Colin Woodard’s new book, “American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good,” will be published in March.
In the conventional survey course, Martin Luther leaps onto the historical stage out of nowhere: an unknown monk in an obscure German provincial town who, by performing the rather routine academic exercise of nailing a thesis to the doors of the local church, triggers the Protestant Reformation. The selling of indulgences was so hated, one gathers, that Luther was able to ride a wave of popular sentiment to reshape the course of Western civilization.
No surprise that it’s more complicated than that, but a new book by British historian Andrew Pettegree reveals a central and heretofore little-appreciated aspect: Luther’s master role in the imagination and execution of what had to have been the world’s first mass-media-driven revolution. Luther didn’t just reimagine the Christian faith, he figured out how to share his vision through the innovative use and manipulation of a nascent communications technology: the printing press.
“Printing was essential to the creation of Martin Luther, but Luther was also a determining, shaping force in the German printing industry,” Pettegree writes. “After Luther, print and public communication would never be the same again.”
When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in the Saxon backwater town of Wittenberg, moveable type was something like the computer in the 1960s, a useful and expensive tool used by academics and elite institutions. “Most customers were churchmen, scholars, or students, with a smattering of rich collectors from the nobility,” Pettegree explains. “Consequently the first printers aligned their production to the established best sellers in these customers’ favored fields,” typically works that were “long, expensive, and in Latin” and written by long-dead authors. Wittenberg’s only print shop produced ugly, sloppy copies of the theses of local university students, another mainstay of the 70-year-old industry.
As “Brand Luther” makes clear, Luther realized the untapped potential of print as a mass medium and used it to broadcast his message to lay readers across the German states, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers via this new social media. He responded to the first scholarly criticism of his theses not in Latin, the language of scholarship, but in German, with a clear, straightforward 1,500-word essay that could be read aloud in 10 minutes. It fit perfectly into an eight-page pamphlet that could be quickly and cheaply printed and reprinted, each copy using but a single sheet of paper, folded in quarto. “It was an instant publishing sensation.”
The indulgence controversy was suddenly a public matter, and Luther churned out one argument after another over the next two years, with printers in other cities — seeing the public demand for the inexpensive texts from this eloquent new voice — making their own editions, which spread across Germany at unprecedented speed. “Printers got an immediate return for minimum investment,” Pettegree notes. “Luther, it very quickly became clear, was a safe bet for the printing industry.”
By 1519, this unknown monk had become Europe’s most published author, his 45 original compositions republished in nearly 300 editions. Realizing the limits of his local print shop, Luther personally lured a top printer from Leipzig, pairing him with the talented illustrator Lucas Cranach, whose elegant woodcuts adorned the soon-to-be sought-after “Wittenberg” editions. Cranach even created a modular woodcut for use in title pages, the center of which could be swapped out for each new book, allowing even modest pamphlets to be beautifully adorned.
Three years later, Luther had produced some 160 writings, the majority addressed to the Christian people of Germany in their own language, even though many of them had never before owned a printed work. “They responded with an interest and enthusiasm unprecedented in recent history,” driving the production of 828 editions, the printing, sale and distribution of which capitalized and transformed the German print industry.
Previously, authors’ names were rarely highlighted. Luther’s was a selling point, prompting publishers to print it prominently on the title page. Cranach’s illustrations allowed Wittenberg editions to instantly catch the eye of customers browsing booksellers’ crowded stalls. In an age when intellectual property did not exist, other publishers shamelessly copied Cranach’s work alongside Luther’s texts. All the while, Luther carefully micromanaged the production of his new works at local print shops, shrewdly choosing which pieces for each shop.
In the battle for hearts and minds — those of the Holy Roman Empire’s many princes as well as the public’s — Luther’s opponents were hindered by market forces. “Printers would often only take on their works if paid [up front], or obliged to do so, and with good reason,” “Brand Luther” reveals, “for those works simply could not match the sales of evangelical authors.”
This helped Luther avoid being executed (as happened to his 15th-century predecessor Jan Hus) and allowed him to go on to found a new, reformed church that soon dominated much of north-central Europe. Pettegree, a specialist in both the Renaissance and the early history of printing, argues that Luther forever shaped what books look like, key elements of how they are marketed and even the way vernacular German came to be written. Germany’s public school system and the first regularly published newspapers followed.
“Brand Luther” suffers from some omissions that make it harder for those not already steeped in Reformation history to fully appreciate the tale. For example, in this history of the transformation of the print industry, Pettegree never lays out how early-16th-century printing was actually done, from the making of paper and typefaces to the painstaking setting and press work that put our modern struggles with toner cartridges and bad URLs in perspective. Similarly, readers hear about the implications of Luther’s callous stance on the 1525 Peasants’ Rebellion but are never clearly told what happened because they are presumed to already know.
Nonetheless, it’s a remarkable story, thoroughly researched and clearly told, and one sure to change the way we think about the early Reformation.
By Andrew Pettegree
Penguin Press. 383 pp. $29.95