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The Reformation saw the first major, self-conscious attempt to use the recently invented printing press to shape and channel a mass movement. The printing press allowed Evangelical publicists to do what had been previously impossible, quickly and effectively reach a large audience with a message intended to change Christianity. For several crucial years, these Evangelical publicists issued thousands of pamphlets discrediting the old faith and advocating the new. And they managed to accomplish this with little serious opposition from publicists of a Catholic persuasion. This Evangelical mastery of the press, and the feeble Catholic response, provide the framework for this book and will be dealt with in detail in chapter 1, "Evangelical and Catholic Propaganda in the Early Decades of the Reformation."

Not only did the Reformation see the first large-scale "media campaign," it also saw a campaign that was overwhelmingly dominated by one person, Martin Luther. More works by Luther were printed and reprinted than by any other publicist. In fact, the presses of the German-speaking lands produced substantially more vernacular works by Luther in the crucial early years (1518–1525) than the seventeen other major Evangelical publicists combined. During Luther's lifetime these presses produced nearly five times as many German works by Luther as by all the Catholic controversialists put together. Even if consideration is restricted to polemical works, Luther still outpublished all his Catholic opponents five to three. By Hans-Joachim Köhler's calculation, Luther's works made up 20 percent of


all the pamphlets published during the period 1500 to 1530. It is this staggering dominance by one man that justifies the title of this book: Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther . It also explains the book's focus on Luther.

Within the larger topic of printing and propaganda in the Reformation and the narrower focus of Martin Luther's dominance of the press, this book develops three interrelated arguments on how the history of the early Reformation should be written in light of this Evangelical propaganda campaign. First, any future history needs to bear in mind what most people likely knew of Luther and his message and when they likely knew it. Such an approach yields a narrative that differs in significant ways from the conventional account. Second, the message Luther intended in his writings was not always the message that his various reading publics received, and the discrepancy between the two—message sent and message received—has profound implications for the story of the early Reformation. Third, the medium of printing not only conveyed challenges to traditional authority with particular force but raised in its own right new issues of authority concerning the propriety of public debate on matters of faith, the interpretation of "Scripture alone," and the conferring and deploying of charismatic authority. The medium itself became entangled with its message.

Printing and the Reformation Movements

Sited at the intersection of two historiographical debates—one over the history of printing and its role in the Reformation, and the other over the nature and appeal of the early Reformation movement—this book is a contribution to both discussions.

The first debate is over the degree to which the Reformation may be fairly characterized as a "print event." While historians eschew a monocausal technological explanation—"justification by print alone," as it were[1] —strong claims have been made for the importance of printing as a major causal factor of the German Reformation.[2] "Without printing, no Reformation" encapsulates this view.[3] At the other extreme are those who question whether printing can possibly be assigned such a prominent explanatory role, given the very low level of literacy in early sixteenth-century Germany.[4] These skeptics put much greater emphasis on the oral or pictorial transmission of ideas. Some historians even insist that the Reformation movements them-


selves engaged only a small minority within the population and were met by the bulk of the largely illiterate masses of (possibly still pagan) Germans with indifference or outright hostility.[5]

The second debate deals with the Reformation message, whether propagated through print or preaching. What was the message or messages that motivated the activists of the various Reformation movements? Was it a form of evangelical theology that resonated with late medieval communalism—either urban[6] or rural or both[7] —or was it a theology that freed laity from the burdens of a monastic form of Christianity[8] or was it simply (or largely) anticlericalism?[9] To what extent did the supporters of the Reformation share Luther's central concerns about justification by faith alone apart from works of the law? What, in practice, did the slogan "Scripture alone" actually entail? Did Christian freedom extend to secular matters, and, alternatively, did divine law properly have binding force in both spiritual and secular realms? These questions arise out of the debate over the content and reception of the printed and preached word.

These two debates overlap not only on the issue of printed propaganda, its message and efficacy, but also on the significance and role of Martin Luther, the foremost author of printed propaganda in the early years of the Reformation movement. Many older accounts have treated the German Reformation as something of a one-man show. As the Göttingen church historian Bernd Moeller put it in a classic 1965 article, "To caricature the common description, Luther generally appears as a great sage, a kind of spiritual colossus, who attains his Reformation breakthrough, draws the broad consequences, and then drags people with him as he strides through history handing out his truths right and left."[10] More recently historians have suggested a much diminished role for Luther, attributing equal if not greater significance to Huldrych Zwingli[11] and to the various local reformers in cities and countryside throughout south and central Germany. How important is Martin Luther really in the history of the early Reformation movements? What authority did his name and his message actually enjoy? Did this change over time? And what role did print play in establishing and propagating this authority?

In addressing the issues of "printing, propaganda, and Martin Luther," this book treats these larger questions of the Reformation as a "print event," the nature and appeal of various "Reformation messages," and the role of Martin Luther among other publicists, preachers, and opinion leaders in the early German Reformation. In so


doing, it attempts to explore the dialect between the fixity of print and the fluidity of reception and to probe the role of the medium in not only propagating but even shaping its message.

Narrative from the Perspective of What Contemporaries Knew and When They Likely Knew It

Ironically, most Luther biography and accounts of the German Reformation offer a distorted picture of the attraction and progress of the early Reformation, not because the historian knows too little but because the historian knows too much. Those contemporaries who followed the progress of the Reformation with engaged interest were undoubtedly a small minority within the population of the German-speaking lands. But as events proved, they were an influential minority made up of many leaders, opinion makers, and activists. Yet the great preponderance of even this relatively small group never met Luther face-to-face, never heard him preach with any regularity if at all, and had little or no correspondence with him. They learned of him and of his message through the press or through conversation or preaching. And though there could be several steps in the transmission, the ultimate source for that conversation or sermon was printed material.

We historians loose sight of this fact in our commendable zeal to ferret out as much information about the past as possible. We forget that, except perhaps for a few of Luther's students, no contemporary read Luther's works in light of his pre-Reformation lectures on Psalms, Galatians, and Romans. No member of Luther's reading public was privy to all his many letters, and very few corresponded with him at all. Only a few hundred attended his Reformation lectures at the University of Wittenberg. Merely a handful took their meals at Luther's table and noted down his remarks. Yet modern histories ground much of their presentation and interpretation on these privileged sources of information.

There is another source of distortion that comes from knowing too much. Since historians know how things turned out, we tend to structure our narrative around issues and events that have significance for later developments. But contemporaries did not have such advantage, so they were just as likely to become entranced by historical dead-ends and to be preoccupied by developments or ideas that, as it turned out, had no future. Just because we know, for example, that Luther's three


great treatises of 1520—To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Freedom of a Christian , and On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church —were to become the defining works of the whole Reformation movement, we should not automatically assume that contemporaries would recognize their significance. They had no way of knowing that these treatises marked a parting of the ways. In fact, these treatises were likely to have been understood initially in ways quite different from the meaning they took on in the light of subsequent events.

With these sources of distortion in mind, I attempt in several chapters to reconstruct the progress of the early Reformation as it was likely experienced by the most engaged participants. I attempt to ask what this influential minority could have realistically known of Luther and his message and when they could have known it. To answer this question, I take my clue from what was printed and reprinted, where it was printed and reprinted, and when. This approach yields a narrative for the early Reformation movement that is in some respects strikingly different from conventional accounts.

Reception and Re-presentation

Martin Luther attempted mightily throughout his life to dictate how his own writings should be understood. Even though he could normally (but not always) control what was printed under his name, he could not (try as he might) control how he was interpreted by his readers. And when readers became preachers or publicists in their own right, Luther had even less control over the message they associated with his name.[12] They issued their own treatises to explain what he said, what he meant, what people should do. Opponents took to the press as well to decry Luther's message and explain its fallacies and its dangers. Even Luther's allies often disagreed with each other, and with the Reformer himself, in their understanding of what he had said and what he stood for. So, too, did his opponents. Each treatise was received differently by different people, interpreted differently by different audiences. It was the press, then, that both connected Luther with his audience and led inevitably to a divorce between Luther's "intent" and the "meaning" appropriated by various readers.

As distressing as this diversity was for Luther, and as unsettling as it may be for scholars today, we must recognize that the reader and the representer, that is, the re -presenter, whether a preacher or an author,


invested Luther's publications with meaning drawn from his or her own life experience. In the dialectic of reader and text, there was born myriad interpretations. There was no one "theology" or one correct understanding of Luther's teaching in the sixteenth century. On the contrary, several what we might term "communities of discourse" each read Luther in a different way, with individuals within these "communities" reinforcing each other's particular reading of Martin Luther.

Readers understand what they read from within their own experiences of life. Knowledge and understanding is a cumulative process, a fitting of ideas and impressions into a mosaic made up of the assumptions and beliefs of the larger society and of one's own subgroups within that society and colored and given final arrangement by the experiences of the individual. The mosaic that constitutes understanding varies from individual to individual and from subgroup to subgroup within society. A burgher fitted Luther's message into a quite different constellation than a peasant. A Catholic priest saw things differently than a lay person. And for a variety of accidents of life history, even two members of religious orders could differ widely on their reception of Luther's message: the Dominican Martin Bucer, for example, became a passionate Evangelical, the Franciscan Thomas Murner became one of the Reformation's most determined opponents. Different people reading the same text could come to drastically different understandings. We shall explore this variety and its implications for any account of the early Reformation movement.

The Role of the Press in the Debates over Authority

From Luther's first appearance on the public stage, his critics turned the debate towards questions of authority. And when Luther finally responded in the vernacular press, his critics saw him taking an inherently subversive approach to disseminating his dangerously subversive message. To defy the authorities of traditional Western Christendom—the papal magisterium, the decisions of councils, the teachings of the Latin and Greek Fathers, the judgments of universities, and the traditional interpretation of Scripture—made Luther a heretic. To do so by addressing a broad public in the vernacular language through the medium of the press made him a rebel. It was appalling enough to the defenders of the old faith that Luther denounced the papacy, cashiered the spiritual estate of the clergy, rejected monasticism and


celibacy, and redefined the sacraments and other practices of traditional Christianity. But Luther compounded his enormity when he disseminated his program through thousands of vernacular pamphlets spread among the common people. Much of the dispute of these early years swirled around the issue of authority: who governs and on what basis, who decides and on what grounds? Printing not only spread the dispute to the far corners of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and beyond, it inherently favored Luther's side of the argument. In a crucial way, it not only conveyed Luther's message but also embodied it.

It is a recurring theme of this book that the printing press played far more than just an assisting role in this many-sided contest over authority. It broadcast the subversive messages with a rapidity that had been impossible before its invention. More than that, it allowed the central ideological leader, Martin Luther, to reach the "opinion leaders" of the movement quickly, kept them all in touch with each other and with each other's experience and ideas, and allowed them to "broadcast" their (relatively coordinated) program to a much larger and more geographically diverse audience than had ever been possible before. Yet, paradoxically, printing also undermined central authority because it encouraged the recipients of the printed message to think for themselves about the issues in dispute, and it provided the means—printed Bibles especially—by which each person could become his or her own theologian.

Under the banner "Scripture alone," Luther and his fellow Evangelicals waged war against the traditional authorities for deciding disputes over doctrine and practice. The propaganda barrage led this charge, dismantling the claims for the papal magisterium, the decisions of councils, and the teachings of scholastics, Fathers, and canon lawyers. The press also offered to its public thousands of copies of the Evangelical's primary authority, the Scriptures. Yet in an irony that Catholic publicists were quick to seize upon, the press also quickly revealed that the Evangelicals were unable always to agree on the right understanding of their sole authority. The contested authority of Scripture is another recurring subject of the book.

Finally, Luther's enormous propaganda successes gradually conferred on him unusual personal authority. Those impressed by his message tended to think highly of the messenger. Those who fitted his message to biblical prophecies of the Antichrist and the Endtimes were inclined to view Luther himself within biblical categories of prophet


and saint. The press, then, allowed Luther to acquire a charismatic authority that could also be brought into play in his publications. Not surprisingly, then, his public authority itself became an object of debate. The development of this personal authority and its deployment are further topics of this book.

Some Methodological Considerations

This book takes advantage of several characteristics of early sixteenth-century printing. Printers in the sixteenth century were in the business to make money. They might also publish out of conviction and altruism, but they still had to make a profit over time or they would be forced out of business. At the very least, then, we should be able to assume that the printer expected that there would be a market for his product. If he were correct in his expectation, then the printing of a work is a valid although indirect measure of public interest. If he was wrong, of course, he took a loss. But if the printer reprinted the work several times, and this is often the case with Luther's works, we may safely assume that he did so to meet the demands of his customers. The printing of a work, and especially the reprinting of a work, then, may be taken by historians as an indirect measure of public interest. This assumption is employed in subsequent chapters to identify those works that likely had the most influence in the Evangelical publishing barrage.

The business side of publishing has other significant implications for the study of printing and propaganda in the early Reformation. In an age well before copyright and with shipping over land expensive and printing relatively cheap, a work generally spread through reprinting. If, for example, there was interest in Strasbourg for a work first published in Wittenberg, it was more common for a printer in Strasbourg to reprint the work than it was for the printer in Wittenberg to ship a large number of copies to Strasbourg. This business fact can also be turned to the use of the historian. Since works were printed with the expectation of sale, the printing or reprinting of a particular work in a particular place may also be an indirect measure of local or regional demand, and not merely demand in general.

To be sure, a moment's reflection will suggest problems with this approach. Some types of printed material would have circulated more widely than others. For example, there was more centralized production and wider distribution of particularly expensive items such as


Bibles. Yet by concentrating our attention on popular, relatively inexpensive pamphlets, we shall not go too far astray in seeing these works as a rough indication of local interest and demand.

In several chapters, the implication of local production is used to make an otherwise overwhelming task manageable. The media campaign of the years 1518 to 1525 is simply too large for any one scholar to encompass in a reasonable length of time. Even Hans-Joachim Köhler, who directed the Tübingen Flugschriften Project that aimed at collecting and analyzing every surviving pamphlet edition from the years 1500 to 1530, had to settle for a sample when it came to content analysis.[13] Of an estimated 10,000 pamphlet editions produced between 1500 and 1530, and the approximately 3,000 pamphlets actually collected by the project, Köhler used a carefully created sample of 356 pamphlets for the basis of his content analysis. His results will be referred to at several points. I myself have chosen to solve the dilemma in a different way and have in four of the chapters limited my consideration to works published in the city of Strasbourg.

Admittedly, some treatises reached Strasbourg from outside printing centers, influenced the impressions Strasbourgeois had of Luther and his message, and yet were not reprinted in Strasbourg. By omitting these treatises, I add some imprecision to my reconstruction. Having conceded this, I would point out that any treatise that had aroused widespread interest within Strasbourg would likely have been reprinted. The Strasbourg printers were not about to pass up a sure chance for profit. By limiting ourselves to Strasbourg publications, we are in fact unlikely to overlook many treatises that strongly shaped public opinion in Strasbourg. And as it happened, since the vast majority of Luther's early vernacular works were published in Strasbourg, the "outside" publications that might have significantly modified readers' first impressions of Luther would have likely been in Latin. I doubt that this restriction to Strasbourg publications skews the analysis overmuch.

In fact, this focus on vernacular works published in Strasbourg is arguably less artificial than the standard biographical approach that pays little or no attention to evidence that some treatises had much wider readership and impact than others. It may be well and good in a biography to analyze indiscriminately Latin and German works without concern for the different (although overlapping) audiences each addressed. But we need to remember that vernacular publications reached a much wider audience. Furthermore, if we are interested in


issues of reception, we risk seriously misunderstanding the historical record if we give to works printed only once the same weight we give to works that were reprinted numerous times and published over a wide geographical area. Some works were simply more significant than others in forming opinion among a significant segment of the population.

Strasbourg, an imperial free city with a population of about twenty thousand, was the third greatest printing center in German-speaking lands, exceeded only by Cologne and Nuremberg. As we shall see in chapter 1, it was a major center during the Reformation for the printing and reprinting of Luther's works, outproduced only by Wittenberg, Augsburg, and Nuremberg.[14] Since I am interested in the media campaign, Wittenberg is obviously not the right place for examining the impression Luther made on his reading public since Luther was available to them in the flesh. Among the remaining major centers, I chose Strasbourg over Augsburg and Nuremberg because of the fine bibliographies by Miriam Chrisman and Josef Benzing that make the study of the Strasbourg press easier than for any other major city of the Holy Roman Empire.[15]

It should be stressed, however, that it is the pamphlets that are the "heroes" of this account, not Strasbourg or her printers, not even the various authors of the pamphlets. I am using Strasbourg as a filter, not a focus. For those interested in the history of Strasbourg's printing industry, Miriam Usher Chrisman's fine Lay Culture, Learned Culture: Books and Social Change in Strasbourg, 1480–1599[ 16] is the book to read. Similarly with the authors of the various pamphlets, who are identified in the text but rarely described. Most readers would have known little or nothing about the biographies of the various authors. They would have known only what the authors chose to reveal in the pamphlets themselves, itself an important part of the argument I develop in subsequent chapters. In being faithful to the crucial point of limited information, I do not dwell on the authors or their background.

An Overview

After establishing the dimensions of the Evangelical and Catholic propaganda efforts in chapter 1 and situating Luther's own extraordinary contribution into this larger context, the focus turns to the earliest years of the public discussion and debate. Chapter 2 examines


the first impression readers were likely to have received from Luther's earliest Strasbourg publications. While pastoral and devotional for the most part, these early treatises nevertheless offered a serious challenge to traditional clerical authority. They also laid the foundation for the special charisma that Luther later enjoyed, establishing him in the public eye first as an earnest and constructive pastor and man of the Bible concerned above all for the religious well-being of the laity. Luther made his appearance in the vernacular press as the angry critic of the papacy only after this first impression had been well established.

When we speak of the message that readers were likely to have received from Luther's early vernacular publications, the qualification "likely" is crucial. When we deal with the issue of reception—how people understood what the press had to say about Martin Luther and his message—we rarely have access to the final recipients of the message. Most heard the message, and preaching and conversation are ephemeral. Even of those who read his message as it came from the presses, most never put their reaction into a form that historians today can read, except perhaps in the ambiguity of their action. In this and subsequent chapters we do explore how other publicists at least received and re-presented Luther and his message in their own publications. Even this limited information about reception can tell us a great deal about Luther's message and the transformations it underwent.

In the fall of 1520 Strasbourg readers were offered by their presses for the first time a series of polemical writings by Luther attacking the papacy and many traditional beliefs. Strasbourg readers also were able to purchase for the first time locally produced attacks on Luther and defenses of the traditional faith. Chapter 3 explores the ways in which Luther's image and message took on greater, even contradictory valences. Luther was more than an earnest reformer; he was also a rebel, and his rebellion consisted in no little part in his decision to air matters of religion before the "ignorant common people." The authority of Scripture was juxtaposed to the authority of the pope, Scripture was called upon to discredit the papacy and sustain it, and the public debate itself was cast as a challenge to governing authorities. The medium of multiple copies of cheap agitatory pamphlets reinforced the message of lay involvement, much to the distress and disadvantage of Catholic publicists. These defenders of the old faith found themselves propagating the very views that they deplored.

The trickle of published defenses of Luther became a flood in 1521–1522. As Catholic authors took to the Strasbourg press to de-


nounce and debate with Luther, other authors mounted spirited published defenses and reinforced his attack on the traditional church. Luther was described and redescribed in special terms, drawn from popular tradition and Scripture. Gradually, he was gaining that special charisma that would so shape the direction of Lutheranism and Protestantism generally. All these authors understood themselves as Luther's defenders and supporters, rallying under the banner of Scripture alone and arrayed against a papal tyranny if not in fact a papal Antichrist. Nevertheless, the message they associated with his name showed surprising variety and even contradiction. Chapter 4 examines this early apologetic literature, explores the growing dimensions of Luther's public persona, and plumbs the depths of the diversity this early literature illustrates. As we shall see, Luther's early support in the Strasbourg press depended in no small part on a fateful misunderstanding of what he was all about.

In September, 1522, Luther published his most influential work, his translation into German of the New Testament. Concerned by what he viewed as misreadings of the sacred text, and alarmed by the misunderstandings found among those who professed to be his supporters, Luther arrayed within his German New Testament a panoply of techniques to guide the reading of this crucial text. Chapter 5 surveys the distribution of this publication and explores the techniques of preface, marginalia, translation, and the like, employed by Luther to guide the reader. The authority of "Scripture alone" was being subtly subverted by printing itself. Not only was Luther deploying all the guides he could to the right understanding of Scripture, he was unwittingly inviting a greater diversity in how the Scriptures were read and understood by making the New Testament and later the Old Testament available to a large reading public. These developments in no way invalidate Luther's theological conviction that Scripture interprets itself, but they do point to a central irony in the Reformation redefinition of doctrinal authority, an irony not lost on its Catholic critics.

Propaganda campaigns work best when all the publicists pull together and the audience does not receive a contradictory message. Such is the ideal, but reality often falls short. In the fall of 1524, Luther's colleague and, as the reading public saw it, collaborator, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, issued a series of attacks on Luther regarding the proper understanding of the Lord's Supper. Chapter 6 examines this public rupture within the Evangelical ranks and the various propagandistic strategies followed by the different participants.


In this internecine battle, Luther's authority within Evangelical circles became itself a matter for debate.

As mentioned, the Catholics were badly outpublished by the Evangelicals during the crucial early years of the Reformation. Nevertheless, they did manage to air some serious charges. Chapter 7 probes one of the most telling accusations lodged by Luther's Catholic opponents: that his writings encouraged disobedience and rebellion and were ultimately responsible for the tragedies of the Peasants' War of 1525. This chapter investigates the ways in which Catholic publicists read Luther's writings in ways other than Luther intended but consonant with their own experiences and outlook.

Finally, the concluding chapter attempts a sketch of the revised narrative that results from the "public perspective" on the early years of the Reformation movement advocated by the preceding seven chapters.


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