Ye Olde Travel Guide: Mainz 1455

Tom Harper gives you the insider lowdown on a trip to Mainz, where a new invention called the printing press is causing quite a stir

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Mainz (pop. 6,000) is a wealthy city on the Rhine, with a past that goes back to Roman times. Plague and politics have recently dimmed its former glories, but with the invention of the printing press by local boy Johannes Gutenberg, Mainz looks set to enjoy a bright future at the heart of a high-tech cluster which some analysts have dubbed ‘Lead-Tin Valley’.

This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Mainz (pop. 6,000) is a wealthy city on the Rhine, with a past that goes back to Roman times. Plague and politics have recently dimmed its former glories, but with the invention of the printing press by local boy Johannes Gutenberg, Mainz looks set to enjoy a bright future at the heart of a high-tech cluster which some analysts have dubbed ‘Lead-Tin Valley’.

When to go

Mainz enjoys hot summers and cold winters; the roads are better in summer, but the smell is worse. If you’re looking to party, head for the city around Shrovetide for its famed carnival. There are parades, banquets, and a raucous Dance of Death.

Costs and money

When buying wine and grain, remember to factor in the Ungeld, a local sales tax. Clergy are exempt from the Ungeld, and can therefore sell alcohol at duty-free prices. For the opening times of clergy-owned wine bars, head to the nearest church and pay close attention to the sermon.

Local aristocrats have a monopoly on money-changing, so exchange rates may not be as competitive as elsewhere.

Sights and activities

Mainz has many fine churches and monasteries. The most important is the Dom, a Romanesque cathedral built in striking red sandstone. Architecture buffs will note that, unusually, it has chancels at both ends. Check opening times before you visit, as a long-running financial dispute means the clergy may be on strike.

To see the crucible of the new information-technology revolution, go to the junction of Schustergasse and Christophgasse. The Gothic stone mansion on the corner is the Hof zum Gutenberg, the world’s first print shop (though the famous Bibles were actually printed at the Humbrechthof, down the road). There are no tours but you can peek through the narrow windows to get a glimpse of the future.

Dangers and annoyances

Mainz is a very safe city. However, as a linchpin in the vicious politics of the Holy Roman empire, there’s a small possibility that it may be attacked and sacked by either the papacy or the Holy

Roman Emperor. Long-running feuds between patricians, guilds and the church also occasionally erupt in street violence.

As elsewhere, the plague is a constant danger. In fact, at the turn of the century, it wiped out over half of Mainz’s population. If you suspect there may be an outbreak, take sensible precautions: run away as far and as fast as you can.

Sleeping/accommodation

Accommodation is plentiful and varied. When choosing an inn, ask to meet the proprietor in person: as the saying goes, ‘A good host befits good guests’. For somewhere cheaper, try one of the many monasteries and convents, such as the Liebfrauen convent opposite the Dom.

Eating

Whatever your taste, you’ll probably find it here. The best meat is to be found at the butchers on the Niedermetzler – look for them under the sign of the ox. Beef costs two pfennigs a pound, while a hen can be had for one.

Shopping

Mainz is a mecca for high-class shopping. As a cathedral town, it’s absolutely packed with clergy who demand nothing but the best and are able to pay for it – particularly if it comes in gold.

The city’s main market square is on the north side of the Dom cathedral. Textiles are something of a local speciality: you’ll find 48 licensed cloth sellers at the Gaden next to the market. The flax market is five blocks further north.

For a wider range of goods, head for the Kaufhaus (near the Iron Tower) where all passing merchants are required by law to unload their goods and offer them for sale. The selection is rather impressive, and prices here can be considerably cheaper than elsewhere.

If you can, snap up a copy of the new Bible, the first major book to come off Gutenberg’s printing press. Priced at 50 gulden in vellum, or 20 in paper (binding and illuminations extra) it’s the must-have religious accessory. The first edition of 180 copies sold out even before the ink had dried.

For the more modest budget, they also produce Latin grammar books, and a range of calendars to support the crusade against the Turks.

Getting around

Mainz is a compact city and is easy to get around on foot. Be advised that none of the streets have stone paving, and the wooden boards they throw down on the main roads mainly serve as trip hazards. Also beware of the open sewage ditches along the main streets.

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Tom Harper wrote about Gutenberg and Mainz in The Book of Secrets. His most recent novel is Secrets of the Dead