Paul Needham on ‘Editio princeps: A History of the Gutenberg Bible’

A contribution by


Paul Needham
Scheide Librarian, Princeton University Library

Editio princeps is a history of the Gutenberg Bible that provides an account, both detailed and highly readable, of the fates and vicissitudes of all surviving copies, including those attested only by fragments from bookbindings. There is not a copy for which Dr. White’s researches have not provided new information, hitherto unknown even to the many institutions and curators that guard copies of the world’s most famous printed book. His work on the widely scattered fragments, grouping them into distinct and identifiable copies, has been pathbreaking. Aimed at the general reader, Editio princeps presents discoveries that will be new to even the most specialized bibliographers, historians of the booktrade, and book historians generally. Since the early nineteenth century dozens of changing censuses of the Gutenberg Bible have been printed: no other printed book has been tracked quite so relentlessly. In Editio princeps, the census is transformed into an engaging narrative that moves over more than five and a half centuries, and covers authoritatively not only the integral copies and fragments, but also once-recorded but unlocated copies and leaves, with an “hypothesis” to account for each, and a fascinating section on “Doubtful Copies and ‘Ghosts’” (where both Blandings Castle and “Dear Abby” make appearances). The broad conception of what a history of the Gutenberg Bible should provide pulls into the story a surprisingly wide range of characters, both famous and obscure. Among those appearing are not just great collectors (Lord Spencer, Henry Huntington, J. Pierpont Morgan) and great bookdealers (Bernard Quaritch, H. P. Kraus), but also Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Emerson, Marx and Engels, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Red Skelton.


Cover Image: Illuminated border of the Gutenberg Bible, f. I:160v, with a climbing bear similar to that in contemporary engraved ‘Playing Cards’. The Scheide Library, Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections

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EditioPrincepsEditio princeps
A History of the Gutenberg Bible

By Eric Marshall White