1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gutenberg, Johann

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GUTENBERG, JOHANN (c. 1398-1468), German printer, is supposed to have been born c. 1398-1399 at Mainz of well-to-do parents, his father being Friele zum Gensfleisch and his mother Elsgen Wyrich (or, from her birthplace, zu Gutenberg, the name he adopted). He is assumed to be mentioned under the name of “Henchen” in a copy of a document of 1420, and again in a document of c. 1427-1428, but it is not stated where he then resided. On January 16, 1430, his mother arranged with the city of Mainz about an annuity belonging to him; but when, in the same year, some families who had been expelled a few years before were permitted to return to Mainz, Gutenberg appears not to have availed himself of the privilege, as he is described in the act of reconciliation (dated March 28) as “not being in Mainz.” It is therefore assumed that the family had taken refuge in Strassburg, where Gutenberg was residing later. There he is said to have been in 1434, and to have seized and imprisoned the town clerk of Mainz for a debt due to him by the corporation of that city, releasing him, however, at the representations of the mayor and councillors of Strassburg, and relinquishing at the same time all claims to the money (310 Rhenish guilders = about 2400 mark).[1] Between 1436 and 1439 certain documents represent him as having been engaged there in some experiments requiring money, with Andreas Dritzehn, a fellow-citizen, who became not only security for him but his partner to carry out Gutenberg's plan for polishing stones and the manufacture of looking-glasses, for which a lucrative sale was expected at the approaching pilgrimage of 1440 (subsequently postponed, according to the documents, although there is no evidence for this postponement) to Aix-la-Chapelle. Money was lent for this purpose by two other friends. In 1438 another partnership was arranged between Gutenberg, Andreas Dritzehn, and Andreas and Anton Heilmann, and that this had in view the art of printing has been inferred from the word “drucken” used by one of the witnesses in the law proceedings which soon after followed. An action was brought, after the death of Dritzehn, by his two brothers to force Gutenberg to accept them as partners in their brother's place, but the decision was in favour of the latter. In 1441 Gutenberg became surety to the St Thomas Chapter at Strassburg for Johann Karle, who borrowed 100 guilders (about £16) from the chapter, and on November 17, 1442, he himself borrowed 80 livres through Martin Brechter (or Brehter) from the same chapter. Of his whereabouts from the 12th of March 1444 (when he paid a tax at Strassburg) to the 17th of October 1448 nothing certain is known. But on the latter date we find him at Mainz, borrowing 150 gold guilders of his kinsman, Arnold Gelthus, against an annual interest of 7½ gold guilders. We do not know whether the interest on this debt has ever been paid, but the debt itself appears never to have been paid off, as the contract of this loan was renewed (vidimused) on August 23, 1503, for other parties. It is supposed that soon afterwards Gutenberg must have been able to show some convincing results of his work, for it appears that about 1450 Johann Fust (q.v.) advanced him 800 guilders to promote it, on no security except that of “tools” still to be made. Fust seems also to have undertaken to advance him 300 guilders a year for expenses, wages, house-rent, parchment, paper, ink, &c., but he does not appear to have ever done so. If at any time they disagreed, Gutenberg was to return the 800 guilders, and the “tools” were to cease to be security. It is not known to what purpose Gutenberg devoted the money advanced to him. In the minutes of the law-suit of 1455 he himself says that he had to make his “tools” with it. But he is presumed to have begun a large folio Latin Bible, and to have printed during its progress some smaller books[2] and likewise the Letter of Indulgence (granted on the 12th of April 1451 by Pope Nicholas V. in aid of John II., king of Cyprus, against the Turks), of 31 lines, having the earliest printed date 1454, of which several copies are preserved in various European libraries. A copy of the 1455 issue of the same Indulgence is in the Rylands Library at Manchester (from the Althorp Library).

It is not known whether any books were printed while this partnership between Gutenberg and Fust lasted. Trithemius (Ann. Hirsaug. ii. 421) says they first printed, from wooden blocks, a vocabulary called Catholicon, which cannot have been the Catholicon of Johannes de Janua, a folio of 748 pages in two columns of 66 lines each, printed in 1460, but was perhaps a small glossary now lost.[3] The Latin Bible of 42 lines, a folio of 1282 printed pages, in two columns with spaces left for illuminated initials (so called because each column contains 42 lines, and also known as the Mazarin Bible, because the first copy described was found in the library of Cardinal Mazarin), was finished before the 15th of August 1456;[4] German bibliographers now claim this Bible for Gutenberg, but, according to bibliographical rules, it must be ascribed to Peter Schöffer, perhaps in partnership with Fust. It is in smaller type than the Bible of 36 lines, which latter is called either (a) the Bamberg Bible, because nearly all the known copies were found in the neighbourhood of Bamberg, or (b) Schelhorn's Bible, because J. G. Schelhorn was the first who described it in 1760, or (c) Pfister's Bible, because its printing is ascribed to Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg, who used the same type for several small German books, the chief of which is Boner's Edelstein (1461, 4to), 88 leaves, with 85 woodcuts, a book of fables in German rhyme. Some bibliographers believe this 36-line Bible to have been begun, if not entirely printed, by Gutenberg during his partnership with Fust, as its type occurs in the 31-line Letters of Indulgence of 1454, was used for the 27-line Donatus (of 1451?), and, finally, when found in Pfister's possession in 1461, appears to be old and worn, except the additional letters k, w, z required for German, which are clear and sharp like the types used in the Bible. Again, others profess to prove (Dziatzko, Gutenberg's früheste Drucker praxis) that B36 was a reprint of B42.

Gutenberg's work, whatever it may have been, was not a commercial success, and in 1452 Fust had to come forward with another 800 guilders to prevent a collapse. But some time before November 1455 the latter demanded repayment of his advances (see the Helmasperger Notarial Document of November 6, 1455, in Dziatzko's Beiträge zur Gutenbergfrage, Berlin, 1889), and took legal proceedings against Gutenberg. We do not know the end of these proceedings, but if Gutenberg had prepared any printing materials it would seem that he was compelled to yield up the whole of them to Fust; that the latter removed them to his own house at Mainz, and there, with the assistance of Peter Schöffer, issued various books until the sack of the city in 1462 by Adolphus II. caused a suspension of printing for three years, to be resumed again in 1465.

We have no information as to Gutenberg's activity, and very little of his whereabouts, after his separation from Fust. In a document dated June 21, 1457, he appears as witness on behalf of one of his relatives, which shows that he was then still at Mainz. Entries in the registers of the St Thomas Church at Strassburg make it clear that the annual interest on the money which Gutenberg on the 17th of November 1442 (see above) had borrowed from the chapter of that church was regularly paid till the 11th of November 1457, either by himself or by his surety, Martin Brechter. But the payment due on the latter date appears to have been delayed, as an entry in the register of that year shows that the chapter had incurred expenses in taking steps to have both Gutenberg and Brechter arrested. This time the difficulties seem to have been removed, but on and after the 11th of November 1458 Gutenberg and Brechter remained in default. The chapter made various efforts, all recorded in their registers, to get their money, but in vain. Every year they recorded the arrears with the expenses to which they were put in their efforts to arrest the defaulters, till at last in 1474 (six years after Gutenberg's death) their names are no longer mentioned.

Meantime Gutenberg appears to have been printing, as we learn from a document dated February 26, 1468, that a syndic of Mainz, Dr Conrad Homery (who had formerly been in the service of the elector Count Diether of Ysenburg), had at one time supplied him, not with money, but with some formes, types, tools, implements and other things belonging to printing, which Gutenberg had left after his death, and which had, and still, belonged to him (Homery); this material had come into the hands of Adolf, the archbishop of Mainz, who handed or sent it back to Homery, the latter undertaking to use it in no other town but Mainz, nor to sell it to any person except a citizen of Mainz, even if a stranger should offer him a higher price for the things. This material has never yet been identified, so that we do not know what types Gutenberg may have had at his disposal; they could hardly have included the types of the Catholicon of 1460, as is suggested, this work being probably executed by Heinrich Bechtermünze (d. 1467), who afterwards removed to Eltville, or perhaps by Peter Schöffer, who, about 1470, advertises the book as his property (see K. Burger, Buchhändler-Anzeigen). It is uncertain whether Gutenberg remained in Mainz or removed to the neighbouring town of Eltville, where he may have been engaged for a while with the brothers Bechtermünze, who printed there for some time with the types of the 1460 Catholicon. On the 17th of January 1465 he accepted the post of salaried courtier from the archbishop Adolf, and in this capacity received annually a suit of livery together with a fixed allowance of corn and wine. Gutenberg seems to have died at Mainz at the beginning of 1468, and was, according to tradition, buried in the Franciscan church in that city. His relative Arnold Gelthus erected a monument to his memory near his supposed grave, and forty years afterwards Ivo Wittig set up a memorial tablet at the legal college at Mainz. No books bearing the name of Gutenberg as printer are known, nor is any genuine portrait of him known, those appearing upon medals, statues or engraved plates being all fictitious.

In 1898 the firm of L. Rosenthal, at Munich, acquired a Missale speciale on paper, which Otto Hupp, in two treatises published in 1898 and 1902, asserts to have been printed by Gutenberg about 1450, seven years before the 1457 Psalter. Various German bibliographers, however, think that it could not have been printed before 1480, and, judging from the facsimiles published by Hupp, this date seems to be approximately correct.

On the 24th of June 1900 the five-hundredth anniversary of Gutenberg's birth was celebrated in several German cities, notably in Mainz and Leipzig, and most of the recent literature on the invention of printing dates from that time.

So we may note that in 1902 a vellum fragment of an Astronomical Kalendar was discovered by the librarian of Wiesbaden, Dr G. Zedler (Die älteste Gutenbergtype, Mainz, 1902), apparently printed in the 36-line Bible type, and as the position of the sun, moon and other planets described in this document suits the years 1429, 1448 and 1467, he ascribes the printing of this Kalendar to the year 1447. A paper fragment of a poem in German, entitled Weltgericht, said to be printed in the 36-line Bible type, appears to have come into the possession of Herr Eduard Beck at Mainz in 1892, and was presented by him in 1903 to the Gutenberg Museum in that city. Zedler published a facsimile of it in 1904 (for the Gutenberg Gesellschaft) , with a description, in which he places it before the 1447 Kalendar, c. 1444-1447. Moreover, fragments of two editions of Donatus different from that of 1451 (?) have recently been found; see Schwenke in Centralbl. für Bibliothekwesen (1908).

The recent literature upon Gutenberg's life and work and early printing in general includes the following: A. von der Linde, Geschichte und Erdichtung (Stuttgart, 1878); id. Geschichte der Buchdruckerkunst (Berlin, 1886); J. H. Hessels, Gutenberg, Was he the Inventor of Printing? (London, 1882); id. Haarlem, the Birthplace of Printing, not Mentz (London, 1886); O. Hartwig, Festschrift zum fünfhundertjährigen Geburtstag von Johann Gutenberg (Leipzig, 1900), which includes various treatises by Schenk zu Schweinsberg, K. Schorbach, &c.; P. Schwenke, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des ersten Buchdrucks (Berlin, 1900); A. Börckel, Gutenberg, sein Leben, &c. (Giessen, 1897); id. Gutenberg und seine berühmten Nachfolger im ersten Jahrhundert der Typographie (Frankfort, 1900); F. Schneider, Mainz und seine Drucker (1900); G. Zedler, Gutenberg-Forschungen (Leipzig, 1901); J. H. Hessels, The so-called Gutenberg Documents (London, 1910). For other works on the subject see Typography. (J. H. H.)


  1. It is difficult to know which of the Gutenberg documents can be trusted and which not. Schorbach, in his recent biography of Gutenberg, accepts and describes 27 of them (Festschrift, 1900, p. 163 sqq.), 17 of which are known only from (not always accurate) copies or transcripts. Under ordinary circumstances history might be based on them. But it is certain that some so-called Gutenberg documents, not included in the above 27, are forgeries. Fr. J. Bodmann (1754-1820), for many years professor and librarian at Mainz, forged at least two; one (dated July 20, 1459) he even provided with four forged seals; the other (dated Strassburg, March 24, 1424) purported to be an autograph letter of Gutenberg to a fictitious sister of his named Bertha. Of these two documents French and German texts were published about 1800-1802; the forger lived for twenty years afterwards but never undeceived the public. He enriched the Gutenberg literature with other fabrications. In fact Bodmann had trained himself for counterfeiting MSS. and documents; he openly boasted of his abilities in this respect, and used them, sometimes to amuse his friends who were searching for Gutenberg documents, sometimes for himself to fill up gaps in Gutenberg's life. (For two or three more specimens of his capacities see A. Wyss in Zeitschr. für Altert. u. Gesch. Schlesiens, xv. 9 sqq.) To one of his friends (Professor Gotthelf Fischer, who preceded him as librarian of Mainz) one or two other fabrications may be ascribed. There are, moreover, serious misgivings as to documents said to have been discovered about 1740 (when the citizens of Strassburg claimed the honour of the invention for their city) by Jacob Wencker (the then archivist of Strassburg) and J. D. Schoepflin (professor and canon of St Thomas's at Strassburg). For instance, of the above document of 1434 no original has ever come to light; while the draft of the transaction, alleged to have been written at the time in a register of contracts, and to have been found about 1740 by Wencker, has also disappeared with the register itself. The document (now only known from a copy said to have been taken by Wencker from the draft) is upheld as genuine by Schorbach, who favours an invention of printing at Strassburg, but Bockenheimer, though supporting Gutenberg and Mainz, declares it to be a fiction (Gutenberg-Feier, Mainz, 1900, pp. 24-33). Again, suspicions are justified with respect to the documents recording Gutenberg's lawsuit of 1439 at Strassburg. Bockenheimer explains at great length (l.c. pp. 41-72) that they are forgeries. He even explains (ibid. pp. 97-107) that the so-called Helmasperger document of November 6, 1455, may be a fabrication of the Faust von Aschaffenburg family, who endeavoured to claim Johann Fust as their ancestor. There are also (1) a fragment of a fictitious “press,” said to have been constructed by Gutenberg in 1441, and to have been discovered (!) at Mainz in 1856; (2) a forged imprint with the date 1458 in a copy of Pope Gregory's Dialogues, really printed at Strassburg about 1470; (3) a forged rubric in a copy of the Tractatus de celebratione missarum, from which it would appear that Johann Gutenberg and Johann Nummeister had presented it on June 19, 1463, to the Carthusian monastery near Mainz; (4) four forged copies of the Indulgence of 1455, in the Culemann Collection in the Kästner Museum at Hanover, &c. (see further, Hessels, “The so-called Gutenberg Documents,” in The Library, 1909).
  2. Among these were perhaps (1) one or two editions of the work of Donatus, De octo partibus orationis, 27 lines to a page, of one of which two leaves, now in the Paris National Library, were discovered at Mainz in the original binding of an account book, one of them having, but in a later hand, the year 1451 (?); (2) the Turk-Kalendar for 1455 (preserved in the Hof-Bibliothek at Munich); (3) the Cisianus (preserved in the Cambridge Univ. Libr.), and perhaps others now lost.
  3. Ulric Zell states, in the Cologne Chronicle of 1499, that Gutenberg and Fust printed a Bible in jarge type like that used in missals. It has been said that this description applies to the 42-line Bible, as its type is as large as that of most missals printed before 1500, and that the size now called missal type (double pica) was not used in missals until late in the l6th century. This is no doubt true of the smaller missals printed before 1500, some of which are in even smaller type than the 42-line Bible. But many of the large folio missals, as that printed at Mainz by Peter Schöffer in 1483, the Carthusian missal printed at Spires by Peter Drach about 1490, and the Dominican missal printed by Andrea de Torresanis at Venice in 1496, are in as large type as the 36-line Bible. Peter Schöffer (1425-1502) of Gernsheim, between Mainz and Mannheim, who was a copyist in Paris in 1449, and whom Fust called his servant (famulus), is said by Trithemius to have discovered an easier way of founding characters, whence Lambinet and others concluded that Schöffer invented the punch. Schöffer himself, in the colophon of the Psalter of 1457, a work which some suppose to have been planned and partly printed by Gutenberg, claims only the mode of printing rubrics and coloured capitals.
  4. The Leipzig copy of this Bible (which formerly belonged to Herr Klemm of Dresden) has at the end the MS. year 1453 in old Arabic numerals. But certain circumstances connected with this date make it look very suspicious.