The Religious Impact of the Printing Press

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., Universtity of Tennessee

The printing press, when invented by Johann Gutenberg in the 1400s, had an immense impact on the world as it existed then. It revolutionized the society of the time, bolstered social movements such as the Renaissance, and became one of the pioneering points in the scientific revolution. A huge impact was also felt on the religious discourse at the time, from strengthening the authority of the Church to laying the groundwork for the Protestant Movement. 

The Holy Bible on a wooden table with Christian Rosary Beads.
Some of the biggest impacts of the print revolution were felt on the Religious discourse of Medieval Europe. (Image: Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why the impact of the printing press was so significant on religion was the fact that Religion already played a huge part in Medieval Europe, and the entire paradigm was subjected to a series of changes when the printing press was invented. In Medieval Europe, the concept of religion was closely tied with sovereign authority, and the written word had, to a large extent, contributed to the existing pattern. 

Religion and the Written Word before the Printing Press

Before the printing press, the writing was always done by hand. It was a privilege, reserved by the elites, especially clerks and monks. So, religious authorities pretty much had monopolistic control over written texts, which were written on papyrus or vellum and stored in the libraries of monasteries and cathedrals, which soon began to emerge as repositories of rare, sometimes even unique, texts. Scribes would at times copy these texts, trying to avoid any variability, as and when needed. 

All of this happened in the special, holy language of Latin, not in vernacular tongues. This further restricted access to the written word to those who had learned Latin. 

Although Gutenberg’s printing press effectively democratized access to the written word, it did so by holding strong ties with the religious authority. 

Re-establishing Christian Authority With the Press

All evidence points to Gutenberg being a practical and shrewd businessman, and this notion is strengthened by the fact that Gutenberg based his early business model to revolve around Christian religious authority. 

At this point in time, the Catholic Church had been going through a tumultuous time for a few centuries already and had been rocked by the Western Schism from 1378 to 1417, when at one point, three Christian rival popes asserted their claims to ascend the throne of Christian spiritual authority. 

Even after a council had settled the dispute, the house of Christians seemed to be rife with uncertainty, and there was a slew of reformers circling it. 

In such circumstances, Gutenberg used his printing press to come up with new, uniform, and ‘approved’ versions of the Bible. This move was made in a bid to achieve religious practice and belief, and reinforce the presiding authority over Christendom. The cathedrals and monasteries of medieval Europe, which had hitherto themselves been havens of sacred written texts, became the perfect market for the printing press and its products, creating a strong demand for improved and recognized printed texts. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Turk Calendar

Gutenberg’s association with religion did not stop at printing Bibles. He also produced pamphlets that spoke of widespread issues of the time, including a papal proclamation calling for a Crusade against the Turks, as retaliation for Constantinople. He also printed indulgences, which were special forms issued by the Catholic authorities, to offer liberation from one’s sins in exchange for acts of penance and a monetary payment. The funds accumulated from these indulgences went towards a special purpose: the Crusade against the Turks. Gutenberg also printed a special ‘Turk Calendar’, as it was referred to, which contained monthly calls for the Crusade against the Turks. In this manner, the first productions of print media were a form of retaliation against rising Turkish influence, which had, of late, taken down Constantinople. 

Learn more about The Fall of Constantinople.

On the one hand, Gutenberg’s invention had been helping the Catholic Church. On the other hand, however, it soon provided a strong impetus to the protestant movement which called for reformations of the Catholic Church.

Reforming Religion: The Protestant Movement and the Printing Press

At the time when Gutenberg’s printing press had become popular, there had been calls for reforms to the Catholic Church for a few centuries. But about 50 years after the invention, the printing press itself played a pivotal role in supercharging the Protestant Reformation.

This unlikely union began in 1517, when the Catholic priest Martin Luther announced his famous Ninety-Five Theses, raising the call for major revamps in the Church, ironically also including the need to abolish the indulgences, such as the ones Gutenberg had been printing. 

Statue of the Catholic Priest, Martin Luther.
Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was one of the pivotal works which brought about the Protestant Movement. (Image: TarnPisessith/Shutterstock)

In the past, these calls for reform had gradually either been accepted, or simply ignored, and this had been going on for a number of centuries.
However, instead of the reform message simply evaporating, the invention of the printing press actually managed to disseminate the ardent messages of Luther’s writings with unprecedented speed and force, soon spreading all over Europe like wildfire. 

At the time, about one-third of all the books printed in Germany, which were close to a million books a year, were written by Luther. Technically, that really made Martin Luther the first-ever modern bestselling author. By the year 1600, nearly half of Europe was Protestant. 

Print: The Perfect Medium for the Message

In a sense, the fit between medium and message was perfect. The message of Sola Scriptura, or ‘scripture alone’, was what Luther attempted to propagate, and the new power of the printing press to print scripture for the masses worked extremely well with it. It was quite natural, in fact, that print held a deep significance for the Protestants, given their stress on how important it was for believers to read God’s word, the Bible, themselves, in a direct manner.

Reading the written word in a direct manner, from the source of authority, implied that everyone was themselves responsible for their salvation and their relationship to God. Further, the printing revolution also meant that the now mass-produced and readily available Bible was easily accessible to the masses. 

Martin Luther’s movement, which began as a reform within the Church, now ended up creating a chasm within Christianity, pitting the Protestants against the Catholics. 

Each side of the movement began to use the printing press to put forth their views on the topic and debate the views of the other side. Many books that were deemed as heretical were also burned and banned. The divisions within the Christian community that followed subsequently led to a lot of violence in the form of religious wars and slaughters and the divide that was created continues to exist within Christianity to this day. 

The Print Revolution, therefore, began its relationship with religion by becoming a solidifying factor for Christian authority and ended up becoming a significant cause of disruptions in the community. 

Learn more about Gutenberg’s Print Revolution.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Religious Impact of the Printing Press

Q: How did the press revolution impact Christianity?

The printing press created large changes in Christianity in Medieval Europe, beginning by solidifying the authority of Christian authority over society, and went on to become a stepping stone for the Protestant Reformation.

Q: What was the purpose of the Indulgences?

Gutenberg’s printing press printed indulgences for the Christian authority, which were special, official forms that ‘liberated’ people from sins in exchange for monetary payment and acts of penance.

Q: How was Martin Luther impacted by the printing press?

The printing press disseminated the work of the Catholic Priest Martin Luther, including his magnum opus, Ninety-Five Theses, which allowed the Protestant Reformation to spread like Wildfire.

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