A Hercules Labouring for Unity

There is a cliché about inventions that they burst to life in the minds of poverty-stricken loners, who struggle in garrets to turn brilliant novelties into material form. Not in Gutenberg’s case. He was quite well off, he was a great team worker, and most of the materials and devices for his invention existed before he came along. Yes, there was a heart to printing with movable type that he set beating, but the existence of the body of knowledge suggested to me some sort of inspiration from his world. If so, what form might it have taken?

The search promised to be hard going, taking me into the confused heart of Gutenberg’s Europe. This supposed Christian unity was splintered by rivalries and antipathies: Pope v. anti-Pope, German emperor v. one Pope or other, warlords v. emperor, Catholics v. Hussites, and Pope v. his council of senior prelates, the last being of particular concern at a time when Church leaders were wrangling over the nature of papal authority. And that’s just Europe, minus the grandest rivalry of all, Rome v. Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperor ruled over a Christian world apart, with its own theological and political disputes. Since it was surely God’s will that peace and unity should reign, it was the ardent desire of each well-meaning prelate and prince to bring peace to this seething mass of unrest, provided only that peace could be made on his own terms. Such intransigence ensured enduring conflict.

Fortunately, there was someone who may have played a special role in this story. He was a contemporary of Gutenberg, not a born leader, who willed Christian unity as much as any prince, and brought to the task greater subtlety, strength of character and intellect than most. Several historians have suspected him of being the hidden hand focusing the rays that lit the fuse that led to Gutenberg’s explosive invention. The evidence is soft and circumstantial, but even if he wasn’t the inventor’s muse, his life overlapped with Gutenberg’s in intriguing ways and acts as a lens through which to observe his world.


His name was Nicholas (Nikolaus in German), and he came from Kues, sometimes spelled with a C after its Roman name, Cusa. Now linked with Bernkastel, its sister town across the River Mosel, Kues lies just eighty kilometres west of Mainz among Germany’s best and prettiest vineyards. Nicholas of Cusa – Cusanus as he was known in Latin – was famous in his life, but then mostly forgotten until a Cusanus renaissance in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. Immensely learned German philosophers started a waterfall of scholarship which poured down to the present, gathering pace along the way, turning him into a cult figure in some academic circles. When in the 1920s Ernst Cassirer, the heaviest of the heavies, wrote of Cusanus in Individual and Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, he dedicated the book to the Jewish philanthropist Aby Warburg, scion of the eminent banking family. Aby Warburg was the founder of the Warburg Library in Hamburg; with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the library moved to London as the Warburg Institute. The Warburg Institute contains a fine collection of Cusaniana, with works about him in English, French, German and Italian. But the British, for some reason, are not Cusanus groupies, and the Warburg’s shelves are a puddle compared with the lakes of scholarship elsewhere. Tap ‘Cusanus’ into an Internet search engine, and you stumble on Cusanus societies in both America and Japan, while the University of Trier, close to his birthplace, has a major research institute entirely devoted to him, based on the library of books and manuscripts he left on his death.

He owes his stature to his astonishing range of interests and the depth, not to say obscurity, of his philosophy. Here’s an example:

Since the absolutely Maximum is all that which can be, it is altogether actual. And just as there cannot be anything greater, so for the same reason there cannot be anything lesser, since it is all that which can be. But the Minimum is that than which there cannot be a lesser. And since the Maximum is also such, it is evident that the Maximum coincides with the Minimum.

Such thoughts combine with speculations that sometimes smack of startling modernity. He suggested, for instance, that the earth is in motion and that the universe has no centre, which sounds as if he was anticipating Copernicus and Einstein. Was this anathema to the Church, as Copernicus’s theories were a century later? Not at all, for his ideas have their roots in a standard medieval concern with God as infinity. His astronomical ideas are derived from voracious reading and deep thought, not from observation or experiment. His thinking was rooted in what he called ‘learned ignorance’, docta ignorantia, based on the notion that the purpose of knowledge is to learn how inadequate all learning is when seeking God. This is why the Japanese love him – they regard him as an honorary Buddhist. His theology, expressed in dense Latin, is a cloud of transcendence which can be used for an infinity of research and argument.

His philosophy was of no direct concern to Gutenberg, but it had practical applications in politics. Nicholas, like his cotheologians, knew God as the Infinite, the All-Embracing, the Ultimate in which Maximum and Minimum were one. If God was, in his words, the coincidentia oppositorum – the coincidence of opposites – then his creation, too, ought to be a unity, which it self-evidently wasn’t. Its current state of political disunity was an abomination to Nicholas. His whole life was defined by an obsession to make opposites coincide, to establish the unity that was foreshadowed by ancient Rome and Charlemagne, and which ought now to find expression, in the German Empire and/or the papacy and/or all Christendom. The struggle to resolve the tensions between these elements provided the context for his life as a working politician and lawyer. In this respect he was thoroughly down to earth, travelling incessantly, talking, persuading, writing, as if these were the tools with which he would stitch together a fragmented Christian commonwealth.

One of those tools could have been the word of God, in print.


Nicholas was born in 1401, which makes him pretty much the same age as Gutenberg, of a father who was no aristocrat, but well off nevertheless, with a boat business and several houses. According to tradition, Nicholas was educated at a school set up in the late fourteenth century by a group of laymen, the Brethren of the Common Life, in Deventer in the Netherlands. The Brethren were mystics who devoted themselves to a simple, communal life and care of the poor, in ‘imitation of Christ’ (the title of a book by their most famous member, Thomas à Kempis). They also promoted scholarship, by producing books, hand-copied ones and then block-printed ones. The ‘Brothers of the Quill’, as they were widely known, were proud to spread the Word ‘not by word but by script’. Mysticism, scholarship, writing and the idea and significance of reproducing information – these were passions that were built into Nicholas in his youth and were to run through his life.

After student days in Heidelberg and Padua, where he studied law, maths and astronomy, he returned as a newly qualified ‘canon lawyer’ – a specialist in Church law – to the Rhineland, where in 1427 he became secretary to the archbishop of Trier, and then, as word of his legal skills spread, secretary to the papal legate in Germany, Cardinal Giordano Orsini. It was the beginning of his career as an ecclesiastical lawyer and statesman, to support which he began to gather a portfolio of so-called benefices, acquiring the right to administer parishes through a deputy priest – and also administer the income they made. This practice was technically against ecclesiastical law, but since the law could be changed by papal dispensation, ‘pluralism’, as it was known, became a common scam for those of influence, ambition and no inherited wealth. Canon lawyers were particularly adept pluralists.

The late 1420s was a significant time to start such a career, for both Church and Empire confronted a double crisis:

• the rumbling dispute between a Pope aiming for absolute power and the council of prelates who had recently got rid of anti-Popes, saved the Church from anarchy and thought that their current protégé, Martin V, owed them deference;

• and the rebellion in Bohemia of the Hussites, who had been up in arms since that treacherous burning of their leader in 1415. Bohemia was fast becoming a quagmire, Christian Europe’s Vietnam. Two papal invasions of their land ended in two ignominious defeats, the last in 1431, when 130,000 imperial troops were scattered by phalanxes of farm carts used as war wagons, and the Pope’s representative, Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini, had to flee for his life in disguise.

At the same time as imperial troops were invading Bohemia, the next council was supposed to be opening in Basel, one of its aims being to resolve the Hussite rebellion. The Pope was to be represented by the same Cardinal Cesarini who was on his way to defeat at the hands of the Hussites. In mid-February 1431, two weeks before the council’s planned opening, Pope Martin died. At a time when it took months to gather for pan-European conferences like this, progress became glacial. Leaders drifted in every couple of weeks. By July only a dozen delegates had arrived in time for the opening ceremony in the cathedral. Six weeks later, Cesarini finally appeared after his narrow escape, now representing a new Pope, Eugenius IV. Since the council would last for years – eighteen, as it turned out – and would, perhaps, create enduring peace in Europe, leaders took care to make their mark. Princes with magnificent entourages came from Burgundy, Hungary, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The Castilians arrived with 1,400 horses and twenty-eight mules, attended by pages clad in silver. The first public session in December passed, and still they came, bishops, abbots, priors and professors all turning Basel from a little backwater into a temporary capital, building up to full strength of almost 400 delegates over the next eighteen months, until King Sigismund himself deemed the time right for his own appearance.

In February 1432 Nicholas, the lawyer from Trier, arrived. His official task was to put the case for a new boss who, on the death of his old one, Trier’s archbishop, had laid claim to the archbishopric. But he had more than his client’s interests in mind.


By that stage it is possible, just possible, that Nicholas and Gutenberg had met. They would have found they had much in common. They were two young men of similar backgrounds: well-off families, neither of them noble, both irked by a class structure that limited them. They came from the same area, and Nicholas was in Mainz on several occasions. He was there briefly for a court case in 1424. Perhaps they met then, these two twenty-four-year-olds, both newly qualified, the canon lawyer aiming high and the restless technocrat looking to use his skills to set up in business.

Even if they did meet, it would have taken time for their ideas to come together. So perhaps it was a later meeting – sometime between 1428 and 1432, after Gutenberg left Mainz and before Nicholas arrived in Basel – that planted the germ of an idea, which could have emerged like this: Nicholas wanted Christian unity, a dream he pursued from his postgraduate days onwards; unity would be underpinned by every Christian across Europe repeating the same words, reading the same texts, saying the same prayers, literally singing from the same song-book; for that to happen, Christianity needed uniformity in its texts. What if Nicholas of Cusa and Johann Gutenberg shared this vision of somehow, no one knew how, duplicating texts to perfection?

The time was just right. Nicholas, off to Basel to fight the case for his candidate for the Trier archbishopric, would be in touch with people with the fate of all Europe in their hands. The key to influence, they would have agreed, was the book.

For 300 years now, the production of books had brought Christians ever further and ever faster out of the age of darkness that had descended on Europe after the fall of Rome. The flame of learning, tended for a thousand years in a thousand monasteries, burned brighter by the year. Religious books were easier to read, with capital letters marked with colour, and chapter divisions. No longer did monks mutter out loud as they read, as if reading was a form of talk; people actually read to themselves, in silence. As trade links grew and towns evolved, learning escaped from the cloister, and ordinary people began to send their children to school, to learn the three Rs as well as Latin, the language of religion and thus of learning. Universities arose from about 1350, with a consequent demand for books. As paper made from rags became more popular, so books became cheaper. Merchants’ offices and city halls had their scribes, and the scribes acquired assistants, and all needed an education, and the teachers needed books, and so literacy spiralled, feeding itself. One Italian entrepreneur, Francesco di Marco Datini of Prato, left 140,000 letters when he died in 1410. People, particularly Italians living in a score of trade-rich city-states, already knew they were in the midst of an intellectual and artistic fermentation; the Renaissance was one of those few historical periods that discovered itself, rather than being defined by hindsight.

In this process, Nicholas of Cusa, the multicultural Renaissance man from Germany, played a leading part, not only in philosophy. In 1429 he brought to Rome manuscripts that contained twelve plays by the Latin comedy writer, Plautus, which, when published (thirteen editions by 1500), influenced European comedy from then on. Nicholas Udall, who wrote the first English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister (1552), owes a debt of thanks to Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus, and its rediscoverer, Nicholas. So do Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew), Molière (The Miser) and many others, even the modern French playwright Jean Giraudoux, whose Amphitryon 38 (1929) harks back to Plautus’s Amphitryon.

Increasingly, people were writing and reading in their own language. Germany in the early fifteenth century, during Gutenberg’s youth, experienced a boom in vernacular books recording what had once been oral: instruction manuals, verses, histories and legends. A well-run scriptorium – like the one run by Diebold Lauber in Haguenau, twenty-five kilometres north of Gutenberg’s place outside Strasbourg – was a good-sized business, with teams of scribes, illuminators, rubricators and binders supplying books on order to the nobility and building up stock for off-the-shelf purchases. Rich men acquired libraries (though there were no public libraries yet – Florence’s was first, in 1441).

Techniques, too, provided increasing variety in content and design. Wood-block printing of single sheets spread fast after about 1300, and a hundred years later copperplate engravings of illustrations appeared. A wood-block cutter was adept at producing both pictures and text in mirror images, so that they came out right when printed. People took to decorating their walls with woodcuts of saints. As the wealthy became wealthier, they wanted priests to officiate at their private devotions, and the priests needed books they could carry, quarto-sized ones that could easily fit into a satchel. At the other extreme, the wealthy also demanded beauty, and scribes became supreme artists, creating the gorgeous prayer books known as books of hours, which set new standards of excellence.

He who wished to wield influence in Church affairs had to control the missals, indulgences, Bibles, prayer books, song-sheets and Latin grammars on which the churches, monasteries, nunneries and schools depended. Scribes could supply the need, just, but it was a struggle. A scribe would be hard pressed to copy more than two high-quality, densely packed pages a week (one 1,272-page commentary on the Bible took two scribes five years – 1453–8 – to complete). What of the future, when all Europe was unified once again – could God, Empire and Church all be served? Almost certainly not. Apart from the tediously slow production, hand-copyists made mistakes, which multiplied with each copying, undermining the very idea of truth flowing from the centre outwards. Perhaps the future lay less in scribal copies than in woodblocks, but wood-blocks were even more demanding than manuscript pages to make, and they wore out and broke, and then you had to carve another one – a whole page at a time. Copperplate engraving would have been even more demanding, if anyone tried to engrave texts. What was needed was something beyond copperplate, whole pages of metal, from which books could be pressed by the thousand, without error.

In due course, as the world knows, Gutenberg would come to the Bible. But in the early days he would not have considered such a massive operation. There was another work which, if published, would be of equal significance, and which was much more practical, because it was short.

The one thing that would unite Christianity as nothing else was a Church service that was the same across all Christendom, for nothing had so divided it. The basis of the division between eastern and western empires, between Constantinople and Rome, came down to three words. The difference was about the nature of the Trinity, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Orthodox dogma from the sixth century, the Holy Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father’ and thus through the Son. In Roman dogma, the Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father and the Son’, a phrase incorporated into the Creed in 1020. Once established, this difference could not be removed. The dispute, of course, was about far more than three words, namely power and influence and money, but that phrase ‘and the Son’ – filioque in Latin – was the formal nub of the division between the two parts of Christendom.

Given the implications of having variations in the form of worship, Church leaders well knew the need for uniformitas, in particular for uniformity in the central act of worship, the Mass. This was supposed to be the same ritual across the Christian world, or at least across Europe, with everyone doing the same thing and hearing the same words – the same words, in the language of the original imperial power, Latin, and no translations allowed. Every church had to have a Mass book, to read the right words and perform the right acts.

But there was this problem of errors, both genuine mistakes and deliberate ones, like those that underlay the current unpleasantness in Bohemia. Local rulers tended to favour their own scribes and their own local variants. If only no one had any leeway to diverge, wouldn’t the world be a happier place? And what a market! Mainz alone had 350 monasteries and convents. This was a thought to set ambitious young business minds racing.


No one knows what Gutenberg was doing while Nicholas established himself in Basel. Perhaps the two were there together, as one of Gutenberg’s biographers, Albert Kapr, suggests, on the basis of no evidence at all. If so, Gutenberg would have followed Nicholas’s rise with interest.

Nicholas lost the case for his patron in his claim to be archbishop, mainly because the Pope supported the incumbent. Having settled himself into the anti-papal corner, he turned himself into the council’s main legal adviser, buttressing its members’ anti-papal position in a bold and erudite book. De Concordantia Catholica (Of Catholic Harmony) argues that society should be based on an order in which the parts submit to the whole, the whole in this case being the combination of Church and Empire, of Pope and emperor, united by the council. His conclusion drew on recent history, when the Council of Constance had ended the Great Schism by deposing three Popes and imposing a fourth. If this was a valid ruling – and no one seriously disputed that it was – then it followed that the council, and not the Pope, represented the true spirit of the Church, and therefore, if the Pope proved unfaithful, it had the power to advise, reprimand and in extreme cases depose him. Nicholas presented the book to the council in November 1433 – nice timing, considering that King Sigismund had just arrived in the grandest entrance of all, having achieved a twenty-year ambition of having himself crowned emperor in Rome.

Nicholas’s argument is based on a doctrine that sounds astonishingly modern, as if he were foreshadowing democracy. Authority, he writes, should arise from the consent of those governed. In fact, this was not a new thought – it had solid roots in Roman and medieval law – and it had nothing to do with democracy as we know it today. This sort of consent is not based on votes but on implied consent, derived from natural and divine law. By this argument, since most people wish to be good, they automatically consent to being ruled by a leader who imposes goodness. In the case of the Church, consent is given by cardinals on behalf of all. Nicholas sums up the principle with a catchphrase that might have been adopted by some eighteenth-century revolutionary theorist: ‘Quod omnes tangit debet ab omnibus approbari’ (‘What touches all should be approved by all’).

All well and good, in theory. In practice, dissent ruled the Council of Basel almost from the start. The new Pope, Eugenius IV, wanted the Hussites destroyed, and wished to waste no time on a council that refused to do his bidding. He dissolved this one even as it gathered pace and ordered another on Italian soil, in Bologna. The council – guided by Nicholas’s legal argument – refused to be dissolved, declared itself superior to the Pope, and in February 1433 virtually threatened to depose him if he didn’t kowtow. Eugenius caved in and withdrew the dissolution – a victory to the council, thanks in large measure to Nicholas.

Meanwhile, the council had approached the Hussites with an offer to negotiate. Two great Hussite generals, Prokop the Great and John Rokyzana, arrived in early 1433, with fifteen officers and a retinue of 300. Again it was Nicholas who took control, suggesting a form of words to save faces on both sides. The dispute, remember, focused on the Hussites’ insistence that Communion had to be administered in both bread and wine, while Rome claimed you could get by with the bread alone. OK, Nicholas said, you can have Communion ‘in two kinds’, but in return you have to agree that a) it won’t make you any more holy than using one ‘kind’, and b) you shouldn’t use it as an argument to break the unity of the Church. This was the basis for an agreement signed in Prague the following year with the more moderate Hussites. Extremists held out, and civil war followed, but in effect, as far as the Empire and Rome were concerned, by 1434 the Bohemian–Hussite–Utraquist problem was solved, thanks in large measure to Nicholas.

Finally, Nicholas turned to a matter that united mathematics, practicality and religious observance: the calendar. The Church was deeply concerned with the calendar because of the need to calculate the date of Easter. A thousand years before, the Council of Nicaea, laying out the ground rules of Christian practice, had decreed that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the full moon following the vernal equinox, one of two dates (in spring and autumn) on which day and night were of equal length. But the calendar of the time contained two errors. Its year (365.25 days) was 11 minutes and 8 seconds too long, which over 1,000 years amounted to seven days; and the calculations that predicted the lunar cycle were way out as well. Actually, Roger Bacon, philosopher and scientist, had pointed this out seventy years before, but it was considered so intractable a problem that the papal authorities averted their eyes. In his De Reparatione Calendarii (On Revising the Calendar), presented to the council in 1437, Nicholas expertly reviewed the evidence and proposed the only possible remedy: to adopt a new lunar cycle, leave out a week in the calendar – he suggested Whitsun, because it was a movable feast and the general public wouldn’t notice – and then, as a final piece of fine-tuning, omit leap year every 304 years. This would have to be done with the agreement not only of the Greeks in Constantinople, because they were co-religionists, but also of the Jews, who would bear the brunt of revising all financial agreements. It would be the foundation of a new era, a fitting memorial for the council. Well, it didn’t happen. The issue was too contentious to act on, especially with the Church in its present dire state. Reform would not come for another eighty years, when the discrepancies finally became too embarrassing to endure, and Pope Gregory XIII introduced the ‘Gregorian’ calendar, as we now know it, along the lines suggested by Nicholas.

Running through Nicholas’s intense political and literary activity in the early 1430s is the dominant theme of the need for Christian unity. But there was another concern – his own career. Like many another ambitious bureaucrat, he was committed to high ideals in part because they took him towards the centre of power. Except in his case not quite far enough. Consider his background and where he stood in 1436 – the son of a well-off but not noble family; a brilliant mind; driving ambition, which impelled him into the Church; and then above him a glass ceiling, for with his origins he could never hope to rise to the highest echelons of a Church establishment dominated by the closed ranks of German aristocrats.

So quite abruptly this previously pro-council ideologue switched sides. The result is clear in a letter written in 1442 to the Castilian envoy, Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevalo, in which he says that it is the Pope, not the council, who is the true symbol of Church unity, the Pope who was Sacer Princeps, the Sacred Head. He makes no mention at all of any council representing the Church. What had happened to inspire the change?

Several things. For a start, Eugenius IV had had a bigger idea than anything the Council of Basel or Sigismund might propose. It was no less than the reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches, in pursuit of which he issued an invitation to the Greek Orthodox leaders in Constantinople. This was the dream that had, 400 years before, driven the German king, Otto I, to marry his son to a Byzantine princess; the dream that had inspired her son, Otto III, to declare himself head of a new Rome and arrange a marriage with a Byzantine princess of his own. It had come to nothing then, because Otto died when hardly out of his teens, and Zoe returned home unwed. Now, perhaps, the dream would be fulfilled – and this time by an Italian. That was what Eugenius had in mind when, in September 1437, he ordered the council to transfer to Ferrara, in the valley of the Po, which was a lot more accessible for the delegation from Constantinople than transalpine Basel.

The move was not an easy thing to accomplish for a Pope recently humiliated by the council. But there had been a shift of mood in the previous three years. Leaders had begun to drift away, and the rump council was a notorious shambles, with proposals for reform being opposed or carried by unseemly yells. As Joachim Stieber, Professor of History at Smith College, Massachusetts, argues, it seems to have dawned on Nicholas that if the various measures proposed by the council in 1433–6 were to be enforced, he would have helped transform the papacy into a constitutional monarchy, hardly a suitable position for the Vicar of Christ.

Then there were two matters that touched him personally. First, among the suggested reforms was one to abolish the Pope’s power to grant benefices. Since Nicholas had several benefices that were dependent on papal approval, to continue backing the council would remove his own source of income. Secondly, there was the business of his non-noble birth. He would never, ever be made a bishop by the zealously aristocratic leaders of the German Church. There was only one way he could advance, and that was by sidestepping his superiors. For that, he needed papal backing. Opposing a majority who were against the Pope’s suggestion to transfer the council to Italy, he joined the pro-papal minority and helped create a document that somehow bore the stamp of the council as a whole. How this was engineered is unclear, and it is widely seen by scholars as a forgery. So much for ‘consent’.

From that moment on, he became one of the Pope’s ablest champions, the ‘Hercules of the Eugenians’, as his friend, the famous scholar and future Pope, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, called him.


Nicholas now had the springboard he needed. It was he who bore the controversial decision to Eugenius approving the next council in Ferrara and the invitation to the Greeks. It was he who was chosen to carry the invitation to the Byzantine emperor and patriarch in Constantinople, and escort the Greek triremes, with their 700-strong retinue of bishops, monks, prelates, procurators, archimandrites and scholars, back to Italy. It took four months for the immense delegation to make the 2,250-kilometre journey to Venice, where they were met by the doge and the Venetian senators in their purple silks, to salutes of artillery and fanfares of trumpets.

For the next six years, the two sides, with their vast entourages and committees, heaved themselves from Ferrara to Florence to Rome to escape plague and brigands, wrangling about forms of words that would paper over their ancient disagreements. In the end, the Greeks shrugged, allowed that the Pope was superior and admitted that the Romans were right on the filioque business after all; they agreed to the union of the two faiths and left for home . . .

And at once repudiated everything they had just said. Absolutely nothing changed.

But the Ferrara–Florence Council certainly helped Eugenius and Nicholas. Those left in Basel had fought back, declaring Eugenius deposed and appointing yet another anti-Pope. But Eugenius had no need to worry. The old council, undermined by bickering and its numbers reduced by a return of the plague, hadn’t the heart to continue, and the German princes stayed neutral in the struggle. Nicholas argued the papal cause in town after town in Italy and Germany, to such good effect that Frederick III forced the retirement of the council’s anti-Pope and reconfirmed his support of Eugenius.

Eugenius showed his gratitude to his ‘Hercules’. Just before his own death in 1447, he rewarded Nicholas by making him a cardinal, a private act confirmed by Eugenius’s successor. At a stroke, Nicholas had leaped clear of his non-noble birth, and right over the hurdle of aristocratic canons and bishops that barred his progress. In the politest way, he thumbed his nose at the lot of them. ‘The cardinal’, he wrote loftily, referring to himself in the third person, ‘has ordered this account to be written to the glory of God so that all may know that the holy Roman church does not pay heed to place of birth or ancestry but is a most generous rewarder of virtuous and courageous deeds.’

It was a sort of apotheosis, a vindication of the choice he had made thirteen years before, and nothing thereafter matched that joyful sense of achievement. Shortly afterwards, the new Pope, Nicholas V, appointed our Nicholas as bishop of Brixen (now Bressanone) in the Tyrol. This was a controversial act, because German bishops were supposed to choose their own replacements, and anyway there should at least have been consultation with the German king. Given that Nicholas was backed by a revitalised Pope and that he was, after all, a German, the German prelates and princes swallowed the insult. But they did not forget. The rest of Nicholas’s life, until his death in 1464, was to be a political struggle with the men into whose ranks he had been so dramatically thrown.


Meanwhile, pressure for a standardised missal had been growing ever since the Council of Basel opened. The idea seems to have come from Johann Dederoth, the Benedictine abbot of Bursfeld, now Bursfelde on the River Weser. His aim, as presented at Basel, was to cleanse the Church of abuses and to centralise authority, reforms that would include a new missal, the Ordinarius as it was called. The task was inherited by Dederoth’s successor, Johann Hagen, who in 1446 formed a union of six monasteries, the Bursfeld Congregation, which linked eighty-eight abbeys and monasteries in northern and western Germany, including St Jakob’s in Mainz (it was outside the city walls, to the south, where the southern railway station now stands). As the Council of Basel neared its ignominious end, and as the struggle between the council and the Pope resolved itself in the Pope’s favour, Hagen sought and gained the support of the new Pope, Nicholas V. In December 1448 the Pope sent the Spanish cardinal, Juan de Carvajal, to Mainz to approve Hagen’s new Ordinarius.

And who should come with Carvajal but his friend, colleague and rising co-cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, who would perhaps have been gratified to discover that the means of printing the new missal was to hand, thanks to the fortunate – I am tempted to say astonishingly coincidental – return to Mainz, that very year, of Johann Gutenberg.

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