Johann Gutenberg

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Movable Type

Historians often pronounce Gutenberg’s work inevitable.  But there was nothing inevitable about it.  In fact, the whole project nearly failed, and at the last moment, mostly for want of money.  Before we come to that, we should have some idea of what Gutenberg’s press was all about.1We’ll skip over the Western use of a phonetic alphabet, consisting of twenty-some odd symbols, something that China and Korea seriously lacked.

The heart of the invention was movable type—individual metal letters that can be used over and over again.  Three things made Gutenberg’s use of such type a true invention.  First, he used a punch to strike the image of a single letter into a little piece of metal called the matrix.  The creation and use of the punch required rare skill and accuracy.

Second, Gutenberg used the matrix to produce a great many pieces of type bearing that one letter.  The “how” involves the real heart of Gutenberg’s work.  Gutenberg developed a hand-held mold to hold the matrix and receive the molten metal that would cool to become the piece of type.  The mold looked like a couple of pieces of L-shaped wood connected by screws.

A worker poured a peculiar mix of molten lead, tin, and antimony into the mold.  Then he opened the mold and out popped a little silver rectangular prism “just over four centimeters long, already cool enough to hold.”2John Man, Gutenberg, How One Man Remade the World with Words (New York:  MJF Books, 2002), 130.  A single worker could rapidly cast hundreds, even thousands, of letters in very little time.  And that’s what the production of large books absolutely required.  Any page of a given book might have required dozens of e’s or r’s or s’s.  Each letter represented a piece of type set in place.  Furthermore, type could wear out or break.  But the punch, the matrix, and the hand-mold were the fallback.  “As long as you had the matrices, you could cast more letters; and as long as the punches were intact, you could make more matrices.”3Ibid., 132.  And the worker could make them quickly.

The third thing that made Gutenberg’s press a real innovation was the use of a press.  There are other ways that printing can work, but Gutenberg’s type actually pressed the ink into the paper.  Gutenberg meant to use parchment and rag-paper, so this was necessary.4Ibid., 134.  But now Gutenberg had to come up with the right ink and the right paper.  The technical complications went on and on.

 From Mainz to Strasbourg

We come now to Johann Gutenberg himself.5Johann or Johannes.  The spelling varied.  Of the beginning and ending of his life, we know little.6George Parker Winship, Printing in the Fifteenth Century (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.  “John Gutenberg was born and died, but there is no evidence for either of the occurrences.” (4)  He was born in the German city of Mainz, and in 1896 that city picked an arbitrary birthdate for her favorite son in order to cash in on his notoriety.7Man, 26-28.  With the turn of the century just around the corner, the city settled on the year 1400 so Mainz could celebrate his 500th birthday.  We do know Gutenberg’s death date—February 3rd, 1468—but only because an anonymous someone scribbled that date into a random book in 1470, a book printed with Gutenberg’s own technology.8Ibid., 213.

Johann Gutenberg grew up around the trade of goldsmithing. His family had connections to the archbishop of Mainz through the episcopal mint. That made Johann almost a patrician.  These connections also placed him, from his childhood, “in the company of men who could carve a letter in steel that had at least six, and perhaps sixty, times the resolution of a modern laser printer.”9Ibid., 48.

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An oil painting of Fust, Gutenberg and Schoeffer. Courtesy of Gutenberg-Museum Mainz.

Mainz was deeply divided, economically and politically, between the guildsmen and the patricians.  The patricians refused to pay taxes, but they did collect annuities based on lump sums they had paid to the city; the annuities amounted to 5% every year for 20 years. (Gutenberg himself received income from two such annuities.)  The deal had sounded good, but with no stock market or certain means of investment, the city couldn’t use that money to make more money, and the annuities drained the treasury.  So the city pursued a trajectory of debt toward inevitable bankruptcy.  Class contention over Mainz’s finances sent Gutenberg’s family to safer dwellings more than once.  Finally, Gutenberg decided he had enough and abandoned Mainz for twenty years.  He moved to Strasbourg, a city two days upriver.

Strasbourg was the seedbed for his life’s work.  The events of the next ten years . . . honed his skills, confirmed his ambitions and revealed traits not seen in him before.  They are the traits of a man under stress, not the destructive, out-of-control kind, but the self-chosen, creative stress of an artist, and entrepreneur. . . .  He emerges as a rarity:  a man seized by an idea, obsessed by it, imprinted by it, who also has the technical skill, business acumen and shear dogged, year-after-year grit to make it real.10Man, 52.

What that idea was, Gutenberg kept secret.  Throughout the rest of his career, he didn’t speak of it openly.  Even in legal contracts he resorted to cryptic expressions to hide the nature of his work.  What Gutenberg did do in Strasbourg was acquire financing, first, through business partners and, second, through mirrors.  This brings us to Aachen and its pilgrims.

The city of Aachen, once Charlemagne’s capital, boasted one of the greatest collections of sacred relics on the Continent.  Every seven years the city put them all on display.  Thousands swarmed to the cathedral.  To meet the demand, officials brought the relics outside the cathedral and held them up where the crowds could see them.  But this only generated more interest and enthusiasm.  The 1432 pilgrimage brought 10,000 people a day to the cathedral.  Most of these never got near the relics.  But someone, somewhere, came up with an unorthodox but brilliant idea:  Perhaps the metal convex mirrors so popular at the time could be used to catch the healing rays streaming from the relics!  With supposition quickly accepted as magical fact, the Aachen pilgrims generated a ridiculously high demand for holy mirrors, and metal workers rose to the economic challenge, Gutenberg no doubt amongst them.

Gutenberg remained in Strasbourg until 1444.  The threat of war finally pushed him out, and he disappears from the records for four years.

Johannes-Gutenberg
Gutenberg in a 16th-century copper engraving

Back in Mainz

In 1448 Gutenberg was back in Mainz.  His sister’s death that year made the family house available and his return possible.  But the city was in catastrophic debt:  it declared itself bankrupt and stopped paying annuities.  Gutenberg needed money.  He took out a loan through a cousin, but he really needed a solution to his cash flow problem.  He needed a bestseller, preferably more than one.

The Bible was not an obvious choice.  The Latin Vulgate existed in too many variants.  Church officials guarded its production carefully.  “Their authority, not to say income, depended on maintaining their guardian role.”11Ibid., 143.  The market would be the great institutions of the day—monasteries, courts, and universities.  The project was too big, too expensive.

Guttenberg’s stopgap solution was a tedious though popular analysis of Latin grammar generally known by its author’s name, Donatus.  The book was short, only 28 pages long.  “He could provide an error-free edition, in which every copy was identical.”12Ibid.,145.  And that was the point:  complete uniformity.  But Gutenberg deliberately tried to make his version look like the crammed, sloppy scribal versions:  uniformity plus familiarity.  The Donatus was off the presses around 1450.  The movable-type press was a reality.

Meanwhile, Nicholas De Cusa, an up and coming philosopher and churchman, was touting a new project for the unification of Christendom.  He wanted a new, standardized missal—one that would contain the full text for celebrating the Mass.  Gutenberg was hopeful.  Church backing would put him on easy street.  But the project never materialized.  Church officials were divided over the proposal.  Some feared it would grant the papacy too much control.  Then, there were two conflicting liturgies in the running.  Gutenberg found himself caught in the middle.  In the end, the whole thing fell through.

At this point, Gutenberg turned to a wealthy goldsmith and merchant, Johann Fust. In 1449 Fust lent Gutenberg 800 gulden at 6% interest for “equipment,” which provided the security for the loan.13Ibid., 149.  The loan amounted to about $150,000.  Gutenberg agreed to pay the interest.  He never did.  But he did take on Peter Schöffer, Fust’s adopted son, as his chief printer.

Gutenberg wrangled up money from a couple of odd sources as well.  The pope needed cash to pay mercenaries to protect Cyprus from the Turks.  The cash would be raised by the sale of indulgences.  Indulgences had to be printed.  Then there were the Sibylline Prophecies, an imaginative collection of pagan, Gnostic, Jewish, and Christian doggerel presented as oracles.  These gave Gutenberg another high demand, low effort project.

The Gutenberg Bible

Finally Gutenberg turned to the Bible, but he still needed more money to keep his workshop running.  He went back to Fust.  Fust wanted to know about profits and the interest owed him.  Gutenberg argued that his side ventures weren’t part of the original deal; he wanted to keep his profits and funnel them back into his work.  And he wanted more money for a second workshop.

Fust wasn’t excited.  But he quickly saw that to reali

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Invention of printing: Gutenberg taking the first proof

ze anything on this deal, he would have to invest even more.  They struck the same deal again:  800 gulden plus interest.

Gutenberg knew he had to conserve the basic appearance of the traditional Bible as created by scribes.  There could be no title page, logo, or table of contents.  He set each page with two text columns and broad margins along the top and left.  The width and length of two columns with their inner margin approximated the golden ratio, an arrangement particularly pleasing to the eye.14The golden ratio is itself approximated by the Fibonacci sequence, which sums to 1.6180339887. . . .  In the initial run, Gutenberg set 40 lines per column, but that quickly proved too costly.  He tried 41 and settled on 42.  The final book was a two-volume set.  The first 180 copies came off his press in 1454.

Gutenberg now had to keep two shops running.  Rather than pay the interest he owed Fust, he continued to pump the profits from his side jobs back into producing the Bible.  In the middle of 1455 Fust blew the whistle.  He sued Gutenberg for the money he owed.  Gutenberg didn’t have it, as Fust well knew.  All the money was tied up in the system of production and the final product, all of which was mortgaged to Fust.

There were hearings and witnesses.  The preliminary judgment went against Gutenberg, though he was given a last chance to present new evidence at a final hearing.  Gutenberg didn’t appear; he sent friends to witness the verdict.  It was straightforward:  Gutenberg had to pay up.

Gutenberg accepted the verdict with apparent grace.  He knew he had been walking a fine line in his accounting.  He had no legal defense, and an attempt to cloak his financial situation by an appeal to the “work of the books” fell flat with Fust.

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Herbert Putnam, Librarian of the Library of Congress, exhibits the Gutenberg Bible during a public exhibition at the Library, December 15, 1930.

We have no record of the exact nature of the settlement.  Obviously, Gutenberg couldn’t pay, so we may presume that the second workshop with its recent product, the new Bibles, fell under Fust’s exclusive control.  It seems that Fust let Gutenberg keep the first workshop with its minor projects; he may have given him a share in the profit from the Bibles.  But now Fust was Mainz’s leading printer and the man whose name would be tied to the production of printed Bibles.

Peter Schöffer abandoned Gutenberg to become Fust’s head printer.  Schöffer married his boss’s daughter, inherited the business, and became the first international bookseller and printer.  He tried to take all the credit for the new process for Fust and himself:  he nearly succeeded.  Consider the colophon in the Psalter,15The Psalter was the first printed book to include a colophon, an imprint that supplied information about the book’s authorship and printing history. the next great work to come out of Mainz:

The present copy of the Psalms . . . was so fashioned thanks to the ingenious discovery of imprinting and forming letters without any use of a pen and completed with diligence to the glory of God by Johann Fust, citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schöffer of Gernsheim, in the year of our Lord 1457, on the Vigil of the Assumption.

The Mainz Psalter was begun under Gutenberg’s supervision but went to press after he had lost control of the second shop.  Without a blink, Fust and Schöffer continued to pour forth high-demand books from their presses—books for Mass, psalters for the Benedictines, liturgy guides, and books on canon law.

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Printing Press mural in Evolution of the Book series, by John W. Alexander. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Depicts a man working at a printing press and Gutenberg and another man examining proof.

Gutenberg also continued his work:  more Latin grammars, three calendars, and a papal appeal for a crusade.  Lots of single page runs, too.  Then Gutenberg turned to the Catholicon, a 13th century Latin dictionary and grammar that was normally 1500 pages long.  Gutenberg’s printed version was only 746 pages.  It was set in the smallest type yet devised and contained five million characters.  The book’s colophon read in part:

With the help of the Most High at whose will the tongues of infants become eloquent and who often reveals to the lowly what he hides from the wise, this noble book Catholicon has been printed and accomplished without the help of reed, stylus or pen but by the wondrous agreement, proportion and harmony of punches and types, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1460 in the noble city of Mainz of the renowned German nation. . . .16Sidney E. Berger, The Dictionary of the Books:  A Glossary for Book Collectors, Booksellers, Librarians, and Others (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 47, from Steinberger’s Five Hundred Years of Printing.

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Tomb in S.Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, with the relief “Cardinal Nicholas before St Peter” by Andrea Bregno

The publisher gives the glory to God, identifies and praises his own city and people, but otherwise remains anonymous.17According to Winship, who gives a different translation, the colophon includes this praise of Germany:  “which [nation] the clemency of God has deigned with so lofty a light of genius and free gift to prefer and render illustrious above all other nations of the earth. . . .” (40).  Some scholars have wondered at this.  Perhaps we have here Gutenberg’s own assertion of traditional Christian values, a return to Medieval anonymity and humility, deliberately set against Schöffer’s Renaissance pride and commercial bid for notoriety.

The Catholicon was Gutenberg’s last major project.  Ecclesiastical rivalry in Mainz led to all out war with an army laying siege to the city.  Slaughter followed, and those who survived were forced to leave Mainz, which became a ghost town for some months.  Gutenberg went to Eltville, where he had friends and family.  There, it seems, Gutenberg picked up his work and printed single sheets and small but profitable works.  In 1465 Adolf, archbishop of Mainz, granted Gutenberg official recognition for his work.

We . . . have recognized the agreeable and willing service which our dear, faithful Johann Gutenberg has rendered, and may and shall render in the future. . . . We shall each year when we clothe our ordinary courtiers clothe him at the same time like one of our noblemen.18Sue Vanderhook, Johannes Gutenberg:  Printing Press Innovator (Edina, MN:  ABDO Publishing Company, 2010), 83.  Blake Morrison’s novel, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg (2010) apparently gives a fuller and more exact version, but he leaves it unsourced.

Adolf also promised lots of grain and wine each year and exemption from taxes in exchange for an oath of loyalty.  Gutenberg took the oath, the recognition, and the reward.  He died three years later.

The Print Culture

Gutenberg hoped his invention would unify Christendom.  Through the divine gift of mechanical precision, every Christian could use exactly the same liturgy, sing from the very same psalter, and celebrate Mass with precisely the same words.  What Gutenberg didn’t foresee, of course, was the danger of putting inexpensive theological books—and above all, the Bible—on an uncensored, trans-European market.  His invention made it possible for everyone who could read to become an amateur theologian.  And the mere existence of such important books fed a desire for and an insistence on universal literacy.  The priesthood of believers suddenly came into its own just as Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin were lighting the fires of the Reformation.

There’s more, of course.  The print culture generally, and the Reformation specifically, compelled middle class parents to provide a basic education for their children.  This meant practically that parents who had previously put their younger children to work at the age of seven now carved out several years of their lives for school and book learning.  What came about in the following centuries was the creation of “childhood” as we know it, including church and government schools.19Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York:  Vintage Books, 1994).

Nationalism followed, and was in fact abetted by the printing press, as the children of the emerging nation-states learned to read and write in their own regional languages.  At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, came division within the Church, not only between Rome and the Reformation, but within Protestantism, as well.

Gutenberg’s press spread truth cheaply; it also spread lies and nonsense.  It failed to unify Christendom, but it also gave to the spread of information and ideas a speed, freedom, and universality that the Medieval mind could not fathom. For better or for worse, a new age was upon us.

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. We’ll skip over the Western use of a phonetic alphabet, consisting of twenty-some odd symbols, something that China and Korea seriously lacked.
2. John Man, Gutenberg, How One Man Remade the World with Words (New York:  MJF Books, 2002), 130.
3. Ibid., 132.
4. Ibid., 134.
5. Johann or Johannes.  The spelling varied.
6. George Parker Winship, Printing in the Fifteenth Century (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.  “John Gutenberg was born and died, but there is no evidence for either of the occurrences.” (4
7. Man, 26-28.
8. Ibid., 213.
9. Ibid., 48.
10. Man, 52.
11. Ibid., 143.
12. Ibid.,145.
13. Ibid., 149.  The loan amounted to about $150,000.
14. The golden ratio is itself approximated by the Fibonacci sequence, which sums to 1.6180339887. . . .
15. The Psalter was the first printed book to include a colophon, an imprint that supplied information about the book’s authorship and printing history.
16. Sidney E. Berger, The Dictionary of the Books:  A Glossary for Book Collectors, Booksellers, Librarians, and Others (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 47, from Steinberger’s Five Hundred Years of Printing.
17. According to Winship, who gives a different translation, the colophon includes this praise of Germany:  “which [nation] the clemency of God has deigned with so lofty a light of genius and free gift to prefer and render illustrious above all other nations of the earth. . . .” (40).
18. Sue Vanderhook, Johannes Gutenberg:  Printing Press Innovator (Edina, MN:  ABDO Publishing Company, 2010), 83.  Blake Morrison’s novel, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg (2010) apparently gives a fuller and more exact version, but he leaves it unsourced.
19. Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York:  Vintage Books, 1994).