The Reformation as Media Event (Part 3)- The Mindset of the Reformation

The following excerpt is the third portion of Read Mercer Schuchardt’s piece, The Reformation as Media Event. This excerpt explores the ways in which the printing press produced the mindset of the Reformation. 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 the video can be viewed here.

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[1] 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.[2]  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.[3]


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”[4]  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.[5]

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.[6]  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.

Access the introduction, parts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, or the full article

[1] 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.”

[2] Edwards, pp. 36-37

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

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

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

[6] 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.

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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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