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The Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century Essay

The printing press had a significant influence on the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and without the use of this technology, Martin Luther would not have been nearly as successful in his challenging of the Catholic Church. The printing press in the early 1500s paved the way for Luther and the Reformation and assisted him in more ways than just the publication of his works. The printing press was used to publish propaganda against Rome and also provided the publication of notices alerting the people to debates and rallies held by the Augustinian monk.

Other factors assisted the printing press’s influence in this movement, including the significant increase in literacy levels and the support that Luther received from his followers. The printing press played an imperative role in the Protestant Reformation. It was used as a media that produced thousands of Luther’s works which were in turn distributed throughout Germany and stretching as far as Lyons and Meaux.1 Dickens states that without the involvement of the printing press, the Reformation, or any revolution of this extent, could not be achieved.2

The printing press has often gone unnoticed or given less credit than it deserves in its role in the Reformation. Eisenstein said of the publishers in Strasbourg, “[they] did much more than mirror the Reform; they prepared its way, they secured its results.”3 The printing press did not only produce copies of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses but also Bibles and reproductions of sections of the Bible written in the vernacular so that everyone had the Word of God available to them.

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The German translation of the Bible sold in vast numbers throughout the sixteenth century, and Luther’s first edition of the New Testament, printed in 1522, was sold entirely within the first ten weeks of sale. Luther’s other works, which were easier to understand, were sold in even greater numbers than his translation of the Bible. People all over Germany were gaining access to Luther’s teachings, thus increasing the movement against the Catholic Church.4 The introduction to the American edition of Luther’s Works states that the series is “a selection of works that have proved their importance for the faith, life, and history of the Christian church”.5

The power of the printing press was so immense that Luther himself did not expect the response that was received, “I was not pleased by the fact that they were spread abroad…I could not foresee what would be the effect of such badly stated theses”.6 This statement shows the total capacity of the printing press and how its strength was not at all anticipated in this movement. The printing press would not have had as large a part in the Protestant Reformation if not for the vast increase in literacy during this period. During the Reformation and the development of the Protestant churches, literacy levels throughout Europe were on the rise.

Gawthrop and Strauss attribute this change to the growth of Protestantism as “[it] was the religion of the Word, and therefore of reading”.7 Because of the rise in literacy levels, people were able to purchase books and pamphlets, thus increasing the use of the printing press.8 Luther himself believed in the foundation of learning, and in 1530 he spoke of his belief in mandatory schooling at an elementary level. This sermon was then published and given the title Children Should Be Sent to School.9 It is believed that in 1517 and 1520, three hundred thousand copies of Luther’s thirty publications were sold, thus enforcing the increase in literacy amongst the population.10

The printing press was used to produce copies of Luther’s translation of the Bible and his various works and to manufacture propaganda against the Catholic Church and their dealings. Posters and notices were erected to advertise the sermons and rallies of Luther, and his followers and pamphlets were aimed at gaining popular support amongst the literate. Luther described the printing press as “God’s highest and extremest act of grace,” and there is no question as to why when you see how much influence the printing press had on the Reformation.11 Woodcuts were also used as propaganda to demonstrate to the illiterate population the beliefs and opinions of Martin Luther and his followers.

The printing press played a crucial role in the success of the Reformation through the huge number of publications and the vast area that these publications reached. The rise in literacy levels assisted the affect of the printing press in that people were able to read and comprehend Luther’s works and the publication of the Bible assisted them in establishing their own interpretations of the Word. The printing press expanded the advertising of Luther’s meetings and sermons and produced widespread propaganda against the Church. Without the printing press, Martin Luther would not have been nearly as successful as he was in challenging the Catholic Church.

  • Dickens, Arthur Geoffrey. Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, 1966
  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983
  • Febvre, Lucien and Martin, Henri-Jean. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800. London: NLB, 1976
  • Gawthrop, R and Strauss, G. “Protestantism and Literacy in Early Modern Germany.” In Past and Present 104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984
  • Oliver, Daniel. The Trial of Luther. Oxford: A R Mowbray and Co, 1978
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav(ed). Luther’s Works Vol 1. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986
  1. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (London: NLB, 1976), 296
  2. Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1966), 51
  3. Elizabeth L Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 374-375
  4. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book, 286-287
  5. Jaroslav Pelikan (ed), Luther’s Works vol 1 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986), v
  6. Daniel Oliver, The Trial of Luther (Oxford: A R Mowbray and Co, 1978), 21
  7. R Gawthrop and G Strauss, “Protestantism and Literacy in Early Modern Germany”, in Past and Present 104 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 31
  8. “The Spread of the Reformation”, in Discovering the Western Past. A Looks at the Evidence, 2nd ed, ed. Merry E Wiesner, Julius R Ruff and William Bruce Wheeler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 279
  9. R Gawthrop and G Strauss, Protestantism and Literacy, 32-33
  10. Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, Reformation and Society, 51
  11. M H Black, “The Printed Bible”, Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol 3. The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, ed. S L Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 432; quoted in Elizabeth L Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 304

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