Skip to Main Content

Commercializing the Bible in Reformation-Era Germany: Case 5: Late seventeenth century

Bibles and biblical commentaries printed in German-speaking cities, 1400-1700


Irish missionaries in the eighth century invented the pocketbook, and the first printed pocketbook belonged to Johann Froben as his debut piece. Yet consumer demand would only justify their mass printing in the late seventeenth century. Literacy had so accelerated in this period that from the 1640s, literature became widely printed on cheap pamphlets that could be read once and thrown away. The pocketbooks seen here are in many ways miniature versions of the same quality as the previous two centuries of print. And yet, their streamlined features and design for private individual reading inaugurates the final stages of the commercialization of the book which would continue to increase through subsequent centuries.

Jerome, Biblia Sacra vulgatæ editionis, 1670, Prague


Even pocketbooks of the 1670s sometimes retained the illustrated title page. The note on the bottom margin reads ex libris demorgeo orat: “from the books of the oratory of Demorge.” “Ex libris” statements like this traditionally designated the library in possession of the book for works that could circulate semi-independently of their original institution. Whereas medieval books usually stayed closely bound to their place of origin, here in the seventeenth century we see steps towards the dawn of the public library that would emerge in the late nineteenth century. Modern libraries, of course, still universally use book stamps.


Jerome, Biblia Sacra vulgatæ editionis, 1670, Prague


It is interesting that early modern pocketbooks visually resemble our smartphones. When it comes to Bibles, the comparison is perhaps apt. Consulting a personal Bible conveniently gave wisdom, information, and even entertainment wherever one went.

Jerome, Biblia Sacra vulgatæ editionis, 1679, Cologne

This Bible ends with a “colophon” or concluding label—a rare feature for this late a date. Medieval manuscripts made up for their lack of title pages with scribes writing colophons on the final page, recording the book’s title and author, the scribe’s name, and often a request for readers to pray for their soul. This text reads “In Colonia Agrippina [i.e. Cologne] with the presses of Hermannidemen; Peter Alstorff printed this in the year 1679.” The printer and his mark have proudly conquered the medieval scribe.

Jerome, Novum Testamentum Domini nostri, 1679, Cologne


This tiny New Testament is at once adorable and elderly. It is too fragile to even open and must remain guarded in a special case in the vault. Pocketbooks by nature are of lesser quality binding, designed for rapid use and short lifespans.

Jerome, Sacrorum bibliorum vulgatæ editionis, 1684, Cologne

Sadly, the binding of this Bible has detached from its spine. Yet this development proves fortuitous for our observation. The book’s “gatherings” (folded groups of paper sewn together by the bookbinder) are now exposed, revealing their superior craftsmanship to the binding itself. The mysterious title page illustration exposes a lost world where communities of religious scholars venerated books like these.

Did You Know?

Who were these pocketbooks designed for? – The Latin suggests that these books were for a Catholic clerical readership. Large tomes like the Dietenberger Bible were designed to be read out loud by patriarchal heads of households to their families. Reading was still a corporate activity. The pocketbook completed the shift towards individual reading done silently in one’s head. The extremely small font particularly supports silent reading. Although we take for granted that the normal use of books is a silent activity, this only became popular from about the fourteenth century. Augustine famously marveled in the Confessions at Ambrose’ reading: “his eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest.” This is the first description of silent reading in history.

When did titles become printed on spines? – Titles and authors described on felt patches on the spine of a book became common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Only in this period did libraries grow large enough to merit our modern way of storing books vertically-oriented on shelves with outward-facing spines. Prior to this, individuals often owned few enough books to remember where they kept them!

Advantages of vellum vs. leather binding? – Leather kept its shape far better than vellum’s tendency to warp into waving pages when exposed to moisture, and white vellum bindings that weren’t adorned with tooling preserved scratches and smudges far easier than vellum. However, leather bindings cracked much more easily than vellum (especially along the spine). Fortunately for these pocketbooks, their small size often ensured that their thinner leather could bend without breaking.