Among the many treasures in the Library of Congress, perhaps none is more famous than the 42-line Latin bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455. Since then this masterpiece has symbolized Gutenberg’s development of the moveable metal-type printing press—a revolution in knowledge acquisition and communication that spurred the Reformation less than a century later and remained unmatched until the dawn of the digital age in our own time. The Gutenberg Bible has been prominently displayed in the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building since its acquisition nearly a century ago and has amazed generations of visitors as an artistic and technological marvel.
But perhaps even more interesting than the bible itself is the turbulent and mysterious life of the man who created it. Johannes Gutenberg was born Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden in Mainz around 1400. According to the custom of the time, Gutenberg took the name of his father’s property, the Gutenberghof. He probably attended school in Mainz, nearby Eltville, or both, and then earned his bachelor’s degree at the university of Erfurt. He certainly received the education traditionally accorded a patrician’s son, as producing the 42-line bible would have required a thorough command of Latin and a sharp editorial eye.
Gutenberg’s Mainz, like much of Germany at that time, was subjected to the ongoing power struggle between the patrician families and the guilds. The youngest son of a patrician father and a shopkeeper’s daughter, Gutenberg must have recognized the social divisions of his time while feeling little compunction to observe them. This fact, combined with his father’s association with the city mint, may explain why the young Gutenberg rejected the religious career expected of him and chose metalworking, gem cutting, and, finally, the “black art” of printing as vessels for his energy and inventiveness.
Gutenberg’s whereabouts from 1429 to 1434 are unknown, but he probably left Mainz in or around 1430. It would have been a good time to leave. By 1428 the city faced the possibility of bankruptcy, as many patrician families fled to their country estates to avoid the taxes imposed by the guilds. The same development no doubt motivated the entrepreneurial young Gutenberg to leave his birthplace and seek his fortunes elsewhere. He may have spent all or part of this time in Basle, where a Church Council convened from 1431 to 1449. The influx of trade and important visitors the council drew to the Rhine city, which was also to be equipped with a new mint, would have made it an attractive destination for Gutenberg.
If in Basle, Gutenberg may have been inspired to pursue a new method of book production by the philosopher, theologian, and later cardinal Nicholas of Kues (Cusanus). At the council Cusanus advocated a comprehensive editorial standardization of prayers and other texts used in Church services and held in monastic libraries throughout the Catholic territories. The Cusanus-Gutenberg connection must remain speculative for lack of documentation, but there are strong indications that the two men knew each other. Both resided in Mainz before Gutenberg left the city. Later, when Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg, Cusanus made frequent overnight stays there when he traveled between Rome and Germany as a papal legate charged to implement the measures he had advocated at Basle. In 1451 Cusanus arrived in Mainz to review its monastic collections. It was precisely at this time that Gutenberg, back in his native city, was preparing to print his 42-line bible. Certainly Cusanus’s efforts to standardize and broadly distribute the texts that formed the basis of Church service meshed perfectly with Gutenberg’s innovations and business practices. In fact the first owners of the 42-line bible were the monasteries that had adopted Cusanus’s reforms.
The years Gutenberg is known to have lived in Strasbourg, from 1434 to 1444, were crucial in the development of his later printing techniques. They also demonstrate his keen talent for winning the support of important individuals for his ideas. In 1438 Gutenberg, who was affiliated with the local goldsmith’s guild, organized a business venture with Hans Riffe, a local prefect. The two were later joined by Andreas Dritzehn, a wealthy citizen whom Gutenberg had instructed in gem cutting and other skills, and another prominent citizen, Andreas Heilmann. The purpose of the partnership was to produce metal frames for the mirrors used by the tens of thousands of pilgrims who came to Aachen to view the holy relics displayed there every seven years (such mirrors, the pilgrims believed, retained the miraculous power of the relic reflected in them). Aachen’s goldsmiths were unable to keep pace with the enormous demand for the mirrors, so Gutenberg and his partners stood to reap a handsome profit. But they had miscalculated: The Aachen pilgrimage was to take place in 1440, a year later than the partners had expected. Their capital invested and their profits thus postponed, Gutenberg embarked on a new enterprise.
The secrecy with which Gutenberg shrouded this new venture continues to conceal the precise facts to this day. What is known is that Gutenberg began to instruct Dritzehn and Heilmann in techniques he had been developing and that the two were eager to learn. This involved a “press,” “forms,” and large quantities of metal. After Dritzehn died from the Plague on December 26, 1438, his brother Jörg asked Gutenberg to allow him and his other brother, Claus, to take their late brother’s place. Gutenberg, closely guarding the secret of his techniques, refused. Jörg Dritzehn then filed suit against him. The action was decided largely in Gutenberg’s favor, but more important are the references in the court record to “adventure and art,” “the work,” and to Gutenberg’s specific instructions to Claus Dritzehn that he dismantle and conceal the “objects in the press” his brother had left behind. These and other details in the court proceedings all point to some form of metal-type printing, in which the “press” was a printing press, and the mysterious “objects” in it were the types and their forms. It is probable that fragments known for certain to be in Gutenberg’s very first type—the so-called Donatus und Kalender, or DK-type—were printed in Strasbourg between 1440 and 1444. At the very least, Strasbourg is where Gutenberg acquired the techniques and business acumen that he would use to bring the “black art” to full flower in Mainz.
The years 1444–48 are another undocumented period in Gutenberg’s life. By October 1448, however, he had returned to his native city. In Mainz the pattern Gutenberg had established in Strasbourg reemerged: refining technologies, devising new ventures, attracting partners—and battling in the courts. Likely among the first works to emerge from the press in the Gutenberghof were editions of the Donatus, a standard schoolbook of the time, printed in the eponymous DK-type. But the DK-type was crude; works printed with it could not compare with the beauty of finely written manuscripts, which continued to enjoy the highest esteem among those who could afford them. By 1450, Gutenberg was ready to begin a new phase of his invention designed to meet this artistic and technological challenge.
To this end Gutenberg set up a business partnership with Johannes Fust, a Mainz merchant and financier. Fust was a member of the goldsmith’s guild and may have been a dealer in manuscripts or even Gutenberg’s Donatuses. This background would have put him in a unique position to appreciate the significance of Gutenberg’s “artificial writing” and the financial opportunities it offered. Fust lent Gutenberg 1,550 gulden for the development of printing equipment. In return the inventor gave the merchant part-ownership in the business; the equipment produced with Fust’s capital would function as security for his loan. A new printing shop was soon set up in the nearby Humbrechthof.
The finest flower of this collaboration was the 42-line bible, one of the most splendid achievements in the history of technology and art. Gutenberg designed a new type for the bible based on a particularly beautiful and accurate manuscript. The result is a fluid and elegant text, at once compact and readable, far superior to the DK-type. This is laid out in 42 lines per page, within margins determined by the golden mean, and justified with a precision impossible to achieve in handwritten manuscripts. The rich sable of the ink, still vivid after nearly 600 years, continues to astonish modern viewers. Gutenberg had realized his goal of creating not only a new form of book production, but a work of high art comparable with the finest manuscripts.
The little that is known about Gutenberg often comes from the many court cases in which he clashed with his business partners. The partnership with Fust was no exception. Although the first edition of the bible soon sold out, by 1455 the Humbrechthof found itself with a severe cash flow problem, probably because many buyers had not yet settled their accounts. Soon after completion of the bible, Fust demanded his initial capital back, with interest, accusing Gutenberg of misappropriating some of the funds intended for their joint venture. Fust’s charge may have been justified. Prior to and concurrent with work on the bible, both presses had printed papal indulgences in various formats. This was a profitable business, and Gutenberg may have diverted funds from the Humbrechthof to capture more of this market for himself. Ironically, he may have done so to raise the cash to repay Fust. In any event Gutenberg could not pay his debts and Fust took him to court. The resulting notarial instrument (Helmaspergisches Notariatsinstrument) provides a partial account of the outcome: Gutenberg was sentenced to repay the loan plus compounded interest of over 1,000 gulden. Unable to comply, the inventor was forced to surrender the Humbrechthof to Fust along with the equipment and some of the type.
As if to foreshadow much later developments in the media industry, the court’s ruling split Gutenberg’s printing enterprise into two entities that now competed with each other. Fust was joined at the Humbrechthof by his adoptive son, Peter Schöffer, who may have been involved with some aspects of producing the 42-line bible. The colophon of Fust and Schöffer would later become synonymous with some of the greatest achievements in the history of printing. The exquisite quality of their work, however, owed much to Gutenberg’s development of new types and techniques before his split with Fust. Gutenberg, for his part, had been dealt a severe but survivable blow. The Gutenberghof continued to produce the profitable indulgences and other small items in the original DK-type, such as calendars and broadsides.
Between 1458 and 1460, two major works were produced in which Gutenberg’s precise role remains unclear: the 36-line bible and the Catholicon. Printed in a refurbished version of the DK-type, the 36-line bible was most likely conceived at the Gutenberghof in Mainz, but the actual printing probably took place in Bamberg. Whether Gutenberg functioned as a consultant in Bamberg or took a more active role is not known. Although lacking the splendor of its 42-line predecessor, the 36-line bible would prove an important turning point in the history of printing. Gutenberg’s associates in the project, both in Mainz and Bamberg, would later spread the “black art” throughout Germany and much of Europe.
Work on the Catholicon paralleled that on the 36-line bible. It was printed in Mainz in 1460 and is generally attributed to Gutenberg. Applying his printing process to the Catholicon, a massive standard Latin reference text that could be assured a steady readership, certainly corresponded to Gutenberg’s pattern and his situation at that time. Relegated to the Gutenberghof and its technical limitations (compared to the Humbrechthof), Gutenberg’s inventiveness and creativity must have sought a new outlet. He again managed to attract a wealthy investor for his venture, in this case Konrad Humery, the town clerk of Mainz. As in his arrangement with Fust, Gutenberg used the new type and equipment yet to be developed as security for Humery’s loan. Some of this material was transferred to Humery after Gutenberg’s death, indicating that Gutenberg was able to set up a new press with Humery’s help. Nevertheless, even while work progressed on the Catholicon and the 36-line bible, Gutenberg’s financial obligations caught up with him. Strasbourg had barred him from the city for repeatedly defaulting on old loans, and by 1458 he was practically bankrupt.
Gutenberg’s final years were turbulent times for his native city, which became a focal point for the growing conflict between the German imperial electors and Pope Pius II. Papal forces took Mainz on October 28, 1462, and installed Adolf II of Nassau as the new archbishop. Like many of his fellow citizens, Gutenberg was driven out of the city two days later. Gutenberg probably spent his exile in Eltville, where he may have set up a small printing press. It is perhaps for these “agreeable and willing services,” as well as the new archbishop’s cold recognition of the power of the “black art,” that Adolf retrieved Gutenberg from exile and made him a member of his court in January 1465. Thus protected from his creditors and enjoying a modest pension, the old inventor was able to spend his final years free from want. He died probably in the winter of 1467–68, having led a life truly rich in “adventure and art.”
Quotations from Gutenberg’s various court proceedings and other documents are taken from Stephan Füssel, Gutenberg und seine Wirkung, Insel: Frankfurt a. M. and Leipzig 1999. An English edition is also available.