EXCERPT: Martin Luther had become one of Europe’s most famous people, and his ideas – which challenged not only Church practice and the Pope’s authority, but ultimately man’s relationship with God – had begun to reconfigure systems of power and identity in ways that are still felt today.
Five hundred years ago last week, a little-known priest and university lecturer in theology did something unremarkable for his time: he nailed a petition to a door, demanding an academic debate on the Catholic Church’s practice of selling “indulgences” – promises that the buyer or a relative would spend less time in purgatory after they died.
Today, Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” posted at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany (he simultaneously sent a copy to his boss, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg), are widely recognized as the spark that started the Protestant Reformation.
Within a year, Luther had become one of Europe’s most famous people, and his ideas – which challenged not only Church practice and the Pope’s authority, but ultimately man’s relationship with God – had begun to reconfigure systems of power and identity in ways that are still felt today.
The printing press was a revolutionary – and exponential – technology for the dissemination of ideas. In 1455, the “Gutenberg Bible” was printed at a rate of roughly 200 pages per day, significantly more than the 30 pages per day that a well-trained scribe could produce. By Luther’s time, the daily printing rate of a single press had increased to roughly 1,500 single-sided sheets. Improved printing efficiency, combined with steep declines in cost, led to a dramatic increase in access to the written word between 1450 and 1500, even though only an estimated 6% of the population was literate.
Luther quickly grasped the potential of the printing press to spread his message, effectively inventing new forms of publishing that were short, clear, and written in German, the language of the people. Perhaps Luther’s most enduring personal contribution came via his translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German. He was determined to “speak as men do in the marketplace,” and more than 100,000 copies of the “Luther Bible” were printed in Wittenberg over the following decades, compared to just 180 copies of the Latin Gutenberg Bible.
This new use of printing technology to produce short, punchy pamphlets in the vernacular transformed the industry itself. In the decade before Luther’s theses, Wittenberg printers published, on average, just eight books annually, all in Latin and aimed at local university audiences. But, according to the British historian Andrew Pettegree, between 1517 and Luther’s death in 1546, local publishers “turned out at least 2,721 works” – and average of “91 books per year,” representing some three million individual copies.
Pettegree calculates that a third of all books published during this period were written by Luther himself, and that the pace of publishing continued to increase after his death. Luther effectively published a piece of writing every two weeks – for 25 years.
The printing press greatly expanded the accessibility of the religious controversy that Luther helped fuel, galvanizing the revolt against the Church. Research by the economic historian Jared Rubin indicates that the mere presence of a printing press in a city before 1500 greatly increased the likelihood that the city would become Protestant by 1530. In other words, the closer you lived to a printing press, the more likely you were to change the way you viewed your relationship with the Church, the most powerful institution of the time, and with God.
Though it began half a millennium ago, the impact and legacy of the Reformation is still felt today. But what does the average American adult know about the Reformation? What do they think of it? And, perhaps more importantly, in what ways does it impact their faith?
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