A single paper leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, containing Kings 1, 19 and 20. [Mounted in:] A Noble Fragment: being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455, with a Bibliographical Essay by A. Edward Newton [designed by Bruce Rogers and printed by William Edwin Rudge]. New York: Gabriel Wells, 1973.

[Mainz: Johann Gutenberg & Johann Fust, ca. 1455].

First edition, one of 600 copies, containing a single paper leaf from the first substantial book printed from movable type in the western world, now known simply as the Gutenberg Bible, or the 42-line Bible: the editio princeps of the Bible, and “in many ways the greatest of all printed books” (PMM 1). This leaf from the Old Testament, folio 174, contains 1 Kings, 19-20, and recounts one of the most important events in the life of the prophet Elijah. The development of typographical printing in Europe during the second half of the 15th century initiated the ability to disseminate and store knowledge and literature as never before, and changed the character of western civilization. “It has been claimed that the craft of letterpress printing is the medium which turned the darkness of the Middle Ages into light; which secured to posterity the intellectual achievements of the past; and which furnished to civilization a means of recording all future progress” (Britannica). The Gutenberg Bible was printed in an edition of probably 45 copies on vellum and 135 on paper, of which 48 or 49 complete or nearly complete copies are extant. The 'Noble Fragment’ originated with an imperfect copy of the Gutenberg Bible which had previously formed part of the collection of Carl Theodor von Pfalz-Sulzbach (1724-99), Prince Elector, Count-Palatine and Duke of Bavaria and Sulzbach (the coat-of-arms of Carl Theodor and his first wife Maria Elisabeth was stamped on the previous binding); the Hofbibliothek at Mannheim; and the Royal Library at Munich (soon after 1799) before being sold as a duplicate in 1832 for about 350 florins directly to the Hon. Robert Curzon, Baron Zouche (1810-1873), later famous as the author of Visits to Monasteries of the Levant (1849), who was in Munich at the time (see White), and thence to his descendants. It was sold at auction by Curzon’s great-niece, 17th Baroness Zouche, in 1920 (Sotheby’s, 9 November, lot 70, £2750) to the English-born New York dealer Joseph Sabin, from whom it went to another New York dealer, Gabriel Wells. 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 New York Times commented that Wells was “spreading the Gospel among the rich.” Most of the individual leaves were slip-cased, as here, in 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).’ No complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible has appeared at auction since 1978 (Christie’s New York, April 7, lot 1, $2,000,000); in 1989 Sotheby’s New York sold the Garden Ltd.’s copy of the complete book of Daniel (12 leaves) for $396,000; and in 2015 Sotheby’s New York sold the complete book of Esther (8 leaves), from the same incomplete copy as the present ‘Noble Fragment’, for $970,000. Individual leaves are thus the only form of the Gutenberg Bible that most collectors can now reasonably hope to possess.

Provenance: Douglas Marwell Moffat (book plate); Charles E. Lanham, Indianapolis (Lanham Family Foundation); On temporary loan by Charles E. Lanham to The Remnant Trust, Inc. at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA (who apparently added their logo and library label to the binding); Returned by The Remnant Trust, Inc. to Charles E. Langham who auctioned off his collection; Paulus Swaen, Inc.

The present fragment, from King’s 19-20, describes one of the most important events in the story of the Hebrew prophet Elijah (fl. 9th century BCE), who ranks with Moses in saving the religion of Yahweh from being corrupted by the nature worship of Baal. Elijah claimed that there was no reality except the God of Israel, stressing monotheism to the people with possibly unprecedented emphasis. He is commemorated by Christians on July 20 and is recognized as a prophet by Islam.

The Israelite king Omri had allied himself with the Phoenician cities of the coast, and his son Ahab was married to Jezebel who propagated her native religion in a sanctuary built for Baal in the royal city of Samaria. This meant that the Israelites accepted Baal as well as Yahweh, putting Yahweh on a par with a nature-god whose supreme manifestations were the elements and biological fertility. Elijah appeared during Ahab’s reign to proclaim a drought in punishment of the cult of Baal. Later Elijah met 450 prophets of Baal in a contest of strength on Mount Carmel to determine which deity is the true God of Israel. The pagan prophets’ ecstatic appeals to Baal to kindle the wood on his altar were unsuccessful, but Elijah’s prayers to Yahweh were answered by a fire on his altar. This outcome was taken as decisive by the Israelites, who slayed the priests and prophets of Baal under Elijah’s direction. Elijah was then forced to flee from the wrath of the vengeful Jezebel by undertaking a pilgrimage to Mount Horeb in Sinai.

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.’ Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God” (King’s 19, 1-8).


“Elijah’s deepest prophetic experience takes place on his pilgrimage to Horeb, where he learns that God is not in the storm, the earthquake, or the lightning. Nature, so far from being God’s embodiment, is not even an adequate symbol. God is invisible and spiritual and is best known in the intellectual word of revelation, ‘the still, small voice.’ The transcendence of God receives here one of its earliest expressions” (Britannica). The fragment recounts this experience as follows.

The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire” (19, 11-12).

Following this encounter, Elijah is miraculously renewed. The remainder of the narrative in the present fragment describes Elijah’s return where he fights a battle with king Ben-Hadad I of Aram-Damascus, who controlled the trade route to southern Phoenicia.

Johann Gutenberg (c. 1400-1468) invented a way of mass-producing individual pieces of type in metal (roughly speaking, one for each character of the alphabet, punctuation and other signs) so they could be set up to be printed on a printing press, and then be reused. By the 1470s type was produced in a way that remained unchanged for centuries. A letter was engraved onto a punch of hard metal. The punch was hammered into a softer metal, creating a matrix. The matrix was fitted into a mould and a piece of type was made by pouring in a lead and tin alloy. A type founder could thus produce hundreds of pieces of type, each with identical mirror images of the same letter or sign. A printer would have many pieces of type for each letter, all leaving the same impression on the paper. They could be put together to form words, sentences, and pages. When enough copies of a page had been printed, the types could then be taken apart and used again to form new words, sentences and pages. This made it possible to produce many copies of the same text with speed and economy. In the 1470s an Italian bishop explained that three printers working for three months could produce 300 copies of a book. He estimated that it would have taken three scribes a lifetime each to complete the same number.

The type used by Gutenberg resembles a formal type of contemporary handwriting known as textura, because its strong vertical and horizontal lines gives the impression of the texture of a woven pattern across the page. Impressions had long been made from stamps or wood blocks either by pressing them onto paper or cloth or by putting paper on top of them and then rubbing to get an impression. Oriental printing also depended on rubbing techniques. One of Gutenberg’s most radical ideas was to use a press for printing. Presses had been around for a long time, but for other purposes. It is often pointed out that Gutenberg came from a wine-producing area of Germany and that he must have been very familiar with the wine press. The printing press was essential for making the whole process fast and so, ultimately, commercially viable. Also compared with rubbing it saved a lot of money, for one could use both sides of the paper. It would not have been possible to use a press if Gutenberg had not had a way of making his pieces of type exactly the same height.

The ink used by Gutenberg was also a new development. Unlike writing-ink it was oil-based, not water-based. Water-based ink would simply run off the metal types whereas the thick, viscous oil-based varnish sticks to them. The black colouring of the ink is carbon – perhaps lamp black. Under the microscope, small reflective grains are visible distributed randomly throughout the ink. They are likely to be graphite. These particles may have been intended to improve the quality of the ink or be a by-product of the processing of the carbon to make the ink. Gutenberg’s printer’s ink is distinctive in having a glittering surface. This is because of its high level of metal content, in particular copper, lead and titanium. It also contains sulphur. The printer’s ink was made up in batches, and was of course hand-made.

Most 15th-century paper is of a very high quality, as is the paper used for the Gutenberg Bible, which was imported from Caselle in Piedmont, Northern Italy. This was one of the most important centres for paper-making in the 15th century. European paper was made from recycled linen rags, which were soaked and beaten into a thick pulp. This was then scooped up in a frame with a wire-mesh bottom, allowing the water to run out but keeping a thin layer of linen fibres. The paper used for the Gutenberg Bible can be identified from its watermarks: about 70% of the paper has the watermark of an ox head (sometimes interpreted as a bull’s head), 20% show a bunch of grapes (in two versions), and 10% show a walking ox.

The Gutenberg Bible was not typeset in a simple sequence from the first to the last pages. By studying the distribution of paper-types one can identify six different units of composition. They may reflect the division of work between six different compositors, at the height of the production process, each usually working on a separate section of the Bible, but sometimes working more closely together on adjacent texts.

Three major changes can be detected in the production phase of the Gutenberg Bible.

  1. In the early stages of the printing, the red headlines before each book of the Bible (the rubrics) were printed. This procedure involved passing each sheet under the press twice and it was soon abandoned, probably because it was too time-consuming. Henceforth the rubrics were supplied by hand. This task was evidently not undertaken in Gutenberg’s workshop, for the rubrication differs from one copy to another. Gutenberg provided assistance for the rubricators by producing four leaves of instructions. Two copies of the instruction sheets survive, in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and in Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
  2. When folios 1-5 recto and 129-132 recto of volume I had been printed, it was decided to increase the number of lines per page from 40 to 42, presumably to save paper.
  3. Somewhat later it was apparently decided to increase the print-run. This decision required reprinting the sheets which had already been produced, to make up numbers. These sheets had to be reset and there are consequently two settings of the following folios: in volume I: folios 1-32 recto, 129-158 verso; in volume II: folios 1-16 recto, and 162 recto. All reset pages have 42 lines per page.

We know that Gutenberg increased the print-run after work had begun. Perhaps he realised that he had already found a buyer for each copy. A contemporary witness, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, reported that the Bible was said to have been produced in either 158 or 180 copies. It may be that the two figures reflect the change in print-run.The figure of 180 has been confirmed by modern studies of the paper supply. It is now thought that Gutenberg produced about 135 copies on paper and about 45 on vellum. There are 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible still in existence, not all of them complete, some being only substantial fragments of one of the two volumes. Of these, 12 are printed on vellum. Only four vellum copies and 12 paper copies are complete.

“The Bible has no colophon, but there is general agreement that it was printed at Mainz, and that Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust, and Peter Schoeffer were concerned in the printing. The copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, contains a manuscript note by its rubricator and binder, Heinrich Cremer, Vicar of St. Stephen’s at Mainz, stating that he completed his work on 24 August, 1456. The printing of so large a book – it runs to 641 leaves and is normally bound in two volumes – must have taken more than a year; it must therefore have been begun at least several months before the partnership of Gutenberg, the inventor, and Fust, his financial backer, was dissolved by a lawsuit decide on 6 November 1455. Fust and Schoeffer in partnership printed the Mainz Psalter, dated 14 August 1457, and the type of the 42-line Bible reappears in a Donatus of c. 1470, signed by Schoeffer. It is therefore thought that Gutenberg began the printing with Schoeffer as his assistant and Fust as his backer; that Fust, realizing that success in their venture was in sight, seized a legal opportunity to dissolve his partnership with Gutenberg and secure for himself the major share of the profits; and that Schoeffer sided with Fust, and probably completed the printing of the Bible” (PMM).

Gutenberg’s invention made it possible to mass-produce books. Technology is not enough for success however. A publisher needs to choose the right texts for his market. This was much more important for a printer than for the men and women who made a living from producing manuscripts. A printer had to sell many copies of the same work at the same time, and he had to sell them fast to recover a substantial investment. Gutenberg and his team were aware of this problem: all copies of the Bible had been sold even before printing was completed.

In the 50 years after Gutenberg began printing, printed books spread along the trade routes of Western Europe. Books did not become cheap immediately after the appearance of Gutenberg’s printed works, but prices soon began to fall. By 1500 access to books had changed profoundly. This meant more access to information, more dissent, more informed discussion and more widespread criticism of authorities. Europe and the world beyond would have been a very different place without Gutenberg’s invention.

Newton’s ‘bibliographical essay’ praises the Gutenberg Bible’s cultural status, and the access the leaf book provides to new collectors. He begins with a typically overenthusiastic exclamation: ‘Reader: pause awhile, for you look--and it may be for the first time--upon an actual page of a Gutenberg Bible, the most precious piece of printing in the world; and, admittedly, the earliest. Truly, a noble fragment!’ He goes on to praise this exemplar of the earliest printing, over both the inferior technologies of manuscript production (‘wonderful as they are, they are as nothing compared with the printed page’) and to all later examples of the printed art: ‘It has indeed been said that it is the only art in which no progress has been made: that the first example of printing is the best.’ The essay ends with a direct quotation from a letter in the possession of Newton, written by one Henry Stevens, an agent for the collector George Brinley. Stevens secured for Brinley the second copy of the 42-line Bible to come to America, and Newton ends the essay with this quotation from Stevens’s letter: ‘Pray, Sir, ponder for a moment and appreciate the rarity and importance of this precious consignment from the old world to the new. Not only is it the first Bible, but it is the first book ever printed. It was read in Europe half a century before America was discovered. Please suggest to your deputy that he uncover his head while in the presence of this great book. Let no Custom House official, or other man in or out of authority, see it without first reverently raising his hat. It is not possible for many men ever to touch or even look upon a page of a Gutenberg Bible’.

Needham P18. Hubay 47. Schwenke 37. De Ricci 34.53. ISTC no. ib00526000. Ref: Eric Marshall White, A History of the Gutenberg Bible (2017), pp. 132-136. Much of our description is based on British Library, Treasures in Full: Gutenberg Bible.



Single leaf, royal folio (390 x 285 mm), double columns, 42 lines per column, Gothic letter, initial spaces, bull’s head watermark. With rubricator’s headlines (manuscript lombard capitals in red and blue alternating), text capitals rubricated throughout, and a large 2-line chapter initial N and P on recto and verso (small marginal cut at right edge along right column, not affecting the printed area and hardly notable on recto, done by Gabriele Wells in order to flatten out the paper which became a bit wavy at the printing process). Newton’s Essay: pp. [6], text in double columns, with title-page and one initial letter printed in red. Original full black blindstamped goat-skin by Stikeman & Co., covers lettered in gilt (some minor rubbing at edges). Kept in slipcase with spine lettered in gilt and vignette of The Remnant Trust, Inc.

Item #5051

Price: $95,000.00

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