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Revolution and Reform in the Early Modern Era
How the advent of the printing press revolutionized science and religion in the 16th century
By Courtney Suciu and Simon Hudson, contributing writer
In 1517 Martin Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses sparked the Reformation which would divide and transform western Christendom.
Less than thirty years later, Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) introduced the idea of a heliocentric universe and helped trigger what is often called the scientific revolution and the beginnings of modern science as we recognise it today.
We explore this pivotal era in Western culture and discover resources for comprehensive insight between the advent of printing, the Reformation and the scientific revolution. Together, these materials add context and depth to subject areas more often considered in isolation.
When the scientific revolution…
“In the fifteenth century, printing was rightly celebrated as an astonishing technical achievement, expanding the range of texts available to Europe’s readers many times over,” Professor Andrew Pettegree, renowned British historian and a leading expert on Europe during the Reformation, recently wrote in an essay for ProQuest.
Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of mechanical moveable type in around 1450 changed the relationship people in the Western world had with information and literacy. For one thing, it coincided with the emerging notion that we live in a heliocentric, or sun-centered universe, introduced by Nicolas Copernicus in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543).
This revelatory work is often considered the trigger of the scientific revolution and the beginning of the scientific method, a controversial “new” way of understanding the world through empirical evidence, rather than accepting knowledge inherited from previous generations, shared only among elite and learned members of society.
“Part of what defined the scientific revolution was the shedding of the idea that understanding of the physical universe was to be gained only through the recovery of the lost or secret knowledge of the ancients”, as Simon Hudson, metadata editor for Early European Books Online explained.
“During this era, that idea was eventually replaced by a belief in the value of new discovery through observation and experiment.”
The latest collection (15) from Early European Books, ProQuest’s massive project to digitize and make books printed before 1700 accessible online, includes critical items that demonstrate dawning and gradual evolution of the scientific revolution in works by such authors as the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), hailed as the “father of modern science.”
“Galileo’s achievements were many and varied,” Hudson said. “Perhaps most famously of all, Galileo was a pioneer in approving Copernican heliocentrism and gestured a cautious public defense of it in his Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, first published in 1632.”
“The following year,” Hudson continued, “Galileo was tried by the Roman Inquisition - which had already deemed Copernicus’s theory heretical - and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Meanwhile, the Dialogo was added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church’s official list of forbidden books, and it was not until 1757 that the ban was finally lifted.”
The idea of a heliocentric universe was not only dangerous because it challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church but because it emerged out of an unorthodox way of acquiring knowledge – through evidence and observation – which was a form of learning available to anyone. This challenged the traditional, sanctioned teachings of the Church.
But about 30 years before the publication of Copernicus’s in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, challenges to papal political and religious authority were already splitting the Church apart. A revolutionary movement ignited when Martin Luther famously (according to popular lore) nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle church, and split Europe between the Catholics and the evangelicals.
….met the Protestant Revolution
“In 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar in mid-career, not previously particularly well known, emerged as a brave, resilient and outspoken critic of the church,” Pettegree wrote. “More importantly, he found a voice for the occasion, turning out a stream of short, original writings; ideal products for the printing press in a time of high drama and fast-moving events.”
These efforts inspired the proliferation of religious publishing. The advent of print enabled Luther to take “complex theological debates, previously regarded as the preserve of a closed circle of theologians, to a far wider audience,” Pettegree explained.
As Europe splintered between the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the former clung to traditional doctrines and papal authority while the evangelicals were critical of corruption in such practices as the sale of indulgences, where spiritual rewards were offered in return for money. Luther also taught that the Bible rather than the Church was the source of divine knowledge and he translated into German so people could read the Scripture for themselves, where previously it had only been available to the elites who were literate in Latin.
Much of the ensuing public debate between these factions was carried out in print, which “brought the habit of book-buying to new generations of readers, vastly expanding the market for printing,” according to Pettegree. He continued, “Rather ironically, several of those who later made a fortune printing for Martin Luther were up to the eve of the Reformation heavily involved in the indulgence trade. Printing was a very pragmatic industry.”
While at one point in the early 1520s, the “writings of Martin Luther and his supporters accounted for half of the books published in the Holy Roman Empire,” Pettegree wrote, “Luther’s movement in fact did not export very well.”
One reason the Reformation was slow to spread into France, England, Italy and Spain was because many of Luther’s concerns dealt specifically with German issues which didn’t resonate with other parts of western Europe, the scholar explained. Another reason was the governments in these countries “took swift action to forbid the publication or ownership of Luther’s works,” Pettegree added.
He explained that “persecution of evangelicals was particularly severe in the Netherlands. To spread Luther’s words, and avoid prosecution or even execution, printers had to adopt very different strategies to the bold marketing of Luther’s works in Wittenberg and other German towns.”
An example of such a work available in Early European Books Collection 15 is A Very Useful Meditation on the Suffering and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although it has “all the appearance of a pre- Reformation Catholic devotional text” allowing it to pass as permissible literature, it is actually a sermon written by Luther.
“This modest work, with its comforting message of salvation, unlocks a tumultuous world of underground printing and clandestine distribution,” Pettegree noted. “In one respect this deception, the carefully non-confessional title and elegant woodcut, seems to have worked. This was only rediscovered as the work of Martin Luther comparatively recently.”
The book is also evidence that efforts to deter publication of Reformation literature were effective. Consequently, such materials are extremely rare to find. “This delicate pamphlet is the only surviving example of the original edition,” Pettegree acknowledged.
Download Professor Pettegree’s essay to learn more about religious publishing in the early modern era and about the materials available from Early European Books Collection 15. Learn more about Early European Books.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu