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How Martin Luther went viral 500 years ago

The Reformation’s spread shows the importance of media in changing the world

A statue of theologian Martin Luther on a wall in the Stadtkirche Sankt Marien church where he preached in Wittenberg, Germany. Photograph: Seán Gallup/Getty Images

It will be 500 years on October 31st since Martin Luther nailed his 95-Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther objected to the way the doctrine of indulgences had been interpreted as a way of raising money for the reconstruction of St Peter’s in Rome.

The nailing of a Latin text to the door was not an unusual occurrence but, this time, rather than being solely an invitation to an academic debate, in Latin, the Theses spread widely and changed the world.

The reason for Luther’s success was dissemination. Within weeks, German translations were circulating in broadsheet and pamphlet form. Within a few months Luther’s work was known throughout the Christian world.

Luther went viral.

John Wycliffe, Jan Hus and Peter Waldo were just three reformers who preceded Luther, but did not have the advantage of printing to spread the word.

Johannes Gutenberg had developed printing in a commercially viable form by about 1440. It spread quickly. By 1500, on the eve of the Reformation, the printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than 13 million books.

Luther without printing

It’s a moot point as to what was the most influential event, the nailing of the Theses to the church door or the invention and development of printing. Luther, without printing, would have remained an interesting reformer, but with little influence, who would have been quickly silenced by his local bishop.

However, by 1517, it was becoming increasingly difficult to silence anyone.

The involvement of the people in the Reformation was both a cause and a consequence of the media, they wanted to read what was being debated, and purchased the books and pamphlets.

The Reformation was the first major ideological conflict in which printed material played a major role, and given the power of religion in the medieval world, the controversies caused by the Reformation were guaranteed to sell printed material.

But printing also prepared the way for a new politics, moves towards democracy, and the formation of public opinion and critical thinking. It meant people could read for themselves, rather than rely on what they were told.

The comparisons between invention of printing and the development of the internet are there for all to make

It helped to develop the very idea of the nation state. Some historians date the Reformation from 1517 until the end of the 30-Years War, or the Wars of Religion, and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which shaped modern Europe.

Printing obviously undermined the churches’ monopoly on information and knowledge, and books – once rare – became increasingly commonplace. But printing affected more than just the church, it also affected secular authority.

Governments introduced licensing of printers and publishers and tried to control what was printed. Censorship became commonplace. The church established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or list of prohibited books.

A simple church

It has been suggested that Europe changed from a predominately visual culture to a text-based one. This is an attractive theory as we think of pre-Reformation congregations looking up at painted ceilings, frescos or stained-glass windows, while listening to a priest praying in Latin, and a post-Reformation congregation, in Protestant Europe, with a prayer book in the vernacular, and a simple church with few adornments.

Just as today we are aware of, and even wary of the changes the internet has brought, so too were people of the 16th- and 17th-centuries. “O printing! How thou hast disturbed the peace of mankind” wrote the poet, Andrew Marvell (1621-78). Luther himself described printing as “God’s highest gift of grace”.

The comparisons between invention of printing and the development of the internet are there for all to make. Just as the internet has not completely undermined the old media, so in the 16th-century, preachers continued to preach, and it took hundreds of years before there was anything like universal literacy.

It would not be until the end of the 19th-century that newspapers would attempt to cater for the mass of people, rather than the literate elites. Today, the internet is not universally available, as some in rural Ireland would remind us, and it is a medium that is predominantly an English language one.

Just as in the 16th-century Luther and his friends appeared to understand the power of getting the words to as many as possible, similarly today, those seeking change know the power of getting their message out on social media.

Dr Michael Foley is professor emeritus and former lecturer in journalism at DIT