The Boston Public Library recently cataloged, conserved, and digitized one of the most important books in its collection: a Latin Bible printed in Strasbourg ca. 1460 by Johann Mentelin. 29 copies of this Bible are known to survive, only four of which are held in institutions outside of Europe.1
Beyond the fact of its scarcity, Mentelin’s Latin Bible occupies a distinct place in the history of early printing: it’s the first modern typographic book printed outside of Mainz, where Gutenberg had produced the 42-line Bible just a few years earlier. Mentelin’s Latin Bible is also the second bible printed with moveable type, and only the fourth or fifth substantial book produced via modern typographic printing overall.2
The advent and subsequent spread of the printing technologies developed by Gutenburg in the 1440s and 1450s ushered in a period of profound transformation in communication and cultural exchange. As the earliest surviving products of one of the very earliest presses in Europe, the few extant copies of Mentelin’s Latin Bible bear direct witness to the evolution of modern printing processes, including punchcutting, typesetting, imposition, and new formulations for inks, among other then-recent advances. The paper used to print the books, the manner in which individual copies were decorated, and the evidence of early readership preserved within each copy can also shed light on both the early publishing industry and the emerging market for printed books throughout Europe. To that end, the accrued layers of historical features preserved in the BPL copy are particularly illuminating.