March 7th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Beyond the Great Divide

EDITORIAL Holden, China, covid19: Time for industry reset

CANBERRA OBSERVED Political promises on the Never Never never never work well for the nation

CLIMATE POLITICS Business joins in climate change chorus

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Divided Democrats will help re-elect Donald Trump

GENDER POLITICS Project Nettie: Science takes on ideology

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Myth-busting China's 'soft power'

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Covid19 outbreak hits China's growth, imperils Communist Party

POLITICS AND SOCIETY What should the champions of democracy care about?

HISTORY Putting Lenin on the train: History's biggest blunder

NCC CONFERENCE 2020 Strengthening family, freedom, and sovereignty in a hostile world

HUMOUR Hooray for our premiers

MUSIC Handel: A composer who knew the value of a quick turnaround

CINEMA Emma: Handsome, clever, rich

BOOK REVIEW Useful but limited analysis of the breakdown of distinctions today

BOOK REVIEW The successive possessors of the West's first printed book




NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal in the High Court this week

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The successive possessors of the West's first printed book

News Weekly, March 7, 2020

THE LOST GUTENBERG: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey

by Margaret Leslie Davis

Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Paperback: 245 pages

Price: AUD$29.99

Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel

A key invention of Western civilisation was the printing press. Often considered to be a critical factor in the spread of the Protestant Reformation, the first printed books in Europe were editions of the Vulgate Bible in Latin, printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, in 1456.

Although it is believed that Gutenberg printed almost 200 copies as a two-volume set, fewer than 50 copies now survive. Being not only the oldest Western book but also extremely rare, a Gutenberg Bible is considered to be the ultimate item to own for any rare-book collector.

The Lost Gutenberg traces the history of the copy known as “Number 45”. As with many of the known surviving copies, this is an odd volume.

Author Margaret Leslie Davis begins her study with the arrival of Number 45 at the residence of Estelle Doheny. Elderly, and almost blind, its acquisition marked the pinnacle of this millionairess’ rare-book collecting passion. She began at this point of Number 45’s story because Number 45 – and Gutenberg Bibles – first came to her attention when she was researching Estelle’s husband Edward L. Doheny. An oil tycoon, Doheny died in 1935.

Davis explores at length the lives of the owners, particularly Estelle, Edward Doheny’s second wife. Doheny, a widower, had sought to meet the woman whose voice connected his phone calls at the local telephone exchange. Enchanted by her, they married in 1900 during a pause in a railway journey.

Estelle became a bibliophile, collecting significant rare books. For several years she sought the ultimate prize, a Gutenberg Bible. Finally, Number 45 came on sale.

Although Number 45 was printed not later than 1456, its first recorded owner was the second Earl of Gosford, who purchased it in 1836. Until then, as with other rare books, it had probably belonged to a monastery or an aristocratic library whose contents were dispersed in the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. As a consequence, volumes such as the Gutenberg Bible became comparatively easy to source.

However, Gosford’s copy and other assets were sold following his death in 1864 by his son to cover debts amassed by building a magnificent residence.

The next owner, William Tyssen-Amherst, took greater interest in the work. Its sale was necessitated in 1908 after his solicitor swindled him of his fortune. The next owner, Charles Wilson Dyson Perrins, was heir to and later proprietor of Lee and Perrins, best known for their Worchester sauce.

Perrins was also director of Worchester Pottery and, desirous of keeping the latter company solvent after World War II, he sold several assets including Number 45 in 1947.

Ironically, Estelle Doheny’s bid to buy Number 45 at this point failed, partly because she was outbid. However, when it was offered for sale again in 1950, she successfully purchased it.

The Gutenberg was not only a prize possession but an integral element of her bequest to the Catholic Church. A convert to Catholicism, her husband’s religion, some years after their marriage, Estelle donated large sums of money to the Catholic Church throughout her life.

The bequest of her will included donating her rare books to St John’s Seminary library. However, a condition was that none of the volumes was to be alienated until at least 25 years after her death.

In exploring the dispersal of the Doheny collection in a chapter appropriately entitled “The Unexpected Betrayal”, Davis is highly critical of church officials, and of Roger Cardinal Mahony, the then Archbishop of Los Angeles. For example, Davis notes that, when critics challenged Mahony on selling such an asset, Mahony’s responses suggested that he had little understanding of its significance. For example, one comment made by Mahony suggested he believed it was a Lutheran Bible! It is currently owned by a Japanese university.

Davis explores research findings into the production of the Gutenberg Bible. Davis contends that Gutenberg refined his revolutionary printing process as he went along. For example, researchers have noted that the number of lines per page increased during the printing.

While the printing press exponentially accelerated the book production process – as multiple copies of the same page could be printed instead of being copied out by hand – by modern standards it was still laborious. Once all the pages were printed, pages needed to be assembled, and bound, and in some instances, pages were illuminated by hand.

Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.

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