, and Jeremiah 1 verses 1-10.  It is rubricated: capital letters are filled in with red, and the sentences at the beginning and end of the preface are entirely red. The running titles and chapter numbers are in alternating red and blue characters.

To achieve the red letters for his Bible, Gutenberg initially ran the sheets through the press twice, using black ink and then red. This was too time-consuming, and he soon switched to a simpler method, printing the sheets once and leaving space for the rubrication to be done by hand. (Remarkably, two copies of the tables listing what text the rubricators were to insert have survived.) The Club’s Fragment shows that this copy was rubricated by hand; the color of the inks match those used for the illumination exactly, and there doesn’t appear to be any of the ink squash associated with printing.

The illumination of the Bible varied by copy, dependent on what the buyer could afford (some Bibles have no decoration at all). The Club’s Fragment has three illuminated letters to mark the beginning of Isaiah 66, the Preface, and Jeremiah 1. The wide margins provide space for embellishment, which the illuminator made use of; the first letter of the Preface, for example, extends with an elegant sweep down twelve lines. Red and blue ink were used, as was paint in a third color that has all but faded away.

Not everyone is pleased with Wells’s decision to break up the Mannheim Bible. In addition to the scattering of leaves many scholars think should have been kept together, information about the provenance of the Bible was lost. This copy had been bound in eighteenth-century calfskin with the gold-stamped armorial of Carl Theodor von Pfalz-Sulzbach, who founded the Electoral Court Library of Mannheim, and who is the earliest known owner of this Bible. The binding has not been seen since 1920, and presumably was discarded. Whether this is compensated by making the Bible more accessible to those who would otherwise go their whole lives without ever seeing it is for history to decide.

By Janalyn Martínez

Further reading:

Adam G. Hooks. “Breaking Gutenberg Apart.” http://www.adamghooks.net/2013/04/breaking-gutenberg-apart.html (accessed October 4, 2019).

Albert Kapr. Johann Gutenberg: the Man and His Invention. Douglas Martin, trans. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

A. Edward Newton. A Noble Fragment: Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455; with a Bibliographical Essay. New York: Gabriel Wells, 1921.

Eric Marshall White. Editio Princeps: a History of the Gutenberg Bible. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2017.

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. s.v. “Gabriel Wells.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Wells (accessed October 3, 2019).

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