The Reformation as Media Event (Part 5)- The Reach of the Printing Press

The following excerpt is the fifth portion of Read Mercer Schuchardt’s piece, The Reformation as Media Event. This excerpt explores 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. 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.  

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.”[1]  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.”[2]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.”[3]  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.[4]  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.[5]

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.[6]  Included in the top five[7] 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”[8] and at least one college named after him still uses this slogan on their website.[9]

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,[10] 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.”[11]  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.[12]  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.”[13]  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.[14]

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.[15]

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[16] 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.

Access the introduction, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, or the full article

[1] Ibid, 174.

[2] Ibid, 177.

[3] Lewis, 10.

[4] See Mumford’s Art and Technics,

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

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

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

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

[9] 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.

[10] Stade and Seidel, p. 72

[11] Ibid, 46.

[12] Eisenstein, 174.

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

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

[15] Steinberg, 19.

[16] 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.

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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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