The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) once said that the three greatest inventions during his lifetime were gunpowder, the mariner’s compass, and printing. Gunpowder forever changed the nature of armed conflict and introduced an era of savage warfare that is with us still. The compass enabled Columbus, Magellan, and other navigators to discover the New World and map it with precision. The printing press brought about an explosion of knowledge, the expansion of literacy, and a revolution in learning that touched every aspect of European civilization, not least the church.
One of the leaders of the church who recognized the importance of printing right from the start was the scholar-bishop Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, who in 1458 became Pope Pius II. In October of 1454, Aeneas Silvius found himself at the famous Frankfurt book fair, no doubt on the hunt for special treasures for his great library. Soon after the fair, he wrote to a friend about his meeting there a “marvelous man” (vir mirabilis) who had with him a perfectly produced book, one that was exceedingly clean and correct in all of its lettering, with beautiful characters that could be read “effortlessly without glasses.” Some scholars think that the wondrous man Aeneas Silvius encountered at the fair was Johann Gutenberg and that the spotless book he saw was Gutenberg’s masterpiece, the forty-two-line Bible (so called because it had forty-two lines per page), hot off the press from his workshop at Mainz.
Gutenberg was a goldsmith by trade. While living in Strasbourg, he had experimented with a metal alloy suitable for type and a machine that would allow printed characters to be cast with relative ease, placed in even lines of composition, and then manipulated again and again to make possible the mass production of a large number of texts. Moving down the Rhine to the city of Mainz, he perfected his experiment with the press and was soon able to produce the world’s first printed Bible, an edition of the Latin Vulgate.
The printing press was an amazing ditto device that seemed to work like magic. Printing by woodcuts was known before the time of Gutenberg. This was a laborious process that involved carving letters or pictures onto a block of wood, inking the finished product, and pressing it onto vellum (a surface made from calfskin) or paper (invented in China and introduced to Europe by Arab traders in the thirteenth century). However, wooden blocks wore out easily, were smudge-prone, and could not be manipulated to vary the text from one printing to the next. This was hardly an improvement over the slow work of the scribe, who might take up to a year to copy a long book by hand. Originally, printed books were designed to look like manuscripts. They had special abbreviations, ligatures, and a style of lettering developed by scribes in the Middle Ages—the first Bibles were printed in gothic font. A vestige of the manuscript tradition still survives today in the enlarged initial capital with which new chapters often begin.
What began at Gutenberg’s print shop in Mainz in the 1450s soon spread, like McDonald’s or Starbucks in our day, into almost every nook and cranny of the European world. Printing presses sprang up in Rome (1464), Venice (1469), Paris (1470), the Netherlands (1471), Switzerland (1472), Spain (1474), England (1476), Sweden (1483), and Constantinople (1490). By 1500 there were nearly 250 printing establishments across Europe. They had published some twenty-seven thousand titles, most of them in Latin. Erasmus once compared himself with an obscure preacher whose sermons were heard only by a few people in one or two churches while his books were being read in every country in the world. Erasmus was not well known for his humility, but in this case he was simply telling the truth.
Since Elizabeth Eisenstein’s two-volume study of the printing press as “an agent of change” (1979), many studies have analyzed the connection between the advent of printing and the rise of the Protestant movement. Two of the most helpful of these are Mark U. Edwards, Jr.’s Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther (1994) and Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther: How and Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation (2015). That sixteenth-century Protestants themselves saw printing as a divine gift bestowed from above to spur on the work of Reformation is beyond doubt. John Foxe spoke for many others when he wrote:
The Lord began to work for his church not with sword and target to subdue his exalted adversary, but with printing, writing and reading. … [H]ow many presses there be in the world, so many block-houses there be against the high castle of St. Angelo, so that either the Pope must abolish knowledge in printing, or printing must at length root him out.
However, the history of printing in the sixteenth century does not lend itself to a neat Protestant-versus-Catholic interpretation. In the first place, Catholics themselves soon became purveyors of the printed word. Luther’s New Testament of 1522 was answered by Hieronymus Emser of Dresden, who in a brief period of time was able to produce a counter-Bible in German shorn of Luther’s evangelical marginalia. In 1539, Jacopo Cardinal Sadoleto wrote a public letter to the magistrates and citizens of Geneva entreating them to return to the Catholic faith, to which Calvin responded later in the same year with a stout defense of the Protestant position. In 1516, the Fifth Lateran Council had forbidden the printing of any new volume without the explicit approval and imprimatur of Rome, but this decree could not be enforced. Just so, Sebastian Castellio’s interpretation of the Song of Songs did not please the ministers of Geneva, but he fled to Basel, where he was appointed professor of Greek and published many works, including some against Calvin and Beza, with relative impunity, which added to the tension between the two cities. Censorship was interconfessional in the age of the Reformation. At the same time, the Frankfurt book fair continued to be a popular meeting place for publishers and book agents of all kinds, Catholic and Protestant alike, a notable case of capitalism trumping theology.
It is hard to deny Eisenstein’s basic point: that Protestantism was the first religious movement to take full advantage of the new powers of the press. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were published and posted in Latin in October 1517, but two months later they were printed at Nuremberg in German without Luther’s knowledge or approval. In March 1518 Luther wrote to the printer Christopher Scheurl:
Greetings. I received both your German and Latin letters, good and learned Scheurl, together with the distinguished Albrecht Dürer’s gift, and my Theses in the original and in the vernacular. As you are surprised that I did not send them to you, I reply that my purpose was not to publish them, but first to consult a few of my neighbours about them, that thus I might either destroy them if condemned or edit them with the approbation of others. But now that they are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation, I feel anxious about what they may bring forth: not that I am unfavourable to spreading known truth abroad—rather this is what I seek—but because this method is not that best adapted to instruct the public. I have certain doubts about them myself, and should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.
But the cat was out of the bag. Soon Luther himself began to publish in the vernacular, beginning with his best-selling Sermon on Indulgences and Grace (1518). The fact that between 1517 and 1520 the thirty publications of Luther in print at that time sold more than 300,000 copies suggests a groundswell of interest in the message he was preaching.
However, this does not mean that Luther taught a “Doctrine of Justification by Print Alone,” to quote A. G. Dickens’ sardonic quip. For the reformers, the proclaimed Word was never displaced by the printed text—not even the text of the Bible. Still, over time, the translation and dissemination of the Bible and other works of piety, including hymns, catechisms, prayer books, and martyr stories, transformed Christian spirituality. Like television and the internet in our own times, the book and pamphlet became instruments of profound social and political change in the sixteenth century, and also helped to bring about the religious revolution we know as the Protestant Reformation.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.