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Captain's Log: The Gutenberg Bible (Mainz, Germany)

by Jeffrey A. Rothermel

Book Browsing in Mainz, Germany

The Birthplace of the Gutenberg Bible

A Story of Terrain over Time

Gutenberg Musuem Display, Mainz, Germany April 28, 2024.

This is an essay about my first encounter with a Gutenberg Bible. It is a book that I had continual access to for much of my life. It remains a bit of a mystery as to why it took so long to investigate. The journey of discovery is what Gutenberg called an adventure into the black art. This is my initial reflection upon my adventurous jump into understanding the black art (printing) / self-education about the book. Please send me a note or give me a phone call about your insights concerning this topic. I still have more questions than answers.

Will and Ariel Durant wrote the eleven-volume THE HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION. It took them four decades to write (1935-1975). It remains a Simon & Schuster fixture for many used bookstores. What makes each bookstore unique maybe how often they dust the volumes. Oddly, the impressive work does not mention Johannes Gutenberg or his Bible. It is an example of how the human experience of historical understanding changes over time (historiography). The Gutenberg story and mystery would reemerge in the late 1970s when multiple auctions of Gutenberg Bibles netted millions of dollars for a single Bible. The time period of Gutenberg remains a difficult period of history to understand. Durant wrote:

"Germany was a confusion within a complexity: not a nation but a name, a medley of principalities agreeing in language and economy, but jealously diverging in customs, government, currencies, and creeds. Each of these units acknowledged no superior except the emperor, and ignored him fifty weeks of the year...."[1]

A key factor to remember about the Gutenberg story is that the masterpieces were printed in Mainz, Germany. Seven people (electors) were on the selection committee that determined whom the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire would be. The Archbishop of Mainz was one of the seven electors. The other electors were "the king of Bohemia, the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, and the Palatinate, and the "spiritual electors"-the archbishops of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz."[2]

The point is, who became or was the archbishop of Mainz mattered during the time of Gutenberg. That single person, the Archbishop of Mainz was one of only seven that selected the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. If you were a member of the Hapsburg family which ruled from 1438-1808, what you promised the seven electors could influence their vote.[3]

The other obvious factor is how much power the emperor from the Hapsburg family (Holy Roman Empire) actually had fluctuated over time, as did the power of the pope.

The Mainz Cathedral was established in the year 975. It took roughly 35 years to build. It has been rebuilt and remodeled multiple times. A picture of that location in modern times in the City of Mainz is below. Across the stone courtyard, standing in the cathedral's shadow is the Gutenberg Musuem. The Gutenberg Musuem is the museum that you can repeatedly visit and pick up a new nuance. It is well worth a first time, or repeated visit.

A statue's head of Johannes Gutenberg in front of the Gutenberg Musuem gazes upon the Mainz Cathedral.  (Scholars are not sure about Gutenberg's actual physical attributes.  All artistic illustrations are supposition.)  Mainz Cathedral originally built in the years 975–1009 [Remodeled numerous times]: (St. Martin's Cathedral)  [Local Germans call it: Mainzer Dom, Martinsdom or, officially, Der Hohe Dom zu Mainz.]  The Roman Catholic Diocese of Mainz was established in the year 340.  Seven German Kings were crowned in the cathedral.  Photo taken on April 28, 2024. [15]
A statue's head of Johannes Gutenberg in front of the Gutenberg Musuem gazes upon the Mainz Cathedral. (Scholars are not sure about Gutenberg's actual physical attributes. All artistic illustrations are supposition.) Mainz Cathedral originally built in the years 975–1009 [Remodeled numerous times]: (St. Martin's Cathedral) [Local Germans call it: Mainzer Dom, Martinsdom or, officially, Der Hohe Dom zu Mainz.] The Roman Catholic Diocese of Mainz was established in the year 340. Seven German Kings were crowned in the cathedral. Photo taken on April 28, 2024. [4]

Imagine being the Bible maker (Johannes Gutenberg).

  • Two Christian religious leaders of Gutenberg's time period were raising armies of mercenaries for control of the city where the "definitive" Bibles were printed. Both religious leaders would want the Bible maker's allegiance and good will. As the Bible maker, what actions do you [or did you] take to protect your family (originally known as: Gensfleich)?

  • What actions do you take to survive?

I suspect historians struggle with determining the definitive facts about Gutenberg, because he was purposely evasive for survival reasons. We tend to overlook the dangers of the times that Gutenberg lived. Reading and writing was for the elite. Mass producing the wrong thing (or right thing depending upon how you perceived it) was precarious. It would be roughly a hundred more years before Martin Luther translated the Bible into German.

As I understand it, this is what scholars believe happened around the time of Gutenberg:

If we go back to the medieval year of 1462, there was a walled, free imperial city along the Rhine River called Mainz. It was one of only seven cities out of the estimated 3,000 villages belonging to the Holy Roman Empire at that time with the status of free Imperial city. As long as the Mainz archbishop kept the Pope in Rome (Pope Pious II) happy while also serving as a spiritual elector to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick III, in Austria, the city of Mainz was theoretically untouchable to the land hungry families along the Rhine River. An election was held to determine the next archbishop of Mainz. Archbishop Diether von Isenburg won the election. The local Mainz elite ruled themselves. They had a city council. The Mainz City Council supported Archbishop Diether von Isenburg. The Mainz printer Johannes Gutenberg, who is credited with inventing the printing press, supported Archbishop Diether von Isenburg, as did a majority of the elites in Mainz. The election was contested. Both the Pope and Emperor preferred the candidate that lost the election: Archbishop Adolf II von Nassau. The princes had been warring for roughly four years in the lands surrounding Mainz. Then two religious leaders formed armies for control of the Mainz territories. The archbishops hired mercenaries to fight it out. Archbishop Diether von Isenburg was in Mainz and wasn't about to leave.

Model of the walled city of Mainz on the Rhine River during the time of Gutenberg around the year 1455-ish. (Photo taken at the Gutenberg Musuem in Mainz, Germany on 28 April 2024.)

It was a period of turmoil where some of the German Princes were going to war with each other over control of lands and a variety of other reasons. Historian Daniel Filin called it "The Princes’ War in South Germany" which was from 1458-1463. The lands around Mainz should have been theoretically free from warfare because no single prince would dare tread on the free city's domain protected by the church and emperor. A friction was probably that the new Archbishop of Mainz was expected to pay more than the last archbishop had paid. The craftsmen and merchants of Mainz probably were not happy about increased taxes. The new Mainz Archbishop, Diether von Isenburg, may have refused to pay the new rates. Not paying what is due was not a good idea when Archbishop Adolf II von Nassau had money to hire mercenaries to sack Mainz. Adolf's mercenaries got into the city around the night of October 27, 1462. Where Gutenberg was, and how he survived is conjecture. When the fighting was over, 400 people were reportedly dead. Adolf's men controlled the city at daylight. Historians speculate that at some point in time Gutenberg departed Mainz and crossed the Rhine River for the safety of the village of Eltville. Once Archbishop Adolf II von Nassau consolidated his power, he allowed Gutenberg to return to the city.[5]

The historical incident highlights why I believe much is not definitively known about Gutenberg. Despite being a master printer, Gutenberg was also a survivor that was wise enough not to have incriminating written records in a world of ever-shifting alliances. Much of what is known about Gutenberg comes from legal documents when conflict arose between Gutenberg's financial investors and the inventor Gutenberg. Historians know about Gutenberg due to the repeated conflicts he had with his investors which would end up in court. Johann Fust financed the printing of Gutenberg's Bibles. Fust took Gutenberg to court in the year 1455. [One theory is that Gutenberg was experimenting with how to mass produce-colored documents. Fust did not want to wait for Bibles with colored letters and artwork. He wanted a timelier return on his investment. Historians have not found the evidence to conclusively prove that theory.] Fust won a judgment to receive payment for his original loans. One of Gutenberg's employees, Peter Schöffer, left Gutenberg and started printing for Fust. Schöffer and Fust printed campaign documents for each Archbishop during the “Cathedral War.” Other names for the conflict appear on the internet as: "The Mainz Diocesan Feud (German: Mainzer Erzstiftsfehde), also known as the Baden-Palatine War (Badisch-Pfälzischer Krieg) (1451-1452)."[6]

Historians such as Jeremy Norman postulate that the printing center of the Western World was the city of Mainz on the Rhine River until October of 1462. The conflict caused the master printers and apprentices to scatter across Europe. Some argue the printing revolution that exploded all over Europe was fanned by the October 1462 exodus of printers from Mainz. Printing existed in Asia and the far East before the time of Gutenberg.[7] Scholars continue to examine the theories and facts of printing.

Flashback to 1985 - 2001: Roughly half a decade of my adult life was spent in Mainz, Germany as a soldier. First as an Infantryman, in A/5-8 (Mechanized) Infantry [8th Infantry Division, U.S. Army] stationed at Lee Barracks in Mainz, West Germany from 1987 - 1989. Later as an U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Captain in 1-4 ADA [1st Armored Division] at McCully Barracks on the bluffs of the Rhine River in Mainz-Wackernheim from 1998-2001. During both of those assignments, our Friday mornings often started with a unit run from our various American military posts down the bluffs of the Rhine River and then back up the grueling bluffs. Back then, I knew the area was historically significant, but I was mostly concerned about the terrain of the hills. Finding the best route down and the best route back was my focus. As commander of Delta Battery, I would lead my military unit on a run through the villages and cherry orchards of Mainz and down the bluff to the Rhine River. It was a long run. A person thinks about a variety of things while running. I recall running down the bluffs of the Rhine looking to the other side. I'd occasionally contemplate and wonder about the villages on the other side of the river. Such thoughts wouldn't last long. We'd dip the staff of the unit guidon (flag) into the river. Back up the slope we would go with my mind no longer thinking about the village on the other side of the river. Back then, I had no idea of the historical significance of the village across the river that was called Eltville. Historians believe that when war came to the medieval city of Mainz in the year 1462 that the maker of the Gutenberg Bible, Johannes Gutenberg probably fled to the village of Eltville am Rhein.[8]

I was recently back in Mainz, Germany. This time I was not a professional soldier but was a civilian on a business trip. We bookdealers lead a rather boring life (at least, I do). As a bookdealer, I will probably never touch an authentic Gutenberg Bible. Books in Latin are not my business model. My two semesters of Latin in college were not pleasant. Despite those factors, I decided to take a Sunday while in Germany to revisit the birthplace of the western-antiquarian-book. I deemed it prudent for my self-education. As I reviewed the displays in the Gutenberg Museum about the history of printing, it struck me how the museum portrayed the interlocking factors that affected printing technology. I saw how the pieces of military history fit into the history of language and mass communication. It was a story of terrain.

I realized that years of running up and down the bluffs of the Rhine River impressed upon me the importance of the local terrain. The Romans established a military camp where Mainz now stands before the birth of Christ. Mainz was good military terrain. The story of the river and the city of Mainz mattered in the historical equation of printing history. It would be decades before I began to understand how it was a real factor in creating the Gutenberg Bible. The Gutenberg is valuable, because it was a Western First. The printing press is considered the western world's pivot point out of the dark ages and into the modern age. "Gutenberg didn't invent printing; what he did do was revolutionize the printing process with his innovations [which included] the manual caster and the printing press, making the printing of books faster and cheaper than ever before."[9] An original Gutenberg Bible is considered one of the true treasures in the antiquarian book world, due to its historical significance.

Gutenberg Bible Background

General consensus is that 180 printing masterpieces were created in the medieval city of Mainz probably in the years 1452-1455 (150 editions on paper, 30 on vellum*). Today, 49 Gutenberg Bibles in various conditions survive. 21 are assessed as being complete copies (most lack the original wooden boards that bound the work). All of the Bibles were printed in the Latin language. Paper copies were normally bound in two volumes. Vellum copies were in three or four volumes. An original Gutenberg Bible is arguably, one of the most valuable books in the world. The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, West Germany acquired a complete Gutenberg called the Shuckburgh Bible (named after a previous owner) in 1978 for 3.7 million Deutschmarks or 1.85 million euros.[10]

A Latin Bible "42 Line" (B-42) Fragment Leaf from a Gutenberg Bible. Photo of document at Gutenberg Musuem, Mainz Germany. (Refer to data plate which is pictured below.) (Note: the white spot is a reflection from museum lighting fixture.}

Fragment Leaf from a Gutenberg Bible.

Gutenberg Musuem data plate under a Gutenberg Bible leaf pictured above.

Captain's Log: April 2024: On 28 April 2024, I visited the Gutenberg Musuem and saw the Shuckburge Gutenberg Bible and one volume of the Solms-Laubach Gutenberg Bible. Only 47 more to see!

The Hunt for the Russian Red Morocco* Gutenberg

There are two Gutenberg Bibles that are reportedly in Moscow, Russia. The recent history of those two Bibles is interesting. Before the Second World War they were reportedly in Germany.

Three former Federal Security Service (Russian FSB) "officers were sentenced by a Moscow military court" on June 5, 2014 for stealing a Gutenberg Bible "from a safe at the Moscow State University in 2009, Interfax reported, citing the court's press service." The now fired FSB agents tried to sell the two-volume book for 40 million rubles ($1.2 million) in 2013. Former FSB Colonel Sergei Vedishchev was sentenced to 3.5 years in a penal colony. Mikhail Lepkov was sentenced to one year and two months prison. "Viktor Puchka received a one-year sentence, but was released for time already served in pre-trial detention."[11]

The two Gutenberg Bibles that are currently known as being in Moscow were originally in Leipzig, Germany before the Second World War. The first Bible is an incomplete vellum copy that is reportedly now in Moscow's Russian National Library. It had been at Leipzig Germany's Deutsches Museum fuer Buch und Schrift [German Museum for Book and Writing]. The second Bible was the item reportedly stolen by the three former FSB agents in 2009. A two volume, "bound in red morocco*" is reportedly now at the Moscow's Lomonosow University Library. It had been at Leipzig's  Universitaetsbibliothek [Leipzig's University Library].[12]

Each Gutenberg Bible is Unique

While all the Bibles have the same black ink printing, each Bible had color artwork added by monks at various monasteries or artisan bookbinders. Each Gutenberg had a unique origin and as the Russian Bibles illuminate, a historical story. Each Gutenberg Bible has a unique provenance.* It is probable that the history of certain books would make great plots for fictional crime dramas. I am uncertain how many fictional crime/thriller dramas have been written with a plot line of a missing or stolen Gutenberg Bible. [Said as a joke, I would not be surprised if all 180 original Gutenberg's could be accounted for if each fictional thriller was actually non-fiction.] The number of fictional stories surrounding a missing Gutenberg would undoubtably make for interesting trivia.[13]

The known surviving Gutenberg Bible masterpieces which were crafted approximately 570 years ago are now scattered across the world. Most of them reside in institutions [libraries, universities, museums] with various levels of public access. It stands to reason, that a private owner of an authentic Gutenberg Bible would not want criminal elements to know they had a valuable treasure or the security procedures protecting the item from theft. Colorado Springs, Colorado Bookseller Clausen Books posted a superb essay and detailed listing on their website of the institutions that are believed to have authentic Gutenberg Bibles. Location of Gutenberg Bibles: Gutenberg Bible Census (  (Accessed May 4, 2024)

Chart data compiled from Clausen Books' Gutenberg Bible Census.

The Gutenberg Musuem states: "From the 180 originally produced 49 still survive..."[14] I am simply a product of the public school system meaning my math is rarely perfect. I was able to interpret from Clausen Books' superb essay the location of 48 Gutenberg Bibles as of 2014. I welcome input and insights concerning the missing Gutenberg or my math! (Thank you, in advance.)

There is much about Gutenberg that scholars repeatedly state that they do not know with certainty. It is known that he was born in Mainz as Johannes Gensfleish. He was the son of a city nobleman "Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden." Johannes initially "lived at the Hof zum Gutenberg and later call[ed] himself Johannes Gutenberg after his family home."[15]

A photo of the Gensfleish coat of arms carved in stone stands outside the vault that contains the Shuckburg Bible and Solms-Laubach Bible. Photography was not allowed inside the vault on the day of my visit. Therefore, this essay does not contain photos of an original, complete Gutenberg Bible.

Gutenberg lived in a time of social, religious, and economic conflict. The merchants and city nobles were known as patricians. They "enjoyed various special privileges and had to pay less taxes than craftsmen."[16] Conflict between the craftsmen guilds and the Mainz patricians over taxes caused the Gensfleich family to depart Mainz in 1411 for Eltville when Johannes was young. His age is still not known.

Surviving documents suggest Gutenberg was purposely secretive. How scholars piece together what is known and what remains supposition reveals the importance of detective work. Old documents may have no apparent value, until someone determines it might be a piece to the missing puzzle of historical knowledge. As a bookdealer, I may never touch an original Gutenberg, but we, that deal in ephemera and odd printed materials, may stumble upon a valuable clue to an unresolved mystery. The essay by David Morris posted on the Library of Congress Blog: "The Man Behind the Bible: Johannes Gutenberg’s Life of “Adventure and Art” is well worth reading in its entirety. Today we understand adventure to mean: "An adventure is a series of events that you become involved in that are unusual, exciting, and perhaps dangerous."[17]

Going around the world to take a look at forty-nine antiquarian books in Latin would make for an interesting adventure. There are still a few details that I have to work out. The first is how to keep the Book Shoppe open while travelling. How I came up with such an idea while in downtown Mainz remains somewhat of a mystery.

The book browsing in Mainz on 28 April 2024 was a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Walking in the old city took me back to the days of my first enlistment in the U.S. Army. One of the first from our COHORT* unit to re-enlist was Sergeant Steele. He wanted his re-enlistment ceremony to be at the city of Mainz's carnival fountain. Some, reportedly called it the Fountain of Fools.

On this most recent walk in Mainz, I kept looking for the Fountain of Fools. Seeing it was in many ways more important than seeing an old book written in Latin. (All of us have our priorities.)

1988 U.S. Army Re-enlistment Ceremony at the Fountain of Fools in Mainz Germany.
Photo by David W. Crowder at: Carnival Fountain / (Fastnachsbrunnen), Shillerplatz, Mainz Germany circa Fall of 1988. Left to right: Lieutenant D. Hall, Specialist P. Cooper, Sergeant R. Steele. Soldiers from A/5-8 Infantry (COHORT).

Chasing books in Latin is not in my business model, though I have been known to keep company with those at the Fountain of Fools. Stay tuned for the next book adventure, and Captain's Log!

= = = = =


Jeffrey A. Rothermel

Captain's Book Shoppe

1570 S. 1st Ave, Suite H

Iowa City, IA 52240


Store Phone: (319) 351-3166

= = = = =


COHORT* = U.S. Army acronym from the 1980s: COHesive Operational Readiness Training (COHORT). Army recruits signed eight year enlistment contracts. Initial active-duty obligation was for 3 years and 14 weeks, with a lump sum bonus of $4,000, paid after completion of Advanced Individual Training (A.I.T.). (It was when I learned about taxes. That check was way short of $4,000 after the feds and state took their cut.) Successful completion of the initial active-duty obligation would result in the U.S. Government funding a trade school or college education up to $22,800 (The Montgomery G.I. Bill).

Morocco* = goatskin leather binding.

Provenance* = "Evidence of the history of the ownership of a particular book (e.g.: auction records, booksellers’ records, book plates, etc.) The book may be important because of who owned it-–perhaps a president or important bookseller, collector, royalty, or someone who may be related to the book in some way. Important in establishing the ownership of especially rare items." PROVENANCE ( (Accessed May 5, 2024)

Vellum* = "A thin sheet of specially prepared calf skin which is not tanned but de-greased to be used for writing, printing, or as a binding material; considered superior in quality to parchment. If the skin cannot be identified as calf, current practice trends toward use of the term parchment which encompasses most prepared animal skins." Source: Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA), Vellum definition. VELLUM ( (Accessed May 4, 2024).


Intro Notes.

[1] Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: Part VII The Age of Reason Begins. A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558-1648. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961. p. 542.

[2] Durant, 538.

[3] Durant, 538.

[4] Mainz Cathedral Photo Information.  Mainz | Germany, Map, & Facts | Britannica  (Accessed May 13, 2024). Mainz Cathedral - Wikipedia  (Accessed May 13, 2024).

Daniel Filin. "The Princes’ War in South Germany 1458-1463" (Ph.D. DIss., Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, 2017), 8-9, 18, 145-8, 161, 164, 187-9.

Mainz Diocesan Feud Names: Mainz Diocesan Feud - Wikipedia (Accessed May 18, 2024)

[8] Gutenberg made easy Gutenberg Museum Mainz. Mainz, Germany: Gutenberg Musuem, 2014 second printing. p. 5.

[9] Gutenberg made easy Gutenberg Museum Mainz. Mainz, Germany: Gutenberg Musuem, 2014 second printing. p. 18.

[10] 2014 Gutenberg essay by Clausen Books in Colorado Spirngs, Colrado. Gutenberg Bible Census ( (Accessed May 2, 2024).

Additional information Gutenberg made easy Gutenberg Museum Mainz. Mainz, Germany: Gutenberg Musuem, 2014 second printing. pp. 28-30.

[11] Former FSB Agents sentenced for stealing Gutenberg Bible. FSB Officers Sentenced for Stealing Gutenberg Bible - The Moscow Times (Accessed May 4, 2024).

Location of Gutenberg Bibles. Gutenberg Bible Census (  (Accessed May 4, 2024).

[12] Location of Gutenberg Bibles. Gutenberg Bible Census ( (Accessed May 4, 2024). Former FSB Agents sentenced for stealing Gutenberg Bible. FSB Officers Sentenced for Stealing Gutenberg Bible - The Moscow Times (Accessed May 4, 2024).

[13] Fictional Crime Dramas about stolen (missing) Gutenberg Bibles.

6a. NCIS Season 7, Episode 21: Obsessions. "NCIS" Obsession (TV Episode 2010) - Plot - IMDb (Accessed May 5, 2024)

[14] Gutenberg made easy Gutenberg Museum Mainz. Mainz, Germany: Gutenberg Musuem, 2014 second printing. p. 28.

[15] Gutenberg made easy Gutenberg Museum Mainz. Mainz, Germany: Gutenberg Musuem, 2014 second printing. p. 4.

[16] Gutenberg made easy Gutenberg Museum Mainz. Mainz, Germany: Gutenberg Musuem, 2014 second printing. p. 49.

[17] Morris, David. The Man Behind the Bible: Johannes Gutenberg’s Life of “Adventure and Art” October 17, 2023. The Man Behind the Bible: Johannes Gutenberg’s Life of “Adventure and Art” | 4 Corners of the World (  (Accessed May 12, 2024). German Translation of “ADVENTURE” | Collins English-German Dictionary ( (Accessed May 12, 2024) Gutenberg's time in Strasbourg (on the Rhine River) was from the year 1434 to 1444. During that time, Gutenberg was purposely secretive. Evidence suggests that he developed the printing press and moveable metal typefaces while in Strasbourg, but there is no conclusive evidence. He referred to his closely guarded secret as "Adventure and Art" in documents with his investors. It was an odd and ingenious arrangement where the dead investors heirs did not have access to the workshop.[14]  [14] The Man Behind the Bible: Johannes Gutenberg’s Life of “Adventure and Art” | 4 Corners of the World ( (Accessed May 12, 2024)

Photo of Jeff Rothermel, April 28, 2024 Gutenberg Musuem, Mainz Germany.
Photo of Jeff Rothermel, April 28, 2024 Gutenberg Musuem, Mainz Germany.


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