In this edition of History of Me, we look at how both the printing press and the Protestant Reformation radically changed European society. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!
NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.
First, a little context…
Before we dive in, I wanted to give some background, especially for some of the particular Church doctrines and practices that feature in this post. So, here are some useful facts and terms to know:
- Purgatory: Also known as limbo. Believed (and taught by the Church) to be where souls would go after they died to spend time doing penance for their un-atoned-for sins, until they achieved sufficient holiness and were allowed into heaven.
- Indulgences: Pieces of paper granting the bearer exemption from a certain amount of time spent doing penance in Purgatory. They could be earned (eg by visiting a holy site) or purchased (eg by making a donation to build a new cathedral), and were a quick and effective way to raise money for the Church.
- The Pope: Seen as not only the infallible representative of God on earth and leader of the Church, but also as a political figure to which even royalty had to give respect if not outright obedience. Popes often used their religious authority over people’s souls to leverage their way into more secular matters. (Though at this point, European society was Christian at its core, so “secular” is kind of a misnomer. Not that there weren’t atheists or people of other religions, but for the vast majority of Europeans the Church was such an intrinsic part of society and their daily existence that the way we think of separation of Church and State now basically didn’t exist at this time.)
- Heresy / Heretic: As the head of the Church and infallible representative of God on Earth, the Pope (and, by extension, other church officials insofar as they were supported by the Pope) had the authority to declare certain beliefs “wrong” — heresy. Because of the importance placed on salvation, being declared a heretic was dangerous — you were seen as not only personally damned, but liable to lead others astray, and thus were likely to be sentenced to execution if you refused to recant or repeal your statements.
- Excommunication: If a person (or group, or city, or a whole country) did something the Pope (and other church authorities) didn’t like, they could declare them to be excommunicated — that is, outside the salvation of the Church. While excommunicated, a person could not attend church, receive communion, receive their last rites, etc, which meant they were basically outside of society.
Okay, I think that’s a good start… now, on to the main event.
The printing revolution
Our first book dives right into the religious tension simmering just below the surface at this time in history. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie follows the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible(s) in Mainz, Germany in 1450 through the perspective of Peter Shoeffer, a trained scribe and actual person.
At the start of the book, the city of Mainz is under a blanket excommunication and embargo imposed by the local archbishop as punishment for the city council’s defiance:
There’d be no sacraments until the upstart council had backed down. The archbishop’s word was law: none of his priests would say a mass or take confession, the newly born were unbaptized and the dying were deprived of their last rites, consigned forever to the agony of limbo. (p.15)
Withholding religious rituals from people meant if they died they wouldn’t go to heaven, so the burden of excommunication on the populace was a heavy one. The fact that the archbishop is willing to let common people suffer this way in order to gain a leg up on the city council illustrates that blurred line between religious and political authority that church officials crossed regularly.
The book also does a great job of illustrating the politics specifically surrounding the creation of books and the invention of the printing press. At this time, most books were religious (with the exception of some classical texts used for teaching and philosophy). The writing of religious texts in particular, done mainly in scriptoria (writing rooms) by monks, was seen as a religious act and was highly regulated by the church to ensure uniformity and orthodoxy. In the book, Peter and co initially plan to print a shorter religious book, so they can finish and get paid sooner. But that gets nixed by church officials, so they decide to print Bibles because no one can argue with a Bible!
From there, the book really delved into the craft and mechanics of the printing process, which I found fascinating. I had never thought about ALL the steps needed:
- Hand-write their own font
- Hand-create molds to cast each letter
- Invent a metal alloy that could withstand the impact of being pressed over and over
- Cast thousands of tiny letters and ensure they were all the exact same height so the page would print evenly
- Mix ink that would be thin enough to not get tacky but thick enough to not melt all over or get watered down
- Select appropriate paper and vellum (calf-skin), and ensure they were all the same size
- Collate and bind all the books by hand
…Which you might think is expensive. And it is. But a single Bible copied by hand could take a scribe a whole year to write. So even though 5 years for 150 Bibles sounds super slow, it’s a lot faster than 5 years for 5 Bibles!
The printing press greatly reduced and cost, time, and effort required to create books — but arguably its most immediate impact was felt in its ability to quickly replicate shorter items, such as pamphlets and indulgences, which allowed information to be spread and money to be raised very rapidly. In fact, a big reason for the printing press crew’s secrecy throughout the book (other than the obvious “don’t want anyone to steal my invention”) is because Peter, who feels printing a Bible is a spiritual act, doesn’t want the press to be used to print indulgences — and (spoiler) at the end of the book, that’s exactly what happens.
The Protestant Reformation
Speaking of pamphlets and indulgences, let’s talk about the Protestant Reformation!
The quick story (which I heard often as a kid growing up Lutheran) is that the Church was selling lots of indulgences and doing other unbiblical things, so Martin Luther wrote down 95 theses, or arguments, and nailed them to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. (Since religious folks were often also scholarly folks, this was basically the equivalent of posting a list of arguments in a forum on the internet — and in fact, it was quickly converted into a pamphlet and “went viral” throughout Europe.) Then the Church got mad, excommunicated Luther, and tried to kill him, but lots of people followed what he said and that’s why we have Lutherans (and all you other Protestants, too!) today. The end.
Obviously that’s simplistic. But actually, in some ways this is how the story feels to me, since learning it as a child made it feel almost mythological. So I really enjoyed having an opportunity to revisit this important time in history in its proper context, as a part of the story of my family and my peoples. (Especially since this reading accidentally coincided with the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses!)
As I read through chapter 3 of A Mighty Fortress, what stood out most to me was how much Luther and the Reformation were not just focused on theology, but also politics, economics, national identity, and social class. There was just SO much going on at this time in Europe and particularly Germany that it’s hard to digest it all at once! I’ve pulled out a few big themes below. (I swear I’ve tried to edit this down twice… sorry!)
Significant challenge to centralized Roman Church
The most obvious (at least to me) dimension of the Reformation is, of course, the religious angle. And it’s significant to note that this was a major, major upheaval for all of Christian society. Recent in everyone’s memory would have been the sacking of Constantinople (1453 – just 60 years earlier, during Gutenberg’s printing efforts) and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest eastern church, into a mosque. This left Rome as the sole center of Christendom, and to some it probably felt like the sky was falling to now see papal authority challenged from within. And remember — the big concern at this time, with excommunication and indulgences and all, was “Are you going to heaven?” So having suddenly two disagreeing camps would have been shocking and stressful for many.
Culturally speaking, I found it interesting to think about the big-picture cultural shifts in theology and faith practice. Medieval Catholicism emphasized the pilgrimage as a metaphor of life’s journey of judgment, penance, and grace with priests as guides and mediators. Protestantism emphasized the ability of all to access God and focused on each person as “righteous and sinful simultaneously” (AMF p. 85). Protestants also placed more emphasis on secular civic life (eg public schools, state welfare, de-sacramentizing marriage, etc).
Seeds of deep religious division
I knew going into this that much conflict in medieval/modern Europe has been about Protestants and Catholics, so it’s interesting (and sad) to see those seeds planted:
Over the centuries the pervasiveness of Lutheran and Catholic theology in gymnasiums [schools] and universities infused German public education with religious knowledge, which in turn exacerbated confessional divisions. Yet that same knowledge also made the Germans Europe’s most theologically literate people and facilitated both confessions’ cooperation with the state. (p.90, emphasis added)
In my experience, both parts of this quote are still true today: education (religious and otherwise) still has high importance in the German Lutheran church I was raised in, and even still today there is plenty of segregation and division between Catholics and Protestants. (Just go ask a Euro-American grandparent – I guarantee they’ll have a story for you, no matter which side of the tracks they grew up on.)
The rise of cities
Around the same time, the rise of cities and the merchant middle class meant more desire for self-differentiation and openness to anti-Roman sentiment:
Local grievances against the Roman Church and a desire for communal sovereignty attracted urban populations to Protestant reforms. Viewing themselves as oases of republican government within a desert of autocratic rule, self-governing townspeople believed themselves to be morally superior to the landed nobility and royalty. They had gotten where they were not by birth, fortune, or military force, but by native ingenuity and the skills they acquired through productive work. (p.66-67, emphasis added)
(To me, this quote also explains exactly where the famous “Protestant work ethic” comes from!)
A major political statement
Back in 1356 (so 150 years before the Reformation), then-Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted German princes “semiregal rights within their respective lands” (AMF p.65). This led to the establishment of 7 princes (3 of whom were “ecclesiastical princes”, aka bishops!) as the “electors” of the next Holy Roman Emperor — which they did without the involvement of the Pope. This was a big win for regionalism and the beginning of a drift away from Roman influence.
The electors were still around at the time of the Reformation. And in fact, one called Frederick the Elector, a Saxon prince, had a huge collection of relics for which visiting pilgrims could gain “1,902,202 years of absolution for unrepented sins” (p.71). According to Ozment,
Luther hated the great relic collection and the even greater indulgence it promised. He waited to post his famous Ninety-five Theses until Frederick had departed Wittenberg for the 1517 autumn hunt…. When however, the crafty indulgence peddler John Tetzel, on the instructions of the archbishop of Mainz, began selling the famous indulgence for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in Rome on the borders of electoral Saxony, Frederick was as offended as Luther — albeit over the political intrusion rather than any religious impropriety. (p.71, emphasis added)
This turned out to be the first of many times Frederick interceded on Luther’s behalf — and it’s impossible to separate the religious and political motivations: “When, in April 1521, Luther, a condemned heretic, was summoned to the Diet of Worms [a church trial at Worms, Germany] to answer for his teachings, the elector of Saxony attended that meeting also, as a guardian angel. … At the conclusion of the Diet, the vast majority of German lands and cities joined electoral Saxony in refusing to sign off on its proceedings…” (p.74).
Not only did Germans refuse to condemn Luther, but before they even knew the verdict they had already brought their political and religious grievances:
The two movements, the new religious and the older political, spoke with one voice at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. There, the German estates, none of which was yet Protestant, presented [Holy Roman] Emperor Charles V with 102 “oppressive burdens and abuses imposed upon, and committed against, the German empire by the Holy See of Rome” — a national laundry list of political, economic ecclesiastical, and spiritual complaints, echoing many of Luther’s. (p. 78-79, emphasis added)
Rise of independent German identity
So far we’ve looked at how the Reformation was religious and political — but it also intermingled with a strong German nationalist impulse.
Ozment notes that “during his formative years, from 1518 to 1528, Luther was as devoted to German nationalism and civic reform as he was to the restoration of biblical Christianity” (p.77). In addition to writing about the abuses of the church, Luther discovered, edited, and published “A German Theology” as proof of “German sovereignty and cultural equality [with Rome]” (p.80). Ozment notes that “this pamphlet was another native root for Germans to cling to and a reminder of a still unhealed, historically wounded German pride” (p.80) — an attempt to raise themselves up from the memory of being the Romans’ “barbarian” neighbors.
This desire for a strong and unified German identity also found a linguistic expression — as Luther is also largely responsible for the advent of the modern German language. At this time, different dialects were spoken around Germany, but Luther spoke and wrote “an early form of the pan-German language we know today as High German, evolved from composite East Middle and Low German dialects” (p.88-9).
A note about Luther…
The Reformation was a HUGE moment in history — I can see where so much of what we now think of as German began with the Reformation. And Luther should get credit for his part in it.
But I think it’s also important to be honest about his shortcomings, because those contributed to what we now think of as German, too. I’ll touch on two of those briefly.
First, Luther betrayed his fellow peasants. In short, the much-downtrodden peasant class took hold of the egalitarian spirit of Luther’s writings and began an uprising. Luther initially supported the movement, “calling the revolt and its anarchy a just divine punishment for their [rulers’] tyranny” (p.76), but when it came to a choice between the new Reformation being embraced by elites or dragged down by peasant rebellion, “Luther the cleric and the miner’s son called for the ‘merciless punishment’ of the peasants” (p.76). Like so many Germans before him, he chose empire over neighbor.
Second, Luther wrote awful things about the Jews. All you need to hear is that he actually wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies, and you know it’s going to be bad. In fact, Luther’s later anti-Semitic writings were a major influence for the Nazis. I won’t go into a ton of detail (here’s a link with more if you want) — but I never knew about this as a kid, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that Luther was a person who did some great things and some awful things.
The Reformation and Regular People
Mighty Fortress gave so much amazing background about the Reformation as a movement — but one of the things I most want to learn through this project is what effect all these big-picture movements had on everyday people. So I read Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath, which follows a single rural English village based on the financial account book of its priest, Sir Christopher, over the course of the English Reformation.
(Note: Morebath was Catholic, so obviously it would have been different for Protestant villages. But since at this time rulers could choose the religion of their country/province, I think this is still a valuable examination of how common folk were affected by courtly politics re: religion.)
The English Reformation provides a condensed idea of how the Reformation affected other nations, in part because the very rapid change in Tudor monarchs meant many forced religious changes for the people. During Sir Christopher’s record-keeping:
- 1521 – Henry VIII writes pamphlet denouncing Luther; declared “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope
- 1534 – Henry VIII makes self head of Church of England; is excommunicated; dissolves monasteries; forbids Catholicism
- 1538 – Henry VIII starts to roll back some reforms, but then dies…
- 1547 – Edward VI, radical Protestant, burned Catholic “heretics”
- 1553 – Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), radical Catholic, burned Protestant “heretics”
- 1558 – Elizabeth I, returned the country to Protestantism and burned a few Catholic “heretics” but then kinda settled down
Folks, that is all in just 37 years. Poor English people.
In the financial record of the village of Morebath, Sir Christopher records that each time the rules changed, the church had to purchase a new Bible and a new (approved) prayer book. Remember how expensive books were, even with the printing press? (3 years’ salary for a Bible.) For a small village parish like Morebath, forced liturgical change meant massive financial burden.
Another major impact was the outlawing (and re-allowing) of the veneration of the saints. In Morebath, parishioners took part in “interest groups” named after different saints, such as a group for young men named for St. George or a group of young maidens named for St. Sidwell (a local saint at Morebath). These groups helped people at different stages of life to have an engaged role in church life. Members also worked together to fundraise, and then donated the monies to the church to honor their saint in some way — such as the maidens financing a new coat of paint for St. Sidwell’s statue.
The saints were also deeply personal and entrenched in community life — often a woman would bequeath her rosary (a very intimate and important possession for a medieval woman) to be draped on St. Sidwell after her death, and parishioners would be able to be present with the saints and the objects that connected them with their absent loved ones.
With the outlawing of saints, these groups were dissolved, and the icons and decorations of the saints were no longer permitted in the church. Even in a financial record book, it’s clear that the loss of the saints hit parishioners hard. The residents of Morebath are recorded as keeping and hiding some of their saints and altar cloths. In fact, when a Catholic peasant rebellion rose up, Sir Christopher very sneakily records that the church sent several young men to support the rebels. So this was important enough to risk treason standing up for what they believed in.
In the end Protestantism won out, and Duffy notes that “with the extinguishing of the [saints’ altar] lights and the abandonment of the patronage of the saints… a dimension of warmth and humanity evident in the [financial] accounts [of Morebath] up to that point fades a little.”
Here we see how, as with the original conversion of Europe to Christianity, religious change at this time often came from the top down. Essentially, over the life of this parish priest, “twenty years of pious investment and communal effort” toward beautifying the church out of personal and communal devotion was in an instant “expressly declared unchristian” with the passage of these laws enforcing Protestant practice. It reminded me again how painful forcible conversion is, whether from religion to religion or even from one cultural practice to another.
At the end of the book, Duffy notes that Sir Christopher, who became a priest as a Catholic, in the end had to shape his priesthood into the mold of Protestantism. He could have refused to change, or left the priesthood, but “the unthinkable alternative to conformity was to leave his vicarage and the people he had baptized, married, and buried for 40 years.” Duffy writes that “his [Sir Christopher’s] religion in the end was the religion of Morebath” — local, place-based, intertwined with those specific families and people. And I found that really beautiful to think about.
As I said, there’s just SO much here to take in. Printing presses accelerating the speed of public discourse. Resistance against Roman authority. Struggle to form a new faith. Coercion and conflict and loss and adaptation.
I feel like as we approach the “modern” era, I’m starting to see some of the themes that emerged early in the project — like “we’re not as cool as Rome” or forcible religious conversion or the disconnect between the powers and the rural folks — resurface in deeper and more complex ways.
I almost feel like Germany is starting to have kind of a personality to me, so that’s kind of cool. But also, people have baggage, and I already know where Germany’s particular baggage will get us… but it’s also fascinating to see where the roots of German nationalism began. And how, underneath it all, the Morebaths of the world try to put the pieces together and live life.
I’m still processing. But I’m really grateful for this journey.
Tune in next time for a dive into the Thirty Years War and the ins and outs of daily life in a typical German village.
Oh, and, bonus — enjoy Daniel’s cut-to-the-chase summary of my post. 🙂
SO… YOU’RE SAYING THAT LUTHER WANTED LIBERTY BOTH THEOLOGICALLY AND POLITICALLY FROM ROME, AND HE WAS PRETTY MUCH AMAZING AT LEADING THEOLOGICAL AND POLITICAL MOVEMENTS TO ACCOMPLISH JUST THAT, BUT NOT WITHOUT ACCIDENTALLY SCREWING THE POOR AND KINDLING THE 3RD REICH. OH… AND… PRINTING PRESSES.