|The Story of Books
by Gertrude Burford Rawlings
New York D.Appleton and Company 1901
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|GUTENBERG AND THE MENTZ PRESS.
Johann or Hans Gutenberg was born at Mentz in or about the year 1400. His father's name was
Gensfieisch, but he is always known by his mother's maiden name of Gutenberg or Gutemberg. It was
customary in Germany at that time for a son to assume his mother's name if it happened that she had
no other kinsman to carry it on. Of Gutenberg's early life, of his education or profession, we know
nothing. But we know that his family, with many of their fellow-citizens, left Mentz when Gutenberg was
about twenty years of age, on account of the disturbed state of the city.
They probably went to Strasburg, but this is uncertain. In 1430 Gutenberg's name appears among
others in an amnesty, granted to such of the Mentz citizens as had left the city, by the Elector Conrad
III, but apparently he continued to live in Strasburg. Two years later he visited Mentz, probably about a
pension granted by the magistrates to his widowed mother. This is practically all that is known of the
earlier part of Gutenberg's life.
It is curious that nearly all the recorded information concerning Gutenberg is in connection either with
lawsuits or with the raising of money. From the contracts for borrowing or repaying money into which he
entered, we gather that he was always hard pressed, and that his invention ran away with a good deal of
gold and paid back none. Gutenberg cast his bread on the waters, and it is we who have found it.
The first known event of his life which directly concerns our subject is a lawsuit brought against him by
Georg Dritzehn. Mr. Hessels implies, though he does not actually state, that he suspects the authenticity
of the records of this trial. But no proof of their falsity can be adduced, and the integrity of the
documents otherwise remains unquestioned. They cannot now, however, be subjected to further
examination, for they were burnt in 1870 at the time of the siege of Strasburg,
The action in question was brought against Gutenberg in 1439 by Georg Dritzehn, the brother of one
Andres Dritzehn, deceased, for the restitution of certain rights which he considered due to himself as his
brother's heir. From the testimony of the witnesses as set down in the records of the trial, we gather
that Gutenberg had entered into partnership with Hans Riffe, Andres Dritzehn, and Andres Heilmann; and
one of the witnesses deposed that Dritzehn, on his death-bed, asserted that Gutenberg had concealed
several arts from them, which he was not obliged to show them," This did not please them, so they made
a fresh arrangement with Gutenberg and further payments into the exchequer, to the end that
Gutenberg "should conceal from them none of the arts he knew,"
Again, Lorentz Beildeck testified that after Andres Dritzehn's death Gutenberg sent him to Claus, Andres'
brother, to tell him "that he should not show to anyone the press which he had under his care," but that"
he should take great care and go to the press and open this by means of two little buttons whereby the
pieces would fall asunder. He should, thereupon, put those pieces in or on the press, after which nobody
could see or comprehend anything," Besides this, Hans Niger von Bischoviszheim said that Andres
Dritzehn applied to him for a loan, and when witness asked him his occupation, answered that he was a
maker of looking glasses, Later on, a pilgrimage "to Aix-Ia-Chapelle about the looking-glasses" is
By these records, from Mr. Hessels' translation of which the above quotations are taken, two things at
least are made clear. First, that Gutenberg was in possession of the knowledge of an art unknown to his
companions, which he was desirous of keeping to himself, and which those not in the secret wished to
learn; and secondly, that a press containing some important and mysterious "pieces," which was not to
be exhibited to outsiders until the pieces had been separated, played a prominent part in this secret
work. The" looking-glasses," apparently, were imaginary, and intended for the misleading of too curious
enquirers. But it has been ingeniously suggested that the word spiegel, or looking-glass, was a cryptic
reference to the Spiegel onser Behoudenisse, or Mirror of Salvation, and that Gutenberg and his
assistants were engaged in preparing the printed Speculum for sale at the forthcoming fair held on the
occasion of the pilgrimages to Aix-Ia-Chapelle in 1439. This part of his plan, however, was frustrated by
the postponement of the fair for a year.
It is hardly to be doubted that the researches privately conducted in the deserted convent of St.
Arbogastus, where Gutenberg dwelt, concerned the great invention usually linked with his name. Were
this probability an absolute certainty, then Strasburg might successfully dispute with Mentz the title of
birthplace of the art of printing. But to what stage Gutenberg carried his labours in the old convent, or
how far he proceeded towards the goal of his ambition, is not known, though it has been conjectured
that possibly he and those in his confidence got as far as the making of matrices for types, and that
perhaps even the types used for the earliest extant specimens of type-printing were cast there, although
not used until Gutenberg had returned to Mentz. On the other hand, there are many who think that
matrices and punches are due to the ingenuity of Peter Schoeffer, to whom reference is made below.
When Gutenberg left Strasburg for Mentz is not known, but he was in the latter city in 1448, as is
testified by a deed relating to a loan which he had raised. His constant pecuniary difficulties resulted in his
entering into partnership, in 1450, with the goldsmith Johann Fust, or Faust, a rich burgher of Mentz,
who contributed large loans towards the working expenses, and was evidently to share in the profits of
the press. Fust or Faust, the printer of Mentz, has sometimes been identified with the Faust of German
legend. The dealings in the black art related of the one have also been ascribed to the other by various
story-tellers, some of whom say that in Paris Faust the printer narrowly escaped being burnt as a wizard
for selling books which looked like manuscripts, and yet were not manuscripts. The first printed letters, it
should be observed, were exactly copied from the manuscript letters then in vogue.
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