Martin Luther rightly gets credit for taking on the Roman Catholic Church and providing the impetus for the conflagration known as the Protestant Reformation.
What he rarely gets credit for is his essential role in establishing the printing industry.
Most people who know about Luther understand how important printing — which was still in its fledgling stages — was to the spread of Luther’s ideas. But the relationship of Luther’s ideas and printing is much more than coincidental. It was symbiotic.
Andrew Pettegree, a scholar of the period, makes this point elegantly in his book Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe–and Started the Protestant Reformation. The book details the way that Luther used and adapted himself to the printing process and how he made his hometown of Wittenburg, Germany, a center of the printing industry.
When Johannes Guttenberg put moveable type on his printing press in the 1450s and created a device that would change mankind forever, printing was an expensive and risky business. Producing and distributing a book, especially one like the Guttenberg Bibles that we see in a few libraries and museums today, required time and labor. If a printer took on that task, there had better be a sure market for the product.
A much surer bet was the small tract or brochure. These could be easily, quickly, and inexpensively produced, and if there was demand, they could be sold for a high profit margin.
That’s where Martin Luther came in. When Luther nailed his 95 Theses protesting the sale of indulgences to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517 (well, maybe he did nail them, maybe he didn’t; we’re not sure), he gave voice to a set of resentments toward the Catholic Church that ran through every segment of European culture. It turned out that Luther was both a deep and perceptive think and a clear and precise writer. Pettegree writes:
What was so remarkable was how quickly, instinctively, Luther adapted his writing to optimize benefit for the printing trade. Of his forty-five writing of these years (1517-1521), twenty-one were eight pages long or less. The demand and public interest meant that they often sold out very quickly. Printers got an immediate return for minimum investment. Luther, it very quickly became clear, was a safe bet for the printing industry. (p. 106)
Luther went further than just tailoring what he wrote to a form that printers liked. He also had in mind the readers as well as the printers. Luther knew that the better the tracts that he wrote looked, the more likely they were to be bought and read. Consequently, he paid particular attention to the design and typefaces that were used to present his work.
He found that the printers in Wittenberg could not produce the quality that he was seeking, but the printers in Leipzip could, and he actively recruited them to set up shop in Wittenberg. In a very short time, Luther had become such a popular writer that he could influence these hard-headed businessmen — even though some did not agree with what he wrote — to consider his proposals.
Eventually, Luther got what he was after (although the story is a complicated one), and Wittenberg became one of the major printing centers in all of Europe.
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