Did the Printing Press Cause the Protestant Reformation?

Gutenberg Printing Press

Paper making was already in full steam in the Rhineland before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450.  It was thought that paper making was invented in Italy, but actually the Islamic world and China had preceded Western Europe by many centuries.  But once the Rhineland got going, it went full steam.

The German provinces were in turmoil during the 15th century.  In the early 16th century a high-ranking German monk named Martin Luther wrote a complaint in Latin to the Roman papal authorities (his 95 Theses). Over a ten year period this monk’s writings were translated into German and sold by the thousands in the German provinces. The story is of a monk posting his principles on a door; actually they were printed ultimately in German and sold as pamphlets over a long period of time.

Contrary to popular belief, the printing press did not cause the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation needed a means to accomplish its goals and printing was that means. The Christian Church decided to punish the city of Mainz in the years after Gutenberg and as a the result many printers fled. The technology was then dispersed, which sped up the development of printing instead of slowing it down. Alix Christie’s great novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice (2015) shows the rising tension between the Church and the advancing commercial class.   And ultimately the German Reformation used the printing press to advance the writings of Martin Luther that, instead of reforming the Church, ultimately broke its power in the middle of the 17th Century, most dramatically after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

Jack Sheridan is an engineer and amateur historian with an interest in economics and technology.

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Author: Jack Sheridan

Jack Sheridan is an engineer and amateur historian with an interest in economics and technology.

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