Collections of Distinction

The Oldest Printed Bible in Boston

by jmoschella


The first page of the BPL’s copy of Mentelin’s Latin Bible (Q.400a.5 FOLIO)

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.



A hand-painted “puzzle initial” with red, green, and lilac floral lacework marks the beginning of the book of Daniel in the BPL copy. Hand-drawn/painted initials like these were added in after printing by rubricators. Sometimes a rubricator worked with a publisher or printer, though just as often, they were commissioned by individual buyers.



A series of elaborate puzzle initials mark out the incipits and the first lines of each of the epistles of Saint Paul. Individual chapters are marked with smaller monochrome capitals. The combination of hand-painted initials and Mentelin’s flowing typeface cause this printed bible to resemble the kind of manuscripts with which most clergy would have been familiar.



The distinctive “bull’s head” watermark present in the paper stock of Mentelin’s Latin Bible traces the paper to a mill in Turin, which also supplied Gutenberg with paper for the 42-Line Bible and the Catholicon.3 Mentelin’s Latin Bible was printed without a date, creating problems for modern researchers who wish to place it precisely within the history of early printing. Comparison of watermarks between the paper stocks of dated and undated editions can often help to establish a reliable chronology.



The small, handwritten marking near the gutter that looks like a loop and a triangle in brown ink is actually an archaic form of the number 47. It was left as a guide for the rubricator, indicating that they needed to note the beginning of Ezekiel 47 by adding Roman numerals, which the rubricator did.



View of Strasbourg from the 1493 German edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle. (BPL call no. Q.400a.2 FOLIO)

When, exactly, Mentelin’s Latin Bible was printed remains unknown. It lacks a colophon, though an extant copy in Freiburg contains a rubricator’s inscription dated 1460. It is therefore assumed that printing was complete no later than that year, and possibly earlier.

The copy text for Mentelin’s Latin Bible — the text from which it was printed — was the Gutenberg Bible itself. A particularly famous piece of evidence attests to this connection. In a continuation of the manuscript tradition, Gutenberg’s typesetters did not include chapter or book headings in their text. Instead, they left blank spaces in which rubricators could later add brightly-colored headings and large, decorative, multi-color capital letters. However, the Gutenberg typesetters forgot to insert a line break at the beginning of the 22nd chapter of the Book of Matthew and left out the designated spaces for the corresponding decorative initial and chapter heading. The result is a continuous block of text in which Matthew 21 flows directly into Matthew 22. Mentelin’s typesetters, working from an uncorrected copy of the Gutenberg Bible, duplicated this error precisely in their edition.

The BPL copy, however, shows a clever workaround by an early owner: the last portion of Matthew 21 has been scraped away and written in by hand at the end of the previous line, while a large, black initial denoting the beginning of chapter 22 is filled in by hand. It may not be beautiful, but it works.


The BPL’s copy of Mentelin’s Latin Bible shows that an early reader scraped the printed text away at the beginning of Mathew 22 to fit in a hand-drawn initial in black ink.


The BPL acquired its copy of the Bible through the bequest of Theodore Parker, who left the entirety of his personal book collection to the library on his death in 1860. Parker was a major figure in the cultural landscape of 19th-century America. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, he was a leader in the Transcendentalist movement. He was also a reforming minister in the Unitarian Church, an early supporter of women’s suffrage, a major supporter of the nascent public library movement, and a leading abolitionist and anti-slavery activist.


A ca. 1855 portrait of Theodore Parker, former owner of the BPL’s Mentelin Bible (call no. G. Cab. 3.74)

Parker was also an erudite scholar and bibliophile with an enduring interest in theology and history who travelled back and forth to Europe on regular book-buying trips. Over the course of his short lifetime (he died of tuberculosis at age 49), Parker assembled a library of over 15,000 volumes. Comprised primarily of sacred texts and theological treatises, Parker’s personal library was very much a working collection that he drew on to support his scholarly research and ministry. The collection is therefore both eclectic and comprehensive. There are historical lexicons and rare reference works of every sort. Parker collected early law books and legal treatises, along with English, French, German, and Italian literature.4 The collection also contains thousands of obscure theological texts, along with true rarities: early editions of Newton, Chaucer, and Ptolemy, along with Bibles from the presses of Eggestein, Koberger, and other early printers (including Mentelin), and noteworthy titles that include Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia and the 1493 Latin edition of Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle.

Perhaps because Parker spent so much time and energy assembling a primarily working collection, he does not seem to have lavished money on rebinding. Fortunately, therefore, his collection contains innumerable specimens of early bookbinding.

However, as one of the earliest major collections accessioned by the BPL, Parker’s books have seen their share of use and wear. The Mentelin Bible was already 400 years old when it came to the BPL. In the subsequent 150+ years, it was damaged by repeated usage and scarred by outdated conservation practices, such that it required immediate attention when it was cataloged in late 2015.

The first several pages of the book were repaired at some point — likely in the 20th century — with a heavy adhesive tape. This inexpert repair acidified the paper and created stresses that cracked and damaged the individual pages, rendering the book too unstable to be handled safely. Thanks to the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, the BPL was able to ship the book to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in the spring of 2016 for specialized conservation. Torn pages were expertly mended and the adhesive tape was carefully removed, allowing the book to be safely handled and examined by researchers.


BPL’s Mentelin Bible before and after conservation (photo courtesy of the Northeast Document Conservation Center)

The BPL’s copy of Mentelin’s Latin Bible has now also been digitized, and is freely accessible online:

Click here for the bibliographic record in the BPL catalog.

Click here to view the digitized copy.

  1. For a census of extant copies, see Incunabula short title catalogue no. ib00528000
  2. The general timeline for the earliest substantial Western typographic printings are: The Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455), the Mainz Psalters of 1457 and 1459, Durandus’s Rationale Officiorum Divinorum (1459), Mentelin’s Latin Bible (no later than 1460), The Mainz Catholicon (1460), and the 36-Line Bible (no later than 1461). Preceding the Gutenberg Bible and continuing through the earliest years of printing, numerous smaller publications, like the Bulla Thorcorum (ca. 1456), the Constitutiones of Clement V (1460), and various broadsides and pamphlets were also printed.
  3. Needham, Paul. “The Cambridge proof sheets of Mentelin’s Latin Bible.” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society. (Vol. 9, no. 1: 1986) p. 6.
  4. Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Report to the Trustees of the Boston Public Library on the Parker Library” in The works of Theodore Parker (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1907) vol. 15, pp. 1-10.


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