Fifteenth Century Bibles: A Study in Bibliography

By Wendell Prime

New York, NY

Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1888; reprinted by Martino Publishing, Mansfield Centre, CT, 2001

available from Oak Knoll Books, 310 Delaware St., New Castle, DE 19720. 94, viii pp. $40.00 ISBN1-57898-326-6

This fascinating facsimile reproduction of a book more than a century old defines its purpose in a note to the reader, stating that the series includes only the oldest printed Bibles in the class called incunabula … books printed during the first half-century of printing, A.D. 1450-1500. The reader must remember at all times that he/she is reading a book published in 1888 so that the data given may be presumed to be accurate only

This book of thirteen chapters covers The Biblical Kingdom, The Biblical Conflict, Manuscripts, Block Books, The Gutenberg Bible, The Mentz Psalter, 1457, The Bamberg Bible, The Mentelin Bible, The First Dated Bible, Latin Bibles, Latin Bibles (stet), Latin Bibles (stet), and Vernacular Bibles.

Along with the author’s chapter titles he identifies the Gutenberg Bible as the first printed book, the Mentz Psalter as the second, but the first book with a date, the Bamberg as the second printed Bible, the Mentelin Bible as the third; the fourth being a Bible printed by Fust and Schoffer (stet) as the first dated Bible, and then the three Latin Bible chapters under the rubric of the dispersion of printing, with the closing chapter addressing vernacular Scriptures.

Already in this historic volume, the author observes that “The Bible is the only book for which languages are invented that it may be multiplied in regions where written and printed words were previously unknown” long before Bibles Societies and the Wycliffe Bible Translators were in existence. It acknowledges that block books were the immediate precursors of printing but that their origin and date are doubtful, though usually attributed to the early fifteenth century.

The author quotes a few prices paid for rare early Bibles and these are strikingly low compared to the astronomical cost of these early Bibles today. He also notes that “beautiful and perfect Bibles…genuine incunabula, printed by famous printers during the first half-century of printing, can be bought in London and New York for ten, twenty or thirty dollars each…” — a situation drastically changed by the 21st century. This explosion of values in a very few years can be illustrated in this reviewer’s lifetime when he reflects that a 1538 Latin Vulgate printed in Venice and a handwritten book of Psalms in the Geez language of Ethiopia, written on 166 pages of animal skin, and beautifully illustrated, were purchased for well under $100 each! Not incidentally, this author issued a judgment confirming my own when he says,” Venice occupies a proud position in the early history of printing, both for the amount and excellence of her work.”

We may well beg to differ with this author’s judgment, from our perspective, when he writes that “there are no old English Bibles — none that is included in the class of books called incunabula” even though, from his definition of “old,” his judgment may be true.