An Early Publisher Promotes the Bible
THE history of handwritten books and scrolls goes back thousands of years. Printed books, however, are not so old. The first known printed books were produced in China in 868 C.E. by using carved wooden blocks to make the impressions. In about 1455 in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable metal type and produced the first printed Bible in Latin.
Only some years later, however, after book publishing had become an established industry, did the distribution of Bibles and other books really take off. Nuremberg became a focal point of the German publishing industry, and Anton Koberger, a native of that city, may have been the first large-scale, international Bible printer and publisher.
People of all cultures are indebted to the early Bible publishers, including Anton Koberger. Let us, then, take a closer look at Koberger and his work.
“The Care of One Book—The Bible”
Koberger opened Nuremberg’s first printery in 1470. At its peak, his firm operated 24 presses simultaneously, employing 100 printers, artisans, and other workers in Basel, Strasbourg, Lyon, and other European cities. Koberger published medieval Latin writings and much of the scientific literature of the day. During his career, he produced 236 separate works. Some ran to several hundred pages, all printed one at a time on hand-operated presses.
Koberger’s high-quality typefaces made his books famous for their beauty and readability. “Koberger always insisted on using freshly poured, sharply defined types,” writes historian Alfred Börckel. “Worn out letters were not allowed to be used.” In addition, many of Koberger’s books and Bibles included detailed woodcut illustrations.
From the beginning to the end of Koberger’s career, “the care of one book—the Bible—is seen throughout,” wrote his biographer, Oscar Hase. Koberger and his colleagues expended great effort to obtain the most accurate Bible texts available. This task must not have been easy, since many parchment manuscripts were the cherished treasures of particular monasteries and were lent out only briefly—if at all—for copying.
Latin and German Bibles
Koberger made 15 separate print runs of the Biblia Latina (Latin Bible), the first edition appearing in 1475. Some editions included depictions of Noah’s ark, the Ten Commandments, and Solomon’s temple. In 1483, Koberger printed his Biblia Germanica (German Bible), with a print run of about 1,500—a large number for the time. This Bible included over 100 woodcut illustrations to arouse readers’ interest, clarify the text, and remind those who could not read of familiar Bible stories. The pictures in this Bible significantly influenced later Bible illustrators, particularly in the case of German Bibles.
Koberger’s 1483 German Bible became popular, but as things turned out, it was the only German edition that Koberger would ever publish. Although his editors had carefully adjusted the wording to conform to the church-approved Latin Vulgate, he had based his version on a banned 14th-century Waldensian translation. * The following year, Pope Innocent VIII moved to destroy the Waldensian communities. Thereafter, church opposition to vernacular Bibles continued to increase. On March 22, 1485, Archbishop Berthold of Mainz, Germany, issued an edict condemning Bible translation into the German language. On January 4 of the following year, Berthold renewed the edict. In that toxic atmosphere, Koberger never again dared to print the Bible in German.
Nevertheless, Anton Koberger did not labor in vain. He took the lead in using the newly invented art of printing to make books of many kinds more affordable and available in Europe. Koberger’s work thereby helped to put the Bible into the hands of the common man.
[Pictures on page 26]
Left to right: Woodcut of Daniel in lions’ den; Gold-leaf initial capital; Sharply defined typefaces
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[Pictures on page 26]
Details of Koberger’s Latin and German Bibles, showing illuminated decorations and commentary on Genesis 1:1
[Picture Credit Lines on page 26]
All Bible photos: Courtesy American Bible Society Library; Koberger: Mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Linotype GmbH