Turning Over an Old Leaf: Our Copy of the Gutenberg Leaf Book, "A Noble Fragment."

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 5:19pm -- pcrowley

 The Redwood holds in its coffers many books. For the most part, these are whole. And a library often does not set out to buy books which are incomplete. Sometimes, we might buy or retain a book which is imperfect because it is the only state available. Or perhaps the imperfection itself tells us an interesting piece of the history of the book. But it is less common to have individual leaves of books in a library. One of the exceptions, in our case, is a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (Vault Z241 .B58 folio).



The Leaf

The Gutenberg Bible is not the first printed book in Western Europe. It is not even the first book printed in the west using movable type. But it is the first printed edition of the Bible, and it was marked by it grand scope. It comprises 643 leaves to be bound as two volumes. Printed on luxurious handmade Italian paper in folio format, each leaf contains two columns of 42 lines each. Scholars often refer to the Gutenberg Bible as the 42-line bible to separate it from other contemporary Bibles of different settings in whose creation Gutenberg might also have had a hand.

The Redwood’s leaf is leaf 255 of Volume 1. You can see the same pages from the Morgan's copy of the Bible here. The text represents parts of chapters 10 and 11 from 2 Esdras, an apocryphal book attributed to Ezra. This book comprises a group of apocalyptic visions shown to and then interpreted for Ezra primarily by the angel Uriel. Chapter 11 begins on 255r at the bottom of the second column. This is a particularly striking passage that describes a three headed eagle with twenty wings. Each of the wings takes its turn to hold sway over the world before the last are devoured by the heads, which in turn devour each other. Before the last head dies, a lion passes by and admonishes the eagle that its abuse of power will cause its overthrow and usher in a time of judgement. It is a dramatic passage! An excellent translation and commentary is available through Google here. Our leaf starts with Book 4, Chapter 10, verse 29 and comprises parts of visions 4 and 5.

The physical aspects of the leaf are no less dramatic. This copy of the work was rubricated in red and blue, the blue confined to header and chapter titles in our leaf. However, it is clear from other libraries’ leaves from the same copy of the Bible that initial capitals would alternate between red and blue. There's a charming streak of paint at the bottom of the recto, a drip or a slip of the hand as the rubricator passed from hand to paint-pot. The laid lines are beauifully visible when backlit. And there is a charming flaw in the otherwise gorgeous paper: a small hole that must have been caused by a bubble.

Noble or Ignoble?

This is a wonderful piece of history to own. But it also somewhat fraught. The practice of breaking books to sell individual leaves is ethically problematic. Breaking a book often involves removing pages from bindings and cutting bifolia up to sell individual leaves. Intellectually, this removes leaves from their mates and from the context of their binding and other physical aspects, rendering the leaf itself more of a pretty curiosity than something that can tell us about the life of the book from which it was taken, the society that made it, and the people who read it. While the leaf may still have monetary value, its cultural and intellectual value is greatly reduced. There are many leaves on today’s market, both of manuscript and printed materials. We avoid buying these because participating in the trade in leaves can drive the trade to break more books. And it is very hard to establish provenance in these cases to make sure that a leaf is a legacy break rather than a recent one.

In the case of our Gutenberg leaf, we can, at least, know its provenance. It was donated to us in 1980 by Mr. and Mrs. Verner Z. Reed. We do not know how it came into their hands, but we do know the ultimate source of the leaf and the circumstances of its sale. The bookseller Gabriel Wells bought at auction an imperfect copy of the Gutenberg bible, missing 50 leaves out of a total 643. Since it was sold at auction, we have a clear idea of at least the 19th century ownership of the copy.

Rather than sell the imperfect copy as acquired, Wells broke the book into leaves and, in some cases, whole books of the bible, for individual sale. A special portfolio binding was worked up for the leaves and a short introductory essay written by the renowned American book collector, author, and publisher, A. Edward Newton. It was then issued for sale to collectors and libraries, marketed as “A Noble Fragment.” Some libraries took the opportunity to collect leaves to supplement imperfect copies already held. And many more modest collectors took the opportunity to gain a piece of printing history. While Wells’ choice at the time was not uncomplicated, he did something interesting that many dealing in leaves do not: at the same time as he decontextualized the leaves from their binding and history, he recontextualized them in a form that was relevant to his time.

While this does not apologize for the act of breaking his purchase, it does allow us to have an idea of the provenance, track to some extent the location of the broken leaves, and to approach the volume and the leaf that it contains as an object bearing social and historical meaning for the time in which it was produced. For another excellent blog on the Noble Fragment volume that deals even more with the history and ethics of leaf books, see Anchora. If you'd like to stop by and see our leaf, please contact reference@redwoodlibrary.org.