The Reformation as Media Event

A version of this paper was published in The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible in April 2017, which was itself a print version of a talk given in 2016 at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The book can be purchased here and an alternate version of the video can be viewed here

If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments of our race which have had the habit of scribbling, they must take a fresh view of the records, ask new questions of them, and use all the resources of archeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings.

– Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change[1]


For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.

– St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:6

The 500th anniversary of the German Protestant Reformation presents an opportune time to reconsider the question of causality in regards to one of the most significant and momentous upheavals in Christian history. Particularly so, as it effected Europe, the West, and subsequent global Christianity.  The discipline of Media Ecology, emerging in 1968, offers a unique framework for explaining cause due to its interdisciplinary concern with reading the “total field” of evidence in order to arrive at new understandings of cultural patterns. Media Ecology, as it sheds light on the historical event of the Reformation, may be best understood in terms of Aristotles’ philosophical study of the four causes, and specifically the study of formal cause.

For Aristotle, there were four causes which were to be studied in science:  material, formal, efficient, and final.  Formal cause represented the essence of a thing and final cause was an object’s purpose.  Contemporary natural and social sciences have generally discarded these two types of causes and reduced everything to matter and energy (material and efficient causes).[2]

Media Ecologists study formal causality precisely so that we can know where technological determinism ends and human agency begins. What we are claiming is that formal causality is essential to understanding material, efficient, and final cause, as well as for grasping the limits of human actors in historical change.  Aristotle argued that, “we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its explanation.”  Of Aristotle’s four explanations — material, formal, efficient, or final explanation – formal explanation is described as a change or movement caused by the arrangement, shape or appearance of the thing changing or moving.  The arrangement, shape, or appearance of a thing is its form, or formal qualities.  One of media ecology’s key insights, as articulated by Robert Logan, is that societies imitate their technologies:

  1. The dominant tools or technologies of a society create patterns of usage that infiltrate or penetrate the social structures of a society,
  2. These patterns change those structures, and
  3. The social structures come to imitate or replay the patterns by which these dominant technologies are organized.[3]

So for the Gutenberg Bible, for instance, we see the layout of the Bible in the 36 line[4] or 42 line Bible as consisting of two columned rows of either 18 or 21 lines.  This then became the cultural pattern of organizing pews inside churches starting in the 16th century, organizing rows of seats inside classrooms starting in the 18th century, and perhaps finally, having its last manifestation in the, organizing pattern for the arrangement of barracks at German concentration camps[5] in the early 20th century. This same phenomenon might be observed in our own time in the way that the simple aesthetic of Apple and the iPhone has spread beyond that specific brand and become the standard for visual appeal.

For McLuhan, the real message “of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”[6]  In other words, McLuhan’s interests lay in understanding how technological forms produce effects that shape our cultural, behavioral, and psychological patterns, as well as the ways in which they shape our internal perceptions of these patterns as right, good, obvious, or inevitable.  For McLuhan, the “spell” of a new medium can occur immediately upon first contact by the human ability to instantly “adopt” and thereby internalize our technologies as the new normal.  History reveals we have never been much good — until now — at making a study of technology’s profound formal effects.  McLuhan’s aphoristic sound bite can, and should, be read in reference to this understanding of causality:  the medium is the message.  This paper will seek to address the question of the Reformation’s formal causality, and along the way will attempt to illuminate the ways in which these formal qualities may challenge long-held notions of historical causality in the identities of particular historical agents, as well as reveal a few long-hidden blind spots of significance for theological reflection.  This intersection of Media Ecology with the interests of theology should prove more fruitful than jarring, more understanding than agitation.  But the jarring may occur nevertheless:  “Most people” McLuhan wrote, “are quite unable to perceive the effects of the ordinary cultural media around them because their theories about change prevent them from perceiving change itself.”[7]  If theology is faith seeking understanding, then we may deepen our understanding by studying the formal cause of the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther wrote to a dying Johann Tetzel in 1519 and bade him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”[8]  Though it was not Luther’s opinion, the father of the Protestant Reformation was the Printing Press.  That is to say, the formal cause of the Protestant Reformation was the Printing Press.  That simple declarative statement should strike you as immediately violating of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s concern that historical arguments about the printing press should regard it as an agent of change, not as the agent of change, “because” she states, “the very idea of exploring the effects produced by any particular innovation arouses suspicion that one favors a monocausal interpretation or that one is prone to reductionism and technological determinism.”[9]  And yet, I hope to demonstrate that the printing press’s effects are actually multicausal, expansionist, and liberating from the very forces of technological determinism it so fears.  In general, most arguments about “technological determinism” are themselves misunderstandings about Aristotle’s material explanation, as though an old screw-type wine press, a goldsmith’s carefully crafted type pieces (of lead, antimony, and tin), water-powered paper mills producing linen pulp sheets, dog-skinned inking pads, and a vegetable-based ink could, in and of themselves, cause a historical revolution. To look seriously at the new medium is to look deeper than immediate causality from a historian’s point of view, and to consider its role in necessary and sufficient causation.  But to consider the new communication technology is also to look at its biases — specifically to consider the epistemological, psychological, and intellectual biases of perception that the form of the technology engenders for all whom encounter its effects. And to be clear, the effects we claim for the printing press do not serve the purpose of granting the Reformation’s primary historical agency to Gutenberg nor attempt to take agency away from Luther.  Gutenberg had no more understanding of the effects of his invention than anyone else of his day; but I hope to demonstrate that his invention, in many senses made way for, and in some senses created, a man like Martin Luther.

To progress logically, which is to say in the visual, rational, and sequential orderly fashion that print media habituates us to and thereafter demands, we will attempt to digest seven key ingredients.  You will notice, however, that the effects of technological change are neither linear nor additive; they are circular and totalizing, which is to say acoustic and exponential.

The seven ingredients are these:

1.) The ways in which Johannes Gutenberg, a devout Catholic, was interested in manufacturing technologies of religious devotion, and how the Printing Press was a natural spiritual heir to the Pilgrim’s Mirrors he was previously producing.

2.) The ways in which the printing press produced the cause of the Reformation

3.) The ways in which the printing press produced the mindset of the Reformation

4.) The ways in which the printing press produced the cure of the Reformation

5.) The ways in which the Printing Press produced a multitude of other changes in religious and cultural life in Europe, and many other things independently of the Reformation, but part and parcel of its mindset and formal causality

6.) The ways in which the Printing Press produced the vast majority of the Counter-Reformation, including 13 of its major decrees, and its general sweep, leading Umberto Eco to point out that “Catholic fundamentalism cannot exist — and this is what the Counter Reformation was all about — because for Catholics the interpretation of the Scriptures is mediated by the Church”[10],

7.) The ways in which the printing press produced, in all of the above, the “technological determinism” that is the very reductionist, simplistic, and dismissive concept proposed by many contemporary scholars to buffer themselves against the percepts of the massively obvious changes that the new medium created.

Again, these ingredients work together to holistically alter one’s perception of reality. As Neil Postman put it, when you add a drop of red dye to a beaker of clear water, you don’t get a beaker of water with a drop of red inside[11] – you get a beaker of pink water.

One  – A Ray of Light (Gutenberg and Technologies of Religious Devotion)

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg[12] was born at the end of the fourteenth century in Mainz, Germany, the youngest son of Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, an upper-class merchant and goldsmith who worked in the ecclesiastic mint[13], and his second wife, Elise Wyrich, the daughter of a shopkeeper.  He grew up knowing the trade of goldsmithing and the trade of selling things.  Very little is known about his early life, and much of what we do know, from 1434 and beyond, largely stems from legal disputes involving his name.  In 1419 his father died and he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.  In 1439 he was involved in a new business enterprise aimed at manufacturing Pilgerspiegel or “Pilgrim’s Mirrors” for sale to pilgrims on the Aachen pilgrimage of 1439, at the Cathedral of Aachen where the church was planning to exhibit its extensive collection of holy relics from Emperor Charlemagne.

“The focal point of what was known as the Aachen holy relics pilgrimage was the veneration of four textile relics.  These were parts of the gown of the Virgin Mary, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of Jesus, and the beheading cloth of John the Baptist.  From the mid-14th century on, these four relics were displayed publicly every seven years.

Initially they were displayed inside Charlemagne’s Cathedral in Aachen.  However, when the number of pilgrims continued to increase (several tens of thousands daily), a special display scaffold was erected on the facade of the cathedral.  Owing to the great distance, most pilgrims could not see the relics clearly any more.  However, this did not reduce the number of pilgrims, as they believed in the miraculous effect of the relics from a distance.

As at all medieval places of pilgrimage, the pilgrims could purchase pilgrim’s emblems that served as material signs and reminders of the successfully completed pilgrimage…

With the display of the relics from a distance, what became known as “Aachen pilgrim’s mirrors” were developed.  These were held up during the showing of the relics as it was believed that with their help, one could catch the miraculous rays of the relics and take them home.  These were not mirrors in the modern sense of the word, but rather small perforated plates made of lead or pewter.  Starting in the mid-15th century these consisted of three interconnected circles.  The circle at the bottom featured the Virgin Mary of Aachen, above her the Virgin’s gown borne by clerics and the topmost circle portrayed Christ’s head.  The smallest, middle circle contained the mirror proper.

Pilgrim’s emblems were among the first truly mass-produced articles; their production was very profitable and thus strictly controlled and usually restricted to the place of pilgrimage.  The huge demand by the Aachen pilgrims, however, could not be met by the manual production of local craftsmen — mainly goldsmiths and stamp cutters.  Hence, for a limited time during the pilgrimage, non-residents were also allowed to produce the pilgrim’s emblems and sell them in Aachen.

Gutenberg utilized this special regulation and established his association for the production of Aachen mirrors that were intended for the pilgrimage of 1439.  As these could only be sold within a limited period and competition was expected to be very strong, this was a financially risky enterprise.  Nevertheless, the project promised to be very successful as Gutenberg very likely used a rationalized production method he had developed.  This was a type of stamping and embossing process that offered quick and inexpensive reproduction.[14]

To this day, the Cathedral of Aachen possesses a relic that claims to be this same gown of Mary that is the subject of Gutenberg’s mirror.  One of the pilgrim’s mirrors that Gutenberg made in devotion to Mary’s gown looks like this:

The purpose and nature of the mirror was to capture a ray of holy light that would emanate off of the relic, onto the bag or clothing of the pilgrim, attached to which the pilgrim’s mirror would “capture” for all eternity this ray of holy light, and thus imbue its possessor with a remnant from the fairy tale world (to use Bettelheim’s words), to grant the viewer a portion of the aura of the object (to use Walter Benjamin’s words), or to impart a perceptual keepsake of the experience.  You could think of this very much the way a digital camera “captures” your experience at a live concert.  You don’t get to re-experience it by looking at the keepsake, but you do get to certify that you were there, that it happened, and that it was significant.

Now for reasons that are not entirely clear, either famine, flood, or plague (depending on who you ask) the Aachen pilgrimage was delayed for one year and the sunk costs of the venture could not be repaid.  To satisfy his investors, Gutenberg said he would share a secret with them: the Kunst und Aventur (Art and Adventure) research that was the basis for his yet-to-be built printing press.  Now, in the printing press, Gutenberg placed two vestiges of the Pilgrim’s Mirror.  The first of these was not called a mirror by Gutenberg, but was in fact the specific technique of the “mirror-image” that produced the hot metal type; a typographic extension of the very same technique used by metallurgists to create and mass produce the Pilgrim’s Mirrors.  As Stephan Fussel describes it:

To start with a letter was engraved on the top of a small steel bar or cube.  This bar carried a single character in deep relief and in mirror image; it was then struck by a hammer into softer copper so that a right-reading, deeply sunken letter resulted.  This was now the matrix, which had to be correctly fitted into the casting instrument.  Molten metal was poured in, and a single type cast, with the letter at its head in relief but again in mirror-image.[15]

And of course, one of the primary products of Gutenberg’s new medium was the famed Gutenberg Bible.  Particularly when considered within the context of technologies of religious devotion, such as the Pilgrim’s Mirror, the reverence toward the new Art and Adventure technology grew from the understanding that it presented not only a “ray of light” from the mirror of the platen of typeset letters, but that its actual content was the “ray of light ” known as God’s word.  Even to, and perhaps especially to, the predominantly illiterate population of the day, this kind of access to not just religious artifacts or relics, but to religious “source material” must have been nothing less than astounding.

The second mirror in Gutenberg’s printing press is the actual tympan that held the paper, that when folded over on with the frisket that masked the areas not to be printed on, created an overall section called “the mirror” that would receive the impression from the typeset letter pieces.  This was the very spot that would receive the “mirror image” of the platen that held the arranged type.  Thus we see, in the move from his pilgrim’s mirrors to his printing press, Gutenberg is actually moving from a “spiritual” mirroring of a sacred relic – by the imagination of the bearer[16] – to the physical mirroring – by physical duplication of the page – of a sacred text.  It was in the context of this mass reproduction of words and texts that the words “stereotype” and the onomatopoetic “cliché” received meaning, referring to the plates and blocks which held the mirror image of the text.  Perhaps the etymological trivia that traces our word for hollowed out truisms back to Gutenberg highlights the greatest contradiction of this invention; in his zealous attempts to further venerate scripture, Gutenberg created the machine that would allow for its greatest devaluation via overabundance. Value, after all, is a function of scarcity. Yet, for Gutenberg, this use of his mirroring/duplicating technology must have seemed magical indeed; he described the idea of the printing press himself as “coming like a ray of light.”[17]  As McLuhan put it, “In the sixteenth century and after, many God-fearing readers were sure that the ‘inner light’ emanated from the black ink of the printed page.”[18]  In David D’Angers 1839 statue of Gutenberg in Strasbourg, France, Gutenberg holds a page from his press with the inscription, “Et la lumiere fut” (And light was made).  This metaphor carries right down through to Calvin’s Geneva, where the inscription of his and the other founders’ statues reads, “Post tenebrae, lux” (After the darkness, light).

Two – The Printing Press Mass Produced the Problem of the Protestant Reformation

It is a lesser known fact of printing press history that the Gutenberg Bible was not the first item to come hot off the presses.  In fact, the medieval Catholic indulgence holds this honor.  Gutenberg first printed Indulgences for the aid of the kingdom of Cyprus in 1454[19] and 1455, the first of which is dated October 21, 1454 and “represents the earliest piece of western typography with an exact date.”[20]  The cost of an indulgence would have been between four and five gulden[21], or roughly 1.2 to 1.5 percent of a German citizen’s annual income.[22]  Print runs of Catholic indulgences ran anywhere from as low as 1,000 to as high as 190,000[23].  Keep in mind that the city of Mainz at Gutenberg’s time had only between five and ten thousand inhabitants, and the city of Wittenberg in 1500 had only around two thousand inhabitants.

“By his own words Martin Luther only learned of the issue of indulgences from his parishioners when in around 1514, as monk and professor, he was appointed to an additional office as preacher in the parish church.”[24]

The changeover from manuscript letters of indulgence to printed letters of indulgence represents a change from scarcity and value to mass production and affordability.  So under manuscript conditions, it is entirely possible that Luther would not have written so extensively and lengthily on the subject.  But under printing press conditions, these were the most blatant forms of spiritual taxation without representation of his time.  The Ninety-Five Theses mention the word indulgence 45 times, and all but a few of Luther’s theses are directly aimed at his grievances about them.  But the visual stress that writing produces in an oral culture also produces a changeover from group salvation to individual salvation.  This shift is further illustrated by the practice, under manuscript conditions, of issuing group indulgences to cloisters, families, and monasteries, which the printing press obsolesced and replaced with the near exclusive distribution of indulgences for individuals.  The cultural change to writing created a new possibility of private identity, and with it came an individual conscience, and the responsibility to attain one’s private salvation.  Now these matters were largely imperceptible to the illiterate masses, but in the age of the printing press, even the illiterates became aware of the power of written words that they themselves could not read.  To have a piece of paper printed by the Church’s authority, with your name, date, and place of issuance handwritten upon it, was to know that you had attained a special status for your mortal state or immortal soul, or both.  And to be fair, Tetzel was primarily exaggerating the official teachings of the Church when he said that “each time a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs” — his rhetoric and salesmanship skills were more likely products of the printing press as well than a reflection of official theology of Rome:  without the press producing such a supply of the product, what could be expected of the professional pardoners (quaestores) except for the production of greater demand?

One unexplored facet of economic history lies in the fact that indulgences are the very first instance of representative money in mass-produced form, before that phenomenon officially took hold with the Bank of Stockholm issuing paper notes in 1661.  As a unit of measure, store of value, and medium of exchange, the medieval printed indulgence met all the requirements of paper money, especially as their real economic value was measured by the seller against four or five golden coins (i.e., commodity money), while to the purchaser their value was measured in eternity: years off of purgatory for penance due already forgiven sins in this life.  If the medium of paper could be a store holder of eternal value whose ultimate source was Christ’s unlimited treasury of merits, perhaps these documents were the Pavlovian conditioning necessary for two hundred years prior to the ultimate bait-and-switch of paper currency?  Of course, if one considers indulgences as the first paper receipts (that is, indicators of money received as the medieval Latin from which the word receipt is derived indicates), it becomes feasible to perceive banking receipts as the desacralized indicator of received money; as the desacralized indulgence. Without this conditioning, it seems hardly plausible that a reasonable person would exchange gold coins for paper receipts that “represented gold coins” in the late middle ages unless she had first been conditioned to believe that the medium of paper was capable of carrying the very authority of God as message.

In the particular case of Johann Tetzel, the details help to illustrate this point.

            The indulgence for sale in the Archbishopric of Magdeburg from 1515, for example, served the ostensible purpose of financing the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome…In reality, the 1515 indulgence was intended to raise the money that Duke Albrecht of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Magdeburg, needed to pay the debts he had made with the Holy See in his bid for the Archbishopric of Mainz.  Plurality of offices was prohibited, and moreover, church law stated that Albrecht was too young for his office.  Special papal licenses had to be bought for several thousand florins.  The powerful Fugger banking house in Augsburg gave the hopeful candidate a loan, and Albrecht commissioned one of the most brilliant salesman of indulgences… Johann Tetzel…The money Tetzel collected was put into an indulgence chest that had at least three locks whose keys were in the custody of different persons, including representatives of the Fugger banking house and ecclesiastic notaries.[25]

The reason that the Fugger’s held one of the keys to the indulgence chest is that the security for the loan money (for Duke Albrecht to become Archbishopric of Mainz) were guaranteed to the Fugger bank by future sales of indulgences!  Here the story returns us to Mainz, just 300 miles away from Wittenberg and where, only 98 years earlier, Gutenberg’s father was working for the Ecclesiastic mint.  While this historical fact has largely been overlooked by academia and historians alike, this should be understood as the first instance of the “printing of money” in the contemporary fiat currency sense.  Instead of running the presses and producing currency that have the commodity value of green toilet paper, as we do today, the Fugger’s loan turns into a repayment scheme by Duke Albrecht, involving printing paper indulgences in currency that would produce genuine commodity money. Roughly half of this money remained in Albrecht’s pocket and the other half was sent to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Luther began preaching against this in the spring of 1517, because his own parishioners were demanding to have absolution in confession while denying the need for contrition and satisfaction.[26]  By October of that year, Luther wrote a letter to his superior in the church hierarchy, the very Archbishop Albrecht of Magdeburg who was running the local scheme, and complained about his inability to provide sufficient pastoral care under the currently soul-damaging dangers of the indulgence trade.  Enclosed in his letter was a copy of the Ninety-Five Theses he nailed to the Wittenberg door.  “The archbishop made no reply, but, suspecting heresy, forwarded the documents to Rome.  The planned disputation never took place.”[27]  As Rupp notes, Luther “had invited a public disputation and nobody had come to dispute.”  Then, “by a stroke of magic, he found himself addressing the whole world.”[28]  Eisenstein adds that here “is an example of revolutionary causation where normally useful distinctions between precondition and precipitant are difficult to maintain.”[29]

Note well how the fact of the Ninety-Five Theses is a series of complaints against this one product of the printing press, and yet how thesis number 62 is an explicit argument in favor of another product of the printing press: “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”  The aforementioned theses found fulfillment by March of 1522, when Luther at the Wartburg castle translated the New Testament from the original Greek (of Erasmus’ version) to vernacular German. He had produced the world’s first best-seller, a Bible so popular it sold three thousand copies between May and September, and had to be reprinted in an edition of 1500 by December just to meet demand.[30]  Note well how Luther’s choice of the vernacular put him directly in touch with the spoken word of his parishioners, the majority of whom could not read his translation even though it was in their own “mother tongue.”  But also note how, in choosing to promote his translation of Scripture over the abusive indulgence trade, Luther was effectively saying — not their printing press products, but mine.  Furthermore, by printing in vernacular German and thereby connecting Latin with the acoustic traditions of Rome, Luther is implying the dissemination of the monopoly of knowledge in the papacy and the rearrangement of sense ratios due to print. In a word, that which desacralizes a given reality, in turn, becomes the new sacred; Luther’s Reformation depended on the devaluation of Latin and the mystic, central Roman authority.  Even more, keep in mind that by 1500, books had dropped in price by 95% since 1454, so even for the illiterate the idea of buying a book as cultural accessory suddenly becomes very affordable (and is a cultural pattern not totally unlike today’s digital aliterates, who can read but choose not to, and use the book as a fashion accessory more than a source of information).  So, by 1517, an entire generation would be accustomed to the fashion and social capital which had come to be associated with books; not unlike the fashion and social capital we have come to associate with smart phone technology. All this to say that while it is a well-known historical truism that the printing press helped spread the “cure” of the Reformation, it needs to be mentioned that it first produced the “problem.” Without the printing press mass producing indulgences for sixty-three years in Germany prior to Luther’s posting, and three years in his own neighborhood in a way that wrecked his conscience, Martin Luther would have had very little to complain about in his Ninety-Five Theses. Perhaps so little, that he never would have come to the conclusion that the printing press might be better served creating and re-creating copies of the Scriptures in the German vernacular.

Three –  Mindset of the Reformation

The printing press produced not only the products of the Reformation — the indulgences and Bibles – but, just as significantly, the mindset of the Reformation.  Again, the form, not the content, of a new medium subtly but, totally and irrevocably shaped, all who encountered it.  What the printing press actually did, in Harold Innis’ phrase, was destroy the “monopolies of knowledge” heretofore possessed by the literate clergy and intellectuals[31] of the day.  Under manuscript conditions, a very few could read, therefore most literature was transmitted orally in sermons, in auricular confession, and in general utilized in the acoustic space of Gothic cathedrals.  Under acoustic conditions such as these, man is a group animal, and his perception of or need for private identity is very minimal.  Under print conditions, however, all that suddenly changes.  What Gutenberg produced, and what Luther manifested, first and foremost to the common man and woman — illiterate peasants as most were – was another way of reading and interpreting sacred texts, especially Holy Scripture.  While the common person could not do this for themselves for another hundred years or more, the idea was born that they could do it thanks to this new product that came off the printing presses in such volume. Furthermore, by printing in vernacular German and thereby connecting Latin with the acoustic traditions of Rome, Luther is implying the dissemination of the monopoly of knowledge in the papacy and the rearrangement of sense ratios due to print. In a word, that which desacralizes a given reality, in turn, becomes the new sacred; Luther’s Reformation depended on the devaluation of Latin and the mystic, central Roman authority.  The choice to translate the Bible into the vernacular German, in some ways, can be understood as a symbolic placing of the text in the hand of the people more so than a practical contribution to the illiterate masses.  However, in the more immediate setting, the reading of scripture and sermon could, for the first time, be understood in a language which these illiterate medievals would understand, that is, the vernacular German as opposed to the Latin of the Vulgate. This, of course, exaggerated the growing divide between the privileged information of Rome and the distributed knowledge of the Reformers. We often simplistically point to the printing press and think it is obvious that as soon as you print a book for everyone, mass literacy automatically ensues.  But the facts of the Reformation show it to be an extremely “minority” media event in the actual literacy rates of those who were leading the conversation.  Overall literacy in Germany in the early sixteenth century was five percent.  This was complicated by the fact that literacy in the cities was thirty percent for men, but those cities themselves held no more than ten percent of the empire’s population.[32]  And only a minority of the literate could read Latin, the language of the Ninety-Five Theses and many of the early documents.  Even Luther expressed his inability to comprehend the unintended consequences of the new technology when he wrote to Pope Leo X on May 30, 1518:

It is a mystery to me how my theses, more so than my other writings, indeed, those of other professors were spread to so many places.  They were meant exclusively for our academic circle here… They were written in such a language that the common people could hardly understand them.  They… use academic categories.[33]

Considering the severely minute percentage of the population that could read the German vernacular, let alone Latin, the Reformation was truly a minority’s minority media event.  Those minority Latin literate among German literate minorities could still speak in the vernacular tongue, and have their writings read, in translation if need be, at local venues, in churches, taverns, and public and private gatherings.

As McLuhan puts it, “Print is a technology of individualism”[34]  The visual outering of the vernacular language produced a reordering of the sense ratios that cannot be underestimated:

The study of the Bible in the Middle Ages achieved conflicting patterns of expression which the economic and social historian is also familiar with.  The conflict was between those who said that the sacred text was a complex unified at the literal level, and those who felt that the levels of meaning should be taken one at a time in a specialist spirit.  This conflict between an auditory and a visual bias seldom reached a high degree of intensity until after mechanical and typographical technology had conferred on the visual great preponderance.  Prior to this ascendancy, the relative equality among the senses of sight, sound, touch, and movement in interplay in manuscript culture, had fostered the preference for light through, whether in language, art or architecture.[35]

The new medium of print, in other words, fostered a preference for light on, a distinction that makes all the difference in the psychological perception of the viewer.[36]  This visual stress creates a psychological preference for the optical and art history phenomenon known as perspective. Perspective allowed the viewer’s position in front of a two-dimensional piece of art to be overrode by the “painter’s view” of three-dimensional perspective if he or she stands at the precise “point of view” in which to engage it.  Point of view, of course, quickly became a metaphor for private intellectual interpretation, and this shift produced a massive internal awareness of private identity, private thought, and private point of view.

Four – Cure of the Reformation:  Here This Book Made Me Stand

In light of the new paradigm of perspective bestowed by the press, Luther’s famous speech at the Diet of Worms proves the Reformer’s interiorization of the individualistic values in his theology.  From January 28 to May 25, 1521, this deliberative assembly of the whole German Empire addressed Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.  This was Luther’s ultimate trial, in which he had to answer for his writings and his convictions.  At the conclusion of Luther’s trial, between April 16th and 18th, in what is perhaps the most well-known of all Luther’s writings, the thirty-eight-year-old monk finally stood and answered declaratively:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Therefore, I am neither willing nor able to recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against one’s conscience.  So help me God. Amen.

Luther’s entire rhetorical strategy here is driven by the effects of his personal reading of Scripture and claims its legitimacy by an appeal to the private and individual conscience.  From a Scriptural point of view, the term conscience is only mentioned 30 times in the King James Version, and all of these are in the New Testament.  In the NIV translation, there are 34 mentions of conscience, and 28 of them are in the New Testament.  A content analysis of conscience in Scripture, however, reveals it to be a somewhat malleable private identity that can — and sometimes should — be flexible in deference and consideration to another believers weaker conscience.[37] I Corinthians 10:25-29, for instance, is all about the flexibility of conscience in deference to the conscience of another that might be weaker, in regards to food offered to foreign idols.  In these handwritten letters, that would have been read to an audience under acoustic conditions, Paul is primarily teaching a variation on Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”  The point about eating foods offered to foreign gods is to protect your brother’s conscience — not your own — in order not to cause offense.  So, if Scripture makes clear that conscience is personally malleable for the good of the other, what drives Luther to make his entire rhetorical strategy rest on the claim that it is neither right nor safe to violate conscience?  I would argue that it was the effects of his literacy itself, the effects of the form of Scripture in the medium of a printed book, and not the content of Scripture, that created what Neil Postman called a “hardening of the categories” into a perceptual alley that allowed Luther to perceive only his private, individual, point of view.  McLuhan writes that, “Perhaps the most significant of the gifts of typography to man is that of detachment and noninvolvement – the power to act without reacting.”[38]  In the later gloss to Luther’s speech, it is most likely Philip Melanchthon who added the line attributed to Luther, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”  This is about as succinct a way of stating “this book has given me the ability to act without reacting” as possible.

Five – Re-form the Church?  Re-form Everything!

“A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.  It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”[39]  McLuhan reiterated this when he wrote, “Once a new technology comes into a social milieu it cannot cease to permeate that milieu until every institution is saturated.  Typography has permeated every phase of the arts and sciences in the past five hundred years.”[40]As C.S. Lewis wrote, “At his most characteristic, medieval man was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems.  He wanted a place for everything and everything in the right place.”[41]  This of course is typified in the German phrase Alles in Ordnung which is, to this day, the hallmark of the German people’s cultural preference for order.

If the printing press produced for Luther’s Germany a cultural ideal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” then it was the clock that produced for Calvin “a moment for everything and something for every moment.”  Just twenty-six years younger than Luther, John Calvin would be doubly affected in Geneva not only by the book but by the then-new medium of the portable clock, which later evolved into today’s watch. On November 20, 1541, the Geneva city council passed the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which not only defined four orders of ministerial functions (pastors, doctors, elders, deacons), but also called for the creation of the Consistoire, an ecclesiastical court ruled by lay elders and the ministers.  One of the new rules was to rid Geneva of all jewelers and goldsmiths who should no longer use their talent to make “crucifixes, chalices, and other instruments serving papacy and idolatry.”  But Calvin allowed the clock and watchmakers to stay because he saw timeliness as a virtue in keeping with his theology, which left no time in the life of the Christian for idleness or amusement.  Because each Christian would one day have to give an account of every second and minute of his life, Calvin perceived the new portable clock technology as a servant of piety.  According to Lewis Mumford, most people didn’t know that the day consisted of hours, minutes, and seconds until around 1345, and had previously experienced time as organic, flexible, and with eternity as its horizon.[42]  Now time became mechanical, routine, and nature submitted to the ruthless machinery of the clock.  As a result, punctuality now became a spiritual virtue.  Gian Pozzy puts it in HH: Magazine de la Haute Horlogerie as follows:

Calvin’s ordinances, and his zealous pastors, would impose a strict framework which left time for neither idleness nor amusement. There were sermons in two churches at four and six in the morning, another sermon in three churches at eight, catechism at noon and a fourth sermon at three in the afternoon on Sundays. In 1541, Calvin inflicted a fine of three sous for whomever should miss divine service, arrive late or leave before the end. Punctuality, a totally foreign concept to ancient and medieval scholars, and even to Erasmus, Ronsard and Montaigne, was all. “Better to arrive well in advance than one second late” is a theory which the theologian Max Engamarre of Geneva University has amply illustrated. For Calvin, there was no such thing as wasted time. He delivered constant reminders from the pulpit that when the Day of Judgement came, good Christians would have to account for every moment of their lives. Previously, the minute had been largely ignored. Under Calvin, it took on new importance.[43]

Since “time is money” is itself a concept and principle not possible without the clock, we should not be surprised to discover that Geneva, Switzerland is, to this day not only the top producer of fine time-keeping devices, but one of the top five richest cities on the planet.[44]  Included in the top five[45] is the capital city of Zurich, Switzerland, whose name comes from the German, “zu reich” which means, “too rich.”  And a theology book has yet to be written which finally explains, to both parties’ satisfaction, that the continual misunderstanding of Calvin’s theology as the foreboding of blind, mechanical, predestined fate is in fact, nothing of the sort; it is the dreadful mindset of finitude and inevitability that the clock produces, not Calvinism!  Still, a full separation of Calvin and the Clock needs to occur:  we still look at the 1566 portrait of him with the motto “Prompte et Sincere”[46] and at least one college named after him still uses this slogan on their website.[47]

The technologies of the clock and the book are, of course, the spiritual and physical bedrocks upon which our modern lives depend, as they are the first conceptual and then physical instance of the interchangeable part.  The mass production of identical items that were unique, repeatable, and predictable made way for the unintended effect that was the eventual creation of a mass consumer society.  Without them, modern capitalism as we know it simply could not exist.  The printing press, using the interchangeable, identical, and unique parts of hot metal type produced books that were, for the first time in history, precisely identical to the one before and after it.  Spiritual heir to the printing press, the clock produces the unique, interchangeable, and identical “product” of hours, minutes, and seconds.  As a technology born to better help monks serve God by regulating their canonical hours of prayer, it was ironic that the clock ultimately ended up serving Mammon in the production of the hourly wage, the assembly line, and the culture of accelerating efficiency that we have inherited from these European technologies.

Other developments that sprang from the printing press were legion: not only Renaissance perspective paintings evolve from the new visual stress, but the need for private identity became so great that the signing of these paintings became a standard practice, whereas before this the signing of an artwork had only happened intermittently and usually on very special occasions or commissions.  This heightened individualism in art, architecture, and the visual world quickly became the domain of the reading world, as readers began to discern that they too could interpret Scripture, for example, in a way that was contrary to the grain of what they had been taught under oral conditions.  Under oral conditions, arguments always find resolution under the law of the literate population; illiterate appeals are not based on interpretation but on the authority of the account given by the literate in the community.  Under conditions of mass literacy, as made possible by print, you can not only perceive the validity of your argument for the first time, but you can reproduce your argument and share it with others.  The idea was born, not only for Luther, but for the whole society, that one no longer needed the Pope to interpret Scripture, when one had his own copy of the Bible.  The priesthood of all believers is practically feasible only under conditions of mass literacy. Thus, we see how the technology of printing aided and abetted, and in some sense was, a new theology.  This seems massively obvious to us in hindsight.  But to the Catholic Church, this was a shocking, galling, new and altogether unwelcome development that the new technology of print afforded Luther and his followers.  By the nineteenth century, critiques of Protestant zeal used the line that the Bible is the Pope in paper form,[48] which Protestants took as a badge of honor.

The Protestant Reformation was, among other things, a reader’s revolution.  “The Gutenberg revolution made everyone a reader.”[49]  And reading killed hearing, culturally speaking, just as surely as video killed the radio star.  By the end of the Reformation, another victim of the Printing Press was auricular confession as more and more books intervened between sinner and priest, complicating the once-simple confessional into a legalistic and often contradictory list of sins, punishments, and exceptions.[50]  When a new technology shifts a culture from the ear to the eye as the primary mode of reception, cataclysmic changes occur.  The ear is a unifying organ, McLuhan wrote, “but the eye isn’t a unifying force.  It tends towards fragmentation.  It allows each person to have his own point of view and to hold to it.”[51]  If you want a mass of individuals to feel like they are all part of a coherent group, the number one thing to do is get them to sing the same song.  If you want a mass of individuals to come to an array of different conclusions, ask them to describe what a cloud looks like.  Primacy of hearing creates a culture in which the good of the group is the highest order of the day.  Primacy of seeing creates a culture in which the rights of the individual come to the fore.  Luther’s motto of sola scriptura implies that only the products of the printing press can be trusted; anything acoustic is simply hearsay, inadmissible evidence in a court of theological law.   The very nature of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants was characterized as Scripture versus Tradition; as reading versus hearing.  Under technological conditions that economically, politically, and psychologically favored the printing press, hearing stood little chance against a new culture of readers.

And yet it did not kill listening.  Because of the relative scarcity of literacy in the early period, the primary result for the mass audience (by which I mean the actual parishioners attending mass) was that the focus of the church service changed from looking to listening.  In a Gothic cathedral, the stained-glass windows, the statuary, the paintings, and the smaller side chapels were all places in which parishioners milled about until the moment of consecration. At this time, the priest would raise the host and then the crowd would kneel together.  The acoustics of a Gothic cathedral are fantastic for group singing, they are terrible for group listening, causing the didactic qualities of mass (i.e. the sermon) to be minimized and the participatory qualities (i.e. the sacraments) to be held in the highest esteem.  The printing press produced a changeover that made the focus of the service the sermon, and specifically the exposition of scripture, and thereby produced the effects of making the service longer and of putting pews inside the building.  Prior to the printing press, most cathedrals had no pews, and what few seats or chairs there were existed for the frail and elderly, and for the clergy themselves.  After the Reformation, almost all Protestant churches could be distinguished by the presence of pews or rows of chairs.  The printing press also put an end to Gregorian chant and to the construction of their acoustic spaces, the Gothic cathedrals.  These magnificent acoustic spaces, sometimes taking four centuries or more to complete, largely ceased to be built after the sixteenth century.  This is most eloquently stated by Victor Hugo in his 1831 Notre Dame de Paris (in English:  The Hunchback of Notre Dame), in which he explains the Archdeacon’s enigmatic phrase.  As he looks from the Bible to the Building, Claude Frollo declares, “This will destroy that.  The Book will destroy the Edifice.”  Hugo continues to explain these words:

To our mind, this thought has two aspects.  In the first place it was a view pertaining to the priest — it was the terror of the ecclesiastic before a new force — printing.  It was the servant of the dim sanctuary scared and dazzled by the light that streamed from Gutenberg’s press.  It was the pulpit and the manuscript, the spoken and the written word qualing before the printed word — something of the stupefaction of the sparrow at beholding the Heavenly Host spread their six million wings.  It was the cry of the prophet who already hears the far-off roar and tumult of emancipated humanity: who, gazing into the future, sees intelligence sapping the foundations of faith, opinion dethroning belief… It meant, The Printing Press will destroy the Church…  the book of stone, so solid and so enduring, was to give way to the book of paper, more solid and more enduring still… one Art would dethrone another Art:  Printing will destroy Architecture.[52]

Neither Gutenberg nor Luther, of course, could have seen the unintended consequences, of course, as they saw in the new medium of print exclusively a technology for enhancing devotion.  Here is how Gutenberg put it in his 1460 preface to the Catholicon:

With the help of the Most High at whose will the tongues of infants become eloquent and who often reveals to the lowly what he hides from the wise, this noble book Catholicon has been printed and accomplished without the help of reed, stylus or pen but by the wondrous agreement, proportion and harmony of punches and types, in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1460 in the noble city of Mainz of the renowned German nation, which God’s grace has designed to prefer and distinguish above all other nations of the earth with so lofty a genius and liberal gifts.  Therefore all praise and honour be offered to thee, holy Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God in three persons; and thou, Catholicon, resound the glory of the church and never cease praising the Holy Virgin.  Thanks be to God.[53]

Perhaps one of the biggest “proofs” that the printing press was the formal cause of the Reformation is that it was a gift that kept on giving:  based on extrapolations and suggested projections from Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson’s World Christian Encyclopedia, today there are some 41,000 distinct Protestant denominations[54] that make up the one true church.  And thus, we must be careful in our zeal and appreciation for Luther because to grant historical causal agency primarily to Luther is to equally lay on him the blame for the continued divisions within Protestantism; it is to suggest that a spirit of rebellion abides inherently in the Protestant worldview. On the contrary, we know that Luther deeply loved both his congregation and the mother Church, and sought not to divide her but to heal her children of its abuses and actually reform her from being “the whore of Babylon.”  It is neither Luther nor the spirit of Lutheranism that provides the impetus for continued division within Protestant churches for the past 500 years, but the private point of view that print media provides that allows for these continued divisions as more and more individuals come up with a “better way” to embody their faith.

Six – Reduce the Font Size, Please

So was the Printing Press really the formal cause of the Protestant Reformation?  Yes — of course it was.  As Bernd Moeller succinctly put it, “No printing, no Reformation.”[55]  According to Dickens,

Lutheranism was from the first the child of the printed book, and through this vehicle Luther was able to make exact, standardized and ineradicable impressions on the mind of Europe.  For the first time in human history a great reading public judged the validity of revolutionary ideas through a mass-medium which used the vernacular language together with the arts of the journalist and the cartoonist.[56]

According to Eisenstein, “Gutenberg’s invention probably contributed more to destroying Christian concord and inflaming religious warfare than any of the so-called arts of war ever did.”[57]  It was Printing, not Protestantism, that re-formed all of Europe.  To say this is simply to point out that formal causality is another way of saying necessary conditions; it is to say that the “essence” of the Reformation’s cultural pattern can be found in the “essence” of the print technology itself:  private point of view, visual dominance over acoustic, individual rights over group identity and cohesion. To be clear, we are not saying something as banal as that Luther played no role or a passive role in the Reformation. It is not to say that the printing press was a sufficient condition or sufficient cause of the Reformation, but the printing press was an absolutely necessary condition. Furthermore, without it Martin Luther would most likely be as unheard of as Jan Hus is today (In fact, we might argue that Jan Hus is only known to us today because his ideas were later vindicated by Luther’s protest, which took place, culturally speaking, through the print medium).  This point can be partially demonstrated by the relationship between a town having a printing press and whether or not they accepted the Reformation.  Fribourg, Switzerland, which never left Catholicism, didn’t get a printing press until 1585.  Likewise for the municipality of Einsiedeln, which didn’t get their first printing press until 1664.[58] As Marshall McLuhan put it, “the Church was… dismembered… by a stupid historical blunder, by a technology.”[59]

The history of technology is, among other things, the history of unintended consequences.  As we have discussed, the printing press produced such a ripple of effects that it will likely take another 500 years for historians to truly consider according to its full cataclysmic complexity.  Some of the printing press’ unanticipated consequences were the acceleration of Humanism (which got its start largely with the Italian paper industry), The Renaissance, Capitalism and the Nation State.  The press created new art and changed the perceptions of old art.  It changed architecture, literacy, language, science, mass production, economics, banking, bookkeeping, libraries, universities, nationalism, patriotism, the Industrial Revolution and consumerism.[60]  It put pews in the churches[61] and placed artists’ signatures on the paintings.  It ended the Gothic cathedral and burnings at the stake.  It produced the Index of Prohibited Books, the Counter Reformation, the standardization of the Latin rite, an explosive increase in German vocabulary, a standardizing of the German vernacular, and the basis for at least thirteen of the resolutions at the Council of Trent.[62]  But the final gift of the printing press was the gift of history books that claim that it is humans who act in the course of history and cause great changes, because technologies can never be anything but instruments at our service, to aid and abet us in our eternal march of progress.  In 1964 McLuhan pointed out that

Any student of the social history of the printed book is likely to be puzzled by the lack of understanding of the psychic and social effects of printing.  In five centuries explicit comment and awareness of print on human sensibility are very scarce. [63]

In Euen Cameron’s The Reformation, Cameron somewhat scoffs at the idea that printing played a pivotal role.  In Brad Gregory’s magisterial book, The Unintended Reformation:  How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, the printing press and Gutenberg are mentioned on exactly two pages.  Diarmaid MacCulloch devotes more considerable space to print, and Andrew Pettegree’s more recent book Brand Luther perhaps does the best job of integrating the stories of the Reformation, Printing, and Capitalism as being inextricably intertwined.  His book’s subtitle is 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation – which suggests Luther as immediate cause, printing as necessary cause, and the Reformation as the result.  The noticeable fact is that scholarship granting any formal causality of the Reformation to the printing press generally postdates 1968, the year that the discipline of Media Ecology was first “invented.”

Seven– Magic Indeed

In one of the most curious sidebars of the printing press’s effects, we see a link between the technology of the printing press and the naming of a key principle of the Media Ecology discipline.  Gutenberg’s partners Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer printed the 42-line Bible in 1456, and sales were brisk:


An early author relates that Fust carried a parcel of Bibles to Paris and attempted to sell them as manuscripts.  The forty-two line Bible had no title page, no page numbers, nor other innovations to distinguish it from handmade manuscripts.  Both Gutenberg and his customers probably wanted it that way.  When the French observed the number and conformity of the volumes, they thought witchcraft was involved.  To avoid indictment and conviction, Fust was forced to reveal his secret.  This event is alleged to be the basis for the popular story, related by several authors, of the German magician Dr. Faustus (Johann Faust in an early version), who grew dissatisfied with the limits of human knowledge and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power.[64]


To those innocent of the knowledge monopoly of a new technology, the perception of “witchcraft” is inevitable, and is precisely what science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke meant when he said that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[65]  Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, has the famous line, “A sound magician is a mighty god.”  This early Gutenberg Bible sales story in Paris would later become the basis for one of the primary analogies used by Neil Postman to describe all technologies:  A Faustian Bargain.


… all technological change is a trade-off.  I like to call it a Faustian bargain.  Technology giveth and technology taketh away.  This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.  The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage…[66]


In this way we might go so far as to say that the printing press is one of the formal causes of the discipline of Media Ecology itself.  And of course, the question of the Faustian bargain is but an echo of the question that our Lord Jesus Christ asks when he asks, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but lose his own soul?”[67]

Indulge Me One Last Time

Finally, it is worth noticing how two significant figure-ground shifts have occurred within the Catholic church since Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses 500 years ago.  The first noticeable fact is that the Catholic church is still the world’s largest religion and still offers plenary indulgences – but it no longer does so in printed form.  They seem to have taken the message of the Reformation to heart, having lost the battle of print, and have kept indulgences in the acoustic realm rather than making hardcopies in the visual realm; a sort of spiritual tradition pattern in the old “scripture vs. tradition” dichotomy.  If the spirit gives life, and the letter kills, as Paul reminds us, then by returning indulgences to the acoustic realm the Catholic church seems to have devised a strategy for maintaining a practice that was simply unfeasible under visual, printed conditions.  Today’s Catholics cannot acquire a printed letter of indulgences; instead, they receive indulgences that are verbal, acoustic, and spiritual in that the indulgence is itself an invisible thing that one “receives” in exchange for some act or service.  Pope Benedict offered indulgences for downloading the Catholic app (get details).  Pope Francis granted indulgences to Catholic faithful who followed his Twitter feed in 2013[68], and a plenary indulgence to Legionaries of Christ in 2015[69]  In neither case did the recipients of these indulgences receive a printed document with their name, or date, and the “time off” purgatory in their name.  Of course, we see here, with the abandonment of the individualistic medium of print the return to the distribution of indulgences as a group activity as opposed to a personal one.

The second thing worth noticing is that in April 2016, Pope Francis issued his “Joy of Love” (Amoris Laetitia) document, in which he suggested, in his own words, that Catholics should employ “individual conscience” when handling sensitive matters related to second (but unrecognized) marriages within their own diocese.  This is a longer story than can be related here[70], but significant for our understanding is how it is now the Catholic Pope, and not the Protestant Luther, making a rhetorical strategy out of “conscience.”  And so we see, after five hundred years, just what a figure-ground shift, what a give and take, that the printing press has produced for Christian history.

Access the introduction, parts 123456, or 7

[1] 1963, Preface, v.

[2] Clark and Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition, p.8.

[3] Robert Logan, The Alphabet Effect, 218.

[4] The 36-line Bible is the Bamberg Bible, which some attribute to Gutenberg.

[5] The most famous concentration camp is Dachau, outside of Munich, as it was the first one built by the Nazis (on March 22, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was elected) and became a standard camp upon which most of the others were modeled.  Its grounds comprise two side-by-side rows of 17 long barracks each.

[6] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 24.

[7] McLuhan, The Medium and the Light, p. 83.

[8] The letter from Luther to Tetzel is lost, but this quotation is preserved in Emser’s Auff des Stieres su Wittenberg wiettende replica.…

[9] Eisenstein, 1985, xvii.

[10] Umberto Eco, Turning Back the Clock, p. 281

[11] Neil Postman, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” talk delivered in Denver, CO, March 28, 1998, accessed online at

[12] Zu Gutenberg is documented to have been used since 1427.  The name Gutenberg is etymologically related to the name Bergmann in medieval German.  A “Berg mann” would be a “mountain man” literally, but figuratively meant a “miner”, or a man who went into the mountains to extract its metals.  A “Gutenberg” would be a “good mountain” literally, but figuratively would be more likely to mean a “good miner” or “a miner who knew where to find the best metals (i.e., gold)” In Germany, Gutenberg’s Mainz is 300km from Luther’s Wittenberg, 300km from the “good mountain” to the “white mountain.”

[13] Gutenberg’s father was “a member of the Mainz fellowship of coiners” according to Burke, p. 113.

[14] Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, p. 169.

[15] Fussell, 16.

[16] There is some uncertainty as to the reflective or “mirrorlike” qualities of the pilgrim’s mirrors.  Some texts suggest they are mirrors in name only, while others claim that highly polished metal or glass would have been in place in the center sphere.  In any event, the German guild of mirror makers was not established until 1514, according to Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, p. 170.

[17] Burke, p. 303.

[18] McLuhan, The Medium and the Light, p. 90.

[19] Kapr, p. 63.

[20] Kapr, p. 189.

[21] Kapr, p. 191.

[22] Kiermayer, p. 310.

[23] Fussel, p. 26.

[24] Treu, p. 29

[25] Treu, pp. 25-27.

[26] Treu, p. 31

[27] Treu, pp. 31-32

[28] Rupp, quoted in Eisenstein, p. 170.

[29] Eisenstein, 170.

[30] Treu, p. 55

[31] In a previous age, literacy and clergy were synonyms:  the Egyptian hieroglyphics were only readable by the clergy because that’s what the word meant:  “priestly writing.”

[32] Edwards, pp. 36-37

[33] Letter from Martin Luther, 30 May 1518, in The Reformation, ed. Hillerbrand, 54. (quoted in Eisenstein, 169)

[34] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. __

[35] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, pp. 112-13.

[36] McLuhan makes use of the light on vs. light through differences in media forms in his 1968 experiments at Fordham when comparing film to television, and which became the basis for many of his later studies.

[37] C.f. 1 Corinthians 8, which is primarily about the eating foods offered to idols.

[38] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 173

[39] Ibid, 174.

[40] Ibid, 177.

[41] Lewis, 10.

[42] See Mumford’s Art and Technics,

[43] Pozzy, “How Calvin invented punctuality, 500 years ago.”

[44] See Max Weber’s classic 1905 study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for more connections between time-keeping and money-keeping.

[45] Nick Timaros, “The Most Expensive Cities in the World to Live” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2016, accessed online at

[46] The first appearance of the “Prompte et Sincere” motto came on a portrait of Calvin made in 1566, two years after his death.

[47] Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI had the headline on their website, “My heart I offer to you Lord, promptly and sincerely” as a tribute to Calvin’s portraiture motto.

[48] Stade and Seidel, p. 72

[49] Ibid, 46.

[50] Eisenstein, 174.

[51] McLuhan, Marshall, Medium and the Light, p. 47

[52] Hugo, Section 5, Part II, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

[53] Steinberg, 19.

[54] This figure is arrived at by extrapolating from their first edition in 1982, and confirmed by the second edition that came out in 2001.  The 41,000 number comes from a 2011 estimation.  The current World Christian Database website states that it “represents over 9,000 Christian denominations throughout the world.”  Either way you count the data, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that “Protestantism” is not one thing, but many things.

[55] Moeller, 1979, p. 3.

[56] Arthur Godfrey Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe (New York, 1968), 51, quoted in Eisenstein.

[57] Eisenstein, 176.

[58] Contemporary demographics of Fribourg and Einsiedeln are interesting in light of this consideration:  In the 2000 census Fribourg was 69% Catholic while Einsiedeln was 78% Catholic.

[59] McLuhan, The Medium and the Light, p. 46.

[60] Logan, p. 178.

[61] The addition of chairs was especially ironic for the cathedrals, since the very term cathedral originally meant not only the “principle church of a diocese” but the church containing “the bishop’s throne or chair” — which is what the cathedral term meant in its original etymology, from the Greek  from κατά ‎(katá, “down”) + ἕδρα ‎(hédra, “seat”), thus the word’s evolution from 1.) armchair, to 2.) ceremonial chair (of a teacher, later of a bishop), and finally to, 3.) the office or rank of a teacher or bishop.  Thus, the printing press converted a building designed for one chair into a building designed for thousands of chairs; in this rearranging of the chairs we see another way in which the “authority” of the church shift from the bishops to their congregations.  The original chair-sitters were for those literate few who read the Bible to us.  The new chair sitters were the increasingly literate congregations who could understand and interpret the Bible for themselves, and who needed chairs to sit through the longer exegetical sermons of Protestant worship services.

[62] See Schuchardt, Read Mercer “The Council of Trent 2.0:  The Counter-Reformation as Media Event” unpublished paper delivered at the Media Ecology Association Conference, Bologna, Italy, June 24, 2016.

[63] McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 172.

[64] Meggs, pp. 72-73.

[65] From Clarke’s three laws, the third of which appears in his 1973 revision of his essay, “Hazards of Prophecy:  The Failure of Imagination” in Profiles of the Future (1962).

[66] Postman, Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.

[67] Matthew 16:26

[68] Ryan Jacobs, “What the Pope Really Meant in His Twitter-Indulgences Announcement” The Atlantic, July 19, 2013, accessed online at

[69] Doug G. Ware, “Pope Francis grants plenary indulgence to controversial Legionaries of Christ”, UPI, October 29, 2015, accessed online at

[70] Perhaps most note-worthy is that it was media commentators who seized on the word “conscience” more than anyone else.  While Pope Francis did use the term, he meant it not in the sense of “how I feel” but in the sense of “a conscience informed by Catholic teaching.”  As in his earlier comments about sexuality and other hot-button issues of the day, the change was more a softening of the Pope’s rhetoric than a change in any official church teaching.

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About the Contributor

Read Mercer Schuchardt

Read Mercer Schuchardt
Read Mercer Schuchardt is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of Second Nature and is an Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College. He is the co-author of Understanding Jacques Ellul. He and his wife Rachel have ten children and live in Wheaton, IL. 

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