Peter Schoeffer, printer, publisher, and bookseller, was born in the small town of Gernsheim, Germany where his family were small landowners with perhaps some part in the Rhine river trade. He studied at both a Latin school and a seminary in the city of Mainz and then journeyed to Paris where he was employed at the University as a calligrapher and manuscript copyist. It can be assumed that he also studied law in Paris, because, in later years, he was a judge in Mainz. By 1455, he was back in that city. and became associated with the great printer, Johannes Gutenberg (1395(?)-1468), and his partner, Johannes Fust (1410-1466). The latter was a wealthy goldsmith and lawyer of Mainz who had become the financial backer of Gutenberg, lending him 800 gulden in 1450, and an additional 800 in 1452. At this time, Gutenberg was still experimenting with his methods of printing from movable metal type, and Schoeffer was directly involved in this work. By 1453, the printing of the 42-line (Mazarin) Bible was underway, and it was
completed in 1455.This famous “Gutenberg” Bible was undoubtedly a collaborative production, but the extent of Schoeffer’s contributions to it are not known. What is known is that Fust expected a prompt return on his investment, and when this was not forthcoming, he sued his partner in a civil court and won a judgment which ruined Gutenberg financially. At this proceeding, Peter Schoeffer was the principal witness against the printer and afterwards, his name and that of Fust appeared together on a number of printed works. After the latter’s death in 1466, Schoeffer inherited the printing firm, married Fust’s daughter, Christina, and became very successful. He was renowned among European printers and booksellers, and was an important figure in Mainz as well as an official citizen of the city of Frankfurt.
Peter Schoeffer’s distinguished career in that “buch und lesen kultur” which began with the publication of the Gutenberg Bible can be divided into two definitive periods. In the first, from 1455 to around 1470, he worked with Gutenberg and then in partnership with Fust until the latter’s death. During these fifteen years, he was responsible for the design and printing of all of the following—the first monumental liturgical volumes for use in church readings and choir, the first books for clerical studies, the first folios of canon law, a Bible designed for easier reading, humanistic editions of classical authors for school use, and a number of important quarto volumes. Notable among these publications are the Psalterium latinum of 1457, the first printed book to give both the name of the printers and the date of printing; Canon missae (1458); the Constitutiones (1460), a treatise on Canon Law by Pope Clement V; the first dated Bible, Biblia Latina (1462); the first edition of a classic ever to appear in print, Cicero’s De Officiis et Paradoxa (1465); St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, secunda secundae (1467).
After 1470, the Schoeffer publishing house continued to expand in spite of increasing competition from printing firms all over Europe. By this time, Schoeffer had many assistants, and he was much more occupied with the practical business side of his operations. In 1470, for example, he issued his first book-list, which contained twenty-one titles. Among the important titles of this period are the Epistolae of St. Jerome in two volumes (1470); an edition of Gregory’s Decretales (1479); Herbarius (1484), his first printed herbal; Hortus Sanitatis (1485), the first printed herbal in German. The first of these, Herbarius, has been described as “an extremely useful and practical little volume”.
It includes one hundred fifty woodcuts along with the text describing the medicinal properties of various plants for the use of apothecaries, and it appears to have been very successful commercially. The next year, Schoeffer’ publishing house produced an herbal for an even wider clientele. Hortus Sanitatis, also appearing as Herbarius zu deutsch: Gart der Gesundheyt, reached a total of thirteen editions before 1500. It was probably written by Johann of Cuba, a physician from Frankfurt, and was Schoeffer’s most ambitious illustrated work. It contains 375 woodcuts which are more skillfully produced than those in Herbarius and also features a new type face especially designed for German texts.
Colin Clair, A Chronology of Printing. 1969.
Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim and Mainz. 1950
Aloys Ruppel, Peter Schoeffer aus Gernsheim. 1937.
Sigfrid H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing. Revised edition by John Trevitt.1996.
Robert F. Erickson