As the cathedral city of the highest-ranking archbishop in the Holy Roman Empire—covering present-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of Hungary and the Czech Republic—Mainz (pronounced mynts) was a power center of the late medieval world. The archbishop of Mainz held the deciding vote among the seven princes, or Kürfursten, who selected the empire’s king. At its peak the city of 25,000 was a busy workshop to the clergy and nobility, boasting at one time so many gold- and silversmiths that it was known as “Golden Mainz.” At the same time it was a trading power, placed strategically along the river routes that ferried goods from south to north, the base for scores of enterprising and successful merchants. Out of these very different worlds around 1400 two men were born: the patrician Johann Gensfleisch, known as Gutenberg, and the trader Johann Fust. The tension between the conservatism of the “Elder” establishment (Die Alten) and the aspirations of the rising middle classes created a volatile yet creative stage for their unlikely partnership.
Only traces remain today of Mainz’s medieval vitality and splendor. The best we can do is imagine it based on the glorious 16th century woodcuts that survive, and a few architectural gems around the modern city that escaped centuries of war and demolition. Take a wander through my gallery of images, generously shared by the Mainz city archive. To get a real feeling for the layout of the city in the fateful year 1450, click on the archive’s interactive map of Mainz, the Digitales Häuserbuch, which points out such details as the public bath behind the muckpile and the zoo behind Archbishop Dietrich’s Little Court, the Höfchen.
The Frankfurt Fair
Frankfurt, like Mainz a “free city” with its own government, was early granted the right to serve as coronation city for the empire. This was founded on the city’s prominence as Europe’s main marketplace and fair. Just twenty miles up the river Main from Mainz, the Autumn and Lenten fairs drew merchants, gawkers and buyers from across the continent, and served as a key date in the banking calendar.
From the Fair’s earliest beginnings in the 11th century, books were sold along the Leonhards Lane. These were manuscripts at first, then after 1454—when Gutenberg unveiled his Bible—increasing hordes of printed books. Charged with organizing all these books hot off the presses was one … Peter Schoeffer. “Gutenberg’s apprentice” is considered the founder of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the annual gathering of the worldwide publishing industry. For more than 500 years, his printer’s signet, used by the firm of Fust & Schoeffer, was the fair’s emblem. The fate of legions of writers is decided in Frankfurt; in 1530 Erasmus of Rotterdam complained bitterly of the pressure to finish his books in time for Autumn Fair. In 2014, the appearance of “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” will mark the 560th anniversary of the presentation of the world’s first printed Bible there.
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