Out of the 49 complete or partial copies of the Gutenberg Bible known to humanity, only one is the property of a high school library. Granted, Eton College is not just any high school. It was founded by King Henry VI in 1440, a convenient punt ride across the Thames from Windsor Castle. This also explains how a secondary school — rather than a university or private, state or national library–came to own one of the first major printed books in the West. When you are one of Britain’s leading schools for the ruling elite, chances are you will have a number of rather important, rich and, luckily for us, bibliophilic alumni.
As the story goes, in the early 1830s, an Old Etonian named John Fuller, who also happened to be a Member of Parliament from Sussex, was thinking of donating something to his old school. “Do you have a Gutenberg Bible?” he is said to have inquired. Answered in the negative, he promptly bequeathed Eton the copy he had purchased from a British bookseller named Payne, who in turn purchased it at the sale of the Countess d’Yve in Brussels in 1819.
This paper (not vellum) copy of Gutenberg, Fust and Schöffer’s masterpiece was originally purchased by the Carthusian monastery in Erfurt, which as readers of my novel will know, was the seat of the great university at which both Gutenberg and Schöffer studied. It likely came onto the European market after the monasteries were seized by Napoleon. I was lucky enough to see it last week at Eton’s gorgeous 18th century library, which contains the Eton College Collections of rare books and manuscripts. The collection boasts about 200 books printed before 1500 (incunabula), including a whole bookcase full of Aldines (the classics printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius, pictured below). Stephanie Coane, assistant librarian for early books, had both volumes of the Bible waiting for my inspection. It was remarkable, I said, to be looking at a book that was made at virtually the same time that the school was founded. (In 1440, the inventor Gutenberg was hard at work on getting moveable type to work at his orchard workshop outside Strasbourg. All 180 or so copies were produced and sold by 1454, scholars think.)
This copy also boasts the only known original binding with original binders’ mark, by one Johannes Fogel of Erfurt; though the spine is cracking, it has held up well; it also has tipped-in tabs the monks presumably stuck on to indicate the starts of different Biblical books. The illuminations feature curling leaves and vines supporting different birds. Though I couldn’t photograph it for you, the paintings resemble the copy in the British Library which my British publisher reproduced on its edition of “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” (pictured). Ms Coane knows her birds: on the opening of Genesis and Jerome’s Prologue she identified a goldfinch, blue and great tits and a jay. The boys at Eton get to see this magnificent thing at least once in their tenure at the school (though they are liable to think it has something to do with Hindenberg or Battenberg). It’s also on display during regularly scheduled open days, so find a teenager and bring him in tow. I flew on my way, after stroking the pages and posing for this photo, aware of how lucky I am to be allowed to touch these 560-year-old pages.