Thinking Outside the Book: A Noble Fragment

Jul 2, 2019

This week: Producer George Ingmire and I begin a new series, Thinking Outside the Book, about the unusual uses and pleasures of books in readers' lives. First up: A visit with Eli Boyne, library associate at Tulane University's Howard-Tilton Rare Book Department, who shows us a Noble Fragment of a Gutenberg Bible.

Transcript

['Qui Latuit' by Trio Dulci Vento]

Susan Larson: Today, on Thinking Outside the Book we're visiting a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, which is called a noble fragment. Eli Boyne, a library associate at Tulane University's, Howard-Tilton Library, Rare Books department has taken the leaf out of storage for our viewing.

Eli Boyne: We're opening up the folio for a noble fragment being a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, which is how the leaf itself was placed inside of this enclosure that was created by Oak Knoll press in 1921. It comes with a short essay in the beginning by Edward Newton.

Susan: Who was a great book collector himself and scholar, right? Read the first paragraph for us.

Eli: It says, "Reader, pause a while for you look, and it may be for the first time, upon an actual page of the Gutenberg Bible, the most precious piece of printing in the world and admittedly the earliest, truly a noble fragment."

Susan: I love that, the whole idea of the noble fragment.

We do know a lot about the statistics that surround the Gutenberg Bible, we know that there were 180. Some were printed on vellum, some were printed on paper, 49 survived. It's so sad when you think about it. 21 are still complete, all in one piece, and 11 are in the United States. Then there are these fragments in a lot of places. Let's go back to the beginning. Why is it that the Gutenberg Bible is such an important book?

Eli: It's such an important book because it set off a printing revolution in Europe itself. Gutenberg, while he's often called the inventor of movable type, that's actually not the case. Movable type existed in Asia many centuries before. During the 11th century, China was using pieces of porcelain, where they would carve characters into the tops of porcelain and fire it and then experiment with that to do their own printing. Actually, in Korea, 75 years before the Gutenberg Bible was printed, they had a book that they printed with handset metal type. Gutenberg was not the originator of movable type. What is so interesting about Gutenberg and this design itself is that he was able to bring together these different elements.

['Ain Gut Geporen' by Oswald von Wolkenstein]

Susan: This technology created heretofore unimagined and fast-moving possibilities for the world of books.

Eli: The use of mechanical type became a way to quickly replicate text in books. For the manuscript, it might take one to two years to make one book. Whereas with movable type, you can have a whole team of people working on a book. You can have the compositer who is setting the type, you have the ink person who has what are called ink balls.

Susan: I've seen those.

Eli: They look like boxing gloves when you get the ink on them. That person will be inking up the form, which is the complete block of type here that would be all set together. You would have the Pressman who will be pulling the hand press to be able to actually stamp the letters onto the paper. By mechanizing this printing process, instead of having one book in a year, you can have 300 books in a year.

By being able to print these in multiples, by being able to standardize the process, standardize the type, you're not only being able to produce books more quickly, but you're also standardizing ideas, getting ideas out to more people, increasing literacy. With that, you're able to have these different revolutions take place where you have not only the printing revolution, but you have the Reformation, you have the scientific revolution, you have the Renaissance, by being able to get information out more quickly, more widely dispersed and have ideas exchange in all of these different places. That is the impact of Gutenberg's press.

Susan: What would someone do if they wanted to come up and see this leaf?

Eli: You could send an email to rarebooks@tulane.edu, and we can set up an appointment if you'd like to come see it.

Susan: Thinking Outside the Book exists thanks to the generosity of the Helis foundation.

['Haze' by Santenay]