In the late 1400’s, German entrepreneur and inventor Johann Gutenberg created the “Movable Type Machine.” The very first printed book was created using this ground-breaking contraption, and naturally the first book ever printed was the Bible.
Pope Pius II wrote a letter to the Cardinal Carvajal of Rome in which he praises the Gutenberg Bibles, saying that they are “exceedingly clean and correct in their script, without error, such as Your Excellency could read effortlessly without glasses.” This speaks of the impact print had on society. Today we have billboards, flyers, books, stationery, and photo prints in the millions, back then a book was a life changing innovation.
The Gutenberg Bibles are steeped in history, and the man himself is one of the biggest mysteries in history. Below are 6 facts about the Gutenberg Bible that will blow your mind!
1) The bible had a small print run
Taking Gutenberg’s supply of paper into account, historians have estimated that 180 copies of his bible were printed.
Today, this number would be considered a minuscule print run, but we need to put this number into perspective. For the times, this was thought of as a large print run considering there were only 30 000 books in the whole of Europe!
2) Gutenberg did not become a rich man
Often considered one of the most influential entrepreneurs of all time, Gutenberg’s life is shrouded in mystery. Historians have no idea when he was born, if he was married, or had children – or even where he is buried – they don’t even know what he really looked like!
All the information that remains comes from financial and legal documentation. These indicate the politics that came with the printing of the bible, a tumultuous undertaking to say the least. According to these documents, Gutenberg’s business partner, Johann Fust, sued him for money loaned to Gutenberg in the production of the Bible. Gutenberg lost the lawsuit and was driven to financial ruin.
3) Two Gutenberg bibles were seized in Russia
Toward the end of World War II, during the Soviet occupation of Germany, “Trophy Brigades” were assembled by the Red Army to seize cultural artefacts from libraries and museums across Germany. This was an act of revenge for war crimes committed by Germany. Two copies of the Gutenberg Bible were taken.
The Soviets then denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of the books until the 1980s. The bibles have never been returned to Germany.
4) No one is the same
Most of the bibles were bound in 2 volumes and were made up of 1 286 pages, however no two are exactly the same. 135 of 180 were printed on paper, while the others were made using a calfskin parchment known as Vellum. The bibles also vary in their typography and decoration, while many owners would add a unique touch to their bible by hiring a professional artist to add extravagant designs and hand-written text to their copy.
5) Only 49 copies remain
As previously mentioned, 180 copies of the bible were printed. Today, there are only 49 copies that exist. Less than half of these are completed, some are made up of a single version, while some consist of just a few pages. Experts estimate that a full copy of the bible would now easily sell for $35 million at auction.
6) Failed Theft
In 1969 a man tried to steal one of the Gutenberg Bibles. Vido Aras hid in the Harvard Widener Library bathroom and once the building was closed, he made his move. He was successful in attaining the 2 volumes and stashed them in his bag. But when he climbed up a strategically placed rope to the roof, the bible weighed him down. Aras lost his grip and plummeted 6 stories to the ground.
The bible suffered minor damage while Aras was discovered with a fractured skull!
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