BIO SUMMARY

Full Name: Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg

Birthdate: Between 1394 and 1404 (official birthday of June 24, 1400)

Died: February 3, 1468

Birthplace: Mainz, Germany

Gender: Male

Known For: Introducing the movable type printing press to Europe and the Gutenberg Bible.

Family: Not much is known about the identity of Johannes Gutenberg’s family. However, his parents were Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden (father) and Else Wirich (mother). The identity of his spouse is unknown, and he had no known children.

Who Was Johannes Gutenberg?

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was a German inventor, publisher, and goldsmith. He introduced printing to Europe with the innovative mechanical movable type printing press. Part of his many contributions includes the use of oil-based ink in printing books, inventing a process for mass-producing movable type, adjustable moulds, and sing wooden printing press similar to the agricultural screw presses of the era among a handful of others.

Johannes Gutenberg started experimenting with printing in 1438. In 1450, Gutenberg obtained backing from the financier, Johann Fust, whose impatience and other factors led to Gutenberg’s loss of his establishment to Fust several years later. Johannes

Gutenberg is also remembered for his masterpiece, and the first book to be from the movable type in Europe, the “Forty-Two-Line” Bible or the Gutenberg Bible, which was completed no later than 1455. Johannes Gutenberg is regarded as one of the most influential people to have lived.

Gutenberg’s invention and one of his most popular works, the 42-line bible, cost the equivalent of three years wages for an average clerk. Even with that price, it was much cheaper than a manuscript Bible, which could take a single scribe more than a year to prepare.

Who is Johannes Gutenberg Biography

Johannes Gutenberg’s Early Life

Johannes Gutenberg was born sometime between 1394 and 1404 in the German city of Mainz, in the Rhine-Main area. He was given an “official birthday” of June 24, 1400, which was chosen during the 500th Anniversary Gutenberg Festival in Mainz in 1900. However,  the date is purely symbolic. Johannes was the youngest of three children by the patrician merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden and his second wife, Else Wyrich, the daughter of a shopkeeper, whose family had once been members of the German noble classes. He was also baptized in the area around his birthplace of St. Christoph. According to some historians, Johannes Gutenberg’s father, Friele Gensfleisch, was part of the aristocracy and was also a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz. Some accounts also say he was involved in the clothing trade.

Although the majority of his early life is unknown, historians John Lienhard and Heinrich Wallau confirm that Johannes Gutenberg was born and raised in the goldsmithing trade. He was born into a family known to have considerable knowledge in metalworking. In the 14th & 15th centuries, his ancestors supplied the archbishop’s mint with the metal to be coined, changed the different species of coins and also had a seat at the courts of assize in forgery cases.

In the early 14th century, around 1411, there was a revolt against the patricians, and over one hundred families had to relocate. Gutenberg’s family were forced to move as well, and they are thought to have relocated to Eltville am Rhein, a town in the Rheingau-Taunus-Kreis region in Hesse Germany, where his mother inherited an estate. From the time when he enrolled in the University of Erfurt, and the next fifteen years, little to nothing is known of his life within this time.

However, a letter by him in March 1434 indicated that he was living in Strasbourg, where he had some maternal relatives. He had also been a goldsmith member who was in the Strasbourg militia.

Another mention of his name is during his father’s inheritance proceedings following his death in 1419. There is also written evidence that in 1437, Johannes Gutenberg was an advisor to a wealthy tradesman on polishing gems. There is no known record of where he learned this skill, but the record shows that in 1437, Andreas Dritzehn from Strasbourg enrolled as an apprentice under Gutenberg to learn the art of “polishing precious stones.”

Additionally, his name is seen in a court case involving a broken promise of marriage to a woman named Ennelin von der Iserin Thure from Strasbourg. This trial is the only remaining reference to Johannes Gutenberg’s love life. He was also sued by Andreas Dritzehn’s brothers, Claus and Jerge, who demanded that he repay the capital that their brother had paid into his joint venture after Dritzehn died in 1439, two years after he registered to learn the trade.

Education

Johannes Gutenberg is assumed to have studied at the University of Erfurt. This is because there is a record of the enrolment of a student named Johannes de Altavilla in the year 1418. Altavilla is the Latin form of Eltvile am Rhein.

Johannes Gutenberg’s Movable Type Printing Press

In the same 1439, Johannes Gutenberg was involved in a financial misfortune when he started making polished metal mirrors for pilgrims to the German city of Aachen. These metal mirrors were believed to capture invisible holy light from religious relics. The city planned to exhibit its collection of religious relics from Emperor Charlemagne at a festival in the city, but unfortunately, the highly-anticipated event was postponed to the next year due to a severe flood. However, the capital spent to make the mirrors had already been lost and could not be replaced. This was, quite possibly, the beginning of Gutenberg’s financial difficulties.

The investors in the metal mirrors project were disgruntled, and Gutenberg had to promise them he would reveal a “secret” that would make them rich. In the early 1400s, European metalsmiths had begun mastering woodblock printing and engraving. Metalsmiths in France, Holland, Belgium, and Italy were also venturing into printing presses. It was during his exile in Strasbourg around 1440 that Johannes Gutenberg is believed to have perfected and mastered his craft when he unveiled the secret of printing based on extensive research, which he titled Aventur und Kunst, meaning “enterprise and art.” 

According to many historians, Gutenberg’s secret was his own idea of a printing press, based on winepress and using movable metal type. This was the “secret” he had promised to reveal to the unhappy investors. It is unknown whether he had attempted or been successful in printing from movable type during that time.

Eight years later, in 1448, Gutenberg moved back to the German city of Mainz. With the help of a loan from Arnold Gelthus, his brother-in-law, he started assembling a working printing press. Two years later, in 1450, Gutenberg’s first press was in service. Gutenberg’s printing press printed a German poem which is quite possibly, the first item his printing press printed. However, Gutenberg had to borrow 800 guilders from Johann Fust, a wealthy moneylender, to kickstart his business.

Painting of Johannes Gutenberg in his workshop with Johann Fust
Painting of Johannes Gutenberg in his workshop with Johann Fust

One of the first profitable and most notable projects undertaken by Gutenberg printed thousands of copies of indulgences for the Catholic church (between 1454 and 1455). The indulgences were instructions for reducing the amount of penance an individual must do to be forgiven for different sins.

Peter Schoffer, Johann Fust’s son-in-law, also joined the business. He had earlier worked as a scribe in Paris and is credited to have designed some of the earliest typefaces.

The printing press was set up at Humbrechthof in Mainz, a house owned by a distant relative. The press continued to print several profitable texts.

Gutenberg’s Bible

Although it is unclear when Johannes Gutenberg conceived the idea of the Gutenberg Bible, he borrowed an additional 800 guilders from Fust to finance the bible project. He continued to refine and improve his printing process, and by 1455, he completed his 42-line Bible, now popularly referred to as the Gutenberg Bible.

The First page of the Gutenberg Bible of 42 Lines
The First page of the Gutenberg Bible of 42 Lines

Several copies of the bible were printed, with the majority on paper, while others were on vellum, which is prepared animal skin. The Gutenberg Bible featured 42 lines of type per page, including colour illustrations. It also consisted of three volumes of Latin grammar. The size of the font meant the Bible was limited to only 42 lines per page. This made it very easy to read, and this ease of readability made it popular amongst church clergy. Pope Pius II recommended Gutenberg’s Bibles to Cardinal Carvajal through a letter dated March 1455. The letter stated,

“The script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow—your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses.”

Gutenberg’s Troubles

However, Gutenberg began having troubles with his financial partner, Johann Fust. In 1456, the wealthy investor accused Johann Gutenberg of misusing the funds he loaned him in 1450, demanding repayment at 6% interest. This meant the 1600 guilders Gutenberg borrowed now amounted to 2,026 guilders.

Fust sued Gutenberg in the archbishop’s court when he was unable to repay the loan. The court ruled against Gutenberg and his financial backer, Fust was allowed to seize and take control of the press as collateral.

Johan Fust took control of the Gutenberg's Printing Press
Johan Fust took control of the Gutenberg’s Printing Press

Therefore, the majority of Gutenberg’s presses and typefaces went to his employee, Peter Schoffer, because he later became Fust’s son-in-law. Fust kept on printing the 42-line Bibles, eventually printing about 200 copies. Only 22 of these exist today. In 1459, a bankrupt Johannes Gutenberg, without any printing shop or business, started a small printing shop in a German town in northern Bavaria known as Bamberg.

Besides his 42-line Bible, Johannes Gutenberg is also credited by historians with a Book of Psalter, which was published by Fust and Schoffer, but with fonts and techniques attributed to Gutenberg. The oldest surviving manuscript from Gutenberg’s early press is a piece of the poem “The Sibyl’s Prophecy,” which was printed using Gutenberg’s earliest typeface between 1452–1453. The surviving page was found in the late 19th century and was donated to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz in 1903.

Movable Type Printing

Although printers had long used moveable types made of ceramic or wood blocks, Gutenberg is widely credited with inventing practical movable metal type printing. Instead of hand-carving each letter or sign into individual blocks of wood, Gutenberg created metal moulds of each letter or symbol into which molten metal, such as copper or lead, could be poured. The metal “slug” letters that resulted were more uniform and durable than wooden blocks, and the print was easier to read.

Illustration of Johannes Gutenberg's first printing press.
Illustration of Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing press

Consequently, moulded metal letters could be made faster and in much larger quantities than carved wood letters. As a result, the printer could rearrange the individual metal letter slugs as needed to print multiple pages with the same letters.

Setting up individual pages for printing using moveable metal type proved to be significantly faster and less expensive than woodblock printing for most publications. The Gutenberg Bible brought movable metal type to Europe and made it the dominant printing method due to its exceptional quality and relative affordability. Although it cost three years wages for an average clerk, it was significantly cheaper than a manuscript bible.

Major Printed Books

Between 1450 and 1455, Gutenberg printed a collection of books, some of which are still unknown; because his manuscripts did not include the printer’s name or date, attribution can only be made based on typographical evidence and external sources. Several church papers, including a papal letter and two indulgences, one of which was issued at Mainz, were undoubtedly printed. Due to the value of printing in large quantities, seven editions in two styles were ordered, leading to the printing of thousands of copies. Some published versions of Aelius Donatus’ Ars Minor, a Latin grammar textbook which is dated 1451-52 or 1455, may have been printed by Gutenberg.

The Gutenberg Bible
The Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg finished his 42-line Bible in 1455. Copies were sold for 30 florins each or about three years’ pay for an average clerk. But still economically viable for many people. Some copies were hand-illuminated after printing, in the same exquisite manner as manuscript Bibles from the same period. There are 48 substantially full copies known to exist, two of which can be seen and compared online at the British Library. Page numbers, indentations, and paragraph breaks which are common in books today, are lacking in the text.

An undated 36-line edition of the Bible was printed, presumably by Gutenberg, in Bamberg in 1458–60. It was discovered that a major portion of it was based on a copy of Gutenberg’s Bible, proving that it was printed after Gutenberg’s first bible.

Johannes Gutenberg Biography Birth Invention and Death
Johannes Gutenberg in his later years

Later Life and Death

After Johann Fust’s lawsuit in 1456, little is known of Gutenberg’s life. Some historians believe Gutenberg continued to collaborate with Fust, while others believe Fust put Gutenberg out of business. After 1460, he appears to have completely stopped printing, maybe due to poor eyesight or blindness. The archbishop of Mainz, Adolf von Nassau-Wiesbaden, honoured Gutenberg’s accomplishments by bestowing the title of Hofmann—a gentleman of the court—on him in January 1465. Gutenberg received a monthly stipend and exquisite attire, as well as 2,180 litres of grain and 2,000 litres of wine tax-free.

The stature of Johannes Gutenberg
The stature of Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468, in Mainz. He was buried in the Franciscan church cemetery in Mainz with little recognition or acknowledgement of his accomplishments. Gutenberg’s grave was lost when the church and cemetery were destroyed during World War II. Many statues of Gutenberg can be seen in Germany, including the famous 1837 statue at Gutenbergplatz in Mainz by Dutch sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. In addition, Johannes Gutenberg University and the Gutenberg Museum on the history of early printing are located in Mainz.

A picture of the Gutenberg Museum
A picture of the Gutenberg Museum

Today, Project Gutenberg, the oldest digital library with over 60,000 free eBooks, honours Gutenberg’s name and contributions. The United States Postal Service commemorated Gutenberg’s creation of the movable-type printing press with a five hundredth anniversary stamp in 1952.

That is all on the biography of Johannes Gutenberg.