Skip to content

Gutenberg The Man

Updated Thursday 1st September 2005

Gutenberg was a goldsmith from Mainz who never signed his work. But what do we know about the man and his life?

Quill Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Reconstruction of Gutenberg walking down corridor Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Theories abound as to his life. Some historians speculate that he was a brilliant inventor who died penniless, and others believe he was eventually rewarded by the Archbishop of Mainz and carried on printing until his death.

Paul and Blaise believe that Gutenberg saw his talents as a divine gift, so it wasn't for him to sign his work, there being a more powerful Creator behind it.

Around 1430 Gutenberg left Mainz for Strasbourg where he was involved in a number of activities that show him as a bit of an entrepreneur. He was paid to teach people the art of polishing semi-precious gemstones. He was also in partnership with men who produced tokens to be used during pilgrimage.

Evidence

Hand holding religious tocken Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Financial and legal records are the only way of tracking Gutenberg. They show that he was part of a group that disputed his father's will around 1420. He drew a form of life insurance payment from the city of Mainz, but there were problems over that, and he was sent into exile for political/economic reasons. There are tax records to show how much he paid for wine in Strasbourg. He was sued by a woman who claimed that he had promised to marry her. But very little is known about his printing press as there are no records. The invention itself did not form part of taxable income, so it does not appear in taxation records.

The most significant record is a court document that records a dispute between Gutenberg and his business partner over the huge amount of money required for his printing press. Another document, dated just after Gutenberg's death in February 1468, is from a powerful citizen who recorded that he was then in possession of type and other equipment left at Gutenberg's death.

Thinking History

Gutenberg bible Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Q. Why was the first book printed a Bible?

You may quite legitimately be thinking 'Why not?' In a culture where atheism was virtually inconceivable and Christianity considered to be the only true religion, the Bible seems an obvious choice. But most people, including the clergy, did not own Bibles; their main knowledge of the Bible came from sermons and from extracts used in church services.

Far more common was the 'Book of Hours', a handbook of daily prayers. The size and sumptuous quality of the Bible shows that Gutenberg was making claims for the status of his invention, that it was every bit as prestigious as a lavishly illustrated manuscript. The future of print may have lain in mass production, but Gutenberg did not want to make his mark with something pitched at the mass market. If he had wanted to do that he would have produced a 'Book of Hours'.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Origin Day Lecture: Audience Question Four Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: British Council video icon

History & The Arts 

Origin Day Lecture: Audience Question Four

Could the panel list the tools of science that we can use at home to develop the future of biology?

Video
5 mins
Darwin crosses the Sierra de la Ventana Creative commons image Icon raul senzacqua under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Darwin crosses the Sierra de la Ventana

As part of his journey towards Buenos Aires, Darwin crosses the Sierra de la Ventana - but finds the vista less than thrilling.

Article
Einstein: The Expert View Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Einstein: The Expert View

Bob Lambourne, Head of the Open University Physics and Astronomy Department, tells the story of Albert Einstein's life and explains why his contribution to science is so important.

Article
How did 18th Century people react to eclipses? Creative commons image Icon Wellcome Library, London under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

How did 18th Century people react to eclipses?

With jokes, with panic, with searches for religious meaning: A collection of contemporary responses to eclipses from 18th Century publications.

Article
How the ZX Spectrum and ZX81 shaped Frank Sidebottom Creative commons image Icon James / The Being Frank Movie under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

How the ZX Spectrum and ZX81 shaped Frank Sidebottom

Rhys James Jones traces the legendary Frank Sidebottom's roots back to the early days of home computing. (When "computing" was a thing you did, and doing it at home was especially noteworthy.)

Article
Darwin in the land of pumas Creative commons image Icon Bas Lamers under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Darwin in the land of pumas

Charles Darwin continues his journey through Argentina, in an area where pumas can disrupt the best-laid plans.

Article
Darwin on hunting with bolas Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

Darwin on hunting with bolas

Written in the language of his time, Darwin records attempts to hunt using a traditional Spanish weapon.

Article
The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: MattCrypto via Wikimedia video icon

History & The Arts 

The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park

An unassuming building in what is now Milton Keynes played a pivotal role in the Second World War - and the development of computing.

Video
5 mins
Never trust a pirate: Christiaan Huygens’s Longitude Clocks Creative commons image Icon The Royal Society under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Never trust a pirate: Christiaan Huygens’s Longitude Clocks

As a tribute to the historian Lisa Jardine, who died on October 25th, we're republishing her essay on the shady history of 17th Century timekeeping.

Article