Religious Change and Print, 1450-1700

Religion Shapes Print: Luther’s 1520 Pamphlets

Luther recognized the limitations of print as well as its potential. Print culture in 1517 could not solve the array of problems and challenges triggered by momentous religious change. Luther, often under duress, had to develop new techniques, materials, and strategies that could solve these problems. For example, in January 1520, the papacy opened an official investigation into Luther’s ideas, one that Luther expected to turn out badly for him. In order to defend himself, he used a relatively new form of publication that he almost single-handedly perfected: pamphlets, known in German as Flugschriften. Quite different from long, dense theological treatises, Luther’s pamphlets were ideal for bringing his message before a wide public audience: they were fairly short, approachable in tone, easy to carry and store, and, above all, cheap. 

It was with this genre that Luther won public support for his ideas in Germany and elsewhere well before the papacy could silence him. After news of the papal investigation reached him, he quickly wrote three important pamphlets that carefully explained his position and sharpened his criticism of the Church in a fashion to which his audience would respond. On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, for instance, which informed his readers of how the Church’s sacramental system was a deceit meant to keep the Bible away from them, earned him new levels of support among the humanist intellectual community. Others, such as the address To the German Nobility, were written specifically in German, bringing these simple yet powerful criticisms before a larger audience than a Latin treatise could command. Thanks to Luther’s savvy adaptation of the printing press to his purposes, the public relations battle was over quickly, won by him long before the papacy could issue an official condemnation. 

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  1. De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae
  2. An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung