The Strasbourg Adventure

By 1434 Gutenberg was in Strasbourg, two days upriver from Mainz and a lot more appealing. Strasbourg had been through turmoil similar to Mainz’s, but its archbishop was not an elector and its guildsmen had won power more easily. It was now a charming, stimulating and well-off little city-state, with the River Ill running right through it and around its central island, allowing its 25,000 inhabitants easy access to the Rhine, into which the Ill flowed a few kilometres to the east. Its cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece under construction for the previous 150 years, had just acquired the rose window that is still one of the glories of Western art, and the first of its two towers was about to reach its high point, dissolving into a mist of tracery 142 metres up. Stone-built merchants’ houses crowded narrow lanes and lined the river, where two cranes served shallow-draught barges. It must have seemed to Gutenberg a delightful base to start on whatever mysterious business he had in mind.

Strasbourg was the seedbed for his life’s work. The events of the next ten years probably did not do much to mould his character – he was, after all, in his mid-thirties – but they 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, an entrepreneur, even a mountaineer. I think he loved it. He emerges as that rarity: a man seized by an idea, obsessed by it, imprintedby it, who also has the technical skill, business acumen and sheer dogged, year-after-year grit to make it real.


Gutenberg probably settled on Strasbourg because of family links. His brother Friele had an annuity of twenty-six Strasbourg dinars (a dinar being the local equivalent of a gulden) and would have been a regular visitor there to collect his payments. The clinching event occurred in the summer of 1433, when his mother died, leaving her two houses. The three children agreed a division of the inheritance – Else would have the Gutenberg house in Mainz, Friele would take the one in Eltville, buying out Johann by transferring to him the Strasbourg annuity and his share of the Mainz annuity. With this income, Johann could, in theory, keep clear of Mainz and work in Strasbourg. In practice, things were not so simple, because as far as Mainz’s accounts department was concerned, he was out of sight and out of mind, and if he wasn’t going to appear in person, Mainz would save its money for more pressing needs.

Gutenberg already had plans, for which he needed all the money he could lay his hands on. We know this from the copy of a document he dictated on 14 March 1434, in which he summarises an incident that must have had all Strasbourg buzzing. One of Mainz’s three burgomasters, Niklaus von Wörrstadt – as his home village twelve kilometres south-west of Mainz is now spelled – happened to be in Strasbourg. Niklaus was a tough nut: he had led the guildsmen when they broke off talks with the patricians five years before, and it was he who now had the day-to-day burdens of administering a town continually on the brink of bankruptcy, brought on largely by people whom Gutenberg counted as friends or allies. Like an accountant in many a collapsing company today, he managed by paying only those who applied influence or pressure, a group that for the previous few years had not included Gutenberg. Niklaus was perhaps in town to discuss anti-patrician strategy with his guild colleagues. He had no reason to be looking over his shoulder, no reason even to suspect that one of his aggrieved clients was nearby. Gutenberg, now with friends in places high and low, got wind of Niklaus’s presence, saw his chance and pulled out that document hastily signed by the harassed burgomasters of Mainz before his departure, promising that they would personally be responsible for the annuity payments.

How the missing sum was calculated is unclear – probably some combination of his own annuities and others inherited from his mother and acquired by arrangement with Friele – but it amounted to 310 gulden. This was enough to buy a substantial house, or pay a staff of ten for a year. Property and labour were cheaper in relative terms then, and today’s economies are so vast by comparison that it is hard to come up with a modern equivalent. I find it easier to think in old-fashioned terms, when summer went on for ever and a gulden was worth about £100. In today’s terms, we are talking of a sum with the emotional impact of five years’ salary all at once, in hard cash, and no income tax or VAT.

He had a grievance; he could prove his case; he knew the local constabulary; and he took action. With a couple of local heavies, he confronted the astonished Niklaus with a demand for payment. Imagine the embarrassment: a visiting dignitary, at supper perhaps, or hurrying off to some appointment with city officials, faced with the news that, as a burgomaster, he had become personally liable for a city debt. Yet there it was, in writing, as Gutenberg said in his statement, duly signed by the ‘honourable and wise burgomasters’. I get the impression that he was enjoying this. First the mock humility, then the steely conclusion – by the contract, the honourable and wise burgomasters agreed that in the event of default ‘I may serve on them a writ of attachment, imprison them and seize their property’. I can almost see Niklaus’s appalled expression, the dawning realisation that Gutenberg was serious. Off went Niklaus to the debtors’ prison.

Gutenberg’s actions suggest a sharp mind and a determined character, seizing the initiative at just the right moment. He knew that Mainz was strapped for cash, that his old acquaintance and adversary, Niklaus, had the power to cough up on the city’s behalf. This was not personal, though. Niklaus was merely the lever to get the money. Any hint of a personal vendetta would not have gone down well with Strasbourg officials, who would have to repair the damage done to inter-town relations. And the remedy was easy. All Niklaus had to do was to promise to pay, within a reasonable time, say two months, which as a current burgomaster he could do. Everyone knew this. No doubt Gutenberg was able to reassure them not to worry, there would be no lasting damage, and with 310 gulden on the way there could well be a little something for those willing to see this matter to its rightful conclusion. With everyone looking to him to ensure a happy outcome, he could afford to be magnanimous.

So it turned out. Niklaus made his promise and regained his freedom. Gutenberg smoothed his ruffled feathers, promising, out of the goodness of his heart, that he would not hold Niklaus personally liable for any future arrears. And Niklaus was as good as his word, arranging for the town to pay up, through Gutenberg’s cousin, Ort Gelthus, who lived in Oppenheim, ten kilometres upriver from Mainz. In Strasbourg, Gutenberg would have acquired a certain reputation among those who counted: hard-nosed, decisive, but fair-minded. A man to watch.

By the agreed date – Pentecost, seven weeks after Easter – Gutenberg had enough money to start work. He rented a place in a hamlet hard by a monastery named after a local fifth-century bishop, St Arbogast, a couple of kilometres or so up the River Ill, where the river broke into charming backwaters, running around a couple of islands and flowing out over a flood plain opposite. Here he employed Lorenz Beildeck and his wife as servants. What he was up to was anyone’s guess, but it was something that needed privacy. In town, eyes pried, tongues wagged and city ordinances forbade the use of forges for fear of fire. Out in the country, he was free to experiment, while building a network of contacts in town that would stand him in good stead later. He seems to have cultivated people of all classes, from craftsmen to patricians and aristocrats. In these hierarchical times, it seems he was disconcertingly hard to pigeonhole. In the few surviving documents he is referred to variously as a goldsmith, a non-guildsman and a member of Strasbourg’s upper classes.

Here, then, we have a well-off man, with staff and good contacts and a substantial household which included a remarkably well-stocked wine cellar – he paid tax on something over 1.5 Fuder of wine in July 1439. A Fuder is a barrel containing 1,000 litres. Given that oxidation would reduce wine to vinegar within a year, this is a generous amount. It suggests that he had, at his own expense, laid in a store of wine enough for a household of ten or a dozen people, each of whom could get through half a litre every day (though it was usual then for wine to be diluted, which would have extended its consumption time).


He was in his mid-thirties, established, engaged on some important work or other, well off and unmarried. And so, as is the way of things, there was a girl. Her name was Ennelin. The evidence is slight – copies of two court-case summaries made in 1436–7 – and it has been the cause of much academic wrangling about whether Ennelin existed and whether Gutenberg married her or not. But it is now possible to make sense of what happened, with a few tantalising gaps.

Ennelin was real enough. She came from a patrician family named after a property known as ‘the Iron Door’. Ennelin (a version of Änna-lein) is a diminutive of Anna. Ennelin zur Yserin Thüre (zur Eisernen Tür, in modern German) could be rendered in English as Little Annie Iron Door. I like to imagine that she was drawn to this self-contained, enigmatic inventor working out in the country a mere twenty-minute walk from town. If there was an affair, it was more likely one of the heart alone, probably her heart more than his, since her family was high class and Gutenberg had a certain standing. To be sure, he was no casual womaniser.

It was Ennelin’s mother, Ellewibel, who caused the fuss. There’s no father in this story, so she was the stern guardian of her daughter’s virtue and interests. At first, it seems, she approved of the relationship, for here was a man of good repute, running a large household, with ambitious plans and a reputation for decisive action – he was the one who put that upstart guildsman from Mainz in his place. He would have been quite a catch.

But Gutenberg never had any intention of marrying Ennelin. He was far too involved with his work. When Ellewibel wanted to name the day, having no doubt talked to friends, neighbours and relatives, it was a shock to discover that there would be no marriage day. Mrs Iron Door became a very angry patrician, outraged on her daughter’s behalf, and horribly embarrassed. She wanted revenge. The only thing open to her was to sue Gutenberg for breach of promise. She scouted round for witnesses and found one in Claus Schott, a local shoemaker. As the record of the case shows, she laid her complaint, backed up by Schott.

Gutenberg was completely flabbergasted. He had never promised anything! Who was this Schott character anyway, he asked the gentlemen of the Church court where the case was heard, and then, in a fury, answered his own question: ‘A miserable wretch who lives by cheating and lying!’ Schott was outraged in his turn and demanded legal redress: hence the second surviving court record. The court agreed that he had been publicly insulted, and ordered Gutenberg to pay fifteen gulden for defamation.

And there the evidence runs out. We have no idea whether Ellewibel proved her case and got anything for her trouble. Probably not. Anyway, there was no marriage. Mother and daughter were still living together seven years later, according to city records, and then we hear nothing more of them. How did the lovers (if they were lovers) meet? Was Ennelin a heady teenager eager to evade her mother’s eagle eye? Or did Ellewibel engineer the relationship in the hope of making a good match for a dull daughter? Did Ennelin recover, and marry, or nurse a broken heart into a nunnery? It’s unlikely we will ever know.


What was Gutenberg doing while out at St Arbogast? One thing is certain: he wanted to make money, a lot of it. Perhaps that was the extent of his ambitions at this moment. Or perhaps the idea of printing was already in his mind, and he was busy working on problems and solutions. If so, he would have discovered that he needed far more capital than he had available. To get it, he needed some additional scheme that would make money immediately, so that he could put it to long-term use. Either way, he had an idea.

To understand the idea and its brilliance, we have to take a small detour to the wilder shores of religious eccentricity. The journey takes us 250 kilometres northwards, to the city of Aachen. This was the revered capital of Charlemagne – Karolus Magnus, or Charles the Great – founder of the Empire, the fount of both its holiness and its Roman-ness. In the cathedral, the greatest of its age, Charlemagne was buried. Here in 1000, the German king Otto III, who dreamed of reuniting Christendom, sought to imbue himself with Charlemagne’s magic by opening the tomb of his hero beneath the glorious octagonal choir. Tradition claims that he found the great king crowned and sceptred, seated on a throne ‘as though he lived’, uncorrupted except for a little decay in the nose. The corpse was wearing gloves through which the nails had grown. Otto re-dressed the body in white, cut the nails, gave it a new nose of gold and ‘made all good’, or so they said. Perhaps something of this was true, for Otto placed Charlemagne’s white-marble throne on the first-floor gallery, where it stood as the centrepiece for the coronations of German kings for another 500 years, and still stands today. After Otto’s day, the shrine, like all great shrines, attracted a collection of holy relics, the authenticity of which no one in these credulous times dreamed of questioning. In 1165 Charlemagne became a saint, and his remains, placed in a golden casket, were revered along with the relics.

The collection became a focus of one of the greatest of medieval pilgrimages. Demand grew until in the mid-fourteenth century the authorities formalised access by displaying the relics every seven years. Thereafter, in pilgrimage years many thousands streamed into the cathedral to gaze in awe at the swaddling clothes of the Christ-child, the loincloth of the crucified Christ, the Virgin’s robe and the cloth that held John the Baptist’s severed head. In the early fifteenth century the pressure of pilgrims became more than the cathedral could take. Aachen again bowed to popular demand and made arrangements for the relics to be shown outside, on a wooden stage, on which dignitaries held up the items one by one. Now the crowds could come in even greater numbers. In the 1432 pilgrimage, 10,000 people a day thronged the cathedral close, in a mood verging on hysteria. During the next pilgrimage, the crush was so great that a building collapsed, killing seventeen and injuring a hundred. This was the culmination of weeks on the road. All hoped for . . . they knew not what exactly, but all were tense in expectation of some life-changing experience. As proof of their visit, they bought little metal badges, seven to ten centimetres high, decorated with a saint or two, a Virgin and child, or two priests holding up Mary’s robe.

The holy relics were, of course, considered to be powerful charms. They could soothe hearts and souls and bodies, because, so it was believed, healing streams issued from them like invisible solar rays. Once, pilgrims could hope to touch the relics and thus partake of their powers. Now that was impossible, what with the crush of people and the relics so far off. What a terrible waste it was – all that healing power flowing away unused into space, when back home were the destitute and diseased longing for the touch of someone who had actually touched the relics of Aachen. By the early fifteenth century the idea got around that technology could provide a solution. People were beginning to use spectacles for reading. Lenses were not yet of glass; clear crystals were used, particularly beryl. (Germans called these devices ‘Berylle’, which eventually contracted to ‘Brille’, the modern word for spectacles.) But glass mirrors were popular – Nuremberg had a guild of mirror-makers by the late fourteenth century – and there was a good market among the well-off for little convex mirrors that seemed to capture the wide world. You can see one on the wall in Jan van Eyck’s portrait of the Bruges merchant Giovanni Arnolfini, done in 1434.

Now we get to the nub of the matter, for in Aachen, in the 1432 pilgrimage, word spread that a convex mirror, by capturing a wide-angle view, would absorb the healing radiance of the holy relics. Suddenly, everyone wanted a badge with a mirror, just a simple round twelve-millimetre mirror, not of glass but of polished metal, set in its lead or copper frame, with its crude emblematic figures. (Mirrors made of glass – ‘oxeyes’ as they were known – came later, and remained a fad through the sixteenth century.) Once you had your mirror, you found some suitable vantage point – even the city walls were crowded – where you could hold the mirror aloft, the longer the better, as if it were a third eye, allowing it to be imbued with the rays of holiness. Now your tourist trinket had turned into a thing of power, full of radiant energy. You could head for home in the secure and happy knowledge that you carried in your belt-pouch the very essence of the miraculous. If you arrived before the effect faded, why, you could be the one to straighten limbs and cure the plague. The mirror was as much a guarantee of satisfaction as a photograph of the Pope or a rock hero’s T-shirt.

The problem in 1432 was that the goldsmiths and stamp-makers of Aachen could not possibly meet the demand. What a demand it was, what a market, what a point of sale: 10,000 people every day for two weeks. The local guildsmen agreed that, for the brief time of the pilgrimage, outsiders could make and sell pilgrim badges and mirrors. It was a licence to print money, or rather strike coins (as the records show: at a later pilgrimage, in 1466, 130,000 badges were sold).

This was Gutenberg’s inspiration: he would mass-produce mirrors for the 1439 Aachen pilgrimage.

His plan was to make 32,000 mirrors, selling at half a gulden each. A little piece of metal for £50 or so? It sounds high. But that was what the locals charged, that was what the pilgrims were prepared to pay. So the bottom line was a return of 16,000 gulden on an expenditure of 600 gulden – a profit of 2,500 per cent. It was like investing £100,000 and getting back £2.5 million. Either Gutenberg had his sums wrong – not likely, given his experience – or he was on his way to a fortune. There were just two little problems: no one had mass-produced mirrors in this way, and he didn’t have 600 gulden to spare.

What, you may ask, has all this to do with printing? Two things. One was the money needed to develop an entirely new technology; the other was the possible relationship between the techniques of making mirrors and the techniques of printing books. Both needed presses, though what role they filled in badge-making or mirror-making is unclear. The evidence that Gutenberg was working on a press of some kind is clear enough; that he was working on a printing press at this stage is pure conjecture. Historians have been inclined to argue that the work of the mirrors was a stepping-stone, whether conscious or not, towards the work of the books. In fact, as the events unfold, it will make sense to see the two operations as entangled with each other, but in ways that will probably remain for ever hidden.


In 1438 Gutenberg acquired three partners. Hans Riffe, Andreas Dritzehn and Andreas Heilmann were local worthies. There were no vons and zus in their names, no big properties behind them, but their forebears had worked their way up from crafts and trades to eminence in business and local government. Riffe, for instance, was a prefect of the outlying suburb of Lichtenau and had brothers who were provosts in the St Arbogast monastery, near which Gutenberg was living. They were men of sound standing and, one would have thought, sound judgement. Yet, like many other investors since, they became enamoured of an idea, and lost their money.

We know they lost, because the venture came apart in circumstances beyond their control. Ahead there lay worries, a death, a dispute, a court case. It is from the witnesses called in that case and the final judgement that we know anything of all this – not enough to explain the really significant part, because the surviving partners were still possibly within reach of a fortune that depended, crucially, on secrecy. So the evidence is frustrating. Whenever witnesses get near the point, they clam up. Mirrors they could mention. A press they could mention. But there was something else in hand which they could not. No one even introduced into court the contract that bound them, presumably for fear that it would reveal their secret. Like alchemists who knew they had within reach the philosopher’s stone that would turn all to gold, they clapped hands over mouths and muttered only of the ‘common work’, the ‘art’, the ‘adventure’.

The words ‘adventure and art’ – aventur und kunst – have become a key to a treasure for researchers. The treasure, of course, is the invention of printing with movable type. We know it was in the air, because we have the results, the printed books, which came several years later. But was this the same treasure that the partners were so anxious to guard? The answer to this question is the Holy Grail of Gutenberg research, and much paper has passed through many presses in the pursuit of an answer. No one has yet found it, though the circumstantial evidence suggests scenarios galore.

The surviving evidence for this chapter in Gutenberg’s life has its own story. Actually, there isn’t any genuine surviving evidence, at least not original evidence. The depositions were part of two volumes of court records, written by the same scribe on sheets a little smaller than today’s standard typing paper, as some of us still quaintly call it. From the day they were written and filed away in 1439, they lay in Strasbourg’s archives, little changed by the passage of time, for almost 300 years, until they were noticed by local researchers, copied and published in 1760. Then the originals were destroyed. One volume joined fifteen wagonloads of records burned on 12 November 1793 by French soldiers after the city fell to republican armies. The second volume went up in flames with the city library in 1870. What survives is a copy, which is itself incomplete, perhaps because some of the original pages were missing. But there is no reason to doubt that what we have – thirteen of twenty-five witness statements, and the final judgement – is true to the original.

So to the evidence. It is as confusing as the stuff of countless other trials. Witnesses are contradictory, forgetful, biased and thoroughly, vividly, infuriatingly human. There is no coherent narrative in the extracts. To make them tell a story is like trying to reconstitute a movie from a couple of dozen rough-cuts.

Here are the scenes, in an order that makes the most sense of the conflicting evidence. The body-copy is paraphrased; the quotes are as authentic as I can make them in translation:

1. Andreas Dritzehn begs to join Gutenberg in developing his business. Gutenberg teaches him to ‘polish stone’ or ‘stones’.

2. Between 1435 and 1438 a goldsmith, Hans Dünne, earns 100 gulden ‘just for that which pertains to the pressing’. (Incidentally, the phrase Dünne uses is ‘zu dem trucken’ – ‘zum Drucken’, as it would be today, which in modern German means ‘to the printing’. Modern German makes a distinction between ‘drucken’, ‘to print’, and ‘drücken’, ‘to press’, but before printing made its mark in around 1500 there was no such umlauted linguistic difference. At the time, it could have meant either. My feeling is that if printing was already under way in 1438, Dünne would have been a little more careful with his language.)

3. In early 1438 Gutenberg and Hans Riffe agree that Riffe will help finance the production of mirrors for the Aachen pilgrimage, profits to be divided 2:1.

4. Andreas Dritzehn begs to be included in the partnership and offers his labour. Andreas Heilmann also talks his way in. All four come to an agreement to split the profits as follows: Gutenberg: 50 per cent; Riffe: 25 per cent; Dritzehn: 12.5 per cent; Heilmann: 12.5 per cent.

5. On 22 or 23 March – two or three days before the Annunciation (25 March) – the two Andreases pay the first eighty gulden each for instruction in ‘the new art, which he would teach them’. But Andreas Dritzehn is already overstretched, because he has to borrow some of the money from two friends.

Bottom line to date (rounded): 1,000 gulden, of which 500 is in cash.

6. Outwardly, all is peace and harmony. Andreas Dritzehn loads a cart with a barrel of brandy, a 500-litre barrel of wine and several baskets of pears and takes them out to St Arbogast for Gutenberg to repay his hospitality. Work continues.

7. Summer 1438: bad news. The plague returns, spreading north from Italy to Aachen, and the authorities announce that the 1439 pilgrimage is to be delayed by a year – and so, therefore, are profits from the sale of the mirrors.

8. The two Andreases pay an unannounced visit to Gutenberg and discover he ‘knows of another secret art’. They think Gutenberg has been holding out on them, perhaps planning to use their money by making a second, even more profitable enterprise riding on the back of the first. The ‘secret art’ increases the appeal of Gutenberg’s business. Now they want to get in deeper.

9. Gutenberg insists on formalising matters with a new agreement. The two promise to pay an additional sum, in stages, in effect doubling the size of the enterprise and their own contributions. Riffe either does not come in on the new deal or is sidelined. The agreement is to last five years. It includes a clause stating that in the event of a death, 100 gulden will be repaid to the heirs.

10. Andreas Dritzehn is struggling. He raises some of the cash through a broker, against the security of his assets, but still cannot pay the agreed sum.

11. Dritzehn is a worried man. He is talking to a tradeswoman, Bärbel, who is from Zabern (now Saverne, forty kilometres north-west of Strasbourg) and is either staying with him or has come by for a drink. It’s late. Dritzehn is doing his accounts.

She says: ‘Aren’t we ever going to bed?’ (Her reported words are: ‘Wollen wir heute nicht mehr schlafen?’ Literally: ‘Do we not wish today no more to sleep?’ Most English versions translate the sentence with a ‘you’ instead of a ‘we’, which could work, but puts a distance between the two. I like the implied asperity of a close friend – though not too close, for she calls him by the polite second person ihr, the equivalent of French vous, while he addresses her with the familiar du. On such subtleties does the imagination thrive.)

Dritzehn is not to be deflected. ‘I have to finish this first.’ Note he says ‘I’, not ‘we’; they’re not together in this work.

‘God help us!’ says Bärbel. ‘What’s the point of spending all this money? It’s probably cost you ten gulden already.’

‘You’re an idiot if you think it’s cost me only ten gulden!’

Imagine her eyebrows raised in a query: how much then?

He wriggles under her gaze, wondering about the secret he is guarding and his business reputation. More than 300 . . . Quite a bit more, actually . . . Enough over 300 to keep you going for the rest of your life . . . Well, all right, almost 500. To be more precise, he probably spent about 350, with another 85 still to find. His possessions, his inheritance – all pledged as security. Now he’s reached his limit.

‘Suffering Jesus!’ says Bärbel. ‘What if it goes wrong? What will you do then?’

‘Nothing can go wrong. Within a year we’ll get our capital back, and we’ll all be in bliss.’

Uns kann nichts misslingen’ – ‘nothing can go wrong’. Andreas Dritzehn has never heard of tempting fate.

12. December 1438: Andreas borrows another eight gulden from a friend, which he secures with a ring worth thirty gulden (the witness, Reimbolt, is not rich: he gets five gulden for it from the Jewish pawnbroker in his home village, Ehenheim). Andreas also borrows more from Reimbolt’s housekeeper. But he is still about eighty gulden short of the final agreed sum due to Gutenberg.

13. Gutenberg becomes nervous that his secret will fall into the wrong hands. He sends his servant, Lorenz Beildeck, to the two Andreases ‘to fetch all the forms’ (a ‘form’ or ‘forme’ is the term later used for a page of type, but there is no certainty that it meant that to Gutenberg, at least not yet). The ‘formes’ are to be brought and melted down, ‘so that no one saw it’ (whatever ‘it’ was). This was done, to Gutenberg’s distress at seeing his work return to the melting-pot.

This is revealing, because up until now it has been a fair assumption that Gutenberg is supervising the work in person in St Arbogast. Apparently not – the ‘adventure and art’ is based at least in part in Strasbourg, otherwise there would be no need to send Beildeck on his errand.

14. Christmas 1438: Andreas Dritzehn falls mortally ill. He is in bed at the house of a friend, the witness Midehard Stocker. Andreas tells the details of the partnership, and says with remarkable prescience: ‘I know I’m going to die. If I should die, I’ll wish I had never got into this partnership, because I know my brothers will never come to an agreement with Gutenberg.’

15. 26 December: Andreas Dritzehn dies. Panic among the surviving partners that the winding-up of his affairs will draw attention to the press and blow their secret.

16. 27 December: Andreas Heilmann asks the maker of the press, Konrad Sassbach, to ‘take the pieces from the press and separate them, so that no one can know what it is’. Again, the enigmatic ‘it’. But when they go along, ‘there was the thing, gone’.

Gutenberg shares the concern. It seems that melting the ‘formes’ is not security enough. He, too, is worried about ‘four pieces’ that the late Andreas left ‘lying in a press’. He again sends Beildeck to town, this time to Andreas Dritzehn’s brother, Claus. Claus is to take these out of the press and undo ‘both screws so that the pieces fell apart’ so that if anyone sees them and the press ‘they would not be able to see or work out what it was’. (It!) Then, after the funeral, he should go out to see Gutenberg, who had something to talk over with him. Claus Dritzehn goes to look for the pieces, but he, like Heilmann and Sassbach, fails to find anything. Someone else, it seems, has taken or hidden it, or them.

17. Andreas Dritzehn’s other brother, Jörg, wants him and Claus to inherit Andreas’s share in the partnership, and in the secret. Gutenberg demurs. Jörg tries to force Gutenberg’s hand by suing him. (The late Andreas was right – the two surviving Dritzehns were indeed vexatious characters. During the lawsuit, Lorenz Beildeck formally complained about Jörg’s insulting remarks; six years later the two brothers sued each other over Andreas’s estate, which included both a ‘cutting instrument’ and a press.)

18. In December 1439 the court agrees with Gutenberg. He can repay the Dritzehns a small sum, which together with what Andreas had not paid makes up the 100 gulden owed on the death of a partner. The rest of the money stays tied up in the business. Gutenberg is free to pursue whatever project he has in hand. The secret remains secure.


Was this project actually printing, as a little memorial stone on a river island named after Gutenberg claims and as several historians have argued since? Or merely a step in that direction?

It would help to know how the mirrors were actually produced, and in what way the techniques could be used for printing. The question has no answer, for we have none of Gutenberg’s mirrors (though a few made by others), and no records. But the scale of the operation offers some insight. Gutenberg had a market of 100,000-plus pilgrims to exploit. Of course, he could not saturate the market, but even to supply a tenth of it would demand a tonne of lead and tin, melted together to form an alloy. It was a small industrial operation, with metal to be bought, delivered and processed. Gutenberg seemed well able to handle the work, both as technician and as businessman. Capital flow, terms of partnership, budget and projected return were all wrapped up in a contract, which, as the lawsuit with Jörg showed, was well enough understood and agreed to stand up in court.

To review the evidence: there was a press, probably in Andreas Dritzehn’s house. Some sort of smelting work was going on in St Arbogast. There were ‘formes’ and ‘four pieces’ held together by ‘two screws’ in one of the Heilmann houses. The goldsmith, Hans Dünne, could have done engraving work. It sounds very much as if this is the basis for an embryonic or experimental printing operation, with a punch-cutter (Dünne), a typefounder (Gutenberg), type set into ‘formes’, and a press.

All very interesting, but hardly something to seize minds and drive men half-mad with fears of industrial espionage. The press, apparently central to the operation, would not have been all that remarkable, because presses had been used since ancient times to make wine and extract oil, and more recently to squeeze paper dry. The other materials and items needed for this still-hypothetical printing operation would not have been all that remarkable either – the punches, which were also used for making medals, coins, armour and the metal decorations on furniture; parchment – dried animal skin – which had been used as a writing material since the third century BC; paper, parchment’s cheaper substitute, the production of which had spread from Asia via Spain 300 years previously and now involved half a dozen paper-mills in Germany; the ink, which was in common use by textile manufacturers, artists and woodblock printers. Surely, a business with such established elements would not have attracted the attention of local businessmen, or taken so long to develop, or been a process that had to be kept under wraps.

So what am I missing? Well, there are two vital elements I haven’t mentioned, which together mark Gutenberg’s invention – not mere printing, but printing with movable type – as a work of a genius. One is an intellectual leap, the other its technical application. He was still at the research and development stage – hence the time, money and secrecy – but both ideas were simple enough for anyone to have grasped the principle, seen the potential and run off with them. It was, I believe, the combination of the two elements that were at the secret heart of his ‘adventure and art’.

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