Ehre/Weisheit Kin Clan: Archivist/Librarian
Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz, the youngest son of the upper-class merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, and his second wife, Else Wyrich, who was the daughter of a shopkeeper. It is assumed that he was baptized in the area close to his birthplace of St. Christoph. According to some accounts Friele was a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz, but most likely, he was involved in the cloth trade Gutenberg’s year of birth is not precisely known but was most likely around 1398.
John Lienhard, technology historian, says “Most of Gutenberg’s early life is a mystery. His father worked with the ecclesiastic mint. Gutenberg grew up knowing the trade of goldsmithing.” This is supported by historian Heinrich Wallau, who adds, “In the 14th and 15th centuries his [descendants] claimed a hereditary position as …the master of the archiepiscopal mint. In this capacity they doubtless acquired considerable knowledge and technical skill in metal working. They supplied the mint with the metal to be coined, changed the various species of coins, and had a seat at the assizes in forgery cases.”
Wallau adds, “His surname was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors ‘zu Laden, zu Gutenberg’. The house of Gänsfleisch was one of the patrician families of the town, tracing its lineage back to the thirteenth century.” Patricians (aristocrats) in Mainz were often named after houses they owned. Around 1427, the name zu Gutenberg, after the family house in Mainz, is documented to have been used for the first time.
In 1411, there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians, and more than a hundred families were forced to leave. As a result, the Gutenbergs are thought to have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Alta Villa), where his mother had an inherited estate. According to historian Heinrich Wallau, “All that is known of his youth is that he was not in Mainz in 1430. It is presumed that he migrated for political reasons to Strasbourg, where the family probably had connections.” He is assumed to have studied at the University of Erfurt, where there is a record of the enrollment of a student called Johannes de Altavilla in 1418—Altavilla is the Latin form of Eltville am Rhein.
Nothing is now known of Gutenberg’s life for the next fifteen years, but in March 1434, a letter by him indicates that he was living in Strasbourg, where he had some relatives on his mother’s side. He also appears to have been a goldsmith member enrolled in the Strasbourg militia. In 1437, there is evidence that he was instructing a wealthy tradesman on polishing gems, but where he had acquired this knowledge is unknown. In 1436/37 his name also comes up in court in connection with a broken promise of marriage to a woman from Strasbourg, Ennelin. Whether the marriage actually took place is not recorded. Following his father’s death in 1419, he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.
Around 1439, Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors (which were believed to capture holy light from religious relics) for sale to pilgrims to Aachen: in 1439 the city was planning to exhibit its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne but the event was delayed by one year due to a severe flood and the capital already spent could not be repaid. When the question of satisfying the investors came up, Gutenberg is said to have promised to share a “secret”. It has been widely speculated that this secret may have been the idea of printing with movable type. Also around 1439–1440, the Dutch Laurens Janszoon Coster came up with the idea of printing. Legend has it that the idea came to him “like a ray of light”.
Until at least 1444 he lived in Strasbourg, most likely in the St. Arbogast parish. It was in Strasbourg in 1440 that Gutenberg is said to have perfected and unveiled the secret of printing based on his research, mysteriously entitled Kunst und Aventur (art and enterprise). It is not clear what work he was engaged in, or whether some early trials with printing from movable type may have been conducted there. After this, there is a gap of four years in the record. In 1448, he was back in Mainz, where he took out a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, quite possibly for a printing press or related paraphernalia. By this date, Gutenberg may have been familiar with intaglio printing; it is claimed that he had worked on copper engravings with an artist known as the Master of Playing Cards.
By 1450, the press was in operation, and a German poem had been printed, possibly the first item to be printed there. Gutenberg was able to convince the wealthy moneylender Johann Fust for a loan of 800 guilders. Peter Schöffer, who became Fust’s son-in-law, also joined the enterprise. Schöffer had worked as a scribe in Paris and is believed to have designed some of the first typefaces.
Gutenberg’s workshop was set up at Hof Humbrecht, a property belonging to a distant relative. It is not clear when Gutenberg conceived the Bible project, but for this he borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust, and work commenced in 1452. At the same time, the press was also printing other, more lucrative texts (possibly Latin grammars). There is also some speculation that there may have been two presses, one for the pedestrian texts, and one for the Bible. One of the profit-making enterprises of the new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the church, documented from 1454–55.
In 1455 Gutenberg completed his 42-line Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible. About 180 copies were printed, most on paper and some on vellum.
Some time in 1456, there was a dispute between Gutenberg and Fust, and Fust demanded his money back, accusing Gutenberg of misusing the funds. Meanwhile the expenses of the Bible project had proliferated, and Gutenberg’s debt now exceeded 20,000 guilders. Fust sued at the archbishop’s court. A November 1455 legal document records that there was a partnership for a “project of the books,” the funds for which Gutenberg had used for other purposes, according to Fust. The court decided in favor of Fust, giving him control over the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles.
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It was after this that he ended up meeting Imenand, who was interested in his printed Bible as he wanted to print of it for a friend. When he heard the tale of financial difficulties, he was willing to offer more than financial help.