British Library Treasures in full: Gutenberg Bible
Main The Basics Background The Texts References Links Glossary
Gutenberg's life  1  2  3  4

3. The years of the Bible

The last record of Gutenberg's presence in Strasbourg is from 1444. We know for certain that he was back in Mainz in 1448 when he borrowed 150 Rhenish guilder. It is highly likely that he borrowed this money for developing his invention of printing.

It now seems possible that Gutenberg printed indulgences as early as 1452 - at the request of Nicolaus Cusanus, the prominent German cardinal. This is a very early connection between printing and the bureaucratic needs of the Church. But none of the indulgences which may have been printed in 1452 has survived.

In a letter of 12 March 1455 Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, wrote to Juan de Carvajal, the cardinal for whom he worked. He mentioned that, in Frankfurt, a marvellous man had been promoting his work on the Bible. Piccolomini explained that the book had such neat lettering that Carvajal would be able to read it without his glasses. By March 1455 Piccolomini had seen several gatherings of the Bible and could report that all copies had been sold.

On 6 November 1455 a Mainz notary drew up a document based on oaths sworn before him concerning a financial dispute between Gutenberg and Johann Fust, his partner or financier, resulting from their joint work on the Bible. This document, known as the Helmasperger Instrument, is now in Göttingen University Library and can be seen on their website, along with a transcription and translations into modern German and English.

It seems that Gutenberg lost the law suit, with the result that Fust and Gutenberg ended their cooperation. Fust continued the printing business with Peter Schoeffer, one of Gutenberg's craftsmen. Schoeffer made money where Gutenberg had failed. He survived in business until his death in 1502 or 1503, and his business flourished for many more years.

Information on Gutenberg's last years.

On the possibility that Gutenberg printed indulgences as early as 1452 see Kai-Michael Sprenger, '"volumus tamen, quod expressio fiat ante finem mensis Mai presentis". Sollte Gutenberg 1452 im Auftrag Nicolaus von Kues' Ablaßbriefe drucken', Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, 74 (1999), 42-57.

On Piccolomini's letter see Martin Davies, 'Juan de Carvajal and Early Printing: The 42-line Bible and the Sweynheym and Pannartz Aquinas', The Library, 6th series, 18 (1996),

Tell Me More

1. The early years
2. The years of experiments
3. The years of the Bible
4. The last years

Main   The basics   Background   The texts   References   Links   Glossary