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The Invention  -  Books Before and After  -  Johann Gutenberg  -  Facts about the Book  -  Activities  -  Glossary  -  Teacher Resources

 

Who was Johann Gutenberg and what do we know about him?

Engraving of bearded man.

Hypothetical portrait of Johann
Gutenberg, from 1584.

Little is known about the life of Johann Gutenberg, including his actual year of birth. For example, we do not know if he was married or had children. Even the famous engraved portraits of Gutenberg were made long after his death and are based on the artist's imagination, not Gutenberg's actual appearance.

The few known facts about Gutenberg's life originate from a handful of legal and financial papers. These papers reveal that he was born Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany and moved to Strasbourg sometime before 1434. Legal records show that he and a partner produced metal hand mirrors used by pilgrims visiting holy sites. His metal-working skills must have been useful to him as he developed a method of making metal type for printing.

Sometime between 1444 and 1448, Gutenberg returned to Mainz, but there is little information about his activities for the next ten years. It is likely that he spent this time developing his new printing method, as some scholars believe it took at least ten years for Gutenberg to take his ideas from conception to invention.

Gutenberg's Bible was completed around 1455. A 1455 document known as the Helmsperger Instrument shows that Gutenberg's wealthy business partner Johann Fust sued him for the return of a large sum of money loaned by Fust. These funds were most likely used in the development of Gutenberg's printing method and the production of the Bibles. Gutenberg lost the lawsuit and had to turn over some of his printing equipment to Fust, who later formed an important printing partnership with Peter Schoeffer, Gutenberg's assistant. Little is known about Gutenberg's later years, except that he was financially supported by the Archbishop of Mainz and may have lived comfortably until his death in 1468.

An engraved depiction of Mainz, Germany's buildings and geography.

Mainz, Germany (from Braun & Hogenberg, Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572). HRC book collections.

Gutenberg's invention laid the foundation for the commercial mass production of books, and with the adaptations and success of the printers and publishers that soon followed, books became cheaper and more plentiful with wider sections of society able to afford them. Soon, more people were able to participate in important political, cultural, and theological debates, which led to dramatic changes in society, such as the Reformation. Within 25 years of the printing of Gutenberg's Bible, printing workshops were established throughout Europe, including those in Paris, London, Spain, Poland, and the Netherlands.