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
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
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
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 archbishops 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
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 Gutenbergs father was among the
citys 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 Gutenbergs 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 Gutenbergs 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. Gutenbergs 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 Gutenbergs 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, Gutenbergs
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 Gutenbergs 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 mothers
Gutenbergs 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
The last evidence of Gutenbergs 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
Gutenbergs 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
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
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 archbishops
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 Gutenbergs 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
The classification of early works of print
always faced a major difficulty: none of the
items printed in Gutenbergs 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
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
Gutenbergs 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
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
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
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, Gutenbergs 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
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, Gutenbergs 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
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