Book Reviews

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Due to space limitations, it may not be possible for all books received to be reviewed in RBM. Books or publication announcements should be sent to the Reviews Editor: Amy Cooper Cary, Raynor Memorial Library, Marquette University, 1415 W. Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53233-2221, e-mail: amy.cary@marquette.edu, (414) 288-5901.

Eric Marshall White. Editio Princeps: A History of the Gutenberg Bible. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2017. Hardcover, 465p. £120.00 (ISBN 9781909400849).

Eric White’s Editio Princeps is a staggering work in which he analyzes the history and scholarship surrounding what is popularly known as the “Gutenberg Bible.” His thorough research builds upon earlier scholarship, filling in gaps in knowledge and pulling together an impressive number of primary and secondary sources to illuminate the history of this famous book.

White begins with a necessary overview of the history of printing. While Gutenberg is often credited with the invention of printing, White presents a more nuanced and less Eurocentric account. The definition of what is printed is fluid in its early history, making it impossible to identify a true “first” in printing, but White traces printed materials back to seventh-century China. He also notes that the earliest surviving book printed with moveable type that can be dated is from 1377 in Korea. It isn’t until 1455 that there is a mention of printing in Europe.

With a view to dispelling myths and conjecture, White delves into primary sources to trace as much of the history of Gutenberg and his Bible as possible. He dispels the myth that Gutenberg died penniless, though he does detail the court case through which Gutenberg’s partner and investor sued him. He discusses the smaller ephemeral items printed before the Bible, as well as the ways in which the typefaces evolved and improved before the Bible was printed.

One of the more surprising things was the discussion of how the Gutenberg Bible was forgotten for almost three centuries. Gutenberg’s Bible was frequently replaced with new versions, including smaller portable books and cheaper copies. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that scholars began trying to identify the earliest book printed in Europe, and a long debate ensued as they studied books and documents to determine which book came first. White details these debates, offering all sides and opposing views, including arguments over which book was printed earliest and whether Gutenberg or his partner Fust was more responsible for the Bible.

Once White establishes the historic context of the Gutenberg Bible, he documents surviving copies in as much detail as possible. He traces each provenance from the time the copy was authenticated as a Gutenberg Bible through the publication of this book, even including a note that indicates whether it has been made available online through digitization. This census and detailed provenance provides insight into the history of collecting and the book market, tracing the way each book has moved through time. One thing that sets White’s book aside from earlier census projects is his inclusion of fragments in the census. White considers fragments to be books with disastrous histories, but books nonetheless, and includes the Mannheim copy, which was widely dispersed in the leaf book A Noble Fragment in 1921.

Because he is dealing with more than 400 years of history, there are areas of White’s research in which supporting evidence is simply unavailable. White deftly explains these areas, pointing out when evidence is lacking and offering possibilities of what happened based on the little evidence available. His careful approach, presenting evidence and research, even when it contradicts his own findings, creates a balanced and transparent argument.

The sheer amount of White’s research can be seen clearly throughout the text and appendices. Because of his attention to the long and complex history of the book as an edition, the scholarly debates surrounding the book, and the long and varied history of each individual copy, this book serves as a history, a historiography, and a reference book. To facilitate its use as a reference book, White organizes the individual copies of the Bible chronologically by the date in which they first appear in history. He includes references to other bibliographies of the Bible, including DeRicci and Needham, making it possible to cross-reference with those works. He frequently references their bibliographies and builds on their work while also providing notes for further readings on individual copies of the Bible.

The amount of information can seem overwhelming in such a large and detailed work, but White presents complicated information, such as descriptive bibliography, in simple and easy-to-understand terms, without either complicated jargon or condescension, making this book good for both beginners and seasoned scholars.—Cassie Brand, Washington University

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