Reformation, revolutions and social media.

Sometime before Christmas I received an email from Jon Wilkins sick warped bastard[1] cartoonist of Darwin Eats Cake drawing my attention to this article at The Economist How Luther went virile viral [opps!]: Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab Spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation. He asked me if I had seen the article and what I thought about it. I had not in fact seen the article, for some reason The Economist is not my usual choice of reading matter, but I’m glad that Jon drew my attention to it as it an interesting and in my opinion good article. I’m not going to give a detailed account of the article, as you can read it yourselves, but the article argues that the then comparatively new medium of the printed word in the form of cheap mass produced polemic pamphlets played an important role in disseminating the arguments of Luther and the other religious reformers and thus played a significant role in bringing about the Reformation. The theory is not new and in fact is a well-established thesis in the early history of printing. In her monumental tome The Printing Press as an Agent of Change[2] Elizabeth Eisenstein devotes a whole section to the subject, which starts with the following quote:

Between 1517 and 1520, Luther’s thirty publications sold well over 300,000 copies…Altogether in relation to the spread of religious ideas it seems difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Press, without which a revolution of this magnitude could scarcely have been consummated. Unlike the Wycliffite and Waldensian heresies, Lutherism was from the first the child of the printed book, and through this vehicle Luther was able to make exact, standerdized 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 language together with the arts of the journalist and the cartoonist…[3]

 She then devotes 146 pages to a detailed discussion of the subject. It is also dealt with in another standard work on the history of printing Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin The Coming of the Book, Verso, London and New York, Paperback 1997.

German presses from this time [1520] on concentrated producing cheap pamphlets and propagandist tracts in the vernacular, a literature of revolt spread far and wide by pedlars. (p.192)

This state of affairs changed abruptly in 1517 in Germany, a little later and more gradually elsewhere. Religious issues swiftly became questions of the foremost importance and unleashed the strongest passions. For the first time in history there developed a propaganda campaign conducted through the medium of the press. The capacity of the press to serve the interests of those who wished to influence thought and mould public opinion was revealed. (p.288)

There were after all 19 editions of the Bible in High German before Luther, 24 editions of the Old Testament (or at least parts of it) in the old French translation before Lefèvre d’Etaples’ version. Moreover while the press was facilitating and encouraging the renewal of scriptural studies it was also turning out thousands of handbills, posters and broadsheets intended for the general public. The first literature of information, the ancestor of the modern newspaper, was developing. (p.289)

I think these couple of quotes should be enough to show that the central claim of the Economist article is in fact a well-established and accepted historical theory.

Of course one could and should seriously considered just how much the new print media contributed to the Reformation. I personally think it would have taken place in some form in the 16th century without the invention of printing and even without Martin Luther. The underlying causes had been simmering in Europe since the time of John Wycliffe in the 14th century and the time was ripe for a change. One can of course, and probably should, also question to what extent the use of the new print media in the Reformation actually parallels the use of the new digital media in the Arab Spring but that is not a subject for this blog.

Of particular interest to me as a historian of the Renaissance mathematical science is the fact that cheap printed pamphlet literature played a significant role in the so-called astronomical Revolution, or as I prefer to call it the evolution of astronomy in the early modern period. In the first 250 years of printing by far and away the most popular and widespread printed literature was cheap astrological tracts in the form of single sheet wall calendars, handbills, as well as almanacs and prognostica in the form of pamphlets. This literature was produced in comparatively vast quantities and sold cheaply throughout Europe. To some extent it filled the role that the gutter press has (or should that now be in the Internet age had?) in Europe and North America. To make it more attractive to the potential buyers the astrological pamphlet literature included, alongside the predictions for the coming year, an editorial section full of information that might interest the purchaser. In the late 16th century and throughout the 17th century this editorial section very often consisted of information about astronomy and surprisingly often information about and explanations of the new heliocentric astronomy. This cheap instantly disposable literature actually played a not insignificant role in disseminating the new astronomy to a general public who would never have read the technical volumes of a Nicolas Copernicus or a Johannes Kepler. For those who would like to know more I thoroughly recommend Bernard S. Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500 – 1800, Faber and Faber, London, 1979.



[1] In the interests of clarity it should be pointed out that in the vocabulary of the Renaissance Mathematicus ‘sick warped bastard’ is the highest accolade that can be addressed to a humourist.

[2] Cambridge University Press, Paperback, 1980

[3] Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe, New York, 1968, p.51 Quoted from Eisenstein p.303

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Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

5 responses to “Reformation, revolutions and social media.

  1. Pingback: Reformation, revolutions and social media | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Anonymous Coward

    You’ve got a Freudian(?) typo: the title of the Economist article should be “How Luther went viral”, not “How Luther went virile”. [Insert your own joke here]

    • thonyc

      Well the reformation did allow Luther, a Catholic monk, to get married and produce children (6) ;)

      • Marriage is one thing. Virility quite another. It hardly required a Reformation for clerics to produce children. Rabelais repeats the old peasant saying that even the shadow of the monastery chapel can knock up your daughter. Sacerdotal fertility also explains why the Popes had so many nephews…

      • Jim! Are you implying that Catholic clerics broke their celibacy vows?

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