Gutenberg 2000
Gutenberg im Medienzeitalter
Gutenberg´s time
Gutenberg´s Invention
Ständige Einrichtungen
Gutenberg Museum
Gutenberg´s Bible


Gutenberg and Mainz

[Time-Table of 15th Century]
[Gutenberg and Mainz]

by Eva-Maria Hanebutt-Benz

In the Middle Ages Mainz was given many names such as "metropolis of cities" "mistress of nations", or "tiara of the nation". These poetic attributes reflect a recognized special status of the city.
During these centuries, Mainz was definitely among the wealthiest and most important cities along the Rhine. This was due to its political key position in the Middle Ages.
The archbishop of Mainz was at the same time Primas Germaniae, archchancellor of the nation (since 965) with the right to appoint the king. Since the end of the 12th century he also belonged to the electors, among whom he held a leading position.

The electoral consortium was starting in 1257 the only body privileged to elect and announce the German king. In addition, the electoral archbishop of Mainz held the privilege to call for meetings of the highest dignitaries of the nation.
Given its geographically convenient location at the meeting of the rivers Rhine and Main, Mainz developed into a city that offered traders and craftsmen the best conditions for prosperity. Since the founding of the union of Rhine cities in the year 1254, trade flourished. The Rhine was the primary trade connection through Europe while the Main connected these cities to cities of lower Bavaria.

The route from Trier over Mainz, Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig to Breslau was among the most prominent trade routes of this era. The requirements of the archbishop’s court on the other hand, advanced the development of all branches of applied arts and crafts.
The goldsmith guild flourished since it had a large and wealthy clientele at the court and the frequently-held councils. Trade in cloth was one of the most important sources of income of the merchant patricians.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Mainz was still noted by its wealth. However, the time of Gutenberg was a time of social conflict and major changes for "Aurea Moguntia", the golden Mainz.

Johannes Gutenberg’s father was among the city’s patricians. He was a tradesman or a merchant, possibly involved in the cloth trade. This man, Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, was registered since 1372 as a resident of Mainz. In 1386, Friele Gensfleisch married his second wife Else Wirich, daughter of a shopkeeper in Mainz.
The year of Johannes Gutenberg’s’ birth is unknown. It must be assumed , however, that he was born around 1400. The sources do not reveal more than his birth must have occurred between the year 1394 and the year 1404.
As the youngest son of the family, he is mentioned in earliest documents as Henne or Henchen (i.e. Johannes) zur Laden or as Henne Gensfleisch. At this time names were not passed on from father to son and grandson. The patricians of Mainz were called after their houses and if they had several, they could carry several names. In relation to the father, only in 1427 or 1428 a document states the name "zu Gudenberg", while Johannes Gutenberg was mentioned in 1430 for the first time as "Henchin zu Gudenberg" in a document.

Many details of Gutenberg’s biography can only be deducted. For example, very little is known about his childhood and education. Maybe he attended one of the seminaries or convent schools in Mainz as did many children of the patricians. We can only assume that he would not have been able to complete his later achievements without a comprehensive and basic education.

In 1411 Friele Gensfleisch had to leave Mainz. A dispute between the patricians and the guilds, initiated by the election of the new mayor, led 117 patricians to move to their properties outside the city. Gutenberg’s father presumably went to the little city of Eltville near the Rhine, where the family owned an estate inherited by the mother.
Presumably the whole family moved there to escape the political disputes within the city that were potentially life threatening. In January 1413, following hunger riots, another move from the city took place.
Just like Gutenberg’s basic education is not known, not much is known about his higher education. Many sons of patricians of Mainz attended the University of Erfurt, since this was the alma mater of the Mainz arch diocese. There is an entry in the 1419/20 enrollment forms that a Johannes de Alta villa (Eltville) was an enrolled student. Two cousins of Gutenberg had enrolled the year before in Erfurt. Whether this entry actually refers to Johannes Gutenberg is not known as there is no concrete evidence.

Gutenberg’ father passed away in the fall of 1419. In the following year, Gutenberg’s name was mentioned for the first time in a document dealing with inheritance controversies.

In the following years once again there is no documentation at all. Johannnes Gutenberg moved out of the city again due to disputes between the guilds and the patricians as a 1430 agreement between the sparring parties documents. From the same year, 1430, another document states that Gutenberg received a stipend of 13 florins from a lady called Katherine von Delkenheim, half of which was paid to his mother. This document also indicates that Gutenberg was not residing in Mainz at the time.
Only in 1434 can Gutenberg’s residency be established again, for the preceding years there is no evidence or indication about his whereabouts or activities. His mother Else Wirich had passed away a year earlier and her inheritance was divided among the children. Johannes Gutenberg surely received his portion in the form of payments as in the following years disagreements about the payment of this money played an important role.
A letter written by Gutenberg in March 1434 indicates that he was residing in Strasbourg. For the following eleven years Gutenberg remained a resident of this city, with its 25,000 residents one of the biggest communities in Germany. It was a lively and wealthy city of trade that offered a determined and active person numerous possibilities to become wealthy.

A variety of connections existed between the patricians of Mainz and of Strasbourg, and additionally there is evidence that Gutenberg had relatives in the city from his mother’s side.
Gutenberg’s business dealings show that he had a great potential to motivate investors and co-workers for a project and to initiate financially successful ventures. Since about 1437 Gutenberg , who resided in the Strasbourg suburb of St. Argobast, instructed a wealthy citizen named Andreas Dritzehn in the polishing and cutting of precious stones. He obviously had special knowledge in the field which he was turning to cash.

A little while later he tackled a project for which a cooperative was established. The city of Aachen planned to exhibit its religious relics and thousands of pilgrims were expected to visit this exhibition. For these pilgrims so-called "pilgrim-mirrors" were to be produced, small decorated metal frames of a tin alloy that were poured into various shapes and on which a convex mirror was attached with small clips.

The purpose of these mirrors, which many pilgrims pinned to their hats, was to catch the benign rays that were assumed to radiate from the relics and to take them home where they would benefit relatives as well.
However the pilgrimage did not take place until 1440 so that the invested capital did not reap profit for a long time. By this time a new project had started that was kept secret. In the literature of the history of print there have been many speculations what was actually prepared in Strasbourg starting in 1438.

There are many indications that already printing with serially prepared "movable" letters on a printing press was invented and realized. On the other hand, it has to be admitted that there is no concrete proof of this.
Opposing this assumption is the fact that there is no known book that can be dated back to the time before 1460 in Strasbourg and all preserved early prints indicate Mainz as the printing site.

Gutenberg remained in Strasbourg until 1444. Several documents give evidence to his whereabouts but do not shed light on his new joint venture. It can be assumed that mirrors were selling well in 1440 in Aachen and generated profit.

The last evidence of Gutenberg’s stay in Strasbourg was March 12, 1444 when he was still paying the annually required wine tax. The end of the cooperative as well as the looming war and its related business insecurity may have caused Gutenberg to leave the city.

At this point there is a biographic gap of over four years. It may be possible that Gutenberg traveled about or stayed at an unknown place. It is only known that as of 1448 he had established himself once again in his hometown of Mainz. The first evidence of his presence dates to October 17, 1448 when he received a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus.

It is not known whether Gutenberg had already established his printing workshop and now needed cash to carry on with it, or if he was in the process of establishing it. However, it can be assumed that a printing workshop was soon established in Mainz since only three and a half years later the massive project of printing the Bible was tackled. Long periods of preparation and testing must have preceded this phase during which the printing of smaller projects helped gain the necessary experience for this prestigious and successful venture.

It also has to be assumed that Gutenberg had to prove the viability of his new technique before he found new investors. His workshop mainly produced school books of Latin grammar for which a great demand guaranteed success.
The obviously well-planned new start in Mainz, the fact that Gutenberg quickly found coworkers with the required skills and abilities, and his convincing of Johannes Fust, a wealthy merchant and moneylender, to grant the credit for the Bible project, all indicate that Gutenberg was not only a man with long-term vision, but also an excellent organizer and a calculating business man. This is further fueled by the (unproved) assumption that he organized two workshops, one for quick sales and the other for the production of the long-term Bible project. Thus the image of the lonely, ascetic and abused inventor that was presented by writers of the 19th century and even some authors of this century, can hardly be maintained.

In the summer of 1449 Gutenberg received a loan of 800 florins from Fust for the preparation of printing equipment. The collateral for this loan was the equipment that was produced with this money. The workshop was established at Hof Humbrecht which belonged to a distant relative of Gutenberg’s who resided in Frankfurt.

In the years 1452 and 1453 Fust gave Gutenberg a total of another 800 florins for the production of books. With this capital investment the typesetting and printing of the Bible could commence. While the Bible was printed between 1453 and 1454, there were works of a very different nature printed as well in Gutenberg’s workshops.

In the years 1454 and 1455 so-called letters of indulgence were printed, the revenue of which was used to finance a war against the Turks who were threatening the kingdom of Cyprus. As these letters were dated and issued in the name of the buyer, it is easy to determine their exact time of printing.

The printing of several thousands of such letters of indulgence, which were a great source of income for the church, showed already at this early phase of the history of printing the tremendous commercial possibilities of this invention - an aspect that surely was clear to the people of the time.

Towards the end of the printing of the Bibles there were disputes between Gutenberg and Fust, the source of which is not clearly known. Fust demanded his money back including all interest and accused Gutenberg of embezzling the funds.

He sued Gutenberg at the archbishop’s worldly court of justice. There are no documents about the first phase of the proceedings.

However, a legal document written by the notary Ulrich Helmasperger gives evidence of many connections. The wording is not clear on what constitutes the "common project" and the "project of the books", which was the subject of the partnership between the two opposing parties and the funds of which Gutenberg had used for other purposes, according to Fust. Fust won the case and Gutenberg was sentenced to turn over to Fust the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles.

Fust took this opportunity and continued the workshop with Gutenberg’s coworker Peter Schöffer as a new partner.

After Gutenberg lost the Bible printing workshop to Fust and Schöffer, work continued for him as owner of a printing shop. However, his work diminished in quantity as well as quality. The blow of the lost case must have been felt.

The printed items that were produced in the following years were of minor aesthetic and technical quality . They consisted mainly of small printed items that were produced quickly and without major problems, such as medical calendars, leaflets, inventories, etc.

While, as described earlier, Gutenberg was initially very concerned about keeping his invention a secret, so as not to have others compete with his profits, his attitude changed after losing the court case with Fust, which after all had led to the creation of another printing company. Around the end of the 1450s, he participated in the printing of a Bible in the city of Bamberg to which he at least supplied the lettering.

The classification of early works of print always faced a major difficulty: none of the items printed in Gutenberg’s workshops was marked by name. This repeatedly caused difficulties to print researchers. One particular work of which the origin and technical properties have not been determined is the "Catholicon" that was printed in Mainz and that is currently of great interest among researchers.

The Catholicon is a Latin dictionary put together by Johannes Balbus in 1286 intended primarily to aid in the proper understanding of the Bible. It had been copied repeatedly as it was used among educated individuals as a conversational almanac. Thus it was sure to have a good marketing potential even in Gutenberg’s times. Since the Catholicon consisted of a great quantity of text, the type was cut in a relatively small size to economically fill the pages.

The circulation of the Catholicon was very high for the times. Around 300 copies of 744 pages each were printed. In its colophon it is stated that it was printed in Mainz and completed in the year 1460. However, the name of the printer is not given. This work remains a mystery to researchers today.

After the changing, overall productive time in Mainz between 1448 and the early 1460s, the political development, this time of the nation, dealt Gutenberg several blows towards the end of his life.

In 1459 Diether von Isenburg-Büdingen was elected as archbishop and thus arch chancellor of Germany. In 1461 he called all electors to Nuremberg and appointed Gregor von Heimburg (who had been banned by the Pope) as his advisor.

In addition to this provocation, it was also decided to establish a council in Frankfurt. With skilled moves, the Pope managed to isolate Diether von Isenburg and to build up his losing opponent of the 1459 election, Adolf von Nassau. After the emperor gave his consent, the Pope announced the ousting of Dieter and the appointment of Adolf as archbishop of Mainz.

The citizens of Mainz declared their solidarity with Dieter von Isenburg especially since he had promised them to abolish the privileges of the clergy in the wine trade.

The Fust-Schöffer workshop printed a number of flyers some of which supported Dieter and some of which supported Adolf. Thus internal politics made early use of the art of printing as a new weapon in times of conflict.

On June 30, 1462 the allies of Adolf II. von Nassau were defeated by Friedrich von der Pfalz. In the night of October 28, 1462 Adolf and his allies raided the city of Mainz with about 500 armed soldiers who entered the city while several thousand men on horseback and on foot laid siege to it.

At the end of the fight, 400 citizens of Mainz had been killed. The troops of Dieter von Isenburg were too late, Adolf II. von Nassau had Mainz under his control. The following day all citizens were called to a meeting. A total of 800 attended the meeting, were surrounded and forcefully driven out of town. They lost all their property, their farms were expropriated in favor of followers of the new archbishop. At Shrovetide 1463 the exiled citizens were ordered back into Mainz. Of these 15 were thrown into prison, 300 were allowed to stay in the city, but 400 had to leave the city and swear never to return.

Gutenberg and his coworkers were among those driven out of town on October 30, 1462. Most of his compositors and printers moved to other cities and other countries where they could apply and pass on their knowledge.

To Gutenberg, who in those days was considered an aged man, Eltville offered the best refuge. In Eltville resided the husband of his niece and his long-term close friends the couple Gretchen Schwalbach and Heinrich Bechtermünze.

So once again Gutenberg was living in exile against his will. In Eltville a new workshop was established, surely initiated and supervised by Gutenberg. It belonged to the brothers Heinrich and Nicolaus Bechtermünze and was located on their estate. A Latin work, the "Vocabularius ex" was printed here from 1465 to 1467.

In January 1465, Gutenberg’s achievements were honored with a letter by archbishop Adolf von Nassau and he was given the title "Hofmann" (i.e. gentleman of the court). This honor, one of many to make up for past wrongs, was accompanied by material privileges: he was given social security, and received annually a court outfit as well as 2,180 liters of grain and 2,000 liters of wine tax-free.

Gutenberg received these grants in Mainz, which indicates that either he resided there again already or divided his time between Eltville and Mainz. This public honor indicates that his work did not go unnoticed among the people of his time, but rather that to a certain degree the magnitude of his achievement was felt.

There was no hostility towards the new technique, instead it was used immediately for various purposes. It was used not only to further Christian teachings but also as an effective political weapon, while single-page prints were used as an unlimited mass product for commercial and administrative purposes.

Therefore we can conclude that Gutenberg spent his remaining years well taken care of probably primarily in Mainz. In a chronic it is stated that "Hansz Gutenberger resides in the Algesheimer Bursch" by which the Algesheimer Hof near the Christoph church in Mainz was meant.

Three year after his appointment, Gutenberg passed away. A book that was printed after his death states that he passed away on February 3, 1468. He was buried in the church of Saint Frances. As the church and its yard were later destroyed, Gutenberg’s grave was also lost.

Since 1540 the centennial of the invention of the art of printing has been observed. Gutenberg as the father of this invention however, has only been celebrated since the French Revolution.

In 1827 the first Gutenberg monument was erected. In 1837 a larger monument with international participation was inaugurated by Bertel Thorvaldsen

In memory of the great son of the city, in 1900 the Gutenberg museum was established in Mainz as well as the International Gutenberg Society. Thus the memory of Gutenberg lives on in his hometown.