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Early Printed Bibles - in Latin 1454 onwards

The first substantial book to come from a European printing press was a Christian Bible designed to be read aloud in churches and monasteries. This was the Gutenberg Bible (otherwise known as the '42-line Bible' or 'Mazarin Bible').

The Gutenberg Bible was printed in the German city of Mainz in 1454-1455 by Johann Gutenberg, possibly working with Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer. The '42 lines' refers to the number of lines of text printed on each full page. About 180 copies were produced. The British Library holds two of the 46 complete copies known to survive [C.9.d.3,4; G.12226-27], as well as one fragment [IC.56a].

Leaf 1 of Gutenberg's 42-line Bible

Leaf 1 of Gutenberg's 42-line Bible (Mainz, 1455). BL shelfmark: C.9.d.4. Copyright © The British Library Board

The two complete copies have been fully digitised and are free to view at Treasures in Full: Gutenberg Bible.

The version of the text reproduced in the Gutenberg Bible is St Jerome's translation into Latin, which dates from the late 4th century AD. This is also the text used in the next two major Bibles to be printed:

  • the '36-line Bible' (otherwise known as the 'Bamberg Bible'), printed anonymously in Bamberg, Germany, 1458/59 [C.9.d.5,6];
  • the '48-line Bible', printed by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in Mainz, 1462 [IC.102; C.6.d.15].

The first printed book to cite its printer and date of production is also a Latin-language biblical text: a Book of Psalms printed by the same Fust and Schoeffer in 1457. The work is generally known as the Mainz Psalter, and the British Library holds copies of the first [G.12216] and later editions, which tend to vary in the arrangement of their content.

Continuing a long tradition found in manuscript Bibles, many of the earliest printed texts are 'glossed', or in other words contain a commentary either between the lines of text or in the margins. Important early glossed editions held by the Library include:

  • Latin Bible with the Glossa Ordinaria (Strasbourg: Adolf Rusch, 1480) [IC.813; IC.814; facsimile at RAR 220.571].
  • Latin Bible with the Glossa Ordinaria and the commentary of Nicholas of Lyra (Basel: Johann Froben and Johann Petri, 1498) [IB.37895].
  • Latin Bibles with the commentary of Hugh of St Cher (Basel: Johann Amerbach, 1498-1502) [IB.37901].

Further Latin biblical texts were also printed in Germany, Switzerland and Italy during the remainder of the 15th century. Copies are most easily identified by searching the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue. Detailed descriptions of copies in the British Library are given in Catalogue of books printed in the XVth century now in the British Museum (Library) (see Selected Bibliography).

At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Catholic Church commissioned a revision of St Jerome's translation in order to standardize the text after numerous variations had been introduced during the Renaissance and Reformation. The first revision to emanate from this work was the Sistine Vulgate (Rome, 1590) [2.e.5]. This was withdrawn from circulation and re-issued in 1592 as the Clementine Vulgate [C.110.k.4; 5.h.9,10]. The Clementine version continued to be the usual Latin text found in printed Bibles of the Catholic tradition until the mid-20th century.