Religious Change and Print Culture in the Reformation

How did the changes in religion during the Reformation shape the medium of print? How did religious leaders and thinkers attempt to interact with their audience(s)? How did the ways in which religious figures used print pave the way for modern mass media?


When Martin Luther circulated ninety-five theses criticizing various practices of the Roman church in October of 1517, his only intention was to start a productive debate with his academic colleagues. Much to his surprise, his criticisms spread like wildfire throughout Europe, inciting a movement we now know as the Reformation. The catalyst for this remarkable event was the printing press; Luther’s controversial ideas were printed and reprinted within weeks of their first circulation, and copies were bought, read, and shared by eager audiences throughout Europe. In this, Martin Luther became the first European intellectual to “go viral.”

The period of the Reformation (roughly 1500-1700) witnessed an unprecedented wave of changes in religion, thought, society, and politics throughout the world. Thanks to Luther’s viral ideas, the most stable authority known to Europeans in the Middle Ages – the Christian church – was challenged, shaken, and eventually splintered. Luther’s direct and simple message that Christians were saved through faith alone licensed ordinary Christians to assume direct responsibility for their salvation rather than relying on the church, and they responded by reshaping medieval Christianity according to their needs. Shocked by these many changes, secular and religious authorities spent the following two centuries attempting to control this unruly religious public in various ways.

None of these changes could have occurred without print. Scholars, pastors, theologians, princes, and others depended on printed works to defend, promote, condemn, and control the religious and changes unleashed during the Reformation. Yet while scholars have long known that the Reformation was impossible without print, comparatively little attention has been paid to the ways in which these religious changes shaped the medium of print itself. The religious changes in this period created a host of new problems and challenges for religious thinkers and leaders at this time, and print culture as it existed in 1517 was not sufficient to solve them. As such, religious figures developed new printing techniques, new printed materials, and more efficient marketing strategies to ensure that their denominations survived and thrived.

The documents below give a small sample of the different ways in which religious change drove the development of print culture. Through them, you will gain a better understanding of the immense challenges caused by religious change in this period, and the different ways in which print culture was shaped and re-shaped in order to meet them.

Please keep the following questions in mind as you review the documents

  • Why did so many religious thinkers and leaders seek to solve the problems they encountered through the printed word?
  • What is the intended audience for these works? How did the authors and creators try to interact with that audience through the materials they produced?
  • How does the changing nature of print culture reflect the changing nature of religion during this period?
  • How does the religious printing market reflect the increasingly globalized world in the early modern period?
  • What parallels are there between early modern print culture and modern mass media?

The Printing Press and Medieval Religion

The ability of the printing press to produce texts on a massive scale was appealing for religious leaders in the Middle Ages. Since the eleventh century at least, religious thinkers sought out and promoted any new technology that would help them reach a large audience as quickly as possible. By the later Middle Ages, the church was particularly interested in mass-producing materials to support lay devotion, such as prayer books, devotional images, and pilgrim badges.

Few devotional items showed the intersection between religion and print better than indulgences. Originally conceived in the twelfth century, an indulgence was a spiritual benefit (e.g., forgiveness of sin or a reduction of one’s time in purgatory) in return for some sort of service rendered to the Church. By the sixteenth century, the mere purchase of an indulgence was sufficient to earn this reward, and the indulgence trade was a major source of revenue for the papacy, which sold them to fund the building of churches, support important local causes, and – as the example here – fund a new crusade against the Turks.

Pope Sixtus, [Papal Indulgence for Crusade against the Turks]. Nos [com]missarius infrascript[us] auct[oritat]e S[an]ctissimi i[n] xp[ist]o p[at]ris et d[omi]ni n[ost]ri d[omi]ni Sixti diui p[ro]uide[n]tia pa. (1481). Issued by Pope Sixtus IV in 1481, this indulgence promised to forgive the sins for all those who embarked on a military campaign against the Turks or participated in the defense of the island of Rhodes.

Printers were excited to publish these texts, as they represented major work orders from a reliable institution. This was especially true in Germany, where ninety percent of the surviving fifteenth-century printed indulgences were made. These texts were inexpensive and easy to print: they required no more than a single sheet, and included only a description of the indulgence offered and an acknowledgement of the gift received. As in this example here, a blank space was left in which the indulgence seller would write the name of the purchaser.

Question to Consider

  • What kind of relationship between the church and the laity does the printed indulgence here suggest? Based on this item, what would you say the primary value of printing was in the eyes of the medieval church?

Flugschriften – Writings that Fly

Luther despised the indulgence trade, but he recognized the importance of making religious material widely available as quickly as possible. As the Reformation grew, Luther developed a new form of printed work to support it: the pamphlet. Luther’s pamphlets – known in German as Flugschriften (flying writings) – were fairly short in length, easy to read, inexpensive to print, and quickly produced in a matter of days. Moreover, Luther wrote many of his pamphlets in German, which greatly increased the potential audience for his work. As such, they were the perfect vehicle for his public campaign against what he considered the tyrannical Roman church.

Selection: Martin Luther, De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae praeludium (1520).

One of the three important theological treatises Luther produced in 1520, De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae harshly condemns the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. Also includes an engraving of Luther by the Wittenberg artist Lucas Cranach.

Pamphlets proved to be astounding successes, for printers and readers alike. Much like indulgences, pamphlets were cheap and easy to produce, and Wittenberg printers were happy to print Luther’s works as soon as he finished them. Overnight, Wittenberg became of the leading print centers in Germany, almost entirely because of Luther’s prolific output. Readers responded to them as well, Flugschriften were affordable, easy to read, and did not take up much space. For many, a Luther pamphlet was the first book anyone in their family had ever owned.

The papacy opened a formal investigation of Luther’s ideas in January of 1520. Over the remainder of that year, Luther responded by publishing three important pamphlets that laid out his understanding of “true” Christianity and the ways in which the Roman church had perverted it. The pamphlet shown above, De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church), was the second in this series. In this work, he argued that the Roman church had perpetrated a blatantly false understanding of the sacraments as the only point of access to the divine. According to Luther, the church used this sacramental control to keep laypeople from reading the Bible. He revised the list of sacraments from seven to three (later reduced to two, baptism and communion), and insisted that they were not magical ceremonies performed only by priests, but were freely-given manifestations of God’s grace for all believers. Written only in Latin, it represented Luther’s most radical assault on the medieval church to date, and signaled that reconciliation with Rome was likely impossible.

Questions to Consider

  • What sort of public image of Luther does this pamphlet create? How could that image help Luther achieve his goals?
  • What do the annotations and markings in this pamphlet tell us about its original owner? What sort of clues do they give us as to whether the owner agreed or disagreed with Luther’s ideas?

Building Communities of Faith

As Christendom broke apart into competing churches, religious thinkers and leaders struggled to find ways to build up thriving faith communities that would provide support, comfort, and a sense of stability in an increasingly chaotic religious environment. Both Protestants and Catholics sought to do this by vigorously promoting the publication of a range of materials that were intended to be used communally. The items here represent two of the most important examples: music and visual art.

The singing of hymns, psalms and other spiritual songs was especially important for Protestants. Lutherans considered congregational singing in four-part harmony essential for building up the faith and morale of a church. More radical Protestant sects like the Anabaptists and the Bohemian Brethren also used songs as a way to cultivate a shared identity and resolve in times of persecution. Whatever their intention, these groups produced their own versions of hymnals and spiritual songbooks to bind their followers together. Shown here is a Lutheran songbook from the late sixteenth century. It includes a version of Luther’s famous hymn, Ein fester Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God), which has served as a rallying cry for Lutherans from the sixteenth century to the modern day.

Selection: Martin Luther, Geistliche Lieder dere etliche von alters her inn der Kirchen eintrechtiglich gebraucht (1580)

This 1580 songbook includes original Protestant hymns alongside German translations of traditional Catholic hymns and songs, many of which were translated by Luther.

The other item is a typical devotional image of a saint produced by the Catholic church. By the late sixteenth century, Catholics turned increasingly to spectacular visual displays such as images, processions, and church building to counteract Protestantism’s stripped-down version of medieval Christianity. In particular, Catholic thinkers encouraged the mass production of images showing events from the lives of saints and of Christ, which could be used as devotional focal points for Catholic laity. This was especially important in the colonies in the Americas, where missionaries faced the challenge of converting and instructing indigenous peoples who did not know any European language.

Selection: José López de Avilés, Poeticum viridarium in honorem, laudationem, et obsequium (1669).

This engraving of the first appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe is taken from a series of poems commemorating the event by Joseé López de Avilés from 1669.

Shown above is an early printed image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who was said to have appeared to a converted Aztec peasant in the early sixteenth century outside of present-day Mexico City. The engraving also depicts Juan Diego, the converted Aztec peasant to whom the Virgin is said to have appeared in 1531. A century later, the Church aggressively promoted the Virgin’s cult on an international scale, using printed images like this one to standardize its iconography. This early version of the image includes a good deal of imagery that was more closely associated with the Aztec corn goddess Tonantzin, whose cult the Virgin of Guadalupe absorbed.

Questions to Consider

  • How would singing together help build a sense of religious community? How does the layout of this songbook help promote that activity?
  • How do you think indigenous peoples in Mexico would respond to this image? In what ways do you see the Catholic church using this image to reach out to this audience?

Education and Censorship

Education was critically important during the Reformation. Protestants insisted that all Christians be able to read the Bible, which made it necessary to improve literacy in all social levels. Members of the Jesuit order made education one of their signature causes, so that Jesuit clergy would be able to provide whatever ministry would be needed in any setting.

At the same time, the need to promote knowledge was balanced by the need to control it. Print’s ability to reach a large audience quickly also meant that it was extremely difficult to keep conflicting ideas contained, but religious and secular authorities did their best to limit their subjects’ exposure to any ideas they considered dangerous. The items below give a sense of how religious thinkers and leaders used print to encourage and regulate the dissemination of knowledge.

In the Reformation era, everyone prioritized early childhood education as a means of ensuring their church’s survival. Members of all Christian sects were concerned above all with how well their children knew the basic tenets of the faith such as the Ten Commandments, the creeds, and the Lord’s Prayer. Then as now, educating the young could be a difficult challenge, so religious thinkers constantly experimented with different publications to instruct young people in these religious concepts. In the first item below, Gimel Bergen von Lübeck, a printer operating in the German city of Dresden, made his own attempt in 1586, pairing images with short poems to help children learn the “holy Apostles’ whole teaching, deeds, and way of life.”

Selection: Gimel Bergen von Lübeck, Kinderbüchlein für die Jugend und Einfeltigen: darinnen die zwölff Artickel unsers Christlichen Glaubens [Children’s Book for the Young and Simple-Minded: In it the Twelve Articles of our Christian Belief] (1586).

‘Kinderbüchlein für die Jugend und Einfeltigen’ (Children’s Book for the Young and Simple-Minded) was an original 1586 creation of the Dresden printer Gimel Bergen von Lübeck, who dedicated it to two friends “blessed by Almighty God with little children.”

The second item is an example of a censored work. Though censorship was practiced by all denominations, it is most commonly associated with the Catholic Church. Censorship was one of the primary responsibilities of the Office of the Inquisition, an official arm of the church charged with discovering and eradicating heresy. Printers had encouraged censorship from the earliest days of the medium as a means of controlling the industry, so many were happy to work closely with the Inquisition by publishing the Catholic church’s index of banned books. However, banning a book was considered a last resort; in many cases, like the prayer book shown here, the Inquisition preferred to “save” a book from destruction by redacting only the offensive material.

Questions to Consider

  • How did Gimel Bergen von Lübeck try to make his little book appeal to children? What does this book tell us about how the young were educated in sixteenth-century Germany?
  • How did the Inquisition censor the prayer book you see here? Why do you think they tried to censor it in this way? What does this type of censorship say about the Catholic Church’s view of books?

Expansion and Conversion

European expansion into North and South America created significant new problems for religious leaders and thinkers, who unexpectedly faced untold numbers of indigenous populations who knew nothing of Christianity. The intense competition between the Christian sects in Europe led to a massive wave of missionary work, as Protestants and Catholics raced across the globe to win these unconverted masses over to their side. To succeed, they developed a range of new publications to streamline and simplify this complex task.

The most significant hurdle for missionaries to climb was a linguistic one, so they diligently worked with indigenous contacts to compile word lists and dictionaries to aid conversion efforts. French missionaries were especially active linguistic compilers; they often appended dictionaries to the accounts of their missionary activity that were printed back in Europe, such as the Huron dictionary displayed here. In this way, missionaries could both inform the public at home about the progress of Christianity in the Americas at the same time as they prepared the way for future generations of missionaries.

Selection: Gabriel Sagard, Le grand voyage du pays des Hurons, situé en l’Amerique vers la Mer douce, és derniers confins de la Nouvelle France, dite Canada (1632).

The Huron dictionary here was compiled by Gabriel Sagard, one of the first Franciscan missionaries to work in the region around the Great Lakes in present-day Canada and the United States.

Missionaries faced an altogether different problem with the West Africans brought over to the Americas as slave labor. Unlike indigenous American populations, European plantation owners made a conscious decision to withhold Christianity from the slaves by refusing missionaries any access to them. In response, clergy from all sects turned to print to reveal what they considered a horrendous spiritual crime to audiences at home. The work shown below is one such report by Morgan Godwyn, an Anglican clergyman and missionary who worked in British colonies in America and the Caribbean. In the excerpts shown here, Godwyn defends his claim that slaves are fit for conversion to Christianity and excoriates slave owners for failing in their essential Christian duty.

Selection: Morgan Godwyn, The negro’s [and] Indians advocate,suing for their admission to the church, 6-7, 78-79 (1680).

Morgan Godwyn was a clergyman and missionary in the Church of England. He wrote a series of works condemning the institution of slavery in British territories in the Caribbean and North America; they were reportedly preached in churches throughout England.

Questions to Consider

  • Who is the intended audience for this French-Huron dictionary? What does this dictionary tell us about how French missionaries viewed the cultures and language of the indigenous peoples of New France?
  • According to Godwyn, what arguments have slave owners made to justify denying conversion to their slaves? How does he respond to these justifications?
  • Godwyn claims that slaves have a “right” to Christianity; how does this right compare to the right to “ordinary necessities” that the slaves have? What are the consequences for the slaves if this right is denied to them? Why do you think slave owners did not want their slaves to become Christians?

War and Chaos

Religion and politics were closely united when the Reformation began, so it is not surprising that the religious turmoil of the Reformation led to a wave of violence and conflict, as the competing sects struggled for political and social control across the globe. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the decision to join one Christian sect or the other often carried consequences of loss of property, exile, and death. Defense of “the true religion” became a pretext for resistance, rioting, and open war. Faced with this constant state of conflict, Christians of all kinds turned increasingly to print to come to terms with the immense anxiety and chaos caused by these religious changes.

The religious world of the Reformation was generally an intolerant one. Many Protestants as well as Catholics believed that they could not safely practice their own faith so long as the other was being practiced openly nearby, so at times state authorities (and occasionally mobs of civilians) worked to cleanse their territory of all traces of competing sects. This was most apparent in territories controlled by Calvinists, who believed that the use of images in worship – a hallmark of Catholicism – was proof of idolatry. Calvinist mobs were known to destroy Catholic art and architecture throughout the sixteenth century. The author Richard Verstegen, an English Catholic, published an illustrated account of atrocities committed against Catholics, with special emphasis on the Huguenots in France and the Protestants in England.

The Reformation also led to the most devastating war Europe had ever known: the Thirty Years’ War. Begun over a dispute over whether the kingdom of Bohemia would be ruled by a Protestant or a Catholic, the war eventually dragged in combatants from across Europe, with the German lands serving as the main battlefield. Mercenary armies did the majority of the fighting, and often resorted to pillaging the countryside when they were not paid. The war ended in a relative stalemate, but the incalculable devastation of Germany was a traumatic experience for Christians everywhere. Even outside observers were compelled to make some sense of the carnage. The second item, a work by the English preacher and theologian Philip Vincent, sought to draw some spiritual lesson from the horrific conflict. His account of the war was accompanied by a series of engravings detailing the atrocities committed, primarily by Catholic soldiers.

Selection: Philip Vincent, The Lamentations of Germany: Wherein, as in a glasse, we my behold her miserable condition, and reade the woefull effects of sinne, 11-13, 26 (1638).

This book includes thirty-two illustrations of horrific events that occurred in Germany during the first two decades of the Thirty Years’ War.

Questions to consider

  • Verstegan titled this engraving “The fruits of the new Gospel.” What are those fruits? How do you think Verstegen wanted readers to respond to the images in his book? Do you think this is an accurate representation of how Protestants behaved in the sixteenth century?
  • How does Vincent describe the resolution of the siege of Magdeburg? What message were the Catholic forces sending with their behavior after the city had surrendered?
  • What do you think is the intended impact of the engravings in the Vincent book? What sort of religious message do images like these help to convey?

Calling for Tolerance

Calls for religious tolerance had been heard since the earliest days of the Reformation, but – save for a few exceptions – these calls did not gain much traction until after the trauma of the Thirty Years’ War. During the second half of the seventeenth century, the idea that being a good citizen was more important for peace and stability than being a good Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic became increasingly more prominent in intellectual circles.

These views were still considered extremely controversial in most places, but some intellectuals were determined to give them a public hearing. Many chose to publish these ideas in anonymous open letters, which would start the conversation about toleration without bringing any consequences upon themselves. The famous English philosopher John Locke followed this route with his Letter Concerning Toleration, which was originally published anonymously in Latin in Amsterdam in 1689.

Selection: John Locke, “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” 6-9 (1689).

John Locke’s ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’ caused uproar when it first appeared in Latin in 1689.

In this letter, Locke argued that the state had no power or authority to intervene in matters of religion, which was the purview of the individual’s conscience. Although he doubted that atheists or Catholics could ever be good citizens, his call for religion to be separated from politics represented a major break with the views of the early reformers. His concept of religious tolerance would be further developed over the coming century, most notably by the framers of the United States Constitution, who used it as the basis for the formal separation of church and state, the first time in human history such a thing had ever been done.

Questions to Consider

  • How does Locke define “religion” in this excerpt? How does his conception of religion compare with Luther’s or the Inquisition’s?
  • What are the primary responsibilities Locke assigns to the “commonwealth,” i.e., the state? Why is religion not among them?
  • According to Locke, is toleration something that protects the commonwealth from religion, or is it something that protects religion from the commonwealth?

Selected Sources

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Edwards, Mark U. Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Febvre, Lucien and Henri Martin. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800. London, NLB, 1976.

Lockhart, James, and Stuart B. Schwartz. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Viking, 2004.

Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Rice, Eugene F. and Anthony Grafton. The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.

Round, Philip. Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1800. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.