Martin Luther: trade-off between textual control and distribution

Early in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther’s work rapidly spread across Europe. Luther issued his Ninety-Five Theses in Latin on October 31, 1517. They became known across Europe in about a month. The Ninety-Five Theses and other subsequent works of Luther were widely reprinted. Between 1518 and 1519, there were about 1,350 reprintings of Luther’s tracts. By 1524, over a million copies of Luther’s writing were in circulation in Europe.[1] An obscure monk in 1517, Luther by 1521 was one of the most famous persons in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

No one directed or controlled the distribution of Luther’s work. Luther wrote in Latin and in German. German was the language of most persons in German lands. Latin connected Luther to an educated elite across Europe:

The educated élite who could understand Latin and theological debate was no longer composed only of churchmen and professors. [Luther’s theses] were initially read by a small group of learned laymen who were less likely to gather on the church steps than in urban workshops where town and gown met to exchange gossip and news, peer over editors’ shoulders, check copy and read proof. There, also, new schemes for promoting bestsellers were being tried out. [2]

Without the constraint of legal doctrines of copyright or any other controlling authority, religious and commercial innovators and entrepreneurs freely shared, reprinted, adapted, translated, and sold Luther’s work. Their interests and Luther’s interests were loosely joined:

The printers at Wittenberg at times even published material that Luther did not want to have published. This aspect of the matter annoyed him no end, but on the other hand he was glad to have their services and had no serious objection to these sometimes overly enthusiastic colporteurs of his message.[3]

Luther’s writing and ideas were appropriated and incorporated in works directed at popular readership outside German lands:

very few of Luther’s writings were translated into non-German vernaculars — a few into Dutch, and two or three into English and French. On the other hand, many of Luther’s early German writings were translated into Latin and, as the case of William Tyndale so tellingly shows, he was extensively plagiarized.[4]

The interpretations and presentations of Luther’s ideas in non-German vernaculars were not authoritative, but they had great communicative effect.

The institutional Church controlled communication much more tightly and communicated much less quickly and much less widely. The Council of Trent, an important response of the Church to the religious turmoil of the early sixteenth century, met three times from 1545 to 1563. Pope Pius IV’s bull accompanying the concluding decrees of the Council set out a tightly controlled communication system for the decrees:

that these things may come to the knowledge of all men, and that no one may use the excuse of ignorance; We will and ordain, that, in the Vatican Basilica of the prince of the apostles, and in the Lateran church, at the time when the people is wont to assemble there to be present at the solemnization of masses, this letter be publicly read in a loud voice by certain officers of our court; and that, after having been read, it be affixed to the doors of those churches, and also to the gates of the Apostolic Chancery, and to the usual place in the Campo di Fiore; and be there left for some time, to be read by and to come to the knowledge of all men. And when removed thence, copies being, according to custom, left in those same places, it shall be committed to the press in our good city, that so it may be more conveniently made known throughout the provinces and kingdoms of the Christian name. And we ordain and decree, that, without any doubt, faith be given to copies thereof written or subscribed by the hand of a public notary, and guaranteed by the seal and signature of some person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity.[5]

Interpretative and derivative works were also controlled:

in order to avoid the perversion and confusion which might arise, if each one were allowed, as he might think fit, to publish his own commentaries and interpretations on the decrees of the Council; We, by apostolic authority, forbid all men, as well ecclesiastics, of whatsoever order, condition, and rank they may be, as also laymen, with whatsoever honor and power invested; prelates, to wit, under pain of being interdicted from entering the church, and all others whomsoever they be, under pain of excommunication incurred by the fact, to presume, without our authority to publish, in any form, any commentaries, glosses, annotations, scholia, or any kind of interpretation whatsoever of the decrees of the said Council.[6]

By the early sixteenth century, an independent, decentralized, commercially oriented, competitive printing and book-selling business had developed in Europe. The Church organized communication of the decrees of the Council of Trent so as to keep it outside of the new printing and book-selling business.

In retrospect about five hundred years later, the split between Luther and the Church seems to have been mainly a communication problem.  Communication problems are difficult problems.  For a communicative endeavor to succeed, it must have actually necessary and feasible control within a sufficiently effective communication system.

* * * * *
Notes:

[1] Hillerbrand, Hans J., “The Spread of the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century: A Historical Case Study in the Transfer of Ideas,” The South Atlantic Quarterly LXVII (Spring 1968) p. 275.

[2] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 2 vols. (Cambridge University Press: 1980), vol. I, pp. 308-9.

[3] Hillerbrand, “Spread,” p. 275.

[4] Ibid. p. 282.

[5] Bull of Pius IV, February 7, 1564, printed after canons and decrees in The Council of Trent, The Twenty-Fifth Session, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848).

[6] Ibid.

5 thoughts on “Martin Luther: trade-off between textual control and distribution”

  1. About: “In retrospect about five hundred years later, the split between Luther and the Church seems to have been mainly a communication problem.”

    Yup. Communication between people and people; clergy and people; people and God; clergy and God; people and clergy and God.

    I’m not sure if there’s ever been a major religious schism that wasn’t about communication.

    Then again, I’m one of those maniacs who thinks that everything is about communication.

    Nice link to the Josephinum, btw. It’s less than 10 miles from where I live, and a beautiful campus. I went to visit a few years back when a major Vatican exhibit was on display. Lovely.

    Cool blog post. I’m digging it. Interesting way to grok the reformation.

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