The Reformation as Media Event (Part 6)- The Counter-Reformation

The following excerpt is the sixth portion of Read Mercer Schuchardt’s piece, The Reformation as Media Event. This excerpt explores the ways in which the Printing Press produced the vast majority of the Counter-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.

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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.”[1]  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.[2]

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.”[3]  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.[4] As Marshall McLuhan put it, “the Church was… dismembered… by a stupid historical blunder, by a technology.”[5]

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.[6]  It put pews in the churches[7] 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.[8]  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. [9]

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.”

Access the introduction, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, or the full article

[1] Moeller, 1979, p. 3.

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

[3] Eisenstein, 176.

[4] 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.

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

[6] Logan, p. 178.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

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

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

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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 founder of Metaphilm and co-author of Understanding Jacques Ellul. He and his wife Rachel have nine children and live in Wheaton, IL. 

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