Skip to Main Content

The Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress : A Resource Guide

Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400 - 1468)

Disentangling the historical figure of Johannes Gutenberg from the many legends of which he has become the subject is not an easy task. The following brief biography of Gutenberg will attempt to discuss only what can be verified through documentation. Perhaps the most persistent myth is that Gutenberg is the inventor of printing, which is a distinction that he cannot claim. Printing was pioneered in East Asia centuries before Gutenberg was working in Europe. Patrons interested in learning more about the history of printing may be interested in the Asian Collections at the Library of Congress, and in the following blog post in particular:

[Engraving of Johannes Gutenberg] In Andre Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecs, latins et payens. Paris 1548. p. 514r. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Scholars do not know when exactly Johannes Gutenberg was born; however, a document detailing an inheritance dispute in 1420 claims him to be of age at that date. Consequently, scholars assume that he was born sometime around the year 1400. Records do show that Gutenberg's father was a citizen of the city of Mainz, and that he was associated with the city's mint.

Johannes Gutenberg seems to have been well-educated enough to have attended a monastery school or even a university, though scholars have not been able to find anything definitive about his education or his upbringing. Much of the early life of Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany remains unknown.

Gutenberg's presence in the city of Strasbourg is certain by 1434. Strasbourg was larger than Mainz, and an important center for trade. A number of legal documents provide evidence of his engagement with merchants and craftsmen, and the language used suggests that Gutenberg was working as a goldsmith of some skill.

By 1439, court documents reveal that he had proposed to make mirrors for pilgrims, who used them in devotional practices relating to relics in the pilgrimage site in Aachen. Unfortunately, the pilgrimage for which the mirrors were intended was not scheduled to occur until 1440. When one of the investors in the mirror enterprise passed-away, the investor's family brought a suit against Gutenberg over the finances. Among these documents are insinuations of other inventions. Described in vague terms, it is possible that that some of these veiled references to Gutenberg's inventive manufacturing (specifically, "impressing") are references to printing, but it is also just as possible that the documents only refer to mechanisms involved in the creation of pilgrimage mirrors.

[Statue of Gutenberg] .[Incorrect caption. City is located in France, not Germany. 1902]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

After his time in Strasbourg, Gutenberg's printing establishment is well documented in Mainz, Germany. He returned to his native city sometime between 1444 and 1448. (The last record of Gutenberg in Strasbourg dates to 1444, but the first document locating him in Mainz is dated 1448). On October 17th, 1448, Gutenberg borrowed 150 guilders from Arnold Gelthus, who was not his only investor.

The majority of what we know about Gutenberg's workshop comes from a legal dispute instigated by his business partner and financier, Johannes Fust (c.1400-1466), who lent Gutenberg 800 guilders on two separate occasions, and who turned to the courts to obtain repayment with interest from Johannes Gutenberg. The surviving document, now known as the "Helmasperger Instrument," is housed at the Göttingen State and University Library. External. Legend has made Fust into a greedy business partner who financially ruined Gutenberg, but the Helmasperger Instrument does not support such a dark or dramatic narrative.

[Printer's mark of Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in West Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.].Photograph. 2007. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Gutenberg argued that Fust undertook the second loan as part of a shared, joint venture in the "work of books." The document does not specify how much Gutenberg was actually required to pay Fust, but the document does suggest that Gutenberg spent Fust's investment on the day-to-day workings and oversight of the book-making enterprise, the machinery for which it's likely that Fust's initial loan helped to create. The document does suggest a joint effort in which each person had a role: Gutenberg provided oversight for the daily operation of the workshop; Fust provided the business resources and acumen.

Scholars now emphasize that Fust did not ruin Gutenberg financially, as the latter maintained property in Mainz, is on record for the consistent repayment of other loans in Mainz, and was a witness to the sale of property in Mainz, which he could not have done had his reputation been that of financial ruin. In summary, there is no historical evidence to suggest that Gutenberg's legal entanglement with Fust left him penniless.

Certainly, Johannes Gutenberg and Johannes Fust parted ways. Fust obtained the workshop and replaced Gutenberg with the calligrapher Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim (c. 1425 – c. 1503), who had studied at the University of Erfurt and been employed as scribe in Paris before joining Fust's enterprise. Fust and Schoeffer printed under their joint name. After 1466 when Fust died, Schoeffer married his business partner's daughter, became the heir, and continued printing.

Johannes Gutenberg also continued printing. Scholars are confident that the famous Latin dictionary printed in Mainz in 1460, known as the Catholicon, could only have been printed by Johannes Gutenberg. Famously, however, a printer's name is not listed in the colophon, and a new type, much smaller than that of the Gutenberg Bible, was used in this similarly monumental typographic undertaking.

The Library of Congress was given a copy of the Catholicon by Lessing J. Rosenwald, which has been digitized and is available to view through the online catalog. (Patrons may enjoy comparing the type in the Gutenberg Bible with that used for the Catholicon). Patrons interested in learning more about the typography related to the Gutenberg Bible may be interested in the digital presentation for Princeton University Library's recent groundbreaking exhibit, Gutenberg & After. External Researchers are encouraged to view the Selected Bibliography page of the Guide for recommendations on print resources relating to Gutenberg and the Gutenberg Bible, and everyone is encouraged to come and see the Library of Congress copy of the Gutenberg Bible that is always on display in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building.