Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2023 Issue

A Pre-Gutenberg Book Printed with Movable Type Being Exhibited at the National Library of France

The Jikji (National Library of France photograph).

An exhibition at the National Library of France is displaying the oldest known extant book using movable metal type for the first time in 50 years. You may be thinking they are displaying a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Yes, they are, in fact two. However, that is not the book being described here. This one is even older, though not many people in the West are familiar with this book, or that there even is such a book older than the Gutenberg Bible. The reason is this one comes from Korea. It's existence is obscure in the West.


The title (transliterated) of this book is Jikji simche yojeol, but it is known simply as Jikji. It means “Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings.” It was written by a monk named Baegun Hwasang, who wanted those teachings spread to a wider audience, especially since Confucianism was making inroads in Korea at the time. It was printed in two volumes but the French library has only the second volume. The complete text is known as there were also versions printed with woodblocks rather than metal. The text is written in Chinese characters.


The Jikji has been dated to 1377. That puts it a good 75 years before Gutenberg. It is believed unlikely that Gutenberg knew about this book when he developed his printing process. However, it is possible that there was some general knowledge of printing with movable metal type brought back to the West by visitors to Asia, though this is unknown. It is not known how many copies of the Jikji were printed with metal type but it was not likely a very large print run considering it has practically disappeared, unlike Gutenberg's Bible.


While the Jikji is the oldest such book preserved, it was not the first. There have undoubtedly been several others, with one possibility identified. That one is Baegun Hwasang Chorok Buljo Jisimcheyojeol, which translates to “The Song of Enlightenment with Commentaries.” It was written by the Buddhist Monk Nammyeong Cheon. Six copies dated between the 13th and 16th century are known. Others were printed with woodblocks. However, the printing on one looks different from the others and it is believed to have been printed with movable metal type, though this is still subject to debate. If so, it precedes the Jikji by over a century as it was dated 1239.


The Jikji has been named by UNESCO as the oldest known document printed by metallic movable type. UNESCO has also placed it on the “Memory of the World” register. South Korea has named it as one of the nation's “National Treasures.” This leads us to the question – what is Korea's National Treasure doing in the National Library of France? The answer goes back over a century. French Consul to Seoul Victor Collin de Plancy was a book collector and somehow obtained it while he was resident there. In 1911, he sold it at auction to Henri Vever. In 1951, after Vever died, his collection was given to the National Library of France.


The processes used by Gutenberg and the monks who printed the Jikji weren't identical, but the principles were the same. The Jikji monks and those who were printing even earlier have precedence. Still, you should not fear for Gutenberg's reputation. What the monks did was original, but it was obscure. The process did not catch on. It generated a few books but it's impact on the world was negligible. Gutenberg's was anything but that. It altered the course of mankind, one of the most important events in human history.


His invention was adopted by many others, with the result that knowledge and learning was able to spread like wildfire across Europe. While Gutenberg, like the monks, was invested in religious tracts, Gutenberg's successors would publish information about scientific discoveries, exploration, medicine, mathematics, and more. In Gutenberg's time, The West was not the leader it is today. The East – China, Korea and Asia, were ahead of the West. So were the Arab nations of the Middle East. Europe was still in the Middle Ages, that thousand year period often dubbed the “Dark Ages” as the West, the leader during the days of ancient Greece and Rome, stagnated and fell behind. Gutenberg's invention reversed all that, opening the doors to the Renaissance. The world changed spectacularly, knowledge feeding knowledge, inventions more inventions. The only shortcoming is that humans didn't grow socially and morally as fast as their knowledge, leaving us in the tenuous condition we find ourselves today. That is our fault, not Gutenberg's. His reputation and importance will stand for as long as we don't destroy ourselves.


The Exhibition, Printing! Gutenberg's Europe, will be continuing from now through July 16, 2023, at the Francois Mitterand site of the National Library of France in Paris. See it if you can in case they put the book back out of sight for another 50 years.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.
  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions