The Biblia latina
The only surviving document to conclusively link Johann Gutenberg to the “work of the books”—Das Werk der Bücher—is a partial record of a lawsuit that ended his partnership with Johann Fust, written by the notary Ulrich Helmasberger on November 6, 1455. Though celebrated in 15th century oral histories as the undisputed inventor of printing with movable type, Gutenberg never signed his name to a single printed book. Although his early years are well documented, virtually nothing is known of his activity in the crucial years between 1449 and 1454—the years in which the Bible of 42 lines was produced in a workshop in Mainz. A mountain of research since the early 1900s has attempted to fill this gap.
Bibliographers have pored over every scrap of early printing, trying to determine what was printed when, and how. In the absence of any documentary evidence, the only witnesses have been the books themselves. Forty-eight copies of the Gutenberg Bible still exist, complete or in part, survivors of five hundred years of upheaval and war. Most were originally purchased or donated to reforming Benedictine monasteries; those that remain are the jewels of rare book collections in libraries around the world, from Tokyo to Texas, London to New York. These books, like the men who made them, straddle a fault line between the Middle Ages and the modern world. The 15th century, like our own time, was a period of creative ferment and financial boom and bust: the business models of early printers regularly crashed and burned. Peter Schoeffer, scribe turned printer-publisher, knew this well. He and Gutenberg and Fust embarked together on production of the Mainz Psalter, a huge lectern book of liturgy considered to be the most beautiful book ever printed. But this psalm-book did not sell well. It was the individual tool for learning, introduced by his master, Johann Gutenberg with his Latin grammar of Donatus, which would sweep the world.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice is a work of fiction based on fact. Virtually all of its characters are the real people who struggled to bring a new invention into being in the late Middle Ages on the Rhine. My goal was to imagine a human story that might explain both the remarkable achievement of this trio of medieval men – and why their historic partnership unraveled. Over the centuries, Gutenberg has emerged as a heroic figure, the sole creative genius behind the world’s first major printed book. He was Time Magazine’s “Man of the Millennium”; the printing press has been ranked by historians as mankind’s most important invention since the wheel. Early research established not just the facts of the great man’s life and work, but their tragic, almost mythic coda: that it was his unscrupulous business partner Johann Fust, and the young printer Peter Schoeffer, who betrayed Gutenberg by a lawsuit that robbed him of the very tools he had invented. But in recent years, a different and more balanced view has begun to emerge.
Contemporary bibliographers have brought fresh eyes to bear on early printing practices in Mainz. One great driver has been technology itself: computer and cyclotron analysis has helped unravel many riddles. A new crop of German historians has also helped to situate the Bible production more firmly in the political, religious, legal and economic realities of its time. The German art historian Eberhard König’s study of early Mainz illumination shed new light on Johann Fust; the French historian Guy Bechtel’s review of the evidence suggested for the first time that Gutenberg’s own “sharp business practice” may have led to the dispute and lawsuit.
Experts have long disagreed over Peter Schoeffer’s technical and aesthetic contribution to the Bible. In Helmasberger’s recording of the lawsuit, he is one of five men listed as witnesses for Johann Fust. For centuries he has accordingly been portrayed as a knave or lackey to either or both men, though oral sources on the Rhine describe him as an expert engraver and the true inventor of the punch-matrix system for casting metal type. His background as an accomplished scribe was never in dispute, nor his aesthetic eye: Gottfried Zedler, a prolific and somewhat erratic German bibliographer, went so far as to call the Bible of 42 lines the “Schoeffer Bible.” The great German bibliographer Paul Schwenke first postulated that Schoeffer was “Compositor #1” of the Bible nearly a hundred years ago. Schoeffer himself wrote, after the deaths of both Gutenberg and Fust, that he had learned the art “from both those Johannes”, but gone on to surpass them in the art of letter-cutting. He never claimed to have invented the whole art, although his son Johann Schoeffer did make that false claim, in the process throwing disrepute upon the Schoeffer name. The only written evidence is Peter’s declaration to the Abbot Trithemius, the chronicler of Sponheim, in 1485: that he’d “thought up an easier way to cast the letters” at the point at which the workshop had completed just three quires. What is indisputable is his later mastery, evidenced not just by the Mainz Psalter, but nearly 300 printed works.
Johann Fust has also been consistently underrated and maligned. Early bibliographers dismissed him as a banker or notary, without regard to his family background as a trained goldsmith and wealthy trader in the rising bourgeoisie, and later involvement in the production of elegant illuminated books. Nor has Johann Gutenberg been traditionally seen in his proper social context. Most accounts call him a goldsmith, but as a ranking member of the Mainz patrician class, it is unlikely he would have had guild training. His history in Strassburg, documented in several lawsuits, and the projects he undertook after 1455, reveal him instead to be more of a serial entrepreneur. He was an inventor adept at establishing financial consortia and organizing craft workers to implement his ideas, like the Strassburg master goldsmith Hans Dünne.
It was Fust’s relationship to Schoeffer that intrigued me most, however—and offered evidence for a new telling of the tale. Many have accused Peter of betraying his master and enriching himself by continuing alone with Fust. But it is far more likely that a stronger, filial bond tied the young scribe to the successful merchant. Fust himself described Peter as his adoptive son, according to Trithemius. It is entirely possible that Fust was a childless widower when he married Margarete (Grede), given the difference in their ages (he was over forty, she closer to twenty). Grede bore her first child, Christina, around 1445. Young Peter, meanwhile, born around 1425 in Gernsheim, was by then a scribe in Paris, as proven by a manuscript of Aristotle that he signed in 1449. Few farming boys from Gernsheim had the means for such studies or travel. Many families took in relatives as wards, since maternal death in childbirth was so common. Thus I have postulated that Peter came to Fust’s house when he was orphaned as a boy, attended school in Mainz, and bore Johann Fust the affection any son would bear a father. The figure of Anna Pinzler and her family are my inventions. It seemed implausible that a young man of Peter’s social standing would wait until he was over 40 to wed. His late marriage to Christina Fust, with whom he had four sons, is substantiated by genealogical records. It is plausible therefore to imagine a first marriage that might have ended with death in childbirth. I accordingly gave him a painter’s daughter, living in the painter’s district.
The sighting of the Bible quires in Frankfurt helped me to construct a timeline for the printing of the books of Scripture. Schwenke proposed a production scheme as early as 1923 that identified discrete “production units,” and proposed a three-press solution to the printing. Other research revealed such quirks as the abandoned attempt to print the rubricated chapter openings, and the decision part-way in to increase the print run. These conclusions were confirmed in the 1980s by analysis of the inks and paper. The novel’s chronology is based on these refinements of Schwenke’s original production chart. The precise evolution of the typographical process used by Gutenberg and his associates remains a matter of lively debate. My telling is based on new research suggesting that the Bible types were not as advanced as is commonly thought. Paul Needham and Blaise Aquera y Arcas at Princeton, examining a papal bull published in 1465 using the Donatus type, concluded that these types were made by pressing “elemental strokes” into a temporary matrix, possibly clay or sand. The same holds true, according to Needham, for the types used in the Bible. Janet Ing Freeman, author of the brief and brilliant monograph “Johann Gutenberg and His Bible,” concurs that the letters show too great a variation to have been cast from the same mold. Other researchers actively dispute this view. Perhaps all that can be said with certainty is that harder, more durable types, likely made from permanent metal matrices, first appeared after 1459, as Lotte Hellinga, former Deputy Keeper of the British Library, has argued.
The compositors, pressmen, beaters and shop boys I assigned to the Bible workshop may or may not have been those who actually performed them. Each of the named printers, however, became a recognized early printer, and must have learned his craft in Mainz, if not under Gutenberg, then under Schoeffer. All of the larger historical events are accurate, to the best of my belief. These include the religious and political battles for control of Mainz, and the failed effort to mount a Crusade against the Turks. Gutenberg’s relationship to the clerical circles around St. Viktor in Mainz is documented by his membership in the St Viktor lay brotherhood and the occupation of his godfather, Johannes Leheymer, as a clerk to Archbishop Dietrich von Erbach. Mainz did in fact break apart in civil war in the spring of 1462. The city council, led by Jakob Fust, bet on the losing side in a struggle for the archbishop’s seat. The victor stripped the guilds of power and the council of its sovereignty. “Golden Mainz” became a vassal of the archdiocese. Many lives and property were lost; in the battle, Jakob Fust, then mayor, died. The new archbishop turned with vengeance on the merchants and guildsmen and Jews. The homes of those deemed traitors, including Fust and Gutenberg, were seized; Gutenberg, along with sixty others, was thrown out of Mainz. This order was eventually rescinded, and three years later he was elevated to a member of Archbishop Adolf of Nassau’s court. Fust and Schoeffer, meanwhile, had re-established their workshop in the Haus zum Iseneck on the Brand.
The Church at first embraced the press, which furthered its own aims of standardizing liturgy and practice. But when it began to spread free ideas, in the 1480s, Mainz’s then-bishop instituted censorship. Too late: the corruption of the clergy, coupled with their refusal to reform, would come to a head over the next half-century of protests. Those “protestants”, led by Martin Luther, accomplished forcibly what Cusanus had tried, but failed, to accomplish from within. The craft of printing spread the thirst for learning like a virus. The fall of Mainz spread printers to the world who had been trained in those two rival workshops. Mentelin and Eggestein to Strassburg, Keffer to Bamburg and then Basel, the Bechtermünzes to Eltville, Neumeister, Ruppel, many more. Printers set up shop in more than 250 cities in those first fifty years, known as the time of incunabula—the cradle years of printed books.