World’s oldest printed objects join Gutenberg Bible in Beinecke display

A 1,250-year-old print of Buddhist prayers — the earliest known printed text — will join Yale’s Gutenberg Bible on regular display at the Beinecke Library.
Prayer scroll in a glass case in the Beinecke Library

A woodblock print of a Buddhist incantation that Empress Regnant Shōtoku had mass produced in Japan between 764 and 770 C.E. (Common Era) has joined Yale’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The new display includes the wooden pagoda that housed the printed incantation and a photograph of the maker’s mark on the miniature pagoda’s bottom. (Photos by Andrew Hurley)

Yale’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible, on view since 1963 in a bronze case on the mezzanine of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, is a landmark in the history of the printed word. Today, another landmark of the same history, a 1,250-year-old print of Buddhist prayers — the earliest known printed text that can be reliably dated — joins it on regular display.

The updated display presents a broader and more complete story of humanity’s development of printing over centuries, Beinecke curators say.

The Gutenberg Bible, composed of two volumes, is the first significant book manufactured in the West using metal moveable type. Johannes Gutenberg’s masterpiece represents a revolution in printing in 15th-century Europe that streamlined book manufacturing and accelerated the dissemination of knowledge worldwide.

Even older are the Hyakumantō darani, woodblock prints of a Buddhist Sutra that Empress Regnant Shōtoku had mass produced in Japan between 764 and 770 C.E. (Common Era) after the suppression of the Nakamaro rebellion — nearly 700 years before Gutenberg began churning out two-volume copies of the Latin Vulgate on his novel printing press in Mainz, a town in present-day Germany.

Yale University Library’s East Asia Collection includes several examples of the Buddhist Sutras, prayer scrolls that were kept in miniature wooden pagodas and distributed to 10 prominent Buddhist temples near Japan’s then-capital, Nara. To provide visitors to the Beinecke Library a broader view of the history of printing, one of the scrolls and its pagoda container will replace one of the two volumes of Yale’s Gutenberg Bible in the display case. The replaced volume will be kept in storage and the two volumes will rotate in and out of the display to promote preservation of the Bible.

For years, visitors to the Beinecke have marveled at the Gutenberg Bible and rightly so,” said Michelle Light, associate university librarian for special collections and director of the Beinecke Library. “By putting a volume of the Gutenberg in conversation with the oldest surviving printed material we’re offering the public the chance to contemplate two momentous historical objects that combined will tell a fuller story about humanity’s use and development of printing.”

Earliest surviving prints

The scrolls are copies of darani, a type of Buddhist incantation. Each of the 10 temples purportedly received 100,000 scrolls, each enclosed in a miniature pagoda. Many of the pagodas have maker’s marks carved into their bottoms. The scrolls likely were printed using woodblocks, although it is possible that at least some were printed with metal plates, according to recent scholarship. Regardless of the method used, the printing of 1 million prayers and the carving of the same number of pagodas must have required a small army of craftsmen, said Ray Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at the Beinecke.

A woman placing objects in a glass display case.
Paula Zyats, assistant chief conservator for Yale University Library, prepares to place the prayer scroll and its pagoda container in the display case.

Only scrolls from one of the temples, the Hōryūji temple outside Nara in the Kansai region of Honshū, survived into the modern age. Many were given away as gifts and many of those found their way into the antiquities market, which dispersed them into collections throughout the world, Clemens said.

They’re not rare in that they exist in many library and museum collections, but most people don’t realize that they are earliest surviving prints,” he said. “They’re also just fascinating objects in their own right.”

In 1934, Asakawa Kan’ichi, professor of history at Yale and founding curator of the university’s Chinese and Japanese collections, acquired four of the prayer scrolls and their pagodas in collaboration with the Yale Association of Japan.

With their addition to the regular display, the Hyakumantō darani, an acquisition we have long recognized as invaluable to our academic community, will finally reach the broad audience Asakawa hoped these objects would one day reach,” said Haruko Nakamura, librarian for Japanese studies at Yale.

The scrolls and pagodas have already been utilized in numerous exhibitions as well as scholarly publications, including research by Mimi Yiengpruksawan, professor of History of Art in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Additionally, students in courses across various disciplines — including those taught by Edward Kamens in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures and Daniel Botsman and Valerie Hansen in the Department of History — have had the opportunity to view them during class.

This change is not just about acknowledging the long history of printing in East Asia,” said Botsman, a professor of history in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “It also signals a willingness to think expansively about the achievements and contributions of people in different places and times throughout human history.

Back in the 1930s, Professor Asakawa might not have used the language of diversity and inclusion,” Botsman added. “But as a pioneering scholar of comparative history, I think this is precisely what he was hoping for when he first brought the Hyakumantō darani to Yale. It is wonderful that it will now be so easily accessible to everyone who visits the Beinecke.”

A broader history of print

Gutenberg printed about 180 copies of the Bible, which were first available in about 1455. Hoping to capitalize on the market for luxury goods, he made copies on both paper and vellum. Yale’s copy, printed on paper, is one of only 21 complete copies known to exist. Another 28 partial copies survive. (The four surviving vellum copies are housed at the Library of Congress, the British Museum in London, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.) It is a 42-line Bible, meaning most pages feature two columns of 42 lines each. 

The Bibles were often donated to monasteries by wealthy laypeople. For many years, the Yale copy belonged to the library of the Benedictine abbey at Melk in Austria. During the economic depression after World War II, the monks sold their copy to pay for the abbey’s restoration. Philanthropist Mary Stillman Harkness later acquired the Bible and presented it to Yale in memory of her mother-in-law, Anna M. Harkness, who donated the money to build Harkness Memorial Quadrangle.

Even within Europe, Gutenberg’s Bible was not the first book printed using moveable type. In fact, it isn’t the first book Gutenberg printed on his press. That distinction belongs to Donatus, a small Latin grammar book for schoolchildren named after its author Aelius Donatus, a mid-fourth century teacher of rhetoric and grammar. Only portions of the earlier and less impressive book survive. A fragment made with the same type used to print the Gutenberg Bible resides at the Princeton University Library.

Two pages of the Gutenberg Bible in the Beinecke display case.
Printed in about 1455 C.E. by Johannes Gutenberg, the Gutenberg Bible is the first significant book manufactured in the West using metal moveable type. Yale’s copy is one of only 21 complete copies known to exist. The volume on display is currently opened to the Book of Exodus when Moses receives the Ten Commandments.

The use of moveable type predates Gutenberg by centuries. Chinese printers began using porcelain moveable type as early as the 1040s. In the 12th century, printers in East Asia began using metal moveable type to produce money and eventually books, Clemens noted. The oldest surviving book printed with metal moveable type is the Korean Buddhist text Jikji, which was made in 1377. The sole surviving copy is housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale. 

The new display at the Beinecke is not the first time that visitors could consider the Gutenberg Bible together with an example of the Hyakumantō darani. In 2013, both were showcased in an exhibition on printing that was part of the Beinecke Library’s 50th anniversary celebration. The two texts were among those most celebrated when the Beinecke’s iconic building first opened.

On Oct. 11, 1963, to mark the occasion, a Yale University News Bureau release touted the collection’s highlights: “Here in the Beinecke Library are the Gutenberg Bible, about 1455, the first book printed from movable type, and the Bay Psalm Book of 1640, the first book printed in the American colonies. Far older than both are Japanese prayer scrolls of the 8th century, believed to be the oldest example of type-printing in the world.”

The new display continues to honor Gutenberg’s work, Clemens said, while inspiring a fuller and more dynamic understanding of the history of print.

Nobody denies the hugely important role Gutenberg played in the making of the modern world, but he did not create printing out of whole cloth,” he said. “His genius is inventing a new and more efficient method of printing, but the concept had existed for a very long time. We hope that pairing the Gutenberg Bible with an important artifact from another culture, and representing another major religious tradition, will inspire people to want to learn more about both objects and the fascinating history they represent.”

The Beinecke Library’s exhibition hall is free and open to the public seven days a week. The collections are accessible to all who register to do research in the reading room on weekdays and Yale Library’s digital collections are accessible to all online.

More than 150,000 people come through the revolving doors of the exhibition hall every year,” said Michael Morand, director of community engagement. “The Gutenberg Bible is always a big draw — it’s probably one of the most visited items in any of Yale’s collections. On our popular Saturday tours, we always like to offer context and so note other items in the collections, such as the magnificent 8th century scrolls. Not surprisingly, many people ask if they can see them. Now, happily, they can.

We’re really excited that this updated exhibition will draw more visitors in the years ahead and encourage them to explore the collections more fully.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the known number of complete vellum copies of the Gutenberg bibles still in existence. There are four, not three. The fourth is located at the Göttingen State and University Library in Germany.

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