Sibyllenbuch fragment

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Fragment of the Sibyllenbuch

The Sibyllenbuch fragment is a partial book leaf that may be the earliest surviving remnant of any European book printed by movable type, before the Gutenberg Bible, which was printed c. 1454. The Sibyllenbuch ("Book of the Sibyls") is a medieval poem containing prophecies of the fate of the Holy Roman Empire. The British Library’s on-line Incunabula Short Title Catalogue dates the Sibyllenbuch fragment to "about 1452–53", making it older than any other European printed work.[1] (various movable type systems were developed in East Asia as early as the eleventh century.)

Fragment and its text[edit]

Diagram by Edward Schröder showing likely placement of fragment on one half of a full sheet of paper, based on the position of partial watermark

The Sibyllenbuch fragment consists of a partial paper leaf printed in German using Gothic letter. It is owned by the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany.[2][3] The fragment was discovered in 1892 in an old bookbinding in Mainz.[4] The text on the fragment relates to the Last Judgment and therefore sometimes is also called “Das Weltgericht” (German for "Last Judgment").[2] The text is part of a fourteenth-century poem of 1040 lines known as the "Sibyllenbuch"[5] (Book of the Sibyls[6]) containing "prophecies concerning the fate of the Holy Roman Empire".[7] The British Library identifies the fragment as coming from a quarto volume, which is a book composed of sheets of paper on which four pages were printed on each side, which were then folded twice to form groups of four leaves or eight pages.[1] From analysis of the location of the watermark on the fragment and the known length of the entire poem, it has been estimated that the complete work contained 37 leaves (74 pages) with 28 lines per page.[2]

Type face and date[edit]

The type face used in the Sibyllenbuch is the same as that used in other early fragments attributed to Johannes Gutenberg, an Ars minor by Donatus (a Latin grammar used for centuries in schools) and several leaves of a pamphlet called the Turkish Calendar for 1455 (likely printed in late 1454),[a] and has been called the DK type after its use in the Donatus and Kalendar.[9] Scholars have identified several different states of this type face,[10] a later version of which was used in about 1459–60 to print the so-called 36-line Bible.[11] For this reason, the various states of this type have collectively been called the “36-line Bible type.”[11]

Due to the “less finished state of the [DK] font”, scholars have concluded it was “plausibly earlier than 1454", the approximate date of the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible.[9] Although at one time some believed it dated to the 1440s, it is now believed to have been printed in the early 1450s.[2] George D. Painter concluded that “primitive imperfection” in the type face of the Sibyllenbuch indicated it was the earliest of the fragments printed in the DK type.[2] The British Library’s on-line Incunabula Short Title Catalogue dates the Sibyllenbuch fragment to 1452–53, which, if correct, would make it the earliest surviving example of any European printing using movable type.[1]


A cyclotron analysis, conducted by the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at the University of California at Davis in 1987, confirmed that the ink on the Sibyllenbuch has high levels of lead and copper, closely similar to that used for other works printed by Gutenberg.[7]



  1. ^ Each month in the Calendar contains a warning to an important Christian leader about invasion by the Turks[8].


  1. ^ a b c British Library
  2. ^ a b c d e Stillwell 1972, p. 4.
  3. ^ Pollard, Alfred William (1912), Fine Books, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, pp. 45–46 .
  4. ^ Clair, Colin (1976), A History of European Printing, p. 15 .
  5. ^ Stillwell 1972, pp. 3–4.
  6. ^ Needham, Paul (2003), The Gutenberg Bible, Access my library .
  7. ^ a b Browne, Malcolm W. (1987-05-12). "A beam of protons illuminates Gutenberg's genius". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-07. 
  8. ^ Stillwell 1972, p. 6.
  9. ^ a b Bulla Thurcorum
  10. ^ Stillwell 1972, pp. 3–13.
  11. ^ a b Stillwell 1972, p. 14.


  • "The Sibyllenbuch", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (entry), British Library .
  • "Bulla Thurcorum", Online digital collections (entry), The Princeton University, 1456 .
  • Stillwell, Margaret Bingham (1972), The Beginning of the World of Books, 1450 to 1470, New York: Bibliographical Society of America .

External links[edit]