Johannes Gutenberg has influenced the development of humankind like no other. He was a visionary, skilled engineer, businessman and perfectionist. As the brilliant inventor of printing with moveable type, he triggered a media revolution which continues today.
Every book, every printed text, every digital message stems from his ideas.
Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz about 620 years ago. His original name was Henne Gensfleisch zur Laden, people then being named after the property a family owned. Gutenberg’s father, Friele Gensfleisch, was a Mainz patrician and his mother, Else Wirich, came from a merchant family.
Much of his life remains a mystery as no written documents have survived. It is not clear how Gutenberg spent his childhood and youth or what kind of schooling he had.
Gutenberg possibly attended one of Mainz’s collegiate or monastery schools. We can assume that he could not have achieved what he later did without receiving an extensive basic education provided in the spirit of his day and age.
We do not know whether Gutenberg attended a university. In the matriculation (public register) of the University of Erfurt which belonged to Mainz, it says that in the summer semester of 1418 and winter semester of 1418/19 a “Johannes de Alta villa” (Johannes from Eltville) enrolled there. It is believed that Gutenberg could have been meant by this as his family frequently resided in Eltville. In the winter semester of 1419/20 this Johannes completed his studies with a Baccalaureus, the lowest academic degree.
We know that Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg in 1434. At the time Strasbourg was a city of trade which was three times the size of Mainz and promised good earnings for anyone with a mind for business. Thanks to the inheritance provided when his mother died in 1433, Gutenberg had a considerable amount of money at his disposal at this stage in his life. He used this capital to settle in the Strasbourg suburb of St Arbogast and developed a project designed to earn him a good income; through a ‘manufacturing cooperative’ he aimed to mass-produce holy mirrors for pilgrims to take with them on their journey to Aachen. These religious souvenirs were made from a tin alloy which was melted and poured into casts. This shows that Gutenberg is not only to be seen as an inventor but also as an entrepreneur.
In the autumn of 1438, or possibly earlier, Gutenberg started work on another project which he insisted his partners keep a secret. The documents we have refer to a press, formes, tools and lead, among other things. It is feasible that Gutenberg ‘invented’ printing in Strasbourg using a printing press and moveable type – or at least came very close to doing so. No books or prints have survived from this period, however.
Sources last mention Gutenberg as being in Strasbourg in 1444 and place him back in his native Mainz in 1448. There is proof that he spent the intervening period in Frankfurt am Main.typo3/
In the summer of 1449 Gutenberg received his first loan of 800 guilders from Fust to manufacture printing equipment. In 1452 and 1453 Fust again gave Gutenberg a total of 800 guilders for his “work of the books”.
Gutenberg had his workshop at Hof Humbrecht which belonged to a distant relation of his living in Frankfurt. This is where by 1454 the assumed 180 copies of the 42-line Bible were produced with the help of at least 20 employees.
The Gutenberg Bible is printed in two volumes in folio size and contains the Latin translation of the Bible of Jerome from the 4th century AD, or what is known as the Vulgate, on a total of 1,282 pages. It is still heralded today as one of – or indeed THE – most beautiful book(s) in the world. Gutenberg closely based his printed Bible on the handwritten manuscripts of the day. His aim was to produce the ‘perfect manuscript’ quickly and inexpensively.
The embellishments in the Bible are not printed. They were later added by hand by rubricators and illustrators, making each copy of the printed B42 unique as many different masters of the art were commissioned to illuminate the volumes procured by various individuals. The book bindings were also usually individually commissioned by the purchaser.
Today, 49 copies of the Gutenberg Bible still exist, some of which merely comprise a single volume or fragments. Only 20 Bibles are still complete. The Gutenberg Museum has two Gutenberg Bibles on display.
Various other works were also printed at the same time as the Bible at Gutenberg’s workshop. There are what are known as the letters of indulgence from 1454 and 1455, the purpose of which was to collect funds for the war against the Turks. The printing of countless thousands of indulgences, which earned the church a considerable sum of money, proved very early on that Gutenberg’s invention had enormous commercial potential for development.
A document named after notary Ulrich Helmasperger, the Helmasperger Notarial Instrument from November 6, 1455, informs us as to the legal proceedings brought by Fust against Gutenberg demanding repayment of loans and interest. Although this is only one single document from the entire law suit, it is the most important record we have of Gutenberg’s business relations with Fust and the printing of the 42-line Bible. In the court case, the conclusion of which is not clearly documented, Gutenberg probably lost all prints of his Bible and a good proportion of his printing workshop.
Johannes Fust continued to run the workshop with one of Gutenberg’s employees, Peter Schöffer. Their officina, as print workshops used to be called, went on to produce the Mainz Psalter which can be seen in its second edition from 1459 in the incunabula section of Gutenberg Museum.
Johannes Gutenberg printed a number of minor works, presumably in Eltville and Mainz, and possibly worked with other printing workshops. He was made a courtier by Prince-Bishop Adolf von Nassau. This honour bestowed upon Johannes Gutenberg generous supplies of wine, grain and clothing. Furthermore, Gutenberg was exempt from services to the city, taxes and duties.
Johannes Gutenberg died at the beginning of 1468 at the Hof zum Algesheimer. He was buried in the Franciscan church in Mainz (demolished in 1742). In the same month former city magistrate Dr Konrad Humery had various printing devices loaned to Gutenberg returned to him on the express condition that these only be used within the city of Mainz.