Gutenberg, Johannes (ca. 1398–1468)

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Gutenberg, Johannes (ca. 13981468)

German inventor whose new system of movable type pioneered the craft of book printing in Europe. Gutenberg was born in Mainz into a successful merchant family that fled the city during an uprising against its patricians in 1411. His where-abouts after this event are unknown until he moved to Strasbourg, now in France, in the early 1430s. A skilled goldsmith and craftsman, Gutenberg was inspired by the idea of a system of cast-metal type that would allow an easier and more efficient production of manuscripts.

Although wood-block printing had existed for centuries in China, the medieval manuscripts of Europe were painstakingly created by hand, with scribes carefully drawing letters and illustration into sheets of vellum that were then bound together.

Gutenberg mechanized this process by creating a system of movable typesmall pieces of metal with matrices punched into the face in the form of individual letters. The type, for which Gutenberg invented a method of mass production, could then be set into a large wooden matrix, or frame. Paper or vellum could then be placed over the frame, where the inked type created the image of a letter by being pressed against it. Gutenberg adapted the wine press to serve as a printing press, and also developed new varieties of paper and printing inks that were more useful for his process than the traditional materials used by scribes.

Not a wealthy man, Gutenberg was forced to borrow money and accept partners in order to purchase materials necessary for his enterprise. While he refined his system he made every effort to keep it a secret from his partners and the world at large. Through the 1440s he improved his invention, borrowing money from a relative in order to buy needed materials and signing another partnership with the wealthy Johann Fust, who advanced Gutenberg the hefty sum of eight hundred guilders. Impatient to see a return on his investment, Fust sued Gutenberg after making another investment of eight hundred guilders, accusing Gutenberg of embezzling the money, and won his case in the court of the archbishop. The court proceedings refer to works already printed by Gutenberg, which included a 42-line Bible, today known as the Gutenberg Bible, which was created sometime before 1455, as well as a Psalter (a volume of the Book of Psalms), books of Latin grammar, and printed indulgences issued by the church. The Gutenberg Bibles were printed on paper and vellum; while the letters were printed by the type, the book was illustrated by hand. About sixty Gutenberg Bibles are known, with eleven of them printed on vellum (calf skin) and the rest on paper.

With Gutenberg's type and printing press in his possession, Fust began printing his own versions of these works, employing Gutenberg's assistant Peter Schoeffer, a skilled manuscript scribe who had helped Gutenberg design his type. In Mainz, Fust and Schoeffer produced the first European book to carry the name of its printers, a Psalter, in 1457. Historians believe that the multicolored letters and intricate decorations of the book were Gutenberg's work.

In the meantime, Gutenberg established another workshop and created another Bible in around 1460. In 1462 he left Mainz and moved to Eltville, where he built a new press. During the next generation, civic violence in Mainz drove many printers out of the city; the capital of the industry moved to Italy and the city of Venice, which became an important book-publishing center during the Renaissance.

In 1465 Gutenberg was granted a pension of grain, wine, and clothing from the archbishop of Mainz. By the time of his death, his printing technology was spreading throughout Europe. The use of the printing press allowed publishers to create large numbers of identical books, which effectively spread classical literature, religious tracts, political pamphlets, and other works to the general population. With this knowledge and information becoming more widespread, a rebirth of learning and debate was kindled throughout Europe, ending the monopoly on intellectual pursuits by the nobility and a privileged class of scholars, monks, and scribes. Historians credit printing as an impetus to the Protestant Reformation; Martin Luther's writings and important Protestant treatises were printed in the form of broadsheets in the early sixteenth century.

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Gutenberg, Johannes (ca. 1398–1468)

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