The Most Famous of Lost Books

Just about any layman can tell you that the Library of Alexandria is the most famous of lost libraries. But what is the most famous of lost books? Would you believe me if I told you it was the first book ever printed?


The Gutenberg Bible was not identified as the first book ever printed in the West until as late as the 18th century. When I first came across this fact, my initial question was simple: how was this possible? How could an artifact as momentous as the first printed book disappear over time?


The problem started with capitalism. Competing interests in the late 15th century led different printers to claim they were the first, or had some affiliation with the first. That’s no-brainer advertising: I’m the best—I invented it! Even as early as 1472, a letter referring to Gutenberg states that “they say” he invented printing. Confusion abounded. Some people claimed Gutenberg was the inventor; others put their money on Johann Fust, famous for the lawsuit he won against Gutenberg; still others argued for Nicolaus Jenson or Laurens Coster.


A 16th-century depiction of Gutenberg

Considering that in the first printed book there was no colophon, which would have clearly stated the name of the printer and the year of printing, it’s no surprise that truth turned to murky gossip over the years.


How then did collectors ever find this first printed book after hundreds of years of rumor and speculation? The first step was separating the true inventor from his competitors. In the 18th century, all of the most important documents on Gutenberg were made available to the public. With the facts on paper all in one place, Gutenberg became the first and best choice of most scholars as the inventor. But what was the first book that he published?


To this, we turn to another book. Scholars noted a detail from one of the earliest accounts on the history of printing, Ulrich Zel’s Cologne Chronicle from 1499. Not only did Zel favor Gutenberg as the inventor, but he named the first book a Latin Bible, printed with very large type.


A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible

Armed with these clues, the Gutenberg Bible was then discovered in Cardinal Mazarin’s library at Paris in 1763. (This is why the book is sometimes called the Mazarin Bible.)


I can’t help but wonder, like Dr. Rosenbach (the greatest American book dealer of the 20th century), how many people must have touched the pages of that Bible without ever knowing that they were handling history.


How many of you have seen a Gutenberg Bible? Or a book printed in the 15th century?


7 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    I have seen them in the British Library.

    I am planning on going to the Shrine of the Book on Tuesday.

    1. I would love to go there!

      If anyone makes it out to New York, the Morgan Library has 3 Gutenberg Bibles…

  2. vanbraman says:

    We shuffled our schedule a bit and are now going to the Shrine of the Book on Thursday. Yesterday one of our stops was at Qumran. I have a nice picture of cave four in my blog entry for Tuesday.

  3. Ron says:

    Wow! That was a great tale of literary history. Thank you.

    I am curious, prior to the 1763 discovery, had anyone else claimed to have the oldest moveable type book? I have seen a copy at the NY library. Amazing.

    1. I’m not aware of such a claim. Collecting books because of age or edition (rather than collecting as putting together a library) didn’t really begin until the 18th century, so if there were a prior claim it probably would have been in the same century. I’ll look into that and update you if I find anything.

  4. B. Y. Hoffman says:

    You can inspect the Morgan Library’s copy at

    1. Thanks for this. The Morgan Library has more copies of the Gutenberg Bible than any place in the world at three copies. The British Library, the Gutenberg Museum, and Bibliotheque Nationale all have two copies. (Though only one of the Morgan’s is complete, whereas both of the British Library copies are complete.)

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