F ust left the refectory of the Barefoot Friars as the sole owner of the Humbrechthof workshop and its product, Gutenberg’s 42-Line Bible. He also might have had a severe problem: the works were his – along with the presses, parchment, ink and paper – but what use was a printing works without a team of experts to run it? In fact, he did not have a problem, because this case had taken months to run its course, and he had had time to make his plans. During the hearings, he had headhunted Gutenberg’s most valued assistant, Peter Schöffer, and made him an offer, saying in effect: look, your boss is in trouble – he owes money, he can’t pay, you see the way this case is going, you don’t want to be out of a job, I don’t want to be short of a master printer, so if the final judgement confirms what we think it will confirm, the Humbrechthof works is yours, my boy. It seems that something like this must have occurred, because Peter Schöffer is there, in the final hearing, as an independent observer, not as one of Gutenberg’s designated witnesses.

Schöffer would not have needed much persuading, because he was closer to Fust than Gutenberg. His father having died when he was young, he was Fust’s adopted son. Fust trained him, put him through university (Erfurt, Gutenberg’s probable alma mater) and sent him off to Paris, where he became a scribe, probably aiming for a career in the Church. In around 1452 he returned to Mainz, or was brought back by Fust, to join Gutenberg, a role for which he was perfectly suited as calligrapher, engraver and designer. Talented, ambitious, but with a streak of ruthlessness, he neatly bridged the gap between Gutenberg’s artistic and technical obsessions and Fust’s business opportunism. His skills and character served him well. He would eventually marry Fust’s daughter, Christina, inherit the business and become the first international bookseller-printer.

His career displays a number of ironies. You might say he kicked his mentor in the teeth by abandoning him for Fust; but in so doing he was better placed to inherit his master’s mantle and carry the invention to a wider world – with this final twist: that he deliberately tried to take all the credit for himself and his adoptive father (and father-in-law), with such success that sixty years later a major historian could write that it was Johann Fust who had been the first ‘to conceive and fathom the art of printing’, with only a passing mention of Gutenberg. People coming across Schöffer in the mid-1450s would have been well advised to admire his talent and watch their backs.


It was Gutenberg, almost certainly, who was the mastermind behind the next major work of printing, the Mainz Psalter, a work almost as great as the Bible. This would have been one of those works in Gutenberg’s mind earlier, as it would have been in the mind of Nicholas of Cusa. It combines the psalms with songs of praise, prayers, extracts from both Old and New Testaments, collects, litanies, vigils for the dead and a collection of poems for religious festivals.

Its beauty is such that it is startling to think that Gutenberg was working on it – as scholars generally agree he was – while the Bible was still being printed. Its 350 pages add brilliant new elements to the history of printing and book design: two new typefaces, gorgeous capitals for each of the 288 verses, each capital decorated in flowery filigrees of metal as fine as mesh, with images sometimes included actually within the body of the letter – the B has a dog hunting a bird incised into its main vertical stroke – and printed in two colours, red and blue. (Recent research has shown that he had laid the groundwork for printed ‘rubrications’ in the 42-Line Bible, with a few scattered capitals that are virtually impossible to tell from the hand-painted ones.) Sentences and phrases also begin with red capitals, to mimic the scribal habit of placing a red mark on all initial letters as an aid to the reader. Each verse-initial was both red and blue, in an alternating sequence: if red for the letter, then blue for its decoration, and vice versa. This two-colour printing – three if you count black – could have been achieved only by inking the text (black), capitals (red), initial letters (red/blue) and decorations (blue/red) separately, carefully replacing the elements in the forme, and then printing before the ink dried.

This astonishing creation must have started under Gutenberg’s direction, but because of the break with Fust he was out of the running before it was off press. As a result, we have yet another novelty, another unpleasantness, another expression of the Fust and Schöffer egos. The Psalterwas the first book to include a printer’s imprint:

The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with venerable capital letters and also distinguished by appropriate rubrications, 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 [eve] of the Assumption [of the Virgin Mary] [i.e. 14 August].

A surviving copy (in Vienna) also has the Fust-Schöffer device, two shields hanging off a twig.

This was the first printed colophon, the statement made by medieval scribes recording the details of the copy. Only later did the word ‘colophon’ come to refer mainly to logos. Actually, the term was not in use at all yet. It dates only from the next century, after Erasmus adopted the term to describe a book’s final words. He took the term from the Ionian town that in classical times deployed cavalry so effectively that they swung the balance – added the finishing touch, as it were – to any battle. Erasmus used to sign off with ‘Colophonem addidi’, and it stuck.

It was Fust and Schöffer who now continued with the tradition established by Gutenberg, producing a series of wonders: a Mass book that contains the most elaborate of any decorated capitals, a psalter produced for the Benedictines incorporating the changes agreed by the Bursfeld reforms, and a guide to liturgy by the thirteenth-century French expert in canon law, Guillaume Durand (usually Latinised as Durandus). The Durandus was to be an astonishing success, with over forty editions following Fust and Schöffer’s first in 1459. Other books on canon law followed. In a word, Schöffer did what Gutenberg had hoped to do – provide a hungry Church with the books it needed.

So now, quite quickly, Gutenberg risked being written out of his own creation. In a sense he never recovered after the break with Fust. He stopped paying interest on the eighty dinars he borrowed from St Thomas’s, Strasbourg, in 1442. Writs were served, threats of arrest made. As a citizen of Mainz, which did not recognise Strasbourg’s jurisdiction, he could afford to ignore them, but it was enough to send any normal sixty-year-old into terminal depression.

But Gutenberg never played the victim. He witnessed a property sale in 1457, showing he remained in Mainz, along with his ‘honourable and discreet’ co-witnesses. And he kept the Gutenberghof (as almost all researchers now agree, after decades of wrangling over what might have or ‘must have’ happened). Other publications followed, all in the D-K type, and all providing evidence of his involvement: many more Donatuses, three other calendars, a papal appeal for a Turkish crusade (the one analysed by Needham), a list of archbishoprics, a single-page prayer (of which only one example survives: it has a nail-hole in the top, showing that its pious owner had hung it up in his home). There is continuity of policy here, additional evidence that he was still at work at the Gutenberghof.

This was just the start of a fighting comeback. He was, I imagine, seething at what had been lost, and determined to claw back what he could. The 42-Line Bible was on sale, and there was no shortage of demand for his products and skills, and his own trainees were beginning to branch out on their own. In around 1457 Heinrich Eggestein, a former priest from Strasbourg who had probably worked with Gutenberg in Mainz, returned to Strasbourg to set up his own works with his partner, Johann Mentelin. The following year, there arrived in Mainz a Frenchman, Nicholas Jenson, a painter and coin-engraver who had been ordered by the French king, Charles VII, to learn the art of printing from Gutenberg and return with his new skill. Realising what he had unleashed, driven by undimmed ambition, with unrivalled expertise and experience, all he needed to re-establish himself was – as always – finance.

He found it in the unlikely person of Mainz’s town clerk, Dr Konrad Humery, whom we first heard of as head of the group set up to counter the dire influence of the clerics. It was Humery’s backing that enabled Gutenberg to follow up an intriguing offer from Bamberg, 150 kilometres to the east.

The story of what happened, like so much in Gutenberg’s life, is not stated in any written source; it has to be derived by much argument from the evidence, in this case thirteen surviving copies and some odd fragments of a Bible set in columns of thirty-six lines, which expands the work by about 20 per cent to 1,768 pages. The 36-Line Bible – the B36 – uses a revised version of the old D-K type, which together with compositors’ quirks and ink analysis, pretty much proves that it was typeset in Mainz. But watermarks in the paper indicate that it was printed in Bamberg. How is this to be explained?

The most likely sequence of events is as follows:

The secretary to the bishop of Bamberg was Albrecht Pfister. Pfister knew Helmasperger, who doubled as secretary to the bishop. In 1459 Bamberg acquired a new bishop, Georg von Schaumburg, a prince in his own right, extremely rich and a connoisseur, who wanted a Bible of his own. But by the time he took office, all the 42-Line Bibles were sold. So the bishop commissioned a completely new edition, perhaps some eighty copies in all, twenty on vellum, sixty on paper. The decision changed Pfister’s life, because it was he who organised the printing, setting up his own print shop with Gutenberg’s type and the help of his team – four of them, probably. Pfister acquired the type and went on to print a Donatus and some other popular works, which combined text and woodcut illustrations. He would never match Gutenberg in expertise, but his workshop would train several men who later helped establish the new industry in Italy.

First Strasbourg, now Bamberg: Gutenberg’s invention, like a living thing, was beginning to lay down roots outside his home town.


Back in Mainz, it seems likely that Gutenberg was already working on his next big idea, which was to repeat the success of the Donatus with another standard reference work, a Latin encyclopedia known as the Catholicon. This work poses a mass of problems for researchers, who once again have had to wrestle with conflicting evidence and arguments. The book, a combined dictionary and grammar in 1,500 formidable pages, had been compiled 200 years before by a Genoese friar, Giovanni Balbi. It was, like the Donatus, a work of mind-numbing tedium, but full of information, much copied and much in demand among studious clerics. There was a technical problem: to devise a tiny typeface that would squeeze the whole encyclopedia into half the space.

The Catholicon duly appeared in 1460. Its 746 pages, set in the smallest print devised to that date, contained 5 million characters, almost twice the length of the Bible. The type, in a style favoured by scribes for non-liturgical texts, is an early form of Roman, which is both much more legible to modern eyes and also resembles some of Gutenberg’s other publications. On the other hand it was, by comparison with the Bibles, a bit rough, with ragged right-hand margins. Researchers wondered whether the meticulous Gutenberg could really have been responsible for it.

Doubts increased when a paper researcher showed that the Catholicon appeared in three different editions, probably over more than a decade, during which period Gutenberg left Mainz, resettled and eventually died. That meant it had to have been printed in at least two different places years apart, which raised a whole new set of problems. Was it really credible that Gutenberg and/or the team that inherited the Catholicon type worked with, stored and transported 5 million characters, all set in 746 formes, each weighing 10 kilograms apiece? That’s seven tonnes of metal to cart about – unless the pages were not set in type at all, as the American expert Paul Needham suggested in the 1980s. Needham argued that the whole work could have been cast in two-line slugs of metal, which could have been taken apart and reconstituted far more easily. But in that case Gutenberg had also to be seen as the inventor of a totally new process: stereotyping.

The arguments are extremely technical, and no one has yet made complete sense of the evidence. The consensus is that the Catholicon was set in type, and that Gutenberg was indeed behind it. But the enigma endures, exemplified by an extensive colophon.

This dedicates the work to God ‘at whose bidding the tongues of infants [perhaps here with the fundamental sense of “speechless ones”] become eloquent, and who often reveals to the lowly what he conceals to the wise’. It also boasts mightily about its origins in glorious Mainz in ‘the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1460’; and makes much of its production ‘without help of reed, stylus or quill, but by a wonderful concord, proportion and measure of punches and formes’.

This is a puzzle. It is proudly nationalistic, assertively traditional, explicit about its use of printing – and with no clue to authorship. It displays a literary flair, echoing biblical phrases: He that hath ears to hear, let him hear; Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. It also has an echo of Nicholas of Cusa’s doctrine of docta ignorantia: ‘I was led to the learning that is ignorance to grasp the incomprehensible.’ There is a deliberate quality here that encourages interpretation. What if Gutenberg is covering his tracks with a show of modesty that is not as disingenuous as it looks? What if he is coming out in discreet opposition to Fust and Schöffer, asserting traditional values against their brash modernity, using the new device of a printer’s statement to attribute his invention to God’s grace, casting himself in the role of the passive medium, proud of his ‘lowly’ anonymity, in contrast to his egotistical, self-serving ex-partners? Would not this be a subtle form of revenge?


Assuming the Catholicon was printed in Mainz in its early versions, it turned out to be the last major work in which Gutenberg was directly involved, because in 1462 Mainz’s troubles came to a violent and terrifying climax. Of all the setbacks he had experienced – flight from Mainz’s civil strife in his youth, Andreas Dritzehn’s death, flight from Strasbourg, the dispute with Fust – this was the nastiest, and certainly the closest that Gutenberg came to violent death.

The cause of the trouble was the old dispute between those who thought councils should be the ultimate fount of Christian authority, and those who thought the Pope should. In Germany this was a fraught issue, because every church leader had to pay a tax when he was confirmed in office by the Pope – 10,000 gulden in the case of Mainz’s archbishop – a policy that was understandably unpopular with anti-papal conciliarists. The papal party had regained a good deal of ground, thanks to Nicholas of Cusa and his papal backers, of whom the latest was his old colleague, Enea Sylvio Piccolomini, now Pope Pius II. In Germany those keen to see papal influence limited by councils wanted to convene another, a task that would normally be undertaken by the Empire’s senior prelate, the archbishop of Mainz.

In June 1459 Mainz got a new archbishop, just – he secured his position by a single vote, thanks to papal support. But Pius exacted a price: the new man, Diether von Isenburg by name, had to promise to go to war with the anti-papal, pro-conciliar ruler of the Rhineland, his co-elector, Frederick. This was Pius’s smart way of setting elector against elector, thus undermining imperial unity and extending his own authority. Diether did his unwilling best, picked a quarrel, took his army to war, made a poor job of it, suffering defeat in July 1460, and was glad to make peace with his countryman.

Now one thing led to another in a string of causes and effects, spiralling from the petty to the vicious to the deadly. Diether still had to have his election confirmed. This Pius said he would give in exchange for further assurances: Diether was to promise never ever to call a council, and also to hand over a tenth of his income for the coming crusade against the Turks. This proved one demand too many. Diether refused, sent a delegation to lodge an appeal and won a reprieve. He could have a year to pay up, Pius ruled, as long as the delegates paid the tax due on Diether’s accession then and there. Ten thousand gulden, the traditional amount, was a lot to find on the spur of the moment, but within reach. And then another shock: Pius arbitrarily doubled the fee to 20,000 gulden. To pay, the delegates had to take out a loan – from a local lender approved by the Vatican, of course. In the small print of the loan contract was an interesting clause: default meant excommunication for Diether.

Diether sent a horrified retraction and, by the terms of a deal to which he was not signed up, was promptly excommunicated.

Furious, he summoned the imperial electors to a meeting in Nuremberg in early 1461. Bishops, archbishops, electors and princes agreed that it was intolerable that the Pope should so ‘burden and oppress the whole German nation’. It had to stop. There would be no more payments to Rome. There would be councils. The Pope would be controlled.

Pius counterattacked (it’s hard to remember that this is Piccolomini, our brilliant and witty author, now struggling to cope with the burdens of high office). He dispatched delegates whose job was to meet leaders – one being Adolf von Nassau, the very man defeated in the archiepiscopal elections – and make concessions. The policy worked, mainly because the German king could not contemplate all-out war between Pope and Empire and had no option but to refuse backing for Diether. At the same time, the papal delegates had made Diether’s rival, Adolf, an offer of support. Diether would be removed, Adolf von Nassau installed. An order to this effect was signed by the Pope in August 1461 and rushed into Adolf’s eager hands, with strict orders to preserve secrecy, while more reassurances went out to the German princes that no one would force them to pay taxes without their consent. It was enough to secure their neutrality in the coming struggle.

The climax to this act of the drama came in the cathedral chapterhouse – now the museum – on 26 September. All Mainz’s leaders were summoned to hear what Pius had decided. Diether was there, and Adolf, and the cathedral canons, and other dignitaries, including the two papal legates. Adolf himself stepped forward and read out the papal bull firing the incumbent and elevating himself. After a stunned silence, the canons withdrew to consider. Another long pause, before the only possible conclusion – that canon law supported Pius’s action. Diether was out, Adolf the new prince-archbishop.

Diether was apparently without redress, when out of the blue his old enemy and now his ally, Frederick, offered his army. Diether’s spirits rallied. He promised his dithering adversaries, the guildsmen, that they would suffer wrongs no more at the hands of clerics if they backed him. No more privileges or tax exemptions for the clergy: it was what the guildsmen had been demanding for years. The city council, which until now had been as transfixed as deer caught in head-lights, swung behind Diether, swayed by the prince’s new adviser, none other than the anti-clerical Konrad Humery, Gutenberg’s financier and thus co-owner in all probability of the Gutenberghof printing works.

Once again, the screws tightened. In February 1462 the Pope ordered every local prelate in the Empire to proclaim Diether’s anathema, that curse with bell, book and candle by which ‘we separate him from the precious body and blood of the Lord . . . we judge him damned until he shall return to amendment and to penitence’. In every pulpit, the dire words were uttered. But not in Mainz.

And now the printers entered the scene. That August, Fust and Schöffer rushed out the emperor’s condemnation of Diether, hotly followed by Pius’s own rejection of Diether and his replacement by Adolf. In response, Diether and Humery published a manifesto, possibly through Gutenberg, suggesting arbitration (no takers, apparently). Other pamphlets came from Adolf’s side, then from Diether’s. Both sets of printers, it seems, were determined not to appear partisan in this propaganda war, but to act purely as businessmen, rivalling only each other, so that they could pick up contracts without prejudice.

In June 1462 Elector Frederick, Diether’s ally, brought his army towards Mainz. Adolf confronted him at Seckenheim, near Schwetzingen, and lost. In Mainz, Diether became the people’s darling. The townsfolk prepared for war – not that they could do much, because the coffers were, as always, practically empty. When offered some two hundred mounted mercenaries by Frederick, the burgomasters wrung their hands, said they had nothing to pay with and declined. Diether was astounded by their short-sightedness: ‘You say you are behind me, but you do nothing!’ War was coming and they worried about their accounts!

Outside the walls, Adolf’s supporters gathered – 1,000 horsemen, 2,000 foot-soldiers and 400 Swiss mercenaries. Disreputable robber barons, like ‘Black Duke’ Ludwig von Veldenz and Albig von Sulz, haggled over how to share out the booty – wine, grain, crops, weapons, jewellery, cash, domestic goods. Lesser warlords were promised 5,000 gulden apiece. Whoever was over the walls first would get 1,000 gulden and a town house. These were not people who would bring much credit to the Pope, whose decision they were supposedly supporting.

In Mainz, fear spread. Elector Frederick, warned of the coming assault, steered clear. A few guildsmen, eager to see the city’s patrician and clerical bosses brought low, planned treachery. A labourer, Heinz, and a fisherman named Dude were said to have bribed watchmen to leave unlocked a gate down in the south-west corner, a distant spot shielded from view by orchards and vineyards.

The attack came before dawn on 28 October. By flickering torchlight, foot-soldiers circled the walls, seeking a soft spot. Near the Gautor (District Gate), close to where the walls of St Jakob’s loomed against the eastern sky, soldiers pushed wheeled scaling ladders up against the wall – you can see one of the ladders in the town museum today – and swarmed over into the shadowy orchards. As the bell of St Quentin’s clanged the alarm, and men struggled into armour and ran to the walls, the Gautor gate was flung open, and Adolf’s troops streamed in, advancing down the Gaustrasse with yells of ‘Kill the heretics!’ Three hundred citizens formed up in the centre behind a flag and two cannons. Diether fled in the other direction, over the walls and across the Rhine, promising reinforcements that never came. In the strengthening daylight, the battle exploded across the town, as little groups – one led by Fust’s younger brother, Jakob – skirmished along side streets. By nightfall, 400 citizens were dead, among them Jakob, leaving Adolf’s men plundering at will through the big stone and timber houses of the patricians, the clergy and the Jews.

Next day, Adolf von Nassau rode in past the fires and corpses to claim his position as rightful archbishop. All citizens were ordered to the market square by the cathedral, where, the following morning, 30 October, 800 gathered, expecting to have to swear loyalty to their new lord. They found themselves surrounded by troops, the Swiss with crossbows loaded and ready to fire, the Germans with swords and pikes. They were penned (as a chronicler recorded) like sheep, and just as helpless. Adolf addressed them: for their disobedience to the Pope and emperor, he should kill them; but he would be merciful, and only fine them and banish them. There lay their way – along the Gaustrasse to the Gautor, where the invaders had burst through two days before.

No time to gather possessions. Anyone who could have fought, anyone with a claim to eminence was expelled with their families, passing between lines of grim soldiers yelling insults. At the gate, they filed through in pairs, their names being recorded by scribes, and allowed to pass only when they had paid half a gulden. With them, almost certainly, was Gutenberg, who, to any of Adolf’s supporters in the know, would have been highly suspect as a colleague of Diether’s secretary, Humery.

Adolf took everything: the cash from the treasury (not much), cloth, art treasures, furniture, clothes. Every commander received his promised 5,000 gulden, every horseman fifteen gulden, every foot-soldier seven and a half. All the city’s debts were written off. Total losses were later set at 2 million gulden, 10,000 times the amount the burgomasters had saved by refusing to pay for mercenaries. Mainz became a ghost town for the next six months.

After a winter spent shivering in outlying villages and estates, some of the exiles were allowed to return. Others, about 400, were made to take an oath that they would never again in their lives approach within a kilometre of the city (actually, since this was before kilometres, the terms specified a German Meile, from the Latin mille passus, 1,000 paces, i.e. not a statute mile, but something closer to a kilometre).

A year later, Adolf, with the emperor’s approval, proclaimed a new law banning electors and princes from meeting without imperial approval. That was the end of the conciliar movement and its vague foreshadowings of democracy, for . . . well, we will see how long in a later chapter. Traditional authority was back in harness, the guilds dissolved. In a glittering ceremony in Frankfurt, Diether renounced his title, handing over his electoral sword to a papal legate, in return for suitable compensation. In Mainz, Fust and Schöffer were back in business, happily doing the Pope’s work: in 1463 they published a papal bull against the ‘despicable infidel Turks’.

Gutenberg never again lived in Mainz. His house was seized and leased to one of Adolf’s men. He and his team would not have been able to take anything much with them, except perhaps a few tools and punches. It must have seemed the end of everything for which he had struggled for the last thirty years.

That was the surface reality. Underneath, though, something new had grown, and Mainz’s catastrophic little war, which seemed to end with conservatism supreme, in fact ensured the release and scattering of the seeds of revolution. Heinrich Eggestein was already back in Strasbourg, at his own printing shop with Johann Mentelin. Others now headed out to join Pfister in Bamberg, to Basel, to Cologne, and across the Alps to Italy.


Banned from Mainz, and now at some small risk of arrest from the bailiffs of St Thomas’s in Strasbourg, Gutenberg returned to the only other place his family had roots, Eltville. His niece had a house there, and so did patrician friends, the Bechtermünzes, whom he had known as a child.

Here, it seems, he re-established himself in printing, thanks not only to Humery’s finance but also to Heinrich and Nicolaus Bechtermünz, who provided the space. The site of the press is still there, at the heart of Eltville’s impossibly charming huddle of cobblestones and half-timbering. It’s a few minutes’ walk from the river and the broad embankment, where in summer tourists stroll among plane trees, waiting for ferries to Mainz, Cologne and Düsseldorf. Above the foreshore looms the Electoral Castle, the archbishop’s residence and Eltville’s shield, with its white tower and fairy-tale turrets. Behind the castle, overlooking its ramparts, is the Gensfleisch house. And right round the corner is the old Bechtermünz place, three storeys of grey stone, with eyebrow dormers in its steep, tiled roof. Today, it’s a wine cellar and restaurant, run by the Koeglers for four generations. Gutenberg would recognise it still, for the past is part of the present, in the name – ‘H. Bechtermünz’ – picked out in arching metal over the gateway, and in the wine presses, which were, after all, in essence printing presses.

There is no proof of Gutenberg’s direct involvement, but researchers agree that it must be more than coincidence that a new printing works should arise in little Eltville, Gutenberg’s second home, so soon after he was expelled from his main one. He is reckoned to have been behind an indulgence printed in 1464 to raise money to free Christians in foreign captivity. It was in the Catholicon type, the one that in the late 1450s was owned by Gutenberg and his backer, Humery. It seems likely that the punches at least could have been brought downriver from the Gutenberghof. And from 1465–7 there appeared a Latin dictionary, probably an abridgement of part of the Catholicon, known as the Vocabularius ex quo (from its opening two words: ‘From what . . .’).

At last, well into his sixties, Gutenberg was acknowledged. As part of his policy of making peace in his new realm, Adolf remembered the man who had helped make propaganda in the civil war, and who might make more unless he and his powerful invention were brought onside. Besides, by now it would have become clear that Rome itself was more than a little interested in printing, and Adolf owed Rome everything.

In January 1465 he awarded the old inventor a pension-in-kind, in effect granting him the trappings of knighthood, telling him of the award in flattering terms:

We have recognised the agreeable and willing service which our dear, faithful Johann Gutenberg has rendered, and may and shall render in the future . . . We shall, each and every year, when we clothe our ordinary courtiers, clothe him at the same time like one of our noblemen.

Gutenberg was also to be granted 2,000 kilograms of grain and 2,000 litres of wine a year, enough for a substantial household, and to be exempt from tax, all in exchange for his loyalty, sworn by oath. This was a complete pardon, with additional benefits, on the understanding that his printing press would be there for Adolf’s use, should he wish. Gutenberg was free to come and go in Mainz, free of want, and free of fear of arrest by Strasbourg bailiffs.

It was a sort of vindication, to be honoured like this, even if the reasons were transparently political, and to know that his invention was taking the world by storm. And what would have been his reaction, I wonder, when in 1466 he heard that his old adversary Fust, while on a sales trip to Paris, had caught the plague and died, leaving Schöffer as sole heir to the business?


Gutenberg’s death happened without fuss. Years later, someone – probably Eltville’s priest, Leonhard Mengoss – bought a book printed with the new technology in 1470, remembered the man who had started it all, and scribbled in it: ‘AD 1468, on St Blasius’ Day [3 February] died the honoured master Henne Ginsfleiss [for Gutenberg was also known as Gensfleisch, and still is in Eltville] on whom God have mercy.’ It’s the only evidence we have of the date of his death.

Three weeks later his backer and colleague, Konrad Humery, took over the equipment of the Eltville press, which technically belonged to him anyway. But by now this was more than equipment. There were political implications. In assuming possession of Gutenberg’s professional effects, he made an undertaking, written for Adolf’s eyes, by which he promised to use these explosive objects, this army of little metal soldiers, to print only in Mainz and, if he sold up, to sell only to a citizen of Mainz. He had little chance to do much with his equipment, though. He died two years later.

Gutenberg was buried, according to a record made by his distant cousin, Adam Gelthus, in St Francis’ Church, the same Convent of the Barefoot Friars where thirteen years before he had been deprived of the fruits of his labour.

In memory of the inventor of the art of printing

D.O.M.S. [Deo Optimo Maximo Sacrum: Sacred to God in the Highest]

To Johann Gensfleisch

Inventor of the art of printing

Deserver of the best from all nations and tongues

To the immortal memory of his name

Adam Gelthus places [this memorial].

His remains rest peacefully

In the church of St Francis, Mainz.

Gelthus’s written record, included without explanation in a book published in 1499, sounds like a draft for a gravestone or memorial slab. There is no such memorial, but something much grander – the greatest memorial of all, the work of the books, which was already starting to change the world.

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