Ideas of the Protestant Reformation

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In the sixteenth century, one of the most significant religious events occurred. The Reformation, a movement within Western Christianity that led to the schism between the Catholic Church and the emerging Protestant Church, had irreversible consequences (S1). Protestantism became the second-largest branch of Christianity. Protestant faith differs from Catholic faith mainly because Protestants reject the papal supremacy and sacraments, two Catholic doctrines (S2). Earlier, around 1439, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the movable printing press in Europe. Originally from Asia, this invention arguably enabled the dissemination of Protestant ideas. Indeed, the impact of the printing press invention on the Reformation has always been an ongoing debate. While some scholars and historians assume that a relationship exists (Eisenstein 1983; Edwards 1994), others suggest that the influence of this new technology should not be overestimated (Scribner 1984; Febvre & Martin 1976). Plenty of factors need to be considered such as literacy rates, access to printed works or the influence of those on the population. Although the printing press undoubtedly played a role, it seems that other modes of diffusion, more suited to the population of that time, also contributed to the dissemination of Protestant ideas and therefore to the emergence of the Reformation.

By exploring these ideas, this paper attempts to determine whether the invention of the printing press, comparing to other modes of diffusion, had a significant impact on the spread of Protestant ideas and the advent of the Reformation. This paper is connected to the Idea of Europe by pointing out the close relationship existing between religion and the formation of Europe.

Firstly, the role of a printed work, in this case, the Bible, in the emergence of the Reformation is examined. Secondly, an analysis of the reading public of the sixteenth century is provided, aiming to understand why printed words might not have been the main way of spreading ideas at this time. Thirdly, it focuses on the other forms of ideas propagation and how these participated in the diffusion of Protestantism. Lastly, summarizing these arguments, the impact of the invention printing press on the Reformation is eventually identified.

Influence of the Bible

The widespread circulation of the Bible due partially to the invention of the printing press is an important factor worth considering. Indeed, Cameron (1999) reports that religious texts constituted approximatively 75% of all books published before 1520. Along the same line, Febvre and Martin (1976) concede that religious works were still predominant, even though compared to the production of classical texts, the number of the former was substantially lower. Maag (2000) explains that logically, printers would not have produced a larger quantity of Bible copies than the quantity that was sold. Other scholars question this statement since they believe that churches might have been the purchasers of these copies, using them as pulpit Bibles. Pulpit Bible was used in the pulpit, a raised platform from which the preacher could deliver the sermon and be heard by everyone. Scribner (1984), for example, supports this viewpoint and claims that the pulpit was the most significant medium of communication at that time. He asserts that “the religious reform was first and foremost a powerful preaching revival” (1984, p. 238). However, Maag (2000) refutes this statement by outlining how the production of small-format Bibles would thus not have been justified since those were not adapted for the use in the pulpit. It seems that the production of religious works and especially Bibles increased during the sixteenth century. No matter whether they were directly read (small-format Bibles) or read by a preacher (pulpit Bibles), they served the diffusion of Protestant ideas.

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An accurate example of this situation is Germany, Protestant ideas were rapidly and widely spread throughout and it has always captivated scholars and historians. Indeed, the “German New Testament”, also known as the “Luther Bible”, was regarded as a best seller in the sixteenth century (Edwards, 1994). This book was the result of Luther’s translation of the Bible from Hebrew to German. Febvre and Martin (1976, p. 288) explain that in Germany, “for the first time in history there developed a propaganda campaign conducted through the medium of the press”. As Eisenstein (1993) notes, the Protestant reformers were the first to make full use of printing as a medium of propaganda. This might have been one of the reasons why Protestant ideas spread so quickly in Germany. However, because of its expensiveness (Pettegree 2000; Edwards 2004), Febvre and Martin admit that generally, religious works rarely propagated to the large public and were accessible only for educated people. In the end, it can be said that although the Bible was a far-reaching work in the sixteenth century since it was quite expensive to acquire one of them, most people probably did not have access to it.

The reading public in the sixteenth century

In order to understand to what extent printed words played a role or not in the spread of Protestant ideas, the reading public in the sixteenth century has to be examined. More precisely, the literacy level and the access to literature at this time.
Literacy rates in the sixteenth century are difficult to obtain since very little data has persisted. While the basic definition of literacy today is about the ability to read and write, Maag (2000, p. 535) explains that “literacy rates for the sixteenth century have generally been based on statistics taken from the proportion of the population able to sign their names in official documents”. By contrast, those who could only write their initials were considered illiterate (Houston, 1983). Thus, it can be said that literacy was defined more by the ability to write than to read. Gilmont (1998) agrees by pointing out that at this time, the ability to read did not necessarily imply the ability to write and that they are quite different aptitudes. Moreover, in terms of literacy, towns and urban areas had a greater rate than rural areas and men figures are higher than women’s ones (Maag, 2000). Burke (1974) mentions that towns such as Amsterdam, Venice, Cracow or Seville concentrated the intellectual elite as well as popular newspapers. Based on these assertions, it can be argued that literacy is difficult to define and depends on multiple elements. Nevertheless, being able to read does not presume access to literature.

Before the large diffusion of printed words, only the educated and wealthy people had access to literature. Books were written by monks that required time and money. Owning a book was extremely expensive, inconceivable for most of the population. With the development of technical improvements in printing, it could be believed that more people will be able to procure literature. Cameron reports that “collecting a library was not cheap, but it became feasible” (1999, p. 67). Febvre and Martin (1976) confirm and observe that the number of libraries and their size rose consistently. However, as they explain, private libraries were mainly the possession of rich churchmen and lawyers. Along the same line, Houston (1983) affirms that even though printing facilitated the diffusion of knowledge and therefore its accessibility, it did not reach the entire population. It seems likely that despite the growth of printing, the accessibility to literature did not increase significantly, at least, in every class of the society. Therefore, it raises the question of other methods that could have been used to spread the ideas in a mostly illiterate population.

Other modes of Protestant ideas diffusion

Besides the printed words, there were other modes of diffusion to transmit the ideas of Protestantism. As Scribner claims, “to concentrate on the printed word alone directs our attention too narrowly at the small, if growing, élite of literate, those with the ability and desire to read” (1984, p. 237). Given that, the illiterates are excluded even though they presumably constitute the dominant part of the population.

Oral modes of diffusion more than likely played a role in the spreading of Protestant ideas. Scribner (1984) outlines the importance of oral communication and its different forms such as the sermon, singing, and word-of-mouth. Edwards (1994) remarks that Luther’s translations were more meaningful when they were preached through a sermon instead of reading directly. Discussions about religion occurred regularly in daily life: at the inn, at the workplace or simply within a group of relatives (Scribner, 1984). Oral culture as a propagation method seems likely to have been predominant in the sixteenth century. As an example, singing was a popular mode of idea’s transmission. Scribner (1984) mentions the different functions of singing, namely, relating the news, disturbing Catholic ceremonies but also and above all instilling the evangelical belief. Going further, Pettegree (2000, p. 125) claims that the medium of song “opened the possibility of a genuinely popular Reformation in areas where printing and book culture had made little previous impact”. Proof of this is the recognition, by the clergy itself, of songs as a popular form of idea’s dissemination (Brown, 2005). Singing appears to have been a great medium for the less literate population.


Based on the arguments above, it seems clear that the invention of the printing press played a role to the extent that it enabled the diffusion of multiple religious works such as the Bible. However, following the analysis of the reading public in the sixteenth century, it can be said that printed words were probably not the most appropriate form of idea propagation. Indeed, most of the population was illiterate or was not able to access the literature. Therefore, other media of communication were used, most of them oral (e.g. singing) and they likely played a greater role than the printing press. In the end, it appears that the invention of the printing press had an impact on the diffusion of Protestant ideas and thus on the advent of the Reformation even though its role was certainly limited compared to the importance of oral forms of propagation. Nonetheless, the Reformation is not a mono-causal event, uniquely due to the propagation of ideas and one could investigate further the other reasons for its undeniable success. For example, the sixteenth century was also the cradle of Humanism. The critical spirit born at this period might have impacted the advent of the Reformation.

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