back  

1. The early years

Johann Gutenberg was born in Mainz in about 1400. He is first mentioned in 1420 in connection with the settlement of his father's will, so he must have been legally of age, which means at least 15 years old, according to the practice of the Rhineland at that time.

The 15th century witnessed a drawn-out dispute over the control of Mainz between the grand, patrician families, to which Gutenberg belonged, and the increasingly self-confident class of smaller traders and manufacturers.

One of the focal points of conflict was the right of patrician families to buy annual incomes (annuities) from the city, but without setting a fixed term for their expiry - and even allowing them to be inherited. That meant that the patricians could ensure for themselves and their descendants a permanent income against a disproportionately small investment. This was obviously expensive to the city, and it was resented by the smaller traders whose taxes went to pay the annuities of the patricians.

For a while in the 1420s the smaller burghers had the upper hand and sent some of the patricians into exile. Gutenberg must have been one of them, for in 1430 the council of Mainz allowed some of the exiled men to return and Gutenberg was listed among them, but there is no record to suggest that he actually did return.

In 1434 we know that he was in Strasbourg. He instigated the arrest of a visiting official from Mainz, for non-payment of an annuity which was due to him. This caused some consternation with his host city, which was not interested in being drawn into the internal conflicts of Mainz.

In 1436-7, still in Strasbourg, he was accused by Ennelin zu der yserin Thüre of having broken his promise to marry her.

 
© The British Library