Chapter 1: The Media Revolution of 1517

Martin Luther

This is Chapter 1 (“The Media Revolution of 1517”) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke

“What is past is prologue,” and conservatives can learn valuable lessons from this long-ago media revolution—lessons we can use today as we battle the new media monopolies of the Left.

In the Sixteenth Century, the new technology was the printing press, and its first media star was Martin Luther—with a wicked sense of humor, you might call him the Rush Limbaugh of that day.  We learn the importance of being first to use the new technology.  Being No. 2 (the Catholic Counter-Revolution) is better than not using the new technology, thus assigning yourself to the ash-heap of history.  But you can’t eradicate the new mass movement (the Protestant Reformation) that was established by being there first.

As you read this chapter, and later as you read chapters 4 through 7, consider how this historic lesson repeated itself, in a different form of course, with the conservative media revolution of the 1960s—how conservatives were the first to use the new and alternative media, how liberals later caught up, but how the conservatives could no longer be eradicated or sidelined as they had been before.  Then ask yourself:  What can we do to make certain we are the first to dominate any new media technologies?

America’s Right Turn serialization:

“Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives” (introduction to this serialization)
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Chapter 1: The Media Revolution of 1517

“Lutheranism was from the first the child of the printed book, and through this vehicle Luther was able to make exact,
standardized, and ineradicable impressions on the mind of Europe.  For the first time in human history a great reading
public judged the validity of revolutionary ideas through a mass-medium which used the vernacular languages together
with the arts of the journalist and the cartoonist…”
–Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe

Traditional imagery of the Reformation period shows Lutherans holding books (usually the Bible) in their hands, contrasted with Catholics holding rosaries.  For an era in which the printing press was transforming the world, that symbolism alone tells us which side had the upper hand technologically.

The revolution of 1517 did not begin on October 31, when Martin Luther posted his controversial 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (if, indeed, he ever really did that).  Clerical debates over indulgences and other practices were common, and church doors were a customary place to announce a theological debate.  The revolution came in the weeks following Luther’s posting of his 95 theses, as his arguments spread across Europe with a rapidity never before seen, and reached the lay public – beyond the clerical community – that until this point had been precluded from involvement in theological issues.  Luther’s theses spread across Germany within a couple of weeks, and throughout Europe in a month.  That was the revolution, and it was a revolution wrought by the printing press.

Six months later, Luther would insist, in a letter to Pope Leo X, that he had no idea how and why this happened.  “It is a mystery to me,” he said, “how my theses, more so than my other writings, indeed, those of other professors were spread to so many places.  They were meant exclusively for our academic circle here… They were written in such a language that the common people could hardly understand them.”

Was the rebellious monk being just a little disingenuous here?  In a March 1518 letter he tells another correspondent that he “had no wish nor plan to publicize these theses” – but left it to his friends to decide whether they were to be “suppressed or spread outside.”  Did he have any doubt how his friends would choose?  He was already experienced at editing texts in Latin and German for printers, and he was quite sophisticated in appealing to specific book markets.  He noted in a pre-Reformation letter, for example, that he was aiming his German translation of the penitential psalms at “rude Saxons,” not cultivated Nurembergers.  Those aren’t the reflections of an inexperienced novice.

Whatever Luther’s private intentions and desires, he would soon be the West’s first media star, and in print he dominated the mass movement that he spearheaded – the Lutheran Reformation – to an extent never again equaled in history.  Even Lenin and Mao Zedong, with their monopolies of force, didn’t dominate their media to the extent Luther dominated his.

Luther’s achievement is chronicled by Mark U. Edwards, Jr., now the president of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, in his groundbreaking book, Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther.  Edwards relates how, and why, the pamphlet was the medium of choice in Luther’s day.  Since it was short, a pamphlet was relatively cheap to print, and a printer could sandwich it in between larger print jobs.  It could be printed quickly, responding rapidly to changing events.  And it was handy – you could even hide it under your clothing when the authorities were around.  In short, it was an excellent tool of subversion.

From 1517 to 1518, the first year of the Reformation, the number of pamphlets printed in German-speaking lands increased more than fivefold.  Between 1520 and 1526, these presses turned out something like 7,500 printings of pamphlets, most of them on Reformation topics.  Martin Luther alone was the author of more than 20 percent of those publications.

Indeed, Luther had more works printed in German (between 1518 and 1525) than did the 17 other major Evangelical publicists combined.  And during Luther’s lifetime, Edwards tells us, “These presses produced nearly five times as many German works by Luther as by all the Catholic controversialists put together.”

Small wonder, then, that later on Luther wouldn’t be so bashful about his alliance with the printing press.  He would describe printing as “God’s highest and extremist act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”  And he would praise printing for emancipating the Germans from Rome: “As if to offer proof that God has chosen us to accomplish a special mission, there was invented in our land a marvelous new and subtle art, the art of printing.  This opened German eyes even as it is now bringing enlightenment to other countries.”

A “subtle art”?  That’s a curiously modest depiction considering that the printing press had been invented around 1450, less than 70 years before the outbreak of the Reformation, and it was already having a revolutionary impact on society.

The Lutheran advantage, the Catholic dilemma

As the world’s first media war, the Lutheran-Catholic battles of the early Reformation teach us some enduring lessons about using the media.  First and foremost, they teach us how important it is to be first.

Martin Luther and his followers embraced the new printing technology without hesitation.  The Catholic Church approached it with suspicion and used it cautiously, and then only in reaction to the Lutherans.  It wasn’t until the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the second half of the sixteenth century that the Roman church began to use printing as a tool for proselytizing, just as the Protestant churches had been doing for at least 40 years.  Catholic entrepreneurs proved equally as adept as Protestants in publishing and promoting devotional works, tracts, and polemics, and their skill helped save southern Europe for Catholicism.  But by then it was decades too late to stem the Protestant tide in northern Europe.

Why did the Catholic Church hesitate?  In answering this question, we observe some of the dynamics underpinning how new media technology provides rebels and underdogs with a slingshot of the sort that David used to slay Goliath.

The Catholic Church was the establishment of Europe in 1517.  It saw itself as the only legitimate religious institution, and since it possessed juridical power it was accustomed to relying on intervention by secular authorities to suppress rebellions – what Mark Edwards calls the Church’s “law-and-order” conception of affairs.  This time, however, German princes found it convenient to utilize the swelling anti-Roman religious sentiment to bolster their anti-Roman political ambitions.  And the printing press, as we’ve seen, spread the rebellion with a speed never before encountered, catching the Catholic Church off guard and unable to respond fast enough.

The Catholic Church found it distasteful, at the least, to use the printing press to fight the rebels on their own turf.  Doing so acknowledged not only the legitimacy of the debate but also the propriety of involving the laity in ecclesiastical matters, which ostensibly undermined the Catholic Church’s claim to be the only legitimate religious institution.  Even on those occasions when Catholics did reply in print to the Protestants, they were inadvertently helping their opponents.  In these early years of the Reformation, Luther above all needed to get his message out, and the Catholic tracts – no matter how slanted they were against Luther’s positions – nevertheless spread  word of his movement and its general complaints.

“Not to reply,” says Edwards, “was to surrender much of the vernacular reading public to Luther and his friends.  To reply was to further by both message and medium the position of the Evangelicals.  This was the Catholic dilemma.”

The few Catholic printers and polemicists who entered the fray had virtually no support – financial or otherwise – from their church.  The duke of Saxony provided some limited support to Catholic printers, but when he died his successor became a Lutheran.  One of the few Catholic polemicists writing to the laity was Georg Witzel, himself a former Lutheran.  Witzel complained about the difficulty of getting into print as a Catholic.  A printer had held his manuscript for a whole year with unfulfilled promises of publication.  “If I were a Lutheran there would be no difficulty,” Witzel said, “but as a Catholic I am writing in vain.”  (How modern this sounds to conservative authors trying to get their manuscripts accepted by liberal publishers!)  So it went that the Catholic Church pretty much conceded the media battle to the Lutherans.

The impact of the Protestant head start far outlasted the early Reformation.  From 1550 to 1800, in fact, typesetting, printing, publishing, and bookselling were essentially Protestant preserves in Europe.

Aiming for a “mass” audience

Forget any images you have of angry hordes of Germans rising en masse against their perceived enemies.  That would come later (unfortunately).  The Reformation was more like a bitter fight between academics and their college trustees, where the students do not get involved.

Magnifying the power of Luther’s theological arguments was the inherent advantage of the new over the old: All the flaws of the new are not yet obvious.  The Catholic Church had been around for centuries, allowing plenty of time for its shortcomings to be obvious to even its staunchest supporters.  The Evangelicals were touting a new order, full of promise, with no track record of failure to detract from that promise.

The Lutherans did aim their message at a mass audience, but a “mass audience” in 1517 was not that big.  Only about 5 percent of the total German population was literate, and even in the largest cities that number didn’t rise above 30 percent.  That’s counting literacy in the vernacular language, German.  Literacy in Latin was found in a mere fraction of that 5 percent.

In this environment, two significant factors come to the fore.  One, the Lutherans by and large aimed their message at those who were literate in German (which included those who were literate in Latin), while the Catholics by and large aimed their message only at the much smaller population literate in Latin.  Two, the Lutherans pursued their objectives with a sophisticated two-step approach: One, reach the literate population – the “opinion leaders” – by print, and, two, get them to reach the general population with oral persuasion, primarily through sermons.

As we’ve already seen, the presses in German-speaking lands produced nearly five times as many works in German by Luther as by all the Catholic polemicists combined.  Here are some more revealing statistics: In the first full year of the Reformation, 1518, a little less than half of Luther’s writings were printed in German.  In 1519, 60 percent of his works appeared in German, and this rose to 80 percent in 1520 and 1521, then 90 percent over the rest of the decade.  Overall, counting all authors, the proportion of German to Latin pamphlets completely reversed itself between 1519 and 1521, going from three Latin pamphlets for each German one, to three German pamphlets for each Latin one.  Thereafter, German pamphlets constituted 90 percent of all pamphlets published.

And the pamphlets were just the beginning of this lopsided preponderance of Evangelical works in German.  Luther worked ceaselessly to translate the New Testament into German, and then to teach the Germans how to interpret it through his large and small catechisms.  Eventually the Catholics would produce their own catechism in the vernacular for the laity, but – as with the polemical pamphlets – that came much too late to have an effect in the early Reformation.

It wasn’t as if Catholics were technologically illiterate, and could only copy the Bible and other works by hand, using scribes.  Between the invention of the printing press and 1520, 156 Latin editions of the Bible were published, as well as 17 German translations under the auspices of the Catholic Church.  They had the ability to use the printing press, they just didn’t have the will to use it as a weapon in the new type of warfare.

Luther’s German New Testament was the sixteenth century’s best seller, with some 43 editions appearing between 1522 and 1525.  Edwards says an average of 2,000 copies per printing would be a conservative estimate, meaning that at least 86,000 copies were sold in 40 months.  This is especially amazing given the low literacy rate and the relatively high cost of a full-fledged New Testament.  A cheap unbound, undecorated edition cost the equivalent of two weeks’ wages for a baker.  Reaching an audience as large as Luther’s was a revolution indeed.

Spreading the capitalist gospel, too

This chapter is primarily concerned with the Reformation, but the impact of the printing press certainly didn’t stop there.  We must take a moment to honor our conservative and libertarian heritage by noting the often-overlooked impact of early printers on the development of capitalism.

Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, notes that the early printer was a “natural” capitalist, for he had to be both an entrepreneur and an innovator.  This was long before today’s specialized job functions, and the sixteenth-century printer was an intellectual trend watcher, typesetter, publisher, publicist, and advertiser all in one.

Other urban entrepreneurs shared many of his attitudes and perspectives, but the printer was in an especially strategic position: He dealt directly with the ideas being promulgated in print, in this new print era.  He was a gatekeeper of the new communications industry, and as such was able to influence the intellectual and political currents of his day.  We’ve already noted a Catholic writer’s (Witzel’s) complaint about that influence.

As a hands-on capitalist, the printer had to recoup large investments, which meant he had to become adept at time-motion analysis, if only informally.  He faced stiff competition from rival printers.  And he could not afford an idle press and idle workers, so he was constantly searching for ways to expand his markets, and he would arrange print jobs to keep the presses flowing evenly. This also explains two of his pet peeves – labor strikes and religious or political censors.  Both caused work stoppages.

Being of necessity a practical man, the sixteenth-century printer wasn’t running a leisurely coffee house for monkish scribes – and he had little use in general for the very unbusinesslike begging orders.  The high priest of the new merchant order, Adam Smith, put it quite succinctly: “Penance, mortification…and the whole train of monkish virtues are everywhere rejected by men of sense.”  Little surprise, then, that these early printers took naturally to the Reformation.

Eisenstein writes:

As self-serving publicists, early printers issued book lists, circulars and broadsides.  They put the firm’s name, emblem and shop address on the front page of their books.  Indeed, this use of title pages entailed a significant reversal of scribal procedures; they put themselves first.  Scribal colophons had come last.  They also extended their new promotional techniques to the authors and artists whose work they published, thus contributing to the celebration of lay culture-heroes and to their achievement of personal celebrity and eponymous fame.

The new hard-sell business tactics didn’t stop with the printer.  We have a letter from one Beatus Rhenanus to Reformation leader Huldrych Zwingli, recommending that a particular book peddler go from town to town, village to village, and house to house selling nothing but Luther’s writings.  “This will virtually force the people to buy them,” notes Rhenanus, “which would not be the case if there were a wide selection.”

Once the original enthusiasm of the Reformation wound down, printers were quick to exploit the growing market for practical information.  Almanacs were a staple, and by the seventeenth century the almanac was outselling the Bible in England.  Printers also turned to other kinds of practical manuals — directories, maps, globes, road guides, and business books of all types.  Even books on bookkeeping.  Eisenstein suggests that “the slow spread of scientific bookkeeping before the sixteenth century and its more rapid spread thereafter is probably related to the shift from script to print.”  “Reckon masters” – early bookkeepers – wrote manuals featuring the advantages of double-entry bookkeeping, still a mystery to most merchants.  The bookkeeper’s goal was not so much to educate the merchants as to encourage the merchants to hire the bookkeeper’s firm to do the merchant’s books.

The modern age had most definitely arrived!


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