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Reformation and the Printing Press

Without printing, would there have been a Protestant Reformation?

Only a century earlier, both John Wycliffe and John Hus spawned movements of intense spiritual fervor and wrote prolifically. But the absence of adequate printing technology limited the distribution of their works. Wycliffe was condemned, Hus burned at the stake, and history casts both as mere harbingers of the main event.

John Foxe wrote of the change printing had wrought in his famed Book of Martyrs: “Although through might [the pope] stopped the mouth of John Huss, God hath appointed the Press to preach, whose voice the Pope is never able to stop with all the puissance of his triple crown.”

Johannes Gutenberg pioneered printing with movable type in Mainz, Germany, in the mid-fifteenth century. Within a few decades, the new technology spread throughout all of Europe; virtually all major cities in Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and England had presses. Suddenly there were many more books in the world, and each book took less time to produce.

Scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote: “A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about 8,000,000 books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330.”

A single working press might produce 3,600 pages a day, whereas a monk might have copied four or five.

It took early printers themselves several decades to come to terms with the press’s full potential for speed and new design; the earliest printed books imitated their manuscript counterparts. But by the time of the Reformation, printing was a fully developed business enterprise with established conventions.

Luther, who would later use the printing press with great success, was initially surprised at its effectiveness; within two weeks of the posting of his 95 Theses, they were printed without his permission and distributed throughout Germany. Within a month they flooded Europe. Six months later Luther explained to Pope Leo X, “It is a mystery to me how my theses . . . spread to so many places. They were meant exclusively for our academic circle here.”

Between March 1517 and the summer of 1520, 30 of Luther’s pamphlets ran through a total of 370 editions: 400,000 of his pamphlets alone flooded Germany. From 1517 to 1523, publications in Germany increased sevenfold. Half of these writings were by Luther.

[ From 'Preachers and Printers' – ]

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