Johannes Gutenberg

gigatos | January 18, 2022


Johannes Gutenberg, or Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, d. February 3, 1468 there) – German craftsman, goldsmith and printer, creator of the first industrial printing method in the world. There is no consensus among scholars as to whether the first prints were produced during his stay in Strasbourg (1434-1444) or only in the printing house he founded in Mainz in 1448. Different years are conventionally accepted as the year in which Gutenberg first used movable type – most commonly either 1440 or 1450. His finest publication was a 42-line Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible, printed between 1452 and 1455.

Gutenberg developed his own version of fonts, made of metal, but their technique remains unclear. He constructed an apparatus for casting them, in which the novelty was the use of interchangeable dies. He also designed his own version of a printing press, based on known bookbinding presses. His pioneering achievement was the creation of the first large publishing house. Equally important achievements are the successful typefaces used for printing and the development of the basic principles of text composition.

Despite Gutenberg”s enormous influence on the development of printing, little secure information survives about his life and publishing activities. Authors differ in dating his publications and in describing the printing technique he used. Gutenberg”s work contributed to the rapid development of printing in Europe, and his associates and disciples disseminated it in the centers they established using his solutions.


Johannes Gutenberg was probably born in Mainz, a German city on the Rhine River that was the capital of an archbishopric. Archbishops held the title of arch-chancellor of the Reich, crowned rulers, and convened their conventions. The once wealthy city was referred to by chroniclers as “the golden head” or “the diadem of the Reich,” but it began to slowly decline. There were clear differences in the positions held by the privileged members of the patriciate (including the archbishop”s officials) and the craftsmen associated in the guilds. Conflicts between them grew under the influence of the city”s problems with growing debts and because of the decline in population, which began in the mid-14th century and was caused by epidemics (the Black Death claimed especially many victims).

Johannes” parents differed greatly in social status: his father, Friele (Friedrich) Gensfleisch zur Laden, was a wealthy patrician, while his mother, Else Wirich, was the daughter of a stallholder. They got married in 1386. A son Friele and a daughter Else were also born of this union. Johannes was their youngest child. The father (d. 1419) was probably a cloth merchant, and he also invested his earnings in other towns. He belonged to a corporation of miners, and in 1411 he became the city accountant. The family lived in Mainz in a two-story house called “Hof zum Gutenberg” (the later adopted surname, attested earliest in a document from 1427), of which Friele was probably a co-owner.

Childhood and Youth (to 1434)

Very little reliable information has survived about Johannes Gutenberg”s life. Almost nothing is known about his childhood, youth or the education he received. The year of his birth is unknown – it is assumed that he was born between 1394 and 1404, most likely in 1400 or shortly thereafter.

Friele Gensfleisch left Mainz in 1411, during one of the conflicts between the patriciate and the guilds. It is likely that between 1411 and 1413 Johannes lived with his family in Eltville am Rhein, where his mother had inherited a house. Some scholars (such as Albert Kapr) have advanced the conjecture that he completed his studies in Erfurt, identifying him with a student entered as Johannes de Alta Villa, who earned his degree in the winter semester of 1419

The earliest known document undisputedly naming Johannes is from 1420 – it concerns a dispute over his deceased father”s inheritance. Albert Kapr believed that in the 1420s Gutenberg was living in Mainz, where he was gaining knowledge in metalworking. In 1428, Mainz”s trouble in settling its debts intensified, causing a political crisis that resulted in many patricians leaving the city. Johannes most likely did so as well, but it is not known where he went. In 1430 Henchin zu Gudenberg was listed in a document by Archbishop Conrad III among the patricians outside Mainz. In 1433 his mother died and the estate was divided among his three children. Johannes received a pension from the city”s funds. However, whether because of debt problems or a desire to punish the emigrant, the Mainz authorities did not flock to pay, and the debt to him grew, reaching 310 guilders in 1434.

Residence in Strasbourg (1434-1444)

Gutenberg”s stay in Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, a city much larger than Mainz, is well documented. Documents related to his stay in Strasbourg date back to 1434-1444, when Gutenberg convinced the Strasbourg authorities to arrest a writer from Mainz who was staying in the city. Thanks to this move, he received from the authorities of his hometown a promise of repayment, and later, in installments, the outstanding amount of money.

Gutenberg led an active social life, entertaining many guests, as indicated by the preserved receipts for wine and vodka supplied to him. In 1437 a patrician woman Ennelin zur Yserin Thüre filed a complaint against him before the bishop”s court for not keeping his promise of marriage. It is not known what the verdict of the court was, most probably the marriage was not concluded.

Gutenberg trained students for a fee, among others teaching them the art of gemstone grinding. He and his partners also started a business of making and selling mirrors for pilgrims heading to Aachen. He also prepared another venture, Aventur und Kunst, about which little is known, which was not realized due to the death of one of the partners. Opinions are divided on what these plans consisted of. Perhaps these were the first attempts at printing (hence some sources give 1440 as the date of Gutenberg”s invention) or some other form of mass production, such as stamps (punc).

Return to Mainz and founding of a printing house (1448-1455)

It is not known where Gutenberg stayed after his probable departure from Strasbourg in 1444. His name appears in Mainz on a document dated October 1448, when he took out a loan of 150 guilders there. He is believed to have returned to his family home (“Hof zum Gutenberg”) with partners from Strasbourg, with whom he set up his first printing shop – the first major publishing house in history.

Probably as early as 1449 Gutenberg was in business with Johann Fust, an enterprising goldsmith and bookseller. He borrowed 800 guilders from him to equip a more modern printing house, which was done the following year. There is no consensus among authors as to whether it was still located in the family house or whether it was moved to another workshop. After receiving another 800 guilders from Fust in 1452 as a contribution to the joint venture (the 1455 document called it Werk der Bücher, or “work of books”), he already had two printing houses. In the older one he issued small publications, and in the newer one a 42-line Bible (known as the Gutenberg Bible) was printed between 1452 and 1455, which is the most highly regarded of all his editions. There may have been plans to publish missals at the second printing house as well, but this idea was withdrawn, probably because of difficulties in making the various printing scripts or because of the necessary, and difficult to obtain, approval from church authorities.

In 1454, serious disagreements arose between Gutenberg and Fust over financial settlements and their nature. The dispute between them was settled in 1455 by the court of the Archbishop of Mainz, but its final verdict is unknown. Gutenberg did, however, give Fust a substantial sum of money and probably also most of the print run of the 42-line Bible. His workshop was taken over by Fust, who employed Gutenberg”s pupil Peter Schöffer. This printing house produced prints formerly attributed to Gutenberg, including the Mainz Psalter (1457), the first text with printed illuminations (red and blue initials, carved in metal, not wood), although it is possible that the first work (including the printing of the first contributions) was done as early as 1455 and that Gutenberg participated in it. Not all authors agree that Gutenberg was painfully affected by the dispute. Leonhard Hoffmann has argued that by 1455 the printing of the Bible had already been completed for at least a year, and Gutenberg was not forced to give up his workshop to Fust.

The last years of his life (1455-1468)

After the dispute with Fust, Gutenberg continued his publishing activities, but on a much smaller scale. He had financial problems, as evidenced by the fact that in 1458 he stopped repaying a loan he had taken out back in 1442 from the Church of St. Thomas in Strasbourg. In 1458 King Charles VII Valesius sent the engraver Nicolas Jenson, later a well-known Venetian printer, to study with him.

In 1462 there was a power struggle in Mainz. A year earlier, Pope Pius II had deposed the previous Archbishop, Theodoric, and installed Adolphus II in his place. The deposed archbishop, who had the support of the city council, refused to relinquish power; Adolphus II took the city by force. Gutenberg, like many of the citizens (including his disciples, later developing new printing centers), probably left the city, going perhaps to Eltville am Rhein, where prints were published in his types. Eltville was the residence of the Archbishop of Mainz, Adolf II, who received the distinguished printer kindly and made him his courtier in 1465. He allowed him to leave the court, so we can assume that Gutenberg took up residence again in Mainz at the end of his life.

According to information provided by the theologian Jakob Wimpfeling, Gutenberg lost his eyesight in old age. It is also known that he joined the Mainz brotherhood at St. Victor”s church, which prepared for a good death and funeral. A friend of the printer, Leonhard Mengoss, noted his date of death – February 3, 1468. In the same month the fonts and printing equipment were taken over from the deceased by the lawyer Konrad Humery with the archbishop”s permission.

Gutenberg was buried in the Franciscan church in Mainz, which was demolished in the 18th century, so his grave has not survived. In 1499 a relative of the deceased, Adam Gelthus, founded an inscription celebrating him as the inventor of printing. It is not known whether the inscription appeared only in paper form or was placed in the form of a tablet on the grave. In 1504 Professor Ivo Wittig founded a tablet dedicated to the publisher, placed on the wall of the “Hof zum Gutenberg”; it was lost during the Napoleonic Wars.

Johannes Gutenberg is sometimes mistakenly considered the inventor of movable type, even though its history dates back to the mid-11th century and its creator was Bi Sheng. Thus, movable type was in use in China long before Europeans adopted it. For years there was a dispute about who was the first to use it in Europe. According to some authors, it was already used in 1430 by Laurens Janszoon Coster, a Dutchman living in Haarlem, but there is no convincing evidence of that.

Gutenberg designed a printing press, similar to the already known bookbinding presses, which were used to emboss decorations and even letters on book bindings – stamps with concave images of letters were used to produce book bindings by a Dominican, Konrad Forster. He also benefited from the experience of his predecessors who created paper manuscript books, as well as from the knowledge of the printing technique with single stamps or appropriate plates made of wood or metal. He could also observe the activity of other craftsmen who worked with metal and put letters on their products: armourers, goldsmiths and coin minters, as well as those who put signs on other materials (such as leather or clay) and those who engraved in wood.

The method of type construction and typesetting was developed by Gutenberg and was subsequently refined by him, which is why he is credited with the invention of modern printing. Much pondering by scholars concerns the question of the printer”s inspiration. It is not known whether he had exposure to Far Eastern printing technology, his early printing process is unknown, or even what his first publications using movable type were and when they were produced. It is possible that he was already experimenting with the printing technique while in Strasbourg (1434-1444), publishing small texts not preserved to modern times. The fonts used by Gutenberg have not survived, so it is impossible to determine their composition. It is also difficult to accurately reconstruct the process of type creation with the use of a casting apparatus using stamps (patrices) needed for the production of matrices.

Stamp and die making and the printing process are known from later times. In the standard process of making type, a steel stamp (stamped by punching) was driven by striking a soft copper block with a hammer to form a die, which was then ground. It was then placed on the bottom of the casting apparatus, and the type was cast by filling the mold from above with molten metal. The matrix could be used to create hundreds or thousands of identical fonts, so the same character appearing anywhere in the text of a book appeared to be the same. Fonts of uniform size were used along with other elements by the typesetter in arbitrary settings (hence the name “movable type”) to assemble printing forms from which pages were prepared for printing.

Gutenberg”s Bibles were printed using large numbers of individual fonts – as many as 100,000 by some estimates. It took a long time to set each page, as work had to be done loading the press, inking the type, pulling back the press, hanging the sheets, distributing the type, etc. The Gutenberg and Fust workshop may have employed as many as 25 craftsmen.

The method of making type by means of a casting apparatus, using the stamps needed to create the dies, commonly attributed to Gutenberg, is sometimes questioned. All printed letters should be nearly identical, with some variation due to improper printing and inking. However, Pierre Simon Fournier has suggested that Gutenberg may not have used a cast type of reusable die, but wooden fonts that were engraved individually. A similar suggestion was made by Paul Nash in 2004. The question has been raised as to whether Gutenberg used movable type at all. In 2004, Italian professor Bruno Fabbiani stated that an examination of a 42-line Bible showed overlapping letters, suggesting that Gutenberg did not actually use movable type, but rather used whole plates, with successive letters being pressed sequentially into the plate and then printed.


The order of printings published by Johannes Gutenberg is not known. Probably the earliest were the popular Ars minor Latin textbooks by Elius Donatus, the so-called Donats. These were small booklets printed on parchment or velvet, with a maximum of 14 pages (28 pages), distributed in large numbers, estimated at 4800-9600 copies per year. According to Albert Kapr, they were published as early as 1440-1444 in Strasbourg (hence some assume the conventional year of Gutenberg”s invention to be 1440), while other authors date them to the Mainz period and the early 1550s. The textbooks were embossed in the printing script of “Donats and Calendars” (DK). None of them have survived in their entirety. Based on minor differences in the printing of the surviving fragments, at least 24 varieties stand out, indicating that this most popular textbook of the 15th century was frequently reprinted by Gutenberg.

The Book of the Sibylline

The poetic work The Book of the Sibylline, concerning prophecies related to King Solomon (who is said to have been foretold of the coming of Christ and the rise of the Church), written around 1360 in a Thuringian monastery, was also published by Gutenberg. Only a small fragment of the text, published in prose in German, concerning the Last Judgment survives. The scrap of paper, printed on both sides, measures 9 by 12.5 cm and has a total of 22 lines. The edition probably had 14 sheets (28 pages). The printing is not very neat (some letters are reflected more strongly than others, making them not all equally legible and their outlines equally sharp), indicating a not very advanced casting apparatus. The right edge of the text column has not been aligned, and the lines are not in a straight line (some letters stick up or down). According to many scholars, this means that this is the first or one of the first printings by a craftsman. Albert Kapr dated it to 1440 and linked it to Frederick III”s assumption of the imperial throne. Many other authors, such as Frieder Schanze, disagreed that the print was produced during the printer”s stay in Strasbourg and dated it to the later Mainz period, giving various suggestions for the probable year of its production, e.g. 1450, 1452-1453 or 1454. The work was published in the “Donats and Calendars” typeface, which, however, was designed for Latin rather than German texts, so some capital letters (e.g. K, W, Z) could not be printed.

The 42-line Bible (Gutenberg Bible)

Of special note among Gutenberg”s printings is the 42-line Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible, published in Mainz from 1452 to 1455 and considered a masterpiece of typography. It has no title page, no publisher information, and no page numbering. It is characterized by unsurpassed text composition. A Gothic texture was used, with a smaller font than the “Donats and Calendars” typeface, but with a more elegant appearance. The Bible was usually bound in two volumes: the first contained 224 pages and the second 319 pages (two of which were unprinted). The text was folded in two paginas, contrary to the name not always containing 42 lines (some pages had 40 or 41).

Gutenberg sometimes used the expensive technique of two-color printing when printing the first pages of the Bible, those with fewer than 42 lines (headings and chapter numbers were printed in red, and the remaining text in black). However, it was much more profitable for the publisher to publish Bibles consisting entirely of pages with 42 lines, the test of which was printed entirely in black. High quality paper imported from Piedmont was used. The printed copies were then rubricated, illuminated and bound. It is estimated that 30-35 copies were produced on parchment and 140-145 on paper. Forty-eight copies survived (12 on parchment, 36 on paper).

Publications related to the Turkish threat

After the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, Western Europe became increasingly fearful of the growing power of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, there was a demand for prints informing about this threat and encouraging to fight. In 1454 the so-called Turkish Calendar, calculated for the year 1455, was published in German. It has, as the first known print in history, the title – Eyn manung der cristenheit widder die durken (“Warning for Christianity against the Turks”). It was a rhymed proclamation to fight the Ottoman invaders, containing prayers, and also the first printed New Year”s wishes (Eyn gut selig nuwe Jar, “good and happy New Year”).

Beginning in 1454 (the oldest surviving has a date of October 22), Gutenberg printed Paulinus Chappe”s (Zappe) Cyprus Indulgence Letter, concerning the indulgence promised by Pope Nicholas V to those donating funds for the defense of Cyprus against the Turks. The headings and first words of a given paragraph of the letter were printed in the handwriting of “Donats and Calendars”, while the 31 lines of the letter were printed in a new smaller font (the letters were more legible). By April of the following year, there were seven editions of the letter, printed single-sided on velin. Ferdinand Geldner estimated the circulation of the letter at about 10,000 copies.

In 1456, in improved print (“Catholicon”), the so-called Bull of Turkey, a bull of Pope Callistus III, issued on June 29, 1455, and calling for a crusade against the Turks, which was to begin on May 1, 1456, was published. One copy of the bull printed in German and one in Latin survives.

Minor publications from the years 1456-1458

Towards the end of 1456, a Doctors” Calendar was published for the following year. Also printed at that time was the so-called German Cisioianus, containing 12 lines allowing one to remember the order of important feasts in the calendar of the Catholic Church, as well as the Provinciale Romanum – a list of archbishoprics and bishoprics of that Church. All of these printings issued by Gutenberg were embossed with the “Donats and Calendars” typeface.

However, it was not until around 1457-1458 that the Table of Planets for Astrologers was published (by Gottfried Zedler and some other authors incorrectly called the Astronomical Calendar for 1448, allegedly published a year earlier. The entire text was printed on 6 sheets of parchment, which formed one large card when glued together, measuring about 65 by 75 cm. Authors differ in their assessment of the quality of this publication: Zedler considered it to be the first printing from Mainz, while others were in favour of dating it 10 years later (established by Carl Wehmer on the basis of prints stored in the Jagiellonian Library), stressing the high level of composition and printing.

36-line Bible

In the improved handwriting of the “Donats and Calendars,” the 36-line Bible, a reprint of the 42-line Bible, was rebound around 1459-1460. It differed in minor details, including headings of a different type. It is believed to have been produced in Bamberg, and to have been published by Gutenberg or his disciples (in the latter case, Gutenberg would only have lent the fonts). Perhaps at the request of Georg von Schaumberg, Bishop of Bamberg, the printing was done by his associates Johann Numeister, Albrecht Pfister or Heinrich Keffer.

This Bible has as many as 1768 pages of print in folio, and was often bound in three volumes. Probably 20 copies were printed on parchment and 60 on paper. There are 13 preserved 36-line Bibles, not counting small fragments. It was inferior in quality to the 42-line Bible – it has a less neat typeface and the edges of printing columns were not aligned.

Uncertain attribution

It is possible that other prints printed in the “Catholicon” font may have come out of Gutenberg”s workshop, about which there is much doubt as to where they were produced, their chronology, and the details of their printing methods:

Priority dispute

In 1620, the philosopher Francis Bacon recognized the invention of printing as one of the three breakthroughs in world history (along with gunpowder and the compass). Nevertheless, Gutenberg”s role has long been downplayed. Although as early as 1470 Guillaume Fichet, a professor at the University of Paris, credited Johannes Gutenberg with the first use of movable type, many other scholars believed that he was merely an imitator.

On May 23, 1468, a textbook on Roman law, Institutiones Iustiniani, published in Mainz by Peter Schöffer, included a line mentioning the deceased printer, but without mentioning his name. Three years later, in a printing of Gasparin Barzizzi”s Ortograhia published in Paris, Fichet wrote:

Gutenberg as the inventor of printing was also mentioned in 15th century works by the following authors: Riccobaldus Ferrariensis in Chronica summorum pontificum imperatorumque (1474), Jacobus Philippus Foresti in Supplementum chronicarum (1483), Matteo Palmieri, Bossius Donatus, Baptista Fulgosus, Adam Werner von Themar, Johannes Herbst, Jacob Wimpfeling and Adam Gelthus. Johannes Trithemius, on the other hand, stated in his work Chronicon Sponheimense (1495-1509) that although Gutenberg was the inventor of printing, Johann Fust had a major role in its perfection and Peter Schöffer in its dissemination. Later, however, the Schöffer family began to marginalize Gutenberg”s role, attributing the invention of printing to Fust and Schöffer; this version was spread especially by the former”s grandson and the latter”s son, Johannes Schöffer, also a printer.

In the following centuries conflicting information emerged as to who should be credited with the invention of printing in Europe. Apart from Gutenberg, Fust and Schöffer other names of contenders for this title appeared, such as Johann Mentelin from Strasbourg (died 1478), Panfilo Castaldi from Feltre (died 1487), Jean Brito from Bruges (died ca. 1484), Prokop Waldvogel from Prague or Laurens Janszoon Coster from Haarlem (died 1484). However, according to the present state of knowledge, their precedence could not be confirmed.

Research on Gutenberg

De ortu et progressu artis typographicae, the first work to emphasize Gutenberg”s role as a pioneer of printing in Europe, was published in 1640 by Bernhard von Mallinckrodt (1591-1664), dean of the cathedral in Münster. In the following centuries, the life and achievements of the printer were dealt with by, among others:

The development and importance of printing

The invention of printing soon spread to other cities in Germany, as well as other European countries. The first major centers of printing in German, after Mainz and Strasbourg (where numerous printing houses were established), were Bamberg (where a 36-line Bible may have been published around 1459), Cologne (where many important publishing houses were located), Basel, Nuremberg, and Lübeck. The pace of the spread of printing was also impressive in other countries – as late as the 15th century, printing houses were established in dozens of Italian cities (Venice being the most important).

The invention of printing was regarded as a special gift from God. The spread of printing led to a reduction in the price of books, which was already taking place in 1470: already then, their prices were lower than the price previously paid for their binding alone. This made printed books and smaller publications available to a much wider range of people. New movements and ideological currents spread, including Renaissance Humanism and later the Reformation. The invention of print (and earlier of writing) became the basis for the development of new media, shaping minds (the so-called “literate mindset”) and influencing the functioning of societies, as Marshall McLuhan presented in his work The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962).

Commemorating the printer

Mainz is home to the Gutenberg Museum (German: Gutenberg-Museum), founded in 1900 in the palace “Zum Römischen Kaiser”, whose exhibition is dedicated to the achievements of the printer as well as the history of printing. The University of Mainz (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz) is named after Gutenberg.

Streets named after Gutenberg, monuments and memorials dedicated to the printer can be found not only in the cities he was associated with, but also in many other places around the world. In Poland there are several Gutenberg monuments, among them on the tenement house under Gutenberg in Lodz, in Nowa Ruda, on the corner part of the facade of the tenement house at 1 – 3 Szabatowskiego Street in Chorzow, on one of the tenements in Czestochowa, in the so-called Gutenberg Grove at Jaskowa Dolina Street in Gdansk-Wrzeszcz and on the so-called Press House in Torun. Gutenberg is also the patron of a primary and secondary school in Warsaw. Henryk Dąbrowskiego Street in Katowice was called Gutenbergstraße until 1945, just like Marcelli Motte Street in Poznań until 1918 and in the years 1939-1945. Today streets named after Jan Gutenberg can be found in Gliwice, among others.

Both in 1900 and a century later, on the conventional anniversary of Gutenberg”s birth, his jubilee was celebrated, and the printer”s achievements were displayed at exhibitions and commented on at conferences. Johannes Gutenberg”s printing press was recognized in 1997 by the American magazine Time-Life as the most significant invention of the millennium. In 1999, the American A&E Network named Gutenberg the most important man of the millennium.


  1. Johannes Gutenberg
  2. Johannes Gutenberg
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