Full name: Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (called Gutenberg after family home).
Born: between 1394 and 1399, most probably c.1398 in Christophgasse, Mainz.
Father: Friele zum Gutenberg, one of the patrician class in Mainz, associated with the archiepiscopal mint.
Mother: Friele's second wife Else Wirich, married 1386. Johann was the youngest of four children.
Mainz, located at the junction of the Main and the Rhein was the seat of an archbishop, notable for workers in precious metals. In 1410 Friele was one of four master accountants of Mainz but in1411 he went into voluntary exile following a quarrel between the patricians and the guilds; he returned by 1414 and died in 1419.
In 1420 Johann was involved in a legal dispute with his brother Friele, possibly over his inheritance. In1427, still in Mainz he was concerned with his brother in an annuity transfer. In 1428 the guilds succeeded in ousting the patricians from their privileges and Johann probably left for Strassburg where he was able to live with his brother friele on the proceeds of several annuities.
In 1430 a reconciliation between the city of Mainz and the exiled patricians was announced by Archbishop Conrad. This granted many new privileges and Friele and Henchin zu Gudenberg were granted an amnesty. Friele returned but Johann remained in Strassburg in the suburb of St Arbogast with his servant Lorenz Beildeck and his wife. In about 1433 his mother died. He had fixed an annuity on her in 1430 and now the estate was divided between the two brothers and a sister Else.
In 1434 Nicholaus von Wörrstadt, city clerk of Mainz and leader of the guilds, visited Strassburg. Gutenberg has him arrested and imprisoned as a hostage for 310 gulden (equivalent to two years salary of a high city official) which he claimed he was owed by Mainz as interest on annuities since the death of his mother. Under pressure from the elders of Strassburg he released him, but his action drew attention to his debts and the repayment of the debts is recorded in the archive of Mainz. At about this time there are entries in the Strassburg tax register where Gutenberg, classed as a patrician, paid tax on 1942 litres (420 gallons) of wine, stored in a cellar.
In 1436 Ennlin zu der Iserin Tür sued Gutenberg for breach of promise of marriage; the outcome is uncertain but it was probably unsuccessful – an Ennel Gutenberg in the tax register is probably unrelated. However Gutenberg had called Claus Schott, a shoemaker who gave evidence "a miserable wretch who lived by cheating and lying" and this cost him 15 Rhenish gulden.
12 December 1439 lawsuit by Georg Dritzehn against Gutenberg. The evidence of 16 of 40 witnesses has survived and this gives the first hint of printing, although the outline is vague. The history is outlined in the verdict.
In about 1436 Andreas Dritzehn, citizen of Strassburg applied to be instructed in the several arts and had been taught gem cutting and polishing of stones. Significantly Andreas owned a paper mill with Anton Heilmann. In about 1437 there was talk of a pilgrimage to Aachen. Gutenberg took into partnership Hans Riffe, bailiff at Lichtenow to make mirrors for the pilgrimage. Dritzehn heard of this and Anton Heilmann also joined, all on payment of 80 gulden each. The mirrors were to be made by some secret process. Originally thought to be an early version of the Speculum humanae salvationis, it is now clear that large quantities of metal mirrors about 5x3 inches in size, decorated in bas-relief with a recess in the centre for the mirror were produced for the Aachen pilgrimage. They were held up to reflect and capture the physical image and magic powers emanating from the relics, and taken home and nailed up by pilgrims as charms. Unfortunately there was a mistake over the date which was not 1439 but a year later, so production ceased. In about 1438 his associated asked Gutenberg "to teach them all his arts and enterprises which he thereafter discovered or otherwise knew, and not to keep anything secret from them". Gutenberg agreed if they each gave him a further 250 gulden (bringing the total to 430), including 100 in cash. The contract was to run from 1438 to 1443. In case of death the heirs were not to take the deceased place but would receive 100 gulden, all knowledge and property to remain in the hands of the survivors.
At Christmas 1438 Andreas Dritzehn died in great distress of mind and owing 85 gulden. His brothers Claus and Georg asked to be taken into partnership. Gutenberg took the matter to court. His case was good as the contract was found among his papers and Dritzehn admitted on his death-bed that Gutenberg had taught him the arts. However it was not sealed in a legal form. Nevertheless the court admitted its validity and decided for Gutenberg who had to pay the heirs 15 gulden as Andreas owed 85. Various witnesses give some idea of the process but their oath of secrecy means that much remains obscure:
1. Expenses were heavy. "Witness 1. Item Barbel von Zabern the tradeswoman said that one night she had talked about various things with Andres Dritzehn. Among other things she said to him: "Aren't you going to bed soon?" Then he answered her: "I've this to deal with first." Then the witness said: "Lord help us, what money you're wasting, that must be all of ten gulden." He replied and said: "You silly woman; if you only had as much as it had cost me above 300 gulden you would have enough for life, and it cost me very little less than 500 gulden without reckoning what else it will cost me. Hat is what I mortgaged mu property and inheritance for." The witness said to him: "God almighty! If it fails, what will you do then?" He replied: "t will not fail. Before a year is gone, we will have our investment back and shall all then be happy." But Dritzehn got into debt. Another witness: "had lent Andreas eight gulden because he had to have money. The housekeeper of this witness likewise lent Andres money a number of times. Moreover Andres came to this witness one time with a ring valued by him at 30 gulden which he pawned for him among the Jews for five gulden." On his deathbed Andreas greatly regretted entering the contract.
2. The project involved purchases of lead and other metals. Forms (Formen) were mentioned, a term later used in connection with type. "Witness 15: Hans Dünne the goldsmith said the about three years ago he earned from Gutenberg about 100 gulden, solely for what pertained to printing."
Witness 14: Anton Heilmann: this witness also said that he knew well that Gutenberg shortly before Christmas went to the two Andres to fetch all the forms, and they were melted down so that he saw it and felt regret for some of the forms. Afterwards when the late Andres passed on and this witness became aware that people would like to see the press Gutenberg said that they should send someone to the press for he feared that people would see it."
Witness 5: Conrad Sachspach said that Andres Heilman at one time came to him in the Kremergasse and said "Dear Conrad, as Andres Dritzehn is dead, you made the press and know all about the matter; now go there and take the pieces out of the press and separate them, then no-one will know what it is." When now this witness wanted to do this and searched accordingly – this was on last St Stephen's day – the thing was gone."
Wtness 10: Lorenz Beildeck said that Johannes Gutenberg at one time sent him to Claus Dritzehn after the death of his brother Andres to tell Claus Dritzehn not to show the press he had in his care to anyone. "This witness did that and also spoke more and said that he [Claus] should trouble himself so much as to go over to the press and open the thing with the two hand-screws, then the pieces would fall apart. The same pieces he should lay on the press so that thereafter no-one could see or understand anything." Dritzehn claimed not to have found the pieces, they seemed to have been spirited away.
These documents were destroyed in 1793 and 1870. The report of their existence was made by Daniel Schöpflin who has been found to be inaccurate in other instances, but if they were forged, why had the details been kept quite so vague? In any event the contract lapsed in 1443.
In 1441 Gutenberg stood surety for a loan. The document was a wordy legal fiction as loans with interest were illegal under canon law.
On 17 November 1442 Gutenberg obtained a loan from the dean and chapter of St Thomas at Strassburg.
On 22 January 1444 Gutenberg and his former partner Andres Heilmann were among goldsmiths listed for military service. As he was not a citizen he was only an affiliated member of the giuld. About the same time he was among those ordered to supply horses. His liability for only half a horse shows no great wealth at that time. The last record for Gutenberg in Strassburg is for a payment of one gulden wine tax on12 March 1444.
The four year gap before he reappears in Mainz has been the subject of much speculation. He may have been in contact with Procopius Waldfogel, a silversmith who fled Prag during the Hussite troubles and arrived via Nürnberg in Avignon in 1444, where the records contain a contract in July that year for the supply of "two alphabets of steel, two iron forms, a vise or screw, 48 forms of tin, and various other forms pertaining to the art of mechanical writing" ("ars artificialiter scribendi"). Another contract in 1446 refers to "27 Hebrew characters", "48 characters engraved on iron", and "instruments for writing mechanically in Latin". He disappeared from the historical record after 1446 and no surviving printing from Avignon is known of for this early period.
Another possibility is contact with the Master of the Playing Cards (Meister der Spielkarten), the first major exponent of intaglio printing, a German or possibly Swiss engraver active from the 1430s to the 1450s, known through a corpus of 106 engravings, including a set of playing cards. Many of the motifs on four of the five suites of these cards appear in the illuminations of the Giant Bible of Mainz, written 1452-3, probably in Mainz, where it belonged to the Cathedral, and now in the Library of Congress and the copy of the 42-line Bible in Princeton University Library, but these could well have been taken from a manuscript model book and do not necessarily imply that the Master was active in an atelier in Mainz with which Gutenberg was associated. They also appear on a wide variety of other books associated with Mainz from the 1450s to the 1480s, including decoration on some books printed by Fust and Schöffer. It has been argued that Gutenberg may also have invented engraving and employed the Master to attempt to produce plates for mechanical ornamentation and when discarded these plates were used for playing cards, but the designs are not as impractical for playing cards as has been claimed. There have also been attempts to fit this in with techniques to produce mirrors in 1438 but the technical requirements differ. It has also been suggested that the ornamental initials in the Mainz Psalter were cast from plates which were deeply incised, but no early examples of intaglio ornamentation survive. (Hellmut Lehmann Haupt Gutenberg and the Master of the Playing Cards, Yale University Press, 1966) .
By 1448 Gutenberg was back in Mainz. On 17 October that year a contract was signed whereby Arnold Gelthuss, a relative of Gutenberg borrowed for the latter's exclusive use but on his own security, the sum of 150 gulden from Reinhard Brumser and Henchin Rodenstein, Gutenberg himself was to pay five per cent interest and redeem the principle in time. The purpose of the loan was not stated.
On 3 July 1453 Gutenberg witnessed a notarial instrument and there are also various entries relating to annuities in accounts of this period.
The Helmaspurger Instrument dates from 6 November 1455 and the original document survives on a sheet of vellum. It is named after the notary Dr Ulrich Helmaspurger who supplied this 77 line synopsis of his client Johann Fust's oath made on the above date during a lawsuit brought against him by Gutenberg. It also records the background to the case and the court's verdict. It is wordy and obscure but the outline is as follows:
In about 1450 Gutenberg borrowed 800 gulden from Johann Fust, a lawyer and financier, and his brother Jacob, a goldsmith, at six per cent, none of which he paid, to be used to "make and prepare his tools" which were pledged as security. If disagreement arose Gutenberg was to repay Fust and all claims were to be relinquished.
In December 1452 Gutenberg asked for a further loan. Fust agreed to advance Gutenberg 800 gulden if he were taken into partnership "for the work of the books". The deal was apparently made verbally and seems to have replaced an earlier arrangement whereby Fust was to have paid 300 gulden per annum to defray "living expenses and also supply wages, house rent, parchment, paper, ink etc."
In November 1455 Fust foreclosed on Gutenberg and on Thursday 6 November between eleven o'clock and noon there was present in the refectory of the Barefooted Friars at Mainz Jacob Fust on behalf of his brother Johann Fust.
|Gutenberg was sued for:||The court ordered repayment of:|
|800 gulden original loan||800 gulden original loan|
|250 gulden interest||so much of 800 gulden second loan|
|800 gulden second loan||not expended "for the profit of both"|
|140 gulden interest||250 gulden interest on first loan|
|36 gulden interest paid by Fust||176 gulden interest on second loan|
|Total 2026 gulden||Total at least 1226 gulden|
Gutenberg was clearly unable to pay, so his equipment was confiscated. There is evidence for printing in phrases such as "the work of the books" and Fust's promise to pay 300 gulden a year for "parchment, paper, ink etc." Also among Gutenberg's representatives were his servants Heinrich Keffer (printer in Nurnberg in the 1470s) Bechtholff von Hanau (Berthold Rüppel, who introduced printing to Basel c.1468). Among Fust's representatives was Peter Gernsheim (alias Schöffer, his technical manager and later his partner).
Level of expenses:
- 410 gulden in Dritzehn agreement
- 150 gulden borrowed in 1448
- 2026 gulden in Fust agreement
On 21 June 1457 Gutenberg was again before Helmaspurger but only to witness the sale of a farm to a relative by marriage.
In 1457 Gutenberg's payments on the 1442 loan from the parish of St Thomas ceased and in 1461 the parish laid complaint for non-payment of interest before the imperial court at Rottweil. The result is unrecorded but later entries for debt in the registers are cancelled although documents reveal considerable expenditure on attempts to enforce payment.
On 28 October 1462 Count Adolf of Nassau, archbishop of Mainz sacked the city in pursuance of his feud with a rival claimant to the see. Some 400 were killed and 800 expelled the next day possibly including Gutenberg although on 17 January 1465 archbishop Adolf appointed Gutenberg his servant and courtier for life in recognition of the "agreeable and voluntary services which our true and faithful servant Johann Gutenberg has rendered to us and our order". This supplied one gentleman's suit annually, a grant of grain and wine, exemption from watch duty, military service (Gutenberg was then in his late 60s), taxation and sundries – a sort of civil list pension but was it for political or typographical services rendered? It may have meant a move to the court at Eltville.
In 1467/8 Gutenberg is recorded as a lay member of the brotherhood of St Victor.
On 3 February 1468 Gutenberg died. He was buried in the church of St Francis in Maiz with other family members. A relative, Adam Gelthus set up a memorial but the church was demolished in 1742.
On 26 February 1468 Dr Conrad Humery acknowledged to the archbishop "certain forms, letters, instruments, tools and other things belonging to the work of printing which Johann Gutenberg left after his death and are still mine". In return Humery undertook that if he used them for printing he would do so within the city of Mainz and if he sold the material he would give preference to the city.
No portrait survives; the engraved portrait of 1585 is fanciful. He is shown bearded but patricians were normally clean-shaven. His vacant look may be due to the uselessness for typographical purposes of the die held in his left hand. It is suggested that he may have been blind towards the end of his life.
No book is definitely ascribable to him but circumstantial evidence adds some detail.
Early references to Gutenberg as the inventor of printing:
1. 4 October 1458. Records of the French royal mint. Charles VII ordered agents to go to Mainz to inquire into the art of printing brought to light there by Messire Jeham Gutemberg "a man adept at cutting punches and caractères". Nicolas Jensen, master of the Tour mint was selected for this. He was later an important Venetian printer. The document is probably a 16th century transcript, but before there was any vested interest in proving Gutenberg to be the inventor.
2. 24 May 1468. Colophon of St Justinian Institutiones (Mainz: Peter Schöffer). Twenty-four lines of Latin verse by the corrector, printed in red, include the statement "two Johns, both of whom the town of Mainz produced, […] were the renowned first stampers of books […] and with them was associated a Peter who, although a late-comer, was the first to reach the goal and become superior in the art of engraving. Fust had died in 1466 and Gutenberg earlier in 1468.
3. New Year's day 1471. Guillaume Fichet, the professor at the Sorbonne who with Jean Heynlin brought Freiberger, Gering and Crantz to Paris as printers in 1469, wrote a letter to his friend Robert Gaguin in praise of printing and its service to the humane arts. Itws later printed and bound in a copy of Gasparinus Barzizius Othographia, the second book printed in Paris, in 1470, which once belonged to Heynlin and is now in Basle University Library. "… they say that there, not far from the city of Mainz, there appeared a certain Johann, whose surname was Gutenberg who, first of all men, devised the art of printing whereby books are made, not with a reed as did the ancients, nor with a quill pen as do we, but with metal letters, and that swiftly, neatly, beautifully". This is a very important comment from an informed and disinterested contemporary.
4. c.1471. Nicolaus Perottus located the invention to Germany (as opposed to Holland or Italy) but does not name Gutenberg: "I have often blessed the fact that just in our time such a great and truly divine benefit has become ours in the new art of duplication that has recently come to us from Germany. For I have seen that one man in one month would print as many writings as could scarcely be accomplished in a year …"
5. 1474. Riccobaldi of Ferrara, Chronica summorum pontificorum, (Rome: Johannes Philippus de Ligamine). The work was continued by the printer Ligamine who under 1458/9 gives the first historical reference to printing: "Jacob surnamed Gutenberg, a native of Strasburg, and another man whose name was Fust, being skilled in printing letters on parchment with metal types are known each of them to be turning out 300 sheets a day at Mainz, a city of Germany.