See also the article "Les guerres de l’imprimé en Europe au xvie siècle" in the EHNE.
A Surge of Publications
Barely 70 years after the invention of the printing press with moveable type, there was a surge in publications on an unprecedented scale in the Holy Roman Empire as a result of events surrounding Wittenberg theology professor Martin Luther (1483–1546). Luther's Sermon von Ablass und Gnade (Sermon on Indulgences and Grace), published in March 1518,1 was reprinted at least 26 times2 by 1521. As Beatus Rhenanus (1485–1547) reported to Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), copies of the Theologia deutsch3 (Theologia Germanica) edited by Luther, and Luther's Auslegung deutsch des Vaterunsers für die einfältigen Laien4 (An Exposition of the Lord's Prayer for Simple Laymen) were not merely sold in 1519 in Meissen: they were virtually ripped out of the merchants' hands.5 The unusually large print run (4,000 copies) of the first Wittenberg edition of the Adelsschrift6 (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation) in 1520 sold out within two weeks.7 In connection with the movement that began in Wittenberg, other authors also began to publish their thoughts, including, in rare cases, female writers. According to calculations, approximately 2,400 pamphlets with an estimated total number of 2.4 million copies were put into print in the year 1524 alone.8
It was probably first and foremost this "explosion in production" (Produktionsexplosion) of printed matter increasingly related more or less directly to the person and concerns of Luther – an explosion which is borne out by the statistical data –, which has led to the overall interpretation of the Wittenberg Reformation as a media event. The term "media event", borrowed from the field of Communication and Media Studies, has established itself as an interpretive category for Reformation historiography – although its content is not easily defined and although it may seem anachronistic to describe historical processes in the 16th century using this modern term. However, the term "media event" is used not least because it is able, as few other terms are, to put the historical events surrounding Martin Luther into a modern context – to make them present, so to speak.9
Processes of Communication
Since the 1970s, the Reformation movement that began in Wittenberg has been viewed increasingly as a communicative event, that is, as a nexus of communicative processes which took place in quite different ways depending on the sender and receiver, the content and the form of communication, and the intention and reception.10 The essence and genesis of this communicative web can only be touched upon here at best. The first theological discussions between Luther, his colleagues and students at Wittenberg University, his Erfurt monastery brothers, his humanist friends, visitors and guests passing through, and also the worshipping congregation gathered on Sundays in the Wittenberg city church took place almost exclusively through the conduits of orality and handwritten manuscripts.
After taking over the chair in Wittenberg for Lectura in Biblia in 1512, Luther was at first noticeably reticent about print publishing. His publication plans did not change until unauthorized reproductions of his 95 Theses on indulgences appeared in 1517 in Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Basel.11 Beginning already in the following year, he published various sermons in the form of pamphlets in which he developed his theological insights not only in an impressive yet down-to-earth way but above all in the German language. This was but the prelude to an exceptional phase of literary creativity and publication (1518/1519), which also inspired friends, students, and sympathizers outside of Wittenberg to issue their own publications, sermons, disputations, and discussions. This phase contributed considerably to the emergence of a "Reformation movement" (reformatorische Bewegung) out of the Wittenberg professorial community of shared convictions. Wittenberg theologians – with Luther leading the way as well as Andreas Bodenstein, called Karlstadt (1480–1541) and Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), and including those clergymen, preachers and monastic theologians in the cities who subsequently joined them – served as spokespersons for the Reformation in this communicative event. They functioned as opinion leaders12 who found in the huge mass of overwhelmingly illiterate people the stage of "public opinion". They had access to the most important multiplication factors of the time: the pulpit and the printing presses – printers themselves virtually fought over who would print the Wittenberg manuscripts. Along with male and female lay authors, they created a local, regional, and transregional "Reformation public" (Reformatorische Öffentlichkeit)13 which generated such enormous pressure that it was impossible to deal with the "Luther affair" (Luthersache) through a heresy trial, as the church would normally have done in such a case. Instead, these authors set in motion dynamics that caused the previously existing church system to collapse. Despite substantial media efforts on their part,14 those adhering to the old faith were unable to counter the early Reformation publications with anything comparably attractive in terms of content or language.
Diversity of Media
Between 1518 and 1525, the years during which the Wittenberg Reformation began to take shape and gain a foothold, a diversity of media was being used for its propagation, which has been called in the German language scholarship vielstimmige Medienpartitur,15 which can be roughly translated as a "polyphonic media score". In this concert of many voices and instruments, the print media were without a doubt of central importance. They first brought about the transformation from "Kommunikation unter Anwesenden" (communication among those present) to "mediale Kommunikation"16 (media communication). In addition, however, in the early 16th century, forms of oral transmission played a decisive role, particularly in passing on Reformation ideas to the illiterate. Likewise, performative and visual media were gaining importance and were often used in conjunction with print media, as was the case for example with illustrated prints (intermediality). These nonwritten media had their own public and had a significant impact through regularly occurring though perhaps smaller communicative processes – for example Sunday and weekday sermons – for smaller target groups.17
In terms of circulation numbers, pamphlets constituted the bulk of the surge in publications between 1521 and 1525. Pamphlets were a convenient format for spreading Reformation ideas as they could be produced in little time and were inexpensive to distribute. A pamphlet in quarto format generally comprised 15 to 20 pages with a maximum of 70 to 90 pages. They were often illustrated with woodcuts on the title page, which went beyond the purely ornamental to relate the content of the text with impressive images which would likely have appealed to many buyers.18
Among the authors, Luther was by far the most successful, followed by Karlstadt and Melanchthon. The list of authors was not limited to theologians, however. Educated women, councilmen, and craftspeople – the most famous of which is the Nuremberg cobbler Hans Sachs (1494–1576) – also had significant publishing successes. It is hard to produce a detailed survey of the circle of authors, since numerous pamphlets were published anonymously, above all out of fear of reprisals.19
The production of pamphlets noticeably died down after 1525 when the Reformation entered a phase in which it was increasingly enforced and stabilized by the authorities. Around 1530 a temporary rise in output can be traced, and then again around 1546/1547 at the beginning of the Schmalkaldic War.20 Nevertheless, both of these increases in publication cannot be compared to the "stormy years" (Sturmjahre) in terms of either the propagandistic tone or the volume of production before 1525, nor were theological themes as dominant in the later waves of publications.
Based on authoritative studies of this time, the enormous output figures in the early years of the Reformation – which are indisputable from a historical perspective – differ starkly from the percentage of the population generally presumed to be literate within the Holy Roman Empire (five to ten percent of the total population).21 Even if one takes into account that, in addition to private silent reading, reading aloud to others was a very widespread reading technique (Lesen-Hören: "listening to others reading aloud"), the gap between the production of printed matter and the literacy level of the people is surprising and merits further discussion.
The media format of the pamphlet (Flugschrift) adopted such diverse literary genres as dialogues, tractates, and letters.22 It is noteworthy that pamphlets from the years 1518 to 1525 dealt almost exclusively with religious subjects which were related more or less directly to the Wittenberg Reformation. Areas of focus included above all the liberating message of God's grace which precedes all human attempts to achieve salvation; criticism of the church and clergy; the one norm of the Holy Scriptures accessible in principle to all people; and – especially during the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) in Worms in 1521 – the proceedings related to the person of Martin Luther. A striking convergence occurs especially in the portrayal of nuanced theological content, such as the portrayal of the doctrine of justification, which suggests the pamphlets' integrating effect on an emerging "Reformation public" (reformatorische Öffentlichkeit).23 However, subjects were not debated in a reserved academic style. Rather, they were discussed in a way designed to shape personal opinion – indeed they were treated with a directness that called for readers to take sides. The pamphlets were not seeking to create educated academic communities, but rather to form communities of shared convictions among readers. The unusually fomenting tone in comparison to late medieval pamphlets contributed to this, as did the predominant use of the German language. In both aspects, the Reformation pamphlets were thus essentially different from their late medieval predecessors.
In addition to pamphlets, the handbill (Flugblatt) was an important medium for the transmission of information in the early Reformation. Like pamphlets they could be produced in little time and large quantities due to their small size (broadsheet) and low production costs. The basic format had already been developed in the late Middle Ages, but attained its typical combination of text and image in the early modern period.24 Like pamphlets, handbills were published by theologians as well as craftspeople and other lay people in larger quantities compared to previous publications. Unlike in the case of pamphlets, however, the size of the print-runs of the material that has survived could only be roughly estimated to date. The spectrum of topics addressed is broad: one popular approach was to juxtapose starkly old and new teachings. Especially in the weeks and months of the Reichstag in Worms, numerous portraits of Luther appeared on pamphlets and handbills which intended to give the Reformation a face. Lay people in particular used handbills to attack members of the clergy and religious orders with biting sarcasm through caricatures and picture captions. Given the current state of research, we cannot say that handbills were more informational and less fomenting than pamphlets.25 In any case, the year 1525 also denoted a caesura in this case. After the German Peasants' War, the printing of handbills decreased and the fomenting tone disappeared. Although illustrated broadsheets were published in larger numbers again in the context of the Augsburg Interim and the inroads on European soil made by the Ottomans, such subjects apparently no longer commanded the same amount of public attention as had Luther and his reform ideas at the beginning of the 1520s.
Among the book media of the Wittenberg Reformation, it was without doubt Luther's Bible translation that had the largest impact. Luther's goal was to make available a translation of God's word that was as close as possible to the original text and easily understandable. The New Testament, which Luther translated in just eleven weeks based on the Greek text published by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536) and the Vulgate, appeared in September 1522 (known as the Septembertestament) with a first print run of 5,000 copies. Despite the relatively high price of 1.5 gulden, they were sold out in just three months. Luther's Septembertestament was reprinted 42 times within three years (1522–1525), probably exceeding even his most successful pamphlets in the number of printed copies.26 Starting in 1523, Luther began to publish translations of the books of the Old Testament in German at irregular intervals. In 1534, the Wittenberg printer Hans Lufft (1495–ca. 1584) published the first complete edition of the Bible in German by Luther. More than 100,000 copies were sold in the remaining twelve years until Luther's death. This success can be attributed not only to the increased theological importance accorded to the Bible in the Lutheran programme of reform, but above all to the quality of the translation, and, not least, to the appealing layout (illustrations). Earlier German translations were based on the text of the Vulgate, which they sought to render as literally as possible into German. In comparison, Luther drew on the Hebrew and Greek original texts and achieved a distinctly better readability and intelligibility of the biblical text, especially because he paid closer attention to the linguistic particularities and means of expression of the German language (in the idiomatic form spoken by Saxon officials). The Luther Bible served as the model for numerous vernacular translations that emerged as a result of the Reformation, including even Catholic German counter-translations.
It is characteristic of the Wittenberg Reformation as a phenomenon in media history during the transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period that not only "new" print media but especially traditional forms of communication were decisive in helping the Reformation gain traction. Oral communication played a major role which cannot be emphasized enough,27 particularly since orality was not only a key element in the process of reception (Lesen-Hören) but also – to a certain extent – in the production of pamphlets and handbills.28
The sermon was the medium which may have had the most profound effect due to the regularity with which it was offered and the strong demand. It began to emerge from the shadow of the Eucharist in the 15th century, when the increased longing for proclamation in the vernacular led to the establishment of preaching positions (Prädikaturen) at large city churches. Through the parallelization with the sacraments, the "Umstellung von Kult auf Kommunikation"29 (switch from cult to communication), the sermon – along with baptism and the Eucharist – was transformed into a medium that could convey salvation itself and which was of primary interest to those attending worship. The proclamation of the biblical word to the gathered congregation was no longer merely preparatory, but now itself mediated the salvation of God given in Christ. Because worship services were already among the most frequented events in public life in the late Middle Ages, Protestant sermons had a remarkably broad impact. In addition, one should not overlook other indirect forms of literacy which seconded and reinforced the sermon, that is, forms of the oral transmission of biblical texts or Luther's texts within discussion groups or groups that read aloud to one another. The origin, essence, and development of these other forms, however, require further study.30
The effect of various forms of performance should not be underestimated, although it is difficult to define who these events were addressing. Through performances and events, the content of Reformation faith was enacted or the religious beliefs, moral values, and practices of piety of those adhering to the old faith were obstructed, counteracted, caricatured, or publicly deconstructed. Whether such activities were carried out by individuals or groups; were spontaneous or planned in advance; were more disorderly and rowdy or more ritualized; were provocative or mocking or even were calling people to take action – in each case they always attracted significant attention and sought to convey a message which would seldom have failed to make an impact in an environment so strongly oriented towards images. Famous examples of events that radiated out beyond just one region and which functioned like a clarion call include the Wittenberg "iconoclastic riot" (Bildersturm) in January 1522 and other examples of the violent removal of images that took place in the course of the upper German and Swiss Reformation in particular. Controversy was also aroused through events such as disrupting sermons, refusing to pay the tithe, breaking the fast, leaving monastic orders, clerics marrying, or the profaning of altars and relics. Carnival-like productions engaged virtually artistic energies, as with the "Travesty of Buchholz" (Buchholzer Travestie)31 in which the local youth of a small town in the Erzgebirge region of Germany held a mocking procession in July 1524 to caricature and ridicule the elevation to sainthood of Benno of Meissen (died 1106) which had been planned a long time in advance by George, Duke of Saxony (1471–1539) and had finally taken place on 16 June 1524.32
Yet another level of "interactivity" in comparison to merely listening and watching was achieved through the medium of hymns in the vernacular. In the worship services of the Middle Ages, the gathered congregation was seldom involved in singing. The bulk of liturgical singing fell upon the celebrants, cantors, or liturgical choirs. Through congregational singing in the vernacular, Wittenberg liturgical reform much more strongly integrated the congregation into the event of the worship service than had the celebration of the mass in the late Middle Ages. Inspired by the liturgical reforms of Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525), in 1523 Luther began to write congregational hymns in German. In an initial, intensive period of hymn-writing from the middle of 1523 to the middle of 1524, he composed 24 hymns altogether, which constitutes two-thirds of all the songs he wrote. Some of these were rewritings of Latin hymns, to which Luther added additional verses of his own composition such as Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Veni redemptor gentium, English: Savior of the Nations Come) or Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (Veni sancte spiritus, English: Come, Holy Spirit) as well as hymns belonging to a special genre Luther created known as "psalm-hymns" (Psalmlieder).33 Luther was the first to compose his own, new lyrics for hymns in German. Other hymn writers followed: Huldrych Zwingli, Lazarus Spengler (1479–1534), Nikolaus Herman (1480–1561), Johannes Zwick (1496–1542), as well as female hymn writers such as Elisabeth Cruciger (1500–1535). In 1524 four Protestant hymnbooks appeared already of which the Wittenberg Geistliche Gesangbüchlein from 1524, with a preface by Luther, was foundational. From the perspective of media history, one can say that hymns in the vernacular, like sermons, were a hybrid of literacy and orality. The actual symbolic medial action was the sung hymn, not the printed one. The self-assured and combative tone, which was built into the confessional hymns of the Reformation, was expressed in particular in the protest hymns sung by crowds in places such as Magdeburg or Göttingen as they moved through the city, making their views unmistakably clear, but it would probably also have resonated in congregational singing in the Sunday service.34
A Milestone in Media History
The "media event Reformation" (Medienereignis Reformation) was carried out between 1518 and 1525 in the interplay between print and nonprint media, as has been sketched here by looking at the most important protagonists whose voices mutually reinforced one another to a great extent. At the same time, this sketch has highlighted the particular character of the Reformation as an historical caesura in terms of media history. It has been rightly emphasized that the Reformation was the first ever epoch-making movement in history whose breakthrough was due to the new technology of the printing press and the related possibilities for rapidly reproducing texts. The Wittenberg authors and their sympathizers reached a public of a hitherto unknown magnitude through the consistent and in many cases inspired use of print media. This was certainly the case when considering the media event as a whole; individual media, including even some print media, frequently reached only very small audiences. Despite its transnational resonance, the Wittenberg Reformation as a media event can be considered a mass phenomenon only in the German-speaking countries – a fact that should not be overlooked. The initial interest in other European countries,35 shaped by a humanist interpretation of the Wittenberg movement, petered out over time as the content of Lutheran concepts for the reform of theology and the church became increasingly clear. Of the 3,998 texts by Luther issued during his lifetime, 667 publications were in Latin, but only 168, representing 4.2 percent of the total, also appeared in non-German languages, of which the translations into Dutch (60), Danish (31), French (25) and Czech (22) stand out as the most numerous. In the Swedish and Finnish cultural spheres, later so important for Lutheranism, only one of Luther's works appeared in print before 1546 in the local language.36 The situation looks different, however, if one examines the spread of the writings of Philipp Melanchthon.
The Message as Event
The "media event Reformation" was not related to a distinct course of events narratively reconstructed in the print media, or even to a single personality, although attempts have not been lacking to portray Martin Luther as a "print media star".37 Yet even events related to the person of the reformer, such as the famous interrogation before the Reichstag in Worms in 1521, never became central subjects in the media in a comparable way to media events in the 20th century. When considered in light of media theory, the Reformation proves to be less a media staging of particular historical personalities or events, but rather the message and newly acquired biblical norm and resulting agenda of freedom were themselves the stimulus, or – to exaggerate somewhat – the event itself. Given the fascination exerted by the Reformation message, theologians adhering to the old faith were unable to counter Reformation media in the early years with anything comparable. This is likely the decisive reason for the sluggish demand for printed matter by Luther's opponents, although other social-psychological constellations may also have played a role.38
When considering the complex communicative event of the Wittenberg Reformation as a whole, two interdependencies are frequently noted whose basic significance is beyond dispute, although the overall importance of these interdependencies remains unclear in many respects:
1) The mutual dependency between the Reformation movement and media communication. This remains one of the most widely agreed-upon insights in media history, often expressed as a conditio sine qua non: "Ohne Buchdruck keine Reformation!" (Without the printing press, no Reformation!) And vice versa: "Ohne Reformation kein Medienereignis!"39 (Without the Reformation, no media event!).The media and the Reformation mutually influenced one another. The new media influenced the course of events; they caused a "Strukturwandel der sakralen Kommunikation"40 (structural change in sacral communication). Conversely, they derived their attractiveness precisely from the "packende Andersartigkeit"41 (exciting otherness) of Reformation theology and its critique of the church. The Reformation was thus crucial in advancing the printing business and the development of new media formats, and it significantly promoted the use of the vernacular.
2) The interplay between written and oral forms of communication. As already mentioned, certain forms of orality shaped not only the reception (Lesen-Hören), but also the production of pamphlets and handbills to a certain extent. From the outset, Luther's translation of the Bible was subject to the imperative "dem Volk aufs Maul zu schauen!" (literally: "watch the peopleʼs mouth!"). Conversely, by continually referencing the biblical word, the Reformation message "scripturalized" oral forms of communication in a new way, namely, in a way that mediated salvation. The claim of the Reformation sermon, for instance, was nothing less than that the biblical text was to be made audible as the Word of God through the voice of the preacher.
Reception of Media
What conclusions can be drawn from the striking surge in publications related to the Wittenberg Reformation about the beliefs of the recipients who read or heard these publications? If we assume a strict correlation between supply and demand, can we conclude based on the extensive production of printed materials that there was an increased interest in reading and hearing, and from this can we conclude that people indeed paid attention to the media? And based on this can we conclude that the readers and listeners received the contents in accordance with the intentions of the authors? Current discussions in the field have shown that this chain of reasoning, which at first glance seems quite sound, is nevertheless shaky in many places. Despite the quite reliable figures providing evidence of the increase in production in the printing business in the first half of the 16th century, there is hardly any verifiable knowledge at present about who was reached de facto by the numerous pamphlets, handbills, or Bible translations.42 As a matter of fact, print media – as well as many nonprint media – related to the communicative event of the Reformation express in the first instance only the desire of a small circle of literate authors to inform and call others to action. These media do not, in and of themselves, help answer the question of who received them and how they were received. In terms of their reception history, they are nontransparent. It seems evident that the Reformation message with which the pamphlets effectively addressed the masses did not simply reflect the beliefs of those who read or heard them. Nevertheless, one can scarcely avoid using such fruitful and detailed sources as pamphlets and handbills when researching the success of the Reformation in terms of the impact on the "common man".43
However, changes in religious attitudes and beliefs can hardly be studied historically without looking at the attitudes and beliefs expressed by those who consumed the media. In this context the most interesting media formats are those through which illiterate circles were able to articulate and convey their beliefs – such as the parades, crowds protesting through song, or satirical performances. Among the forms of communication discussed in this article, they are the most likely candidates for expressing the will of the illiterate who were sympathetic to the Reformation. The impact of these media, however, can only be assessed indirectly, as they are conveyed through second-hand information. Reports, notes, records about campaigns and dramatic events ought to be critically examined, and other sources should also be considered. Thus, from the perspective of media history, the question of the success and failure of the Wittenberg Reformation has yet to be answered.