The Unheralded Monk Who Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing
Martin Luther: Revolutionary Disruptor and Start-Up Success Story
New media don’t stay new for long, but for first adopters the returns can be transformative. Over repeated cycles of invention there are rich rewards for those who harness new technologies: the pamphleteers and journalist politicians of revolutionary France and America, Charles Dickens and his installment novels, television and John Kennedy. And this is also, to an extent that is seldom acknowledged by historians, the story of the Reformation. Five hundred years ago the conscience of a middle-aged monk plunged Europe into turmoil. The monk was Martin Luther, by any measure an unlikely revolutionary: until this point he was an unknown professor at one of Europe’s more obscure universities. But what made Luther so special, and this too has resonance today, was that he used new media to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers and ordered structures of legitimacy and communication. Luther used the printing press to create a grass-roots movement four centuries before anyone would have understood the term. This was his genius—and it was a genius that transformed western society.
The Reformation was a revolution as profound as any in our collective history, and it would leave European society divided into two bitterly antagonistic churches, Protestant and Catholic. Theologians, families, and states argued and eventually fought. A call for reform became the justification for persecution and genocidal warfare. This was not what Luther intended—and it was amazing that he should have found an audience. His university home, Wittenberg, was a small town on Europe’s remote north-eastern frontier. It was far away from the major centers of population and influence where policy was made.
It was hard to see anything of significance coming from such a place. Yet within five years Luther was the most published author since the invention of printing seventy years before, his books read and reprinted in scores of places. And he had begun a movement that could not be silenced.
How was this even possible? For this was an age before mass communication. Most of Europe’s population could not even read. In the modern era we take it for granted that a revolution requires a mature communication network. Both the French and Russian Revolutions were incubated in major centers of population, Paris, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Luther’s Wittenberg was a town of two thousand people, and before 1517 it had only one small printing shop. The sheer unlikelihood of anything of importance coming from such a place was one reason why the church hierarchy was so slow to take Luther’s measure.
Luther had no wish to divide his church. When he issued his protest against indulgences, he was denouncing the blatant sale of the promise of salvation, a practice that made many orthodox theologians uneasy. But the church hierarchy relied on this income, not least for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s church in Rome, and steps were taken to silence the dissident. The Pope and his advisors hoped to close down Luther without fanfare and without undue alarm, working through the customary channels. A word with the head of Luther’s Augustinian order, and the local Prince, and Luther could be delivered up to Rome and the inevitable fate of an obscure heretic.
That the Reformation was not stifled in this way is a story that has real relevance for students of the modern intersection between media and politics. For his movement to survive Luther had to create an alternative communication network that bypassed the established hierarchies of 16th-century society. This required a radical reorientation of contemporary communication media. The Reformation would demonstrate that it is not only in today’s media markets that new technologies can be used to foster alternative power structures. In the same way that people’s movements in the Middle East have embraced social media, or co-ordinated demonstrations through messaging on mobile phones, so Luther and his allies embraced the opportunity provided by print to speak directly to a new audience. It was here, through ingenuity, eloquence and sheer inventiveness, that Luther and his allies showed their superiority.
This is the untold story of the Protestant Reformation: how an unknown monk turned his small town into a center of publishing and made himself the most famous man in Europe. And it was not easy. Before 1517 Wittenberg had virtually no communications infrastructure. Virtually all the books required in the university community were brought in from elsewhere. When Luther had his first great publishing success in 1518, his Sermon on Indulgence and Grace, it was spread through instant reprints in Germany’s major cities: Leipzig, Augsburg, Nuremberg and Basel. It was through these reprints that Luther first entered the bloodstream of German public life. The Reformation had gone viral.
Today it is the book that is under threat. Now book lovers are the old-fashioned traditionalists fighting against the encroachment of new, “disruptive” technologies. But in 1517 the book was the new kid on the block. Seventy years before, the invention of printing had been greeted with enormous acclaim from Europe’s intellectuals. And ultimately this seismic shift in method and scale would pave the way for the platforms we have today, from printed newspapers and periodicals to websites and social media. But until Luther’s emergence printing had not yet realized its full potential as an instrument of insurrection. Now, with Luther, it would be printing that would be the disruptive technology.
Luther’s Sermon on Indulgences was a short pamphlet of 1,500 words that could be read (or read aloud) in ten minutes. This was Luther’s first real act of revolution. For Luther wrote this in German, not Latin, the language of the church and all scholarly communication. It was a deliberate appeal for public support over the heads of his clerical colleagues. It was also a publishing sensation, re-printed more than ten times in the first year, and it made Luther both a danger to his church and, for the first time, a public figure. Luther learned from this success. Of the forty-five original works he published in the next two years half were less than eight pages long. And Luther worked with Wittenberg’s court painter, Lucas Cranach, to give this body of work a coherent shape. As we know from the web world, it takes time to find the visual language for new technologies. Luther’s pamphlets were no exception. In the next two years, in a series of bold design experiments, Cranach completely re-shaped the Reformation book, clothing Luther’s works in a new and utterly distinctive livery.
This was Brand Luther, and like all great brands the secret lay in its simplicity. On the comparatively restrictive canvas of a small pamphlet it made dramatic use of white space. In this era all new books were sold without binding, so the title-page was an essential point of orientation for booksellers and potential purchasers. Rather than burying the author’s name on the title-page in an indigestible body of text, Luther’s name was removed to a separate line. So was the place of publication, “Wittenberg.” Luther’s works would now be instantly recognizable on a crowded bookseller’s stall. And the title was clothed in a frame of simple beauty, created from a series of exquisite woodcuts turned out from Cranach’s huge factory workshop. These too made a clear statement: that the message of the Reformation, Luther’s message, deserved to be arrayed in magnificence. It brought a design sophistication previously seen only on the largest and most expensive books to the humble pamphlet.
The success of Cranach’s designs can be seen in the speed with which they were copied. Cranach’s title-page woodcuts were soon being pirated throughout Germany, even to the extent of the inclusion of a duplicitous “Wittenberg” on the title-page. If Cranach inwardly raged at this flagrant abuse, he appreciated that there was little that could be done. This was an age that had only the most embryonic sense of intellectual property, and in Germany, a mass of small states and independent cities, a book published in one place could be reprinted elsewhere with impunity. Each media transformation, as we are learning again in the digital age, creates new challenges in this area: what is fair use, how does society balance the claims of public accessibility against the rights to make a living through one’s own creativity. Happily for his publishers Luther was not concerned with making money from his writings. Even when he was Europe’s most published author he continued to provide his new works to the printers without charge. For them he was a goldmine: almost single-handedly, the public interest sparked by Luther’s movement transformed the German printing industry.
Over the next ten years German public life was reshaped by the storm of controversy raised by Luther. Germany was awash with pamphlets, and the established authorities of church and state were suddenly powerless to shape the terms of debate. Crucial matters of salvation and church practice were no longer the exclusive preserve of a privileged elite, but freely debated on the market square and in the home. It took time for those who were scandalized by Luther’s denunciation of the Pope and his radical reshaping of theology to craft their appeal for public support. In the first years they were simply drowned out. Within two decades a new church had emerged and Protestantism was a permanent feature on the landscape of western Christendom.
All new media comes with a price. Those that welcome innovation, like the first boosters of the web, tend to rationalize benefit in terms of existing models. Twenty years later such timid prophecies look distinctly quaint. So it was with printing. Scholars welcomed print as a means to build their own, scholarly collections. They had no idea that it would be used to turn their world upside down; and that its true visionary would be a fussy middle-aged churchman of limited ambition, but with a rare ability to grasp the moment and shape emerging technology to his message of salvation.