Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > The Invention > Buying the Book
The Invention  -  Books Before and After  -  Johann Gutenberg  -  Facts about the Book  -  Activities  -  Glossary  -  Teacher Resources


Buying the Book

What did purchasers of Gutenberg's Bible actually receive?

Deuteronomy, Volume 1, Page 084r.
In this image of a page from the Ransom Center's Bible, the rubrications and illuminations have been digitally removed, demonstrating how the painted pages looked when first purchased.
Gutenberg followed a traditional manuscript Bible format, leaving spaces for rubrications and illuminations, just as scribes had done when they hand-wrote the Bible.
Gutenberg printed an eight-page guide for rubricators, explaining how to fill the blank spaces with enlarged letters and headings.

Anatomy of a page.

Imagine going to a bookstore and buying loose pages of a book. Today, we would see such a product as incomplete, but in Gutenberg's time, this is how books were sold. The printer's job was finished when the printed sheets were gathered into sections, or quires, making a complete copy. It was then up to the buyer to have the loose pages transformed into a book ready for use.

The purchaser would need to have the following work completed:

Making the book navigable

A rubricator would add upright strokes of red ink to the capital letters marking the beginning of sentences, and write in capital letters, chapter titles, and paragraph marks, usually in red or blue ink.

Making the book beautiful

The illuminator would draw the decorative illustrations and initials that extend into the margins.

Making the book usable

The loose groupings of pages would be sewn into sections, and the sections would be bound into leather-covered wooden boards. The Gutenberg Bible was bound into two volumes.

This process of adding the rubrications and illuminations and binding the printed pages would take several months.

Manuscripts followed the same steps of rubrication, illumination, and binding, but a scribe would require a year or two to handwrite the Bible text.

These book-making traditions originated in monasteries, but beginning around 1200, professional scribes, rubricators, illuminators, and bookbinders, rather than monks, usually made manuscript books because of greater demand from universities and wealthy nobles.

Detail from Belleville Book of Hours, French, mid 15th-century, HRC MS. NO. 8

Did Gutenberg successfully sell his edition of Bibles?

An interesting letter exists that helps shed light on the selling of the Bibles.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini would become Pope Pius II in 1458. Before that time, when he was younger, Silivius wrote to his friend, the Spanish Cardinal Juan de Carvajal, a letter dated March 1455. In this letter Silvius told the Cardinal of meeting that remarkable man, Gutenberg, in Frankfurt, Germany in October 1454.

Silvius reported that he saw sections of several books from the Bible. The text was free from error and very elegant, and he believed that the Cardinal would be able to read it without his glasses.

He was not sure how many Bibles were being printed because reports of the number of copies ranged from 158 to 180. But whatever the correct number, everyone was talking of the perfection of the volumes.

Silvius noted that he would try to purchase a complete Bible for the Cardinal, though he heard that various buyers had claimed all the volumes even before they were completed.

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