From Gutenberg's press?

A leaf from Biblia Latina (The Bible in Latin), printed by Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer in Mainz in 1462 (402 x 300 mm)

This leaf was probably printed on one of the presses used for the Gutenberg Bible. It comes from a Latin Bible produced in Mainz by two men, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, who had both been closely involved with Gutenberg in the production of his masterpiece seven or eight years earlier. Fust had put a lot of money into the Gutenberg Bible project, but he and Gutenberg fell out in 1455 and parted company on bad terms. Scholars still argue about who got what, but it seems likely that some at least of Gutenberg’s equipment formed the basis for Fust and Schoeffer’s own press, established by 1457. Five years later they published the 48-line Bible (48 lines of type in each column) from which this leaf comes.

The type for this edition of the Bible – the fourth ever printed – was designed and made by Peter Schoeffer and is reckoned to be his masterpiece. Schoeffer was a capable and well-educated man who at one stage had worked as a calligrapher, and he seems to have modelled this type on his own handwriting – a halfway house between the forbidding Gothic textura style, and the new ‘humanistic’, or Roman, script coming into fashion in Italy. Of all the fonts used by the early printers, this is the easiest for us to read today.

The pages are unnumbered, but carry running titles added by hand  in blue and red in a style of lettering known as Lombardic. (L Reg III is short for ‘Liber Regum Tertius’ or Third Book of Kings – renamed 1 Kings in the modern Bible). The start of a new chapter is indicated by a two-line capital in red or blue, with the chapter number in the other colour.

What makes this leaf particularly attractive to me is that, uniquely among my whole collection, it is possible to deduce something important about the actual copy of the book from which it comes. The clue is in the decoration. As with the Gutenberg leaf, only the black text is printed. Some of the coloured initials may have been inserted by the printer, but the main decorative features were added later at the behest of the purchaser of the book, in a style appropriate to the locality in which the book had come to rest.

A German expert, Eberhard Koenig, well versed in the character­istics of both manuscript books and early printed ones, has studied the pen flourishes – the fine curves and squiggles in red and brown ink which adorn the two-line initials – on this and other leaves from the same copy, and declares that ‘without doubt, they are English’. He even goes so far as to suggest that the decoration was done at the Carthusian monastery at Sheen, near Richmond on the Thames, a mere 30 miles from the leaf’s present home in England. That may or may not be correct, but what is certain is that this leaf, printed in Germany, comes from one of the very first printed books ever brought into England. Later, perhaps after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it fell on hard times. At some date in the 16th or 17th century this copy of the Bible was dismembered and the choicest leaves extracted.

Much later, in the 1990s, some of the surviving leaves were purchased by a publisher and sold on individually in the form of a Leaf Book, a limited-edition boxed set, in which an original leaf is accompanied by a finely-produced book of commentary, in this case by Professor Koenig. Tempted by a generous vendor in America, I acquired one of these on eBay. (Leaf Books are in general to be avoided as a costly way of acquiring early printed leaves, but in this case I made an exception.)

An unusual feature of this copy of the 48-line Bible is the grid of guide lines neatly ruled in brown ink on every page. In a manuscript book these would have served some purpose. Ruled before the text was written, they showed the scribe where to position each line of text and how long to make it. But here they have been added by hand after the page was printed, demonstrating the lengths to which a book’s owner might go to make a printed one look like a manuscript. Presumably those Carthusian monks (if indeed it was they), or their benefactor, could afford such luxurious touches.

An intriguing feature of this leaf is the fingerprint in the lower margin of the verso page. It certainly looks like black printer’s ink, but who is the culprit? Not Gutenberg for sure. Fust or Schoeffer? Unlikely. Probably someone more lowly, like the lad who replenished the ink balls. Whoever it was, I see the mark as a delightfully human link with a printer who was perhaps alive in Gutenberg’s day.

Lettering in brown ink at the lower right-hand corner of the recto page is a ‘leaf signature’, providing the binder with the information he needs to ensure the loose pages are bound in the right order.