25 October 2017 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Librarian, Faculty, Student/Researcher

The World’s First Mass-Media-Driven Revolution?

Resources to explore the impact of the printing press and the role it played in the Protestant Reformation.

Resources to explore the impact of the printing press and the role it played in the Protestant Reformation

Did Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type enable Martin Luther’s reformist ideas to take such a strong hold in the mid-15th century?

Many scholars suggest that the dissident monk benefitted directly from the emergence of a European print industry and its profound impact on the dissemination of ideas. Among the researchers who make this claim is Andrew Pettegree, professor at St Andrews University and director of the Universal Short Title Catalog (USTC).

Prof. Pettegree wrote this Case Study about challenges in the study of early print books and the advantages of digitization, and recently published the acclaimed book Brand Luther, of which the Washington Post wrote:

A new book by British historian Andrew Pettegree reveals a central and heretofore little-appreciated aspect: Luther’s master role in the imagination and execution of what had to have been the world’s first mass-media-driven revolution. Luther didn’t just reimagine the Christian faith, he figured out how to share his vision through the innovative use and manipulation of a nascent communications technology: the printing press.
“Printing was essential to the creation of Martin Luther, but Luther was also a determining, shaping force in the German printing industry,” Pettegree writes. “After Luther, print and public communication would never be the same again.” 

We’ll look at the relationship between the Reformation and the rise of the print industry, and then explore books from the early modern era that demonstrate the widespread influence of the Reformation across Europe.

Early dissidence in Western Christianity and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

October 31, 1517 is the day when Martin Luther (1483-1546) is said to have posted his famed 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in the small German university town of Wittenberg.

The posting itself was a mundane occurrence. The church door served routinely as a kind of bulletin board for church and university business. And the message of his theses – primarily a protest against the then-common church practice of selling indulgences – was controversial but not unprecedented.

Nevertheless, the circumstances and timing of Luther’s act proved sufficient to provoke a rift in Western Christianity that has never mended and led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches and sects – not just the Lutheran Church – that have since spread across Europe and the world.

Of course, dissention among churches and sects occurred before this event. The Great Schism of 1054 divided Christendom between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; the later Western Schism of 1378-1417 briefly divided the Catholic Church against itself over rival claims to the papal throne. Even some of Luther’s calls for reform were anticipated by previous dissidents like the Englishman John Wycliffe (1320s-1384) and the Czech Jan Hus (1369-1415), the latter being burned at the stake as a heretic for his views.

But while these earlier figures were influential, Luther’s impact proved more widespread and decisive.

The Reformation and the print industry

Luther’s 95 Theses were not only posted on a church door, they were later published and distributed in pamphlet form throughout much of Europe. Without the power of the printed word, it is difficult to imagine how Luther might have by-passed the established channels of authority to communicate his message to such a large and receptive audience so swiftly.

But as much as Luther’s mission was furthered by the Gutenberg revolution, it can also be claimed that Luther, his sympathizers and his many opponents, played a part in reviving and extending a troubled print industry that depended on a narrow market base of scholars and clerics. Originally published in Latin, Luther’s 95 Theses began to garner widespread attention when they were translated into German, and then other European languages.

It was just the beginning.  In 1518, Luther published the pamphlet Eynn Sermon von dem Ablasz und Gnade (Sermon on Indulgences and Grace), a much more accessible piece of writing originally composed in German and written by Luther as if directly addressing a parish congregation. The sermon was a great success, reprinted 14 times in its first year of publication alone, and made Luther a name familiar to a larger and more diverse readership than any scholarly Latin diatribe ever could.

Although Luther continued to write prolifically in Latin, it was his works in German which won him the popular following out of which the Lutheran church eventually emerged. At the same time, the extraordinary success of Luther’s written work also helped define a wider reading public and breathe new life and ideas into the always uncertain business of printing and publishing.

Explore the impact of the Reformation across Europe

There was a wealth of material relating to religious matters made available during the early modern period, and these publications are now housed in the valued holdings of libraries such as the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze in Italy, the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, and the Wellcome Library in London.

ProQuest’s Early European Books has partnered with these libraries to provide enhanced, digitized access to these rare materials that would be otherwise inaccessible to researchers around the world.

Composed of more than 2,200 different items, Early European Books Collection 11 contains numerous highlights and curiosities, and prominent among them are those which bear witness to the broader impact of the Reformation right across Europe. Curated to include editions of Biblical scripture, doctrinal pieces by clerics, works of comparative religion, the writings of the Church Fathers and of Christian mystics, this collection also encompasses a sampling of items that reflect contemporary popular beliefs and superstition.

Collection 11 showcases the fascinating diversity of the print industry as it continued to evolve through the early modern period in different locations throughout Europe. It also reveals something of the tangled cultural contexts through which the Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation unfolded.

Highlights from Early European Books Collection 11 

  • Titles from Copenhagen, point to Luther’s presence through the inclusion of texts by him such as a 1577 Danish translation by Zealand priest Peder Tidemand of Luther’s Hauspostille (1542). Nevertheless, these Danish holdings can also suggest how - sometimes just by a simple change of language - national traditions and local differences could begin to alter the terms of debate even where Luther’s influence was strongly felt. Further, the range of titles chosen for Collection 11 often also reflect the profound discord brought about by changes to the established order, a discord which could lend urgency to Christian eschatological thinking and a new legitimacy to atavistic superstition.
  • Items from The Hague incorporate an extensive range of writings by another giant of the Reformation, the Geneva-based French theologian Jean Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin, like Luther, founded a church that flourishes to the present day. But the religious differences revealed by the Reformation also brought to the fore new generations of Christian mystics whose influence cannot be measured so tangibly.

These include Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), a Lutheran and self-educated shoemaker from the Kingdom of Bohemia whose mystical writings drew attention from all ranks of society during his lifetime despite being taken by many as heretical, and who became a talismanic figure for readers discovering him after his death. Selections from The Hague feature many of Böhme’s texts, including a 1682 edition of his most famous work, De Signatura Rerum, a Christian reconfiguring of the classical “doctrine of signatures” that proposes natural objects like herbs may be taken by their shape to suggest their medicinal or other properties.

Also from The Hague is L’Antechrist découvert (1681) and a selection of other titles by the 17th-century Flemish mystic, Antoinette Bourignon de la Porte, who repudiated her Catholic upbringing in order to announce the end times and to establish an island colony of “true Christians” that they might be saved. Although Bourignon’s community was a failure, her controversial ideas continued to attract interest into the next century.

  • Material from the Wellcome Library includes mystical writings of the German theologian Valentin Weigel (1533-1588), a Catholic convert to Lutheranism. These works are now mainly associated with the development of Christian theosophy. His Der güldene Griff can be found in Collection 11 with a 1613 copy from London’s Wellcome Library.

Also from the Wellcome, Dutch engraver Jan Luyken’s (1649-1712) Theatre des martyrs provides memorably gruesome full-page scenes of religious persecution and martyrdom from the time of Christ to his present day. The horrors Luyken depicts remind us that, for all its advances, the early modern era remained a bloodthirsty period in European history and, more pointedly, that violence reached new extremes as the result of religious schism.

“[ProQuest Early European Books] is a developing resource which is going to ultimately have a sensational impact on our understanding of the economic, social, political, religious and literary culture of the early modern period.” – Prof. Andrew Pettegree

Learn more about ProQuest Early European Books, related resources and how digitization of these materials empowers researchers. Read the Case Study by Prof. Andrew Pettegree.



Woodard, C. (2015, Dec 18). The power of luther's printing press (posted 2015-12-18 17:57:02). The Washington Post