Answer to Map #69

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Answer: This week’s map was a dot map depicting the locations of all surviving complete or partial copies of the Gutenberg Bible.

In the 1450s, a resident of Mainz, in what is now Germany, devised a method for printing using movable metal type. His name was Johannes Gutenberg. The first book he printed with his new invention was the Bible. Gutenberg’s bibles were printed in Latin. Nobody knows exactly how many copies he printed, but it was definitely over a hundred. Only 49 complete or partial copies are known to survive. As you can imagine, those copies are exceedingly valuable.

From Mainz, copies of the Gutenberg Bible began to spread around Europe. Wealthy people far beyond Germany placed orders for the books right away. Many of the books were owned by important religious institutions, where they could be used in worship and read by many people.

There is a handy list of the 49 surviving copies on Wikipedia. If you look at the list, you’ll begin to see a few trends.

The country with the most Gutenberg Bibles is Germany—hardly surprising, considering that was where they were produced. Within Germany, there is a particular cluster of dots in the southwestern part of the country, which is the area closest to Mainz.

Where there are small towns with Gutenberg Bibles, there is usually a discernible historical reason for it. For example, the Spanish city of Burgos is home to a complete copy. While Burgos is a smallish city of around 200,000 today, it was once the capital of the Crown of Castile. Another good example is the copy in Saint-Omer, a small town in northern France. That town was once home to a major abbey home to many monks, all of whom needed bibles to use for their studies and prayers.

If you see a place with a dot on this map that seems like an unlikely site for a Gutenberg Bible, there is usually a good story behind it. The two Gutenberg Bibles in Moscow, for example, were looted from Germany by Soviet soldiers at the end of World War II. The dot in Japan refers to the copy at Keio University in Tokyo, which purchased a Gutenberg Bible in 1996 and now leads one of the world’s most detailed projects to create digital images of the Bible’s pages.

There are currently eleven copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the U.S. Most of these copies were purchased by extremely rich people and then donated to public libraries or university libraries. The first extremely rich American to buy a Gutenberg Bible was James Lenox, who bought a copy in 1847 to add to his growing collection of bibles. In other words, the impulse to collect Gutenberg Bibles is by no means a recent one! The copy Lenox purchased is today on display in the New York Public Library.

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