Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Free Spread of the Word Breeds Protestants

Gutenberg and Luther: The Rise of the Press and of the Protestants
What put an end to the Middle Ages?

According to historian William Durant

Before Gutenberg nearly all education had been in the hands of the Church. Books were costly; copying was laborious and sometimes careless. Few authors could reach a wide audience until they were dead; they had to live by pedagogy, or by entering a monastic order, or by pensions from the rich or benefices from the Church. They received little or no payment from those who published their works; and even if one publisher paid them they had no copyright protection, except occasionally by a papal grant. Libraries were numerous but small; monasteries, cathedrals, colleges, and some cities had modest collections, seldom more then 399 volumes; the books were usually kept inside the walls, and some were chained to lecterns or desks…

As schools multiplied and literacy rose, the demand for books increased. The business classes found literacy useful in the operations of industry and trade; women of the middle and upper classes escaped through reading, into a world of contemporary romance; by 1300 the time had passed when only the clergy could read. It was rising demand, even more than the increased supply of paper and the development of an oily ink, that led to Gutenberg. Moslems had brought paper manufacture to Spain in the tenth century, to Sicily in the twelfth; it passed into Italy in the thirteenth, into France in the fourteenth; the paper industry was a hundred years old in Europe when printing came. [this is analogous to computers and internet versus typewriters and telephones] In the fourteenth century, when linen clothing became customary in Europe, castoff linens provided cheap rags for paper; the cost of paper declined, and its readier availability co-opted with the extension of literacy to offer a material and market for printed books. (Durant, p157)

In 1456 Gutenberg, with borrowed funds, set up another press. From this he issued, in that year or the next, what has been generally considered his first type-printed book, the famous and beautiful “Gutenberg Bible” a majestic folio of 1,282 large double-columned pages. In 1462 Mainz was sacked by the troops of Adolf of Nassau; the printers fled, scattering the new art through Germany. By 1463 there were printers in Strasbourg, Cologne, Basel, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Ulm. Guttenberg, one of the fugitives, settled in Eltville, where he resumed his printing. He struggled painfully through one financial crisis after another, until Adolf gave him (1465) a benefice yielding a protective income. Some three years later he died.

Doubtless his use of movable type would have been developed by others had he never been born; it was an obvious demand of the times; this is true of most inventions. A letter written in 1470 by Guillaume Fichet of Paris suggests how enthusiastically the invention was welcomed: “There has been discovered in Germany a wonderful new method for the production of books, and those who have mastered the art are taking it from Mainz out onto the world … The light of this discovery will spread from Germany to all parts of the earth.” But not all welcomed it. Copyists protested that printing would destroy their means of livelihood; aristocrats opposed it as a mechanical vulgarization, and feared that it would lower the value of their manuscript libraries; statesmen and clergy distrusted it as a possible vehicle of subversive ideas. (Durant p 159)

Martin Luther and the Growth of the Press

He was the most powerful and uninhibited controversialist in history. Nearly all his writings were warfare, salted with humor and peppered with vituperation. He let his opponents elaborate superior Latin to be read by a few scholars he wrote in Latin when he wished to address all Christendom; but most of his diatribes were composed in German, or were at once translated into German, for his was a nationalist revolution. No other German author has equaled him in clarity or force of style, in directness and pungency pf phrase, in happy – sometimes hilarious – smiles, in a vocabulary rooted in the speech of the people, and congenial to the national mind.

Printing fell in with his purposes as a seemingly providential innovation, which he used with inexhaustible skill; he was the first to make it an engine of propaganda and war. There were no newspapers yet. Battles were fought with books, pamphlets, and private letters intended for publication. Under the stimulus of Luther’s revolt the number of books printed in Germany rose from 150 in 1518 to 990 in 1524. Four fifths of these favored the Reformation. Books defending orthodoxy were hard to sell, while Luther’s were the most widely purchased of the age. They were sold not only in bookstores but by peddlers and traveling students; 1,400 copies were brought at one Frankfurt fair; even in Paris, in 1520, they outsold everything else. As early as 1519 they were exported to France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, England. “Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language”, wrote Erasmus in 1521; “no one would believe how widely he has moved men.” The literary fertility of the Reformers transferred the preponderance of publications from southern to northern Europe, where it has remained every since. Printing was the Reformation; Gutenberg made Luther possible. (Durant, p 368)

Luther’s supreme achievement as a writer was his translation of the Bible into German… Hence his translation had the same effect and prestige in Germany as the King James Version in England a century later: it had endless and beneficent influence on the national speech, and is still the greatest prose. In Wittenberg, and during Luther’s lifetime, 100,000 copies of his New Testament were printed; a dozen unauthorized editions appeared elsewhere; and despite edicts forbidding its circulation in Brandenburg, Bavaria, and Austria, it became and remained the best selling book in Germany. The translations of the Bible shared, as both effect and contributory cause, in that displacement of Latin by vernacular languages and literatures which accompanied the nationalist movement, and which corresponded to the defeat of the universal Church in lands that had not received and transformed the Latin tongue. (Durant p 369)
The popularization of the printing press gave Luther an advantage that Jan Hus - religious thinker and reformer who was condemned as a "heretic" and burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church in 1415 -- lacked a century earlier.

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