Johannes Gutenberg and the Mainz printers – introduction

Printing has been called ‘Germany’s gift to the world’. The new art was first practised in one mediaeval German city, Mainz, and soon spread to others. That it eventually changed the world hardly needs repeating.

As well as disseminating ideas, printing helped preserve them. Books were produced in such numbers that copies survive five centuries later, cherished in libraries and by collectors. Individual leaves rescued from incomplete or damaged copies of early books form the basis of this website.

The technology may have changed, with today’s ‘words on screens’ tending to replace the ‘words on paper’ of earlier centuries, but the basic product is unchanged: symbols on a contrasting background conveying in coded form the thoughts of one mind into the minds of many.

Johannes Gutenberg

Poor Gutenberg! He did such a seemingly wonderful thing, yet we know so very little about him – and much of what we do know only relates to the various legal and financial tangles that punctuated his life. When was he born? All we can say is that it was some time between 1393 and 1403. What did he look like? We shall never know; all portraits purporting to show the man are pure conjecture. Did he marry and have descendants? Again there is no evidence.

And his family name was not Gutenberg. They were the Gensfleisch clan (German for ‘Gooseflesh’), upper-crust folk important in the Rhineland city of Mainz for many generations. It was the fashion to adopt as one’s surname the name of one’s place of birth. Johannes’ parents had lived at the Hof zum Gutenberg in Mainz, so Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg the boy became Johannes Gutenberg for short.

Does it matter that we know so little of the man himself? Surely not – what better memorial could anyone have than those few surviving copies of the miraculous Gutenberg Bible, treasured in museums and libraries around the world. They reveal the vision, enterprise, skill, ingenuity and tenacity of the man responsible for their creation. Remarkable in itself as the first substantial work multiplied by the technique of printing from reusable metal type, the Gutenberg Bible is even more remarkable as the trigger for an unprecedented intellectual revolution. Who could ask to be remembered for more?

Provided, of course, that it really was Gutenberg who invented printing. According to Dr Cornelia Schneider of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, writing in 2000, ‘research has come to agree for the most part that Gutenberg did indeed initiate book printing in Europe and the honour of the production of the 42-line Bible is due to him’ [my italics].

The words ‘in Europe’ in the previous paragraph are important. Like so many other inventions, movable type was developed in Eastern Asia long before it appeared in Europe. In Korea movable metal type was cast and used two centuries before Gutenberg. Did Gutenberg know of this? Koreans would like to think so, but there is no firm evidence.

In the popular Western mind today, Gutenberg’s fame as the inventor of printing is unassailable. But how helpful it would have been if he had actually printed his name on at least one of the items that came from his press, as other printers soon began to do, and all publishers do today. But then Gutenberg probably never suspected he was launching a revolution.