Johannes Gutenberg

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Johannes Gutenberg in a posthumous fantasy portrait from the 16th century. Authentic portraits have not survived.
The 42-line Bible , Gutenberg's main work
A printer in historical professional costume on a replica of a Gutenberg press at the Düsseldorf press exhibition in 1947

Johannes Gensfleisch , called Gutenberg (* around 1400 in Mainz ; † before February 26, 1468 there ), is considered to be the inventor of modern letterpress printing with movable metal type (mobile letter printing) and the printing press .

The use of movable type from 1450 onwards revolutionized the traditional method of book production (copying by hand) and triggered a media revolution in Europe. Gutenberg's book printing spread rapidly in Europe and later around the world (see Spread of Book Printing ) and is considered a key element of the Renaissance . In particular, his main work, the Gutenberg Bible , written between 1452 and 1454, is widely praised for its high aesthetic and technical quality.

Gutenberg's numerous contributions to the art of printing include the use of movable letters and a hand-casting instrument, as well as the development of a particularly practical alloy of tin , lead and antimony and an oily black printing ink . He also developed the printing press. Gutenberg's particular merit is to have brought all the components together in an efficient production process, which for the first time enabled the manufacture of books with identical text. In 1997, Gutenberg's book printing was voted the most important invention of the second millennium by the US magazine Time-Life, and in 1999 the American A&E Network named the Mainz-based “Man of the Millennium”.


Mainz Gutenberg monument on Gutenbergplatz , in the background the cathedral
Gutenberg statue in Strasbourg
Gutenberg statue in Łódź

Origin and youth

Johannes Gutenberg was born around 1400 as the third child of the patrician and merchant Friedrich (Friele) Gensfleisch and his second wife Else Wirich, probably in Mainz (in his parents' farm at Gutenberg ) and died there before February 26, 1468. His date of birth is not exact can be determined, the Gutenberg Society set the year of birth at 1400 at the end of the 19th century and then celebrated his 500th birthday in 1900. The nickname "zum Gutenberg" was only added by the family in the 1420s. Family names were still unsteady at the time, in many places it was customary at the time to add the name of the house at hand to the name of the house or to replace it with this. It is believed that he was baptized in the church of St. Christoph near the house where he was born.

In 1411, 117 patricians left Mainz at short notice in order to emphasize their claim to the privileges of tax and customs exemption in a dispute with the guilds . Among them was Father Gensfleisch with his children. It is very likely that the family moved to Eltville , where they owned a house from maternal inheritance. In 1413 hunger riots forced the family to leave Mainz again.

As the son of a wealthy patrician, Gutenberg probably attended a Latin school. The family had a close relationship with the St. Viktor monastery outside Mainz , and Gutenberg later joined the St. Viktor brotherhood. This suggests the visit to the monastery school .

A university degree can also be assumed with regard to his later activities. In the register books of the University of Erfurt there is an entry on the matriculation of a Johannes de Alta Villa (Eltville) in the summer semester of 1418. It is questionable whether this was Johannes Gutenberg.

A first document that mentions Gutenberg by name dates from 1420. The note reports on inheritance disputes between the Gutenberg siblings and a half-sister after the death of Friele Gensfleisch senior in 1419. The outcome is not reported, but this source confirms legal age (older than 14 years) Gutenbergs at this point, as he was not represented by a guardian.

The whereabouts and activities of Gutenberg in the 1420s are unknown. After another wave of emigration in the course of further disputes between guilds and patricians in 1429, only two sources prove that Gutenberg was not in Mainz. On the one hand his mother represented him in negotiations about the receipt of an annuity, on the other hand he was represented in the atonement contract of the Archbishop of Mainz Konrad III. Mentioned in 1430. He offered the refugees an unconditional return. Gutenberg turned down the offer and stayed away from the city.

Strasbourg years

From 1434 until 1444 Gutenberg's stay in Strasbourg can be documented. Order pending pension payments reclaim the city of Mainz, he led in March 1434 a debtors' prison of by traveling Mainz city clerk Nicholas wörrstadt. In order not to endanger the goodwill of the city of Strasbourg, he dismissed him shortly afterwards, and Mainz settled its debts in 1436.

Conclusions about Gutenberg's business and craft activities in Strasbourg are possible from the court files of the so-called Dritzehn trial. In 1437 he took Andreas Dritzehn as an apprentice to teach him the "polishing of precious stones" (coin and goldsmith craft). In addition, he founded a finance company with several partners to pre-finance a new technical process. In addition, he had a contractual agreement with Vogt Hans Riffe von Lichtenau for the production of pilgrimage souvenirs. Together with Andreas Dritzehn he should pilgrimage mirror of a lead - tin - alloy for Aachen produce -Wallfahrt in 1439th

Due to a plague epidemic which took pilgrimage but instead only in the year 1440th Andreas Dritzehn died in 1439 before it was completed, and his brothers Georg and Klaus tried to sue the company and reclaim part of the capital invested. The court files show that a further project was in progress, the company “aventur und kunst”, whereby “art” was to be understood as “craftsmanship” in the linguistic usage at the time. Johannes Gutenberg, Hans Riffe, Andreas Dritzehn and Andreas Heilmann had signed an additional contract for this. The minutes of the witness interviews contain statements about the purchase of lead and the construction of a press. It is believed that these were the first steps for Gutenberg's later developments. From 1441 to 1444 Gutenberg was listed several times in the tax lists of the city of Strasbourg. After that, his whereabouts are unknown.

Return to Mainz

Sources document his stay in Mainz only from October 1448 onwards. He signed a loan agreement for 150 guilders with his cousin Arnold Gelthus. It is believed that Gutenberg invested the loan in building a printing workshop in the Humbrechthof . He sought contact with other donors, such as the Mainz businessman Johannes Fust . In 1449 he gave him an interest-free loan of 800 guilders and received the equipment he had bought with the money as a pledge.

By 1450 Gutenberg's experiments were so advanced that he began setting and printing single-sheet prints and books . The early prints assigned to Gutenberg can be divided into two groups. On the one hand, small prints such as dictionaries , short grammars, letters of indulgence and calendars that were set with the Donat calendar type, and on the other hand the Latin Bible ( Gutenberg Bible or B42).

In 1452 Fust gave a second loan of 800 guilders in order to be able to realize the common "Werck der Bucher". This was probably the publication of the 42-line Bible. An important document that informs about this business relationship between Gutenberg and Fust and at the same time documents its end is the Helmasperger notarial instrument of November 6, 1455. Fust accused Gutenberg in 1455 that the money, which was intended exclusively for the printing of the Bible, to have used it for other printing projects. Gutenberg was defeated in the legal dispute, and he had to cede the workshop and inventory of the B42 to Fust. Fust successfully continued the business with Gutenberg's colleague Peter Schöffer , while Gutenberg returned to his parents' house at Hof zum Gutenberg to set up a printing company again.

Since the Mainz lawyer Dr. Konrad Humery received printing equipment from Gutenberg's estate in 1468, a business partnership between the two is assumed, which enabled Gutenberg to continue working in a printing workshop. In 1465 Johannes Gutenberg was accepted into his court servants by Adolf von Nassau. As a courtier, he received clothing, grain and wine every year and was also exempt from services and taxes.

Until his death he lived in the Algesheimer Hof in the immediate vicinity of the house where he was born, Hof zum Gutenberg, and his baptistery St. Christoph in the old town of Mainz.

Gutenberg's exact date of death is not known. The widespread view that he died on February 3, 1468 is derived from a statement that the local historian Ferdinand Wilhelm Emil Roth , who has repeatedly proven to be a forger of historical sources , published in the Darmstädter Zeitung in 1913 and which supposedly read:

"Anno domini MCCCCLXVIII uf sant Blasius day starp the ersam myster (!) Hen Ginsfleiß, the god genade."

Since no one except Roth has seen this note, this widespread date of death is likely incorrect. The most reliable source for Gutenberg's date of death is a notarized confirmation from a Dr. Konrad Humery, in which he testifies that he received a printing press from Gutenberg's estate before February 26, 1468 . The only thing that is certain is that Gutenberg died before February 26, 1468. According to the obituary of a relative, Gutenberg was buried in the Franciscan Church in Mainz. However, after numerous renovations, this was torn down in the 18th century and replaced by a new building. Gutenberg's grave can therefore no longer be found.

No authentic portraits of Gutenberg have survived.

Secured biographical data

According to Andreas Venzke and information from the Göttingen State and University Library, the secured life stations are only the following:

1394-1405  Gutenberg was born as a citizen of Mainz during this period (perhaps not until 1408).
1420-1428 In any case, he stayed in Mainz in 1420 and 1427/28.
1430 Has "moved out" from Mainz.
1434-1444 Lives in (near) Strasbourg and runs various business groups also involved in “printing”.
1448-1457 Lives in Mainz, has founded a business community and prints the Bible.
1455 In Ulrich Helmasperger's notary's office, it is certified that Fust Gutenberg advanced a sum of 1,550 guilders, which he borrowed himself and had to pay six percent interest. Gutenberg had to repay the loan to Fust with interest (a total of 2020 guilders). Since Gutenberg could not comply with the request, he had to hand over the printer's workshop with the almost finished Bibles, which he had used as security, to Fust, who finished Gutenberg's work.
1465 Adolf II of Nassau , Archbishop of Mainz, appoints Gutenberg with a certificate dated January 17, 1465 in the electoral castle in Eltville as court nobleman and sends him a court dress, 2180 liters of grain and 2000 liters of wine.

Printing process

Gutenberg invented letterpress printing by improving and developing the reproduction and printing processes that were already known at the time (working with wooden blocks, models and printing plates or stamps ) into an overall system. The core of the developments were the Gutenberg's manual casting instrument by means of which printing type individually, could be poured faster and finer, the invention of the printing press , and an improved ink .

Hand casting instrument and manufacture of letters

What was new was the production of letters using a replica process (casting). The letters were made of an alloy of tin, lead, antimony and a little bismuth. Gutenberg made a raised, reversed shape (patrix) of each character from hard metal, which was then hammered into copper. The recessed form of the letter created in the copper formed the negative form (die). The liquid alloy was poured into this negative mold with the aid of the hand casting instrument . The hand-casting instrument used to make the printers' type was made of wood with two metal jaws. The used die was held by a metal bracket. After cooling, the types were brought to the same length and sorted into type boxes .

Typesetting and printing

Relief printer workshop at the Gutenberg monument (Mainz)

The metal letters were joined together to form lines with the help of an angle hook . Even spacing between letters and lines was achieved by using blank material . The uniform justification of the B42 was created through the use of types, ligatures and abbreviations of different widths. A total of 290 different types could be identified in the Bible print.

The lines set in the angle hook were then put together in a placement boat to form a page or column. This set was coated with printing ink by means of a pressure pad (a small leather bag made from dog leather and filled with horse hair) and placed in the press. Before printing, the paper was moistened, which opened its pores. The ink is absorbed into the pores of the sheet during printing. After drying, the pores close and thus surround the printing ink sustainably. The prepared paper was attached to the press cover with dots and protected with a wooden frame from the absorption of paint in areas that were not to be printed. The inked set was transferred to the paper with pressure ( letterpress printing ). By punctures the pressure of the back (could reverse printing ) the first printing the front to be adjusted exactly so that the type area not overlapped. The letters withstood the great pressure of the press and could be used several times. Until then, printing plates were mostly made of wood, which were unique ( wooden panel printing ), or as letter printing with letters made as unique.

Printing ink

The thin-bodied printing inks that had been common up to that point were suitable for printing on wooden panels, but Gutenberg developed an emulsion of linseed oil varnish and soot for lead letters that was sufficiently viscous and dried faster ( viscosity ), which enabled printing on the front and back of a sheet. A piece of oil bread was used as an indicator for the production of the linseed oil varnish, which required a lot of time and attention . Other possible substances involved in the printing inks of early letterpress printing were turpentine, resin pitch, black pitch, pebbles, cinnabar, resin, gall apples, vitriol and shellac. In the first few prints, the press was only used to print the black text elements. The awards ( red drawings ) were added later by hand.

Printing press

Gutenberg's construction of a printing press was probably a further development and redesign of a screw press (see also hand press ). These have long been used in paper and wine production. The turning of the spindle with the help of the pressure lever caused the downward movement of a vertical metal plate (crucible), which distributed the pressure evenly on the base with the pressure block. The pad was on a moveable cart that allowed easy access. The multi-part hinged lid into which the printable material was placed was also attached to the cart.

He printed the 42-line so-called Gutenberg Bible (abbreviated B42) using the procedure described here and based on a Vulgate . The Gutenberg Bible is still considered to be one of the most beautiful products of the art of printing, which is often justified by the fact that after more than 500 years it still looks like it did when it was created. This is thanks to the quality of the paper and parchment used , as well as Gutenberg's extraordinary care in typesetting. In fact, the font and its composition are responsible for the beauty of this Bible, which roughly correspond to a Textura and Schwabacher .

Prints next to the Gutenberg Bible

In the early prints there are no printer's marks or details in the colophon that confirm Gutenberg as a printer. Therefore, the reconstruction of his activities turns out to be difficult. Since the types of the Donat calendar type and the B42 only reappeared after Gutenberg's death and were probably sold to Schöffer, they had probably been in Gutenberg's possession by then. It should also be noted that most researchers rule out the existence of another printing workshop in Mainz (in addition to that of Fust / Schöffer and von Gutenberg) in the initial phase of letterpress printing and that there are no other printing works in Germany until around 1460. These circumstances and the fact that Fust and Schöffer provided most of their prints with names means that the prints listed are attributed to Gutenberg. These should have secured Gutenberg an income. “These are primarily less extensive works that appealed to customers from a wide variety of readers. For these small prints, comparatively little investments were required, the refinancing of which was evident thanks to the short production times and quick sales. "

The Donat calendar type was used for the prints listed (exception: Catholicon). It is sometimes also referred to as Gutenberg's "Urtype" and classified in the Textura font family. Compared to the Textura of the B42, the Donat calendar type is larger and coarser. In the course of its use, the type was repeatedly supplemented by further letter variants.

These were mainly prints of the Latin grammar “Ars minor” by Aelius Donatus . This textbook was one of the standard works of Latin teaching even in the manuscript era. In the early days of printing, about 28 pages could be set, printed and, due to the high demand, sold quickly. Up to 1468 there are 24 editions, of which today only fragments are preserved. These requirements are not identical in sentences. There are 26, 27, 28 and 30-line donations, all of which were printed on parchment. The typesetting and printing of these school books do not seem to have been fully developed. These Donate gave their name to the Donat calendar type.

Letters of indulgence (1454/1455)

Letters of indulgence were printed on one side with a formulaic text in the Donat calendar type, and the first editions appeared on parchment. After the purchase, the believer only had to enter his name in the space provided and hand it in at the next confession. As a result, he was sentenced to sin. The possibility of reproduction created by the printing press enabled a high circulation and wide distribution. One copy that has survived to this day is dated October 22, 1454, another on January 26, 1455 by a handwritten note.

Turkish calendar for the year 1455

This pamphlet with the headline “Eyn manung der cristenheit widder die durken” was a propaganda pamphlet that was supposed to warn of the Turks and demand support for a crusade (occasion: conquest of Constantinople in 1453 ). The calendar began on January 1, 1455, and in each month, in addition to the date of the new moon, a spiritual or secular ruler was called to resist. Although the text consisted of verses rhymed in pairs, it was set on continuous lines.

A complete copy that has survived to this day ( Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Rar. 1 ) consists of six sheets and allows conclusions to be drawn about the type inventory. In addition to the abbreviations and punctuation marks, this consisted of 93 lowercase letters and 15 uppercase letters . The missing capital letters K, W, X, Y, Z have been replaced by lowercase letters. It can therefore be assumed that the type set used, the Donat calendar type, was originally intended for Latin texts.

Turkish bull (1455/1456)

Pope Calixtus III. called in the bull announced on June 29, 1455 for participation and support for a crusade from May 1, 1456. The Latin and German editions (translation by Bishop Heinrich Kalteisen von Drontheim) of this pamphlet were therefore produced between June 1455 and April 1456. A complete German copy (25 printed pages) can be found today in the Berlin State Library, a Latin one in Princeton / USA.

Provinciale Romanum (1457)

This list of all archbishoprics and dioceses was written in Latin. Based on the condition of the types used, the print is dated to 1457 and its volume is estimated at 10 sheets. The surviving sheets two to nine are now in Kiev.

Bloodletting and laxation calendar for the year 1457

This time-typical medical guide indicated the most favorable days for bleeding and purging. Excerpts from the calendar were found in Paris.

Cisianus, German edition

The memorial poem Cisianus is assigned to the same period of origin . It was used to memorize church festivals and holy days. A fragment can be found in the Cambridge University Library today.

Astronomical Calendar (1457)

This was used to create and interpret planetary constellations and horoscopes. After analyzing the type status, the printing was done according to the Turkish bull. The calendar consisted of six sheets, which were only glued together to achieve its full size (67 cm × 72 cm). On the back of a found fragment there is a test print of a Bible page with 40 lines per column, which was set with the type material of the B36.

Sibylle Book (approx. 1457)

Only a few fragment strips have survived from this “prophecy of the Sibyl”. There are hardly any possibilities for dating or interpretation. What is striking about this print, however, is that the typeface does not result in continuous lines, the type margins are fuzzy, the type print is uneven and the line spacing appears to be insufficient. It is questionable whether the casting instrument and type casting were experimented with at this pressure.

Bible with 36 lines

36-line Gutenberg Bible (approx. 1461) in the Plantin-Moretus Museum Antwerp

Gutenberg's participation in the printing of the Bible with 36 (B36) lines is still up for discussion and cannot be clearly proven. Today 13 copies and some fragments of this Bible edition have survived. It was printed with a further developed Donat calendar type. Each page is divided into two columns, each containing 36 lines due to the large font size. The print comprised a total of 1768 pages. The original text for the first few pages is unknown. The following pages were set based on the B42 model, with subtleties in the set, such as the margin adjustment, not being as precisely worked out as in the template. Information about the time of origin can be found in a rubricator's note on a single sheet. This states that the rubrications were completed in 1461. From this it can be concluded that it was built between 1458 and 1460.

Despite some irregularities in typesetting and printing, the Bible is credited to experienced and skilled typesetters and printers. This and the type material used allow speculations about Gutenberg's involvement. However, a paper analysis showed that the paper used came from Bamberg paper mills. Furthermore, most of the Bibles preserved today come from monasteries in the Bamberg region. Albrecht Pfister , a Bamberg printer, used the B36 type verifiably from 1461 and was therefore more often referred to as the B36 printer. However, the set of his first dated print ( “Der Edelstein” by Ulrich Boner , 1461) cannot be compared qualitatively with that of the Bible and thus excludes Pfister as a printer. An employee may have left Gutenberg's print shop and took the type set with him, or Gutenberg sold his type material and placed staff trained by him in Bamberg to finance further work, such as the Catholicon .


This teaching and reference work for understanding the Latin Bible was written by Johannes Balbus in 1286. There is constant discussion about the Catholicon's printing history, and here, too, Gutenberg's collaboration can neither be clearly proven nor ruled out. The editions were printed on different types of paper, some of which, confirmed by a paper analysis, were not produced until after 1468. The sentence and the types, on the other hand, are very similar. This riddle has not yet been clearly clarified. In one issue in the Kolophon, in addition to a song of praise to the art of printing, the city of Mainz as the printing location and the year 1460 for printing are recorded. A name is not mentioned, however. This book consists of 726 printed pages with two columns each. The typeface of a Gotico-Antiqua was used . This is a significantly smaller cut than the Donat calendar type and Textura used otherwise . Since Fust and Schöffer used a different variant of the Gotico-Antiqua for prints from the years 1459 and 1462, these are excluded as printers, and Gutenberg's print shop is considered as the place of origin, at least for the 1460 edition.

Gutenberg's importance

Gutenberg's European book printing production until 1800
The sculpture Der Moderne Buchdruck , in memory of its inventor Gutenberg on the Berlin Walk of Ideas 2006
Temporary sculpture installation by the concept artist Ottmar Hörl in the Gutenberg commemorative year 2018 in Eltville Castle

Gutenberg's developments ushered in a third media revolution (after language training and the invention of complex writing systems). The movable type process enabled books to be produced faster, cheaper and in larger quantities than before. Printed products soon became part of everyday life and replaced manuscripts. The humanism and the Reformation were not materially affected by the printing press, he only allowed their widespread use. The system contributed to literacy by making texts and thus education accessible to far more people than before. For various media scholars, the invention from the Gutenberg printing plant heralds a new era in media development, for example with Vilém Flusser or Marshall McLuhan and his “ Gutenberg galaxy ”.

Controversy about Gutenberg's printing technique

In 2003, the Italian professor Bruno Fabbiani put forward the thesis that the 42-line Bible was not printed with single letters but with entire printing plates, and justified this with overlapping letters and other typesetting defects. His claim found no echo in science and was rejected as "absurd" by the curators of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.


The Gutenberg monument in Mainz in 1840 on the Neuss medal on the 400th anniversary of the invention of the art of printing with movable type . Front.
The back of this medal.
German postage stamp (2000) for Gutenberg's 600th birthday.


Web links

Commons : Johannes Gutenberg  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Johannes Gutenberg  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved November 27, 2006 from Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD - entry 'printing'
  2. See also the election of Gutenberg as the most important man of the second millennium by four prominent US journalists: Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, Brent Bowers: 1,000 Years, 1,000 People. Ranking The Men and Women Who Shaped The Millennium. Kodansha International, New York NY u. a. 1998, ISBN 1-56836-253-6 .
  3. ^ Klaus Graf : Ferdinand Wilhelm Emil Roth (1853-1924) as a forger . In: Archivalia from October 1, 2015 with reference to unpublished research on Gutenberg's death day and the suggestion that it was also a forgery. Mainz research has taken up this since 2017: Is Gutenberg's death date a fake? Curator Cornelia Schneider doubts documents on the anniversary of the printer's death . In: Allgemeine Zeitung of June 10, 2017 .
  4. ^ Weekly supplement of the "Darmstädter Zeitung" of February 22, 1913 ULB Darmstadt .
  5. Interview with Stephan Füssel from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz . Broadcast on February 3, 2018 in SWR aktuell (Rhineland-Palatinate); accessed on February 4, 2018.
  6. Interview with Stephan Füssel from Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz. Broadcast on February 3, 2018 in SWR aktuell (Rhineland-Palatinate); accessed on February 4, 2018.
  7. ^ Cornelia Schneider: Mainzer Drucker - Printing in Mainz (I). The first printer: Gutenberg. In: City of Mainz (ed.): Gutenberg. Aventure and Art. From secret company to the first media revolution. Mainz 2000, pp. 190–211, here p. 208.
  8. Ferdinand Geldner (Ed.): The Turkish calendar. "The manung of the Christianity aries the durks". Mainz 1454. The oldest completely preserved printed book, rare. 1 of the Bavarian State Library. Edited in facsimile. Reichert, Wiesbaden 1975, ISBN 3-920153-36-7 .
  9. ^ Digitized version of the Munich copy at the Bavarian State Library.
  10. ^ Digitized version of the Berlin copy at the Berlin State Library.
  11. ^ Digitized copy in Princeton at Princeton University.
  12. ^ Helmut Mathes: Controversy about Johannes Gutenberg. In: Deutscher Drucker No. 38 / November 18, 2004, pp. 9–11 (PDF file; 342 kB)
  13. Gutenberg Museum answers: "Fabbiani's thesis is absurd" . In: Deutscher Drucker No. 41 / December 9, 2004, pp. 9–11 (PDF, 398 kB)
  14. ^ Johannes Gutenberg in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature of the IAU (WGPSN) / USGS
  15. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 doi: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .