Books have been bought & sold in Frankfurt since the 11th century. But the Buchmesse opening there today owes a special debt to Gutenberg’s apprentice.
Exactly 560 years ago this month, the first printed book appeared in the Leonhards Lane near the banks of the River Main. This monumental volume, which launched the last great media revolution, is known as the Gutenberg Bible.
Manuscript books had been sold in Frankfurt since the trade fair’s beginnings in the 11th century. But the book that appeared that October half a millennum ago was startlingly different. It was written not by a scribe with a quill or a reed, but produced by a marvellous new technique. This enormous volume of 1282 pages had been printed on paper and vellum using a modified grape press, sticky oil-based ink and cast metal type—and it was in Frankfurt that it was first glimpsed by an astonished world.
The future Pope Pius II, who was secretary to the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, enthused to a Spanish cardinal that the book’s letters were so large and clear “you could read them without your glasses.” The whole press run of some 180 copies was already spoken for, he wrote. He had seen the book in Frankfurt that October of 1454, presented by a “miraculous man”—almost certainly the inventor of printing with moveable type, Johann Gutenberg.
Yet innovation, we now know, is rarely the work of one lone genius. Gutenberg did not change the course of history alone. Without two other men long left out of the history books, that Bible would never have appeared. One was Johann Fust, a Mainz merchant who advanced the inventor his venture capital. The other was Gutenberg’s apprentice, Peter Schoeffer, who became the world’s first major printer and the chief founder of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Peter Schoeffer was a scribe and close associate of Fust’s who himself incarnated the technological transformation from the medieval world of the scribes to the modern world of print. For decades afterward along the Rhine, the three men were collectively referred to as the “Holy Trinity” who brought forth the technology that ushered in the Renaissance and changed the world. I tell the extraordinary story of their partnership and its dramatic collapse in my debut novel, “Gutenberg’s Apprentice.”
The thousands of publishers, booksellers, agents and authors crowding the congress halls of Frankfurt today might spare a moment to reflect on the seismic change these three men brought about. The world’s first tech startup holds many lessons for the digital revolution that is disrupting the world of print the way the press did five centuries ago. Take a walk in Peter Schoeffer’s footsteps: he’s your spiritual ancestor. He and Fust founded a printing firm after their acrimonious parting from Gutenberg; over his lifetime Schoeffer produced nearly 300 books, inventing the title page, the sales catalogue, and the business of publishing itself. In 1462, the firm moved to Frankfurt, where Schoeffer led this nascent market in printed books. For more than 500 years, the printers’ signet of his printing house was used as the logo of the Frankfurt Book Fair.