Follow the Golden Rule. Love your neighbor. Show more empathy. Secure more funding for the humanities. Listen to more opera.
These are some of the answers people gave when asked what change they would make to society today. The question was posed in Publish or Perish: The Impact of Printing on the Protestant Reformation, a recent exhibition at the Ohio State University’s Thompson Library.
The exhibition commemorated the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses attacking the selling of indulgences, a practice in which sinners bought forgiveness. Luther intended to inspire debate among his Wittenberg neighbors on his notion of sola scriptura (Christian salvation was “by scripture alone”), but his action had greater consequences. It set the Protestant Reformation in motion.
Medieval and early Reformation-era printed works from the collection of Ohio State’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Library showed how printing and publishing helped Luther, his supporters and their opponents share their thoughts on these society-changing ideas. They couldn’t have done it without the help of the recently invented printing press with movable type. During the first three years of the Reformation, book production in Germany quadrupled.
Since just 10 percent of Germans were literate, sermons were effective ways to present points of view in convincing ways. After the sermons were orally delivered, they were published so they could be spread to an even wider audience. More than 100,000 copies of Luther’s famous “House Postils” sermons were published for families to read and reflect upon at home.
As public demand for Luther’s words grew, ideas were disseminated as fast as possible. Debaters on both sides of the issue relied on Flugschriften (literally, “flying writings”) to set forth their positions, respond to opposition, and appeal to all classes of society and levels of literacy. Written in the vernacular, these simple, direct pamphlets were easy to produce and afford. Many of these ephemeral documents were grouped together by theme or author, then bound together in a book called a Sammelband, which protected and preserved them.
Philip Melanchthon, the man whom Luther considered his primary, indispensable partner, wrote hundreds of treatises, including the Loci communes, or Theological Commonplaces, which so epitomized Lutheran thought and belief that Luther said, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is no better book.”
“I am the crude woodsman who has to clear and make the path,” Luther said. “But Master Philip comes after me meticulously and quietly, builds and plants, sows and waters happily, according to the talents God has richly given him.”
Others did not hold Luther in similar esteem. Johannes Cochlaeus, a Catholic priest and university professor, pointed out Luther’s inconsistencies in The Seven-Headed Luther. Contradictory passages from Luther’s own texts led Cochlaeus to conclude that Luther simultaneously embodied a professor, a monk, a Turk, a preacher, a fanatic, a church visitor and a criminal, all quarreling over Christian doctrine and religious practice.
Acts and Monuments, John Foxe’s famous collection of Christian martyrs’ lives, was so popular that it was abridged numerous times. This rare unfolded half-sheet paraphrase of Foxe’s work was formatted to allow printers to assemble 64 pages of text on one sheet of paper. It reduced the massive work to a portable, simple series of memorable rhymes chronicling the torture and death of Protestant English martyrs.