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.
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.
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?