Poor Man’s Bible

Johann Froben printed the first pocket-sized octavo Latin Bible at Basel in 1491, the so-called “Poor man’s Bible.”

He completed the second edition in this small format (paper folded three times) in 1495. Convenient to carry and easily affordable, this edition combined several user-friendly features that Froben advertised on his title page: marginal chapter divisions and references, a subject index, and tabular summary of the books and their contents.

This was also the earliest printed Latin Bible to include a woodcut illustration. Based on a woodcut by young Albrecht Dürer, the frontispiece faces the opening of St. Jerome’s introductory letter to St. Paulinus, Bishop of Antioch. Here, the translator of the Vulgate turns from his work to pull a thorn from the paw of his fabled companion, the lion. On his desk are the texts of his Prologue to the Pentateuch and Latin and Greek (Septuagint) versions of Genesis 1:1.

Source: The “Poor Man’s Bible”

Swiss printer

The first Bible printed in octavo format, and the first book signed by Johann Froben, founder of a great printer’s dynasty and friend of Erasmus. The size of Froben’s Bible conforms to that of many thirteenth-century portable Bibles written in Paris and elsewhere. Froben’s Exhortatio emphasized this feature: “in view of its small size this could better be called a mini-Bible than a Bible” (aptius Bibliola quam Biblia dici poterit). To keep the number of leaves within a single volume, Froben used an unusually small but very clear gothic fount, in today’s nomenclature of 7-point size. The octavo format was clearly welcomed by readers: Froben printed a second edition in 1495.

Johann Froben, also spelled Johannes Frobenius (born c. 1460, Hammelburg, Franconia [Germany]—died October 1527, Basel, Switz.), the most famous of the Basel scholar-printers, whose professional innovations revolutionized printing in Basel and whose publications included many outstanding works of scholarship.

Froben’s first publication, a Latin Bible, appeared in 1491. Entering into partnership with Johann Petri (1496), Johann Amerbach (1500), and the bookseller Wolfgang Lachner, whose daughter Gertrud he married, Froben came to control four presses by 1515 and, later, seven. Froben’s contributions to printing in Basel included popularizing roman type, introducing italic and Greek fonts, experimenting with smaller and cheaper books, and employing talented artists, including Hans Holbein, as illustrators. His correctors included many famous scholars who benefited from the proximity of the hitherto little-used manuscript collections of Alsace and the Palatinate.

About 250 of Froben’s publications have been listed. They include, notably, the first New Testament printed in Greek, with a Latin translation (1516) by Erasmus, who after 1513 entrusted the printing of all his works to Froben, and also the works of the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus (1520) and the Latin church father Tertullian (1521), both edited by Beatus Rhenanus.

Source: Johann Froben | Swiss printer

The first small-size Bible ever published was an octavo edition of the Latin text issued in Basel by Johann Froben in June 1491. It is generally known as “the poor man’s Bible” and was modeled on the thirteenth-century manuscripts of the Paris Vulgate that continued to circulate long after the invention of printing.

Before 1500 the cost of paper far exceeded any other expenses incurred by printers and publishers when issuing a new book. The larger the book, the more expensive it was. A folio Bible such as the one printed by Gutenberg in the early 1450s was unaffordable to all but a few.

University of Basel

One of the centers of learning in the Renaissance.

Basel became an early center of book printing and humanism. The official opening ceremony was held on April 4, 1460. The University of Basel was decreed to have four faculties: arts, medicine, theology, and jurisprudence. The faculty of arts served until 1818 as the foundation for the other three.

Inauguration ceremony of the University of Basel, 1460
The Cathedral of Basel sits on a high bluff overlooking the Rhine where it bends and widens to begin its northward journey.


In the German speaking lands, six cities dominated printing: Cologne, Strasbourg, Leipzig, Basle, Augsburg, and Nuremberg.

Nuremberg Chronicle–The Ark

In the years following the appearance of Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible around 1455, printing spread through German speaking regions and other parts of Europe. The beginning of printing in Nuremberg is traced to the decade of the 1470s.

The Seven Sages, depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle 1493

Charles’s Golden Bull of 1356 named Nuremberg as the city where newly elected kings of Germany must hold their first Imperial Diet, making Nuremberg one of the three highest cities of the Empire, along with Frankfurt, where kings were elected, and Aachen, where Emperors were crowned and which had been the capital of the old Frankish Empire. The royal and Imperial connection was strengthened when Sigismund of Luxembourg granted the Imperial regalia to be kept permanently in Nuremberg in 1423.

Johann Froben

Wise as serpents, gentle as doves.

The close personal relationship between Froben and Erasmus is perhaps unparalleled in the history of authors and their publishers. It was Renaissance humanism in its most perfect form. With the death of Froben in 1527, Erasmus expressed his personal loss and sorrow. His grief for the death of his close friend was more distressing than that which he had felt for the loss of his own brother.

a call for clarity, a delight in discovery, the fun of friendship, the ideal of internationalism, the love of learning, the rage for research.

The happy meeting of great minds is represented by the collaboration between Desiderius Erasmus, Johannes Froben, and Hans Holbein.

Froben was a printer in Basel who established the greatest Swiss publishing firm of the early sixteenth century. The house continued under the direction of his heirs and associates until 1587. A scholar himself, a master printer, and a successful businessman, he recognized the vitality of humanistic thinking. Before moving to Basel in 1490, Froben had worked as a printer in Nuremberg with Anton Koberger, the godfather of Albrecht Dürer. Three years later, he entered a partnership with Johannes Petri and the leading Basel printer of the preceding generation, Johannes Amerbach. After the death of his partners, Froben took full control of the press. In 1500 he married the daughter of the bookseller Wolfgang Lachner, who entered into a partnership with him. She ran the commercial side of the business, while Froben handled the authors and editors and the process of production. By 1510 his press had become the centre of a large circle of mostly German and Swiss humanist scholars.

In July 1514, Erasmus set out to meet Froben. The inclusion of Erasmus meant a major turning point for the firm. From about 1515, Froben was the main publisher used by Erasmus. In 1521, the latter moved from the Netherlands to Basel. It was Froben’s fine printing and humanistic scholarship that made him decide to make the move. It turned out to be a happy meeting of minds and skills. The greatest period of Froben’s work as a printer coincided with the years of his friendship with the celebrated scholar, the ‘prince of humanists’. Erasmus himself was delighted with the new environment in which he had settled. In a letter to Joannes Sapidus, he described his stay in Basel as ‘living in some charming sanctuary of the Muses, where a multitude of learned persons, and learned in no common fashion, appears a thing of course’. The vibrant intellectual climate and captivating atmosphere of the city inspired his finest work. The wandering scholar had found his home.

Froben was alert enough to offer Erasmus a fixed annual income of 200 gulden for his services and a fair share in the profits of the books produced. The two men entered into a proper business partnership. Working closely together, this relationship turned into a close friendship. Printing ancient texts demanded expert assistance. Manuscripts had to be obtained in the first place. When acquired, they needed to be evaluated (manuscripts were often in a poor state and before the invention of printing editors had not been particular careful with their texts), collated, and emendated. This task demanded scholarship of the highest level. Erasmus became the most eminent of ‘learned correctors’ at Froben’s publishing house. We think of Erasmus first and foremost as an author. Where did he gain his editorial skills?

Before moving to Basel, Erasmus had spent nine months in Venice with Aldus Manutius, the most famous printer in Europe. It was Aldus’s ambition to rescue from oblivion the work of the classical, especially Greek, writers. To this end he edited and printed those works for which workable manuscripts could be procured. His firm, named Ne-academia Nostra, employed many scholars who were involved with the deciphering of ancient manuscripts. Erasmus stayed with Aldus from January to September 1508. It was there that he learned the editorial trade by preparing an impressive number of texts, including editions of Plautus, Seneca, Terence, and Plutarch.

Portrait of the Book Printer Johann Froben. Oak, 395 × 335 mm, Basel, Kunstmuseum. Johann Froben was a noted book printer in Basel. He was a close associate of Desiderius Erasmus, whose works he published and who, for a time, was a guest at his home. Hans Holbein the Younger met Erasmus through Froben, for whom he designed many book illustrations. He may have painted the original in the early 1520s, prior to his departure for England in 1526. (Reference: Müller, et al, pp. 296–98.)

On 25 August 1517 Erasmus sent a letter from Louvain to Johann Froben in Basel. In it, he recommended the publication of More’s Utopia in combination with the Prolusions (the works were published together in the two 1518 – March and November – editions by Froben). If you think fit, Erasmus wrote, ‘let them go forth to the world and to posterity with the recommendation of being printed by you. For such is the reputation of your press, that for a book to be known to have been published by Froben, is a passport to the approbation of the learned’. Froben employed Hans Holbein to supply the woodcut borders to his edition. This border takes the form of a Renaissance niche flanked by columns in which putti play around a shield showing Froben’s printer’s mark with a bird perched on top. Holbein’s brother Ambrosius designed the alphabet letter within the text. The book proved to be an overwhelming success. By the middle of the century translations of the original Latin had appeared in German, Italian, French, and English.

Source: Johann Froben, Holbein and Erasmus

Gutenberg Festival

Celebrations in 1840 of the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention were influenced by contemporary attitudes to print culture and universal education.

Previous celebrations in 1640 and 1740 at Leipzig had been planned by the printing guild.

via Reading Culture and Writing Practices in Nineteenth-century France

Before Gutenberg, printing was practiced but on a very small scale as each page had to be carved on wood.

Gutenberg developed printing by the use of 25 mobile fonts cast in lead and set in a press with a frame operated by a screw.

Gutenberg developed printing by the use of 25 mobile fonts cast in lead and set in a press with a frame operated by a screw.

While Johannes Gutenberg was born and raised in Mainz, he lived to Strasbourg between 1434 and 1444, where he was an apprentice goldsmith. It was in Strasbourg that he invented the printing press that so changed the world.

7217392-Place_Gutenberg_Strasbourg-825x510The statue, sculpted in 1840, by David d’Angers, is of Johannes Gutenberg holding a piece of parchment on which is inscribed the words “Et la lumière fut” (And behold, there was light) from the Book of Genesis. He was the publisher of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455.

In Frankfurt, the sculptor Edward Schmidt von der Launitz (1797-1869) created a group of three figures using galvano-technology. Depicted are Johannes Gutenberg – with book and letters – and his colleagues and financial backers Johannes Fust – with books on his arm – and Peter Schöffer – with stamping hammer.

The Gutenberg Monument, Frankfurt, Germany, late 19th century.

The four figures seated symbolize theology, poetry, natural sciences and industry. The upper sandstone pedestal bears 14 portraits of renowned European printers of early modern times. The standing figures shown on the pedestal hold the escutcheons of the centres of the early book printing and book trade: Frankfurt, Venice, Strasbourg and Mainz.

“What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage, … for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored.” Mark Twain