Interview with

Guest Contributor

Audio Transcript

The marriage of Christianity to book publishing is a rather natural one. Christians are people of the Book, and we are a people of many books. Where the gospel spreads, literacy spreads. Reading and writing were core priorities for Christians, even from the very beginning. While the Greco-Roman world in the age of the New Testament was busy building and populating elaborate temple structures, Christians were gathering in remote places and homes, far more concerned with reading epistles together as an embodied metaphorical temple of God, rather than establishing any sort of temple tourism. What we inherited from those very first Christians is not a list of places to visit, but a collection of precious letters to read, a point well made in Larry Hurtado’s new book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.

But the story doesn’t end there. Fast-forward to the Protestant Reformation, and there we find an innovative preacher and monk named Martin Luther, who singlehandedly took the printing press from an economically perilous side-industry to one of the central economic forces of his day. With the press, Luther was the first to popularize theological works for the laity. He translated the Bible into the language of the people. He also mastered the art of writing in the vernacular of his day. And he mastered a style of short-form writing that exploded his popularity. In every area, Luther proved himself to be a publishing pioneer, and that incredible story is now told in an excellent book by historian Dr. Andrew Pettegree. I talked with him recently, and today our conversation is being released in the Ask Pastor John podcast series.

Dr. Pettegree serves as professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he is the founding director of the St. Andrews’s Reformation Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, but today we talk about the fascinating book he wrote and titled 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.

If the book sounds exaggerated, it’s not. In fact, one of the things I most appreciate about Dr. Pettegree is his willingness to demythologize Luther when appropriate, going so far as to suggest, instead of the famous Ninety-Five Theses being nailed to the Castle Church door by a hammer in Luther’s hand, it was more likely gently stuck to the door with glue — even possibly at the hands of a university assistant. So to begin, I asked Dr. Pettegree to explain his radical view of Luther’s mythic moment.

Nailed or Glued?

In fact, I’m taking quite a moderate, middle way in suggesting that this was glued up. Back in the 1950s, a historian started a real controversy by suggesting the Ninety-Five Theses weren’t splayed on the church door of Wittenberg at all. I’m inclined to reject that. The reason is that exhibiting the theses on the university notice board (which is exactly what the church door of Wittenberg was at this time) was so routine — so normal — that nobody would have stated they had witnessed it. So I don’t think the fact that no one came forward in 1517 to say, “I saw Luther sticking them up,” is all that important.

We’re also helped by the relatively recent discovery of the single surviving copy of his theses on scholastic theology, which he put forward six weeks before the theses on indulgences, and which completely bombed. These were known only from a much later version until this discovery turned up.

That’s not unusual. These sorts of fugitive pieces — broad sheets, single sheets, printed on one side only — very often don’t survive. They survive only in small numbers, and many editions have simply been lost all together. So if Luther’s original version of the Ninety-Five Theses has been lost, which I’m pretty certain it has, that’s not extraordinary in itself.

I’m pretty sure documents like this were stuck up with glue. And, because so many pieces would have been stuck up (paper pasted on top of each other), the use of a nail would soon have destroyed the door. So the nail idea really is a romantic invention of the nineteenth century.

Pre-Reformation Wittenberg

Tony Reinke: Alright, not so ringing or dramatic. We’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, and it’s my fault. So let’s back up. Rewind to pre-Reformation Wittenberg, Germany. It is a most unlikely backdrop for the drama to follow. Sketch the story for us. What was the town like? How unlikely of a place was it to become the epicenter of cultural transformation and mass media?

Andrew Pettegree: Well, life was pretty slow. Wittenberg was a relatively tiny place. It probably had only about two thousand inhabitants then. It was regarded, not least by Luther himself, as very much on the fringes of civilization. It was further north and east than other of the great cities of North Germany, like Erfurt and Leipzig. It was out of the way. It was off the beaten track, and most sophistication (as much as there was at the time) was to be found in larger places — principally Leipzig (the established university town) and Erfurt (another major center of scholarship).

When Luther was invited to go to Wittenberg, to have a temporary position as a professor there in their new university, he thought he had really gotten the short straw. He wasn’t at all pleased. Looking back on this experience many years later in life, he uses this expression about it being on the very boundaries of civilization.

It was rescued by the fact that Wittenberg was also the capital of a very important principality — the Electorate of Saxony. Its elector, Frederick the Wise, was determined to make something of Wittenberg. So he did what princes do: He founded a choir for his chapel, and he imported a court painter. He brought in the court painter, Lucas Cranach, who, of course, would be very important in Luther’s life. He started a big library. Most of all, he started a university because there was no university in his territory. Leipzig was in the part of Saxony which had been carved up for his cousin, so it was really important for Frederick (as one of the most important princes of the German Empire) to have a university.

It was this that brought Luther to Wittenberg in the first place, but it was a very modest little place. It was probably no more than two or three streets. At this point, the streets weren’t even paved. Crucially, Wittenberg didn’t really have, like the great cities Augsburg and Nuremberg, an elite of merchants who ruled the place. The leading traders of Wittenberg were quite modest people. There were a lot of people working in farming or at breweries, so it was fairly agricultural and really not very sophisticated at all.

Gutenberg Printing Press

Tony Reinke: Among other things, you’re an expert on the history of European books. Sketch a little history of Gutenberg’s printing press from 1436 to Luther in 1517. Books existed already; mostly they were handwritten manuscripts in academic libraries, so books were common and accessible in universities. Prior to Luther, what was the printing press used for during this early era?

Andrew Pettegree: Well, yes, it’s a good thing to start with the reflection that medieval Europe was already full of books — handwritten books, which were often very beautiful and were a very flexible medium. This is one of the things about the manuscript book: basically, the owner of a text would pretty much decide the contents. They didn’t need to have the whole of a book copied for them. They could have the bits they wanted, and they could then put it in a volume with other bits from other books. So it was a very flexible medium.

It also facilitated decoration. So when printing came along, it wasn’t immediately obvious to the existing owners of manuscripts that they’d be much better off. Gutenberg really solved the technical difficulties of printing, very, very early. It was a masterpiece of technology, but it proved to be a very difficult sell. Instead of having one copy of a manuscript (which had been desired by the person who brings it into being), you have two or three hundred copies, probably even more. Now they had to be sold to people who, until that moment, hadn’t even known that they wanted it. Furthermore, those two or three hundred people might be spread all around Europe. And furthermore, instead of the multicolored object that was their manuscript book, they were being offered something in black and white.

In many respects, the printing press represented a step backwards for book culture rather than a step forwards. It’s important to recognize that. The publishers of the first books very often went bankrupt. Gutenberg’s the shining example, but it happened over and over again in Europe, because they now had too many books they wanted to sell to too few people. So in order for books to survive — in order for print to survive as a technology — they had to find a way to reach new markets.

This happened in two stages. First of all, it turned out that the ruling powers — the church and the governors of Germany and elsewhere — were the printer’s best friend, because they provided lots of regular work. This was work often being done for a single client who would pay for the whole job. Instead of having these two or three hundred copies of a complex Latin text to sell to people all over Europe, the local prince would come and say, “I need two hundred copies of an ordinance against beggars.” You’d print this up for them, his secretary would come and get it, and you’d get paid. It was the ideal job for a printer. The church, too, was a very good client — not least in its sale of indulgences. Indulgence sales required enormous amounts of print: sermons, announcements, and copies of papal bulls, and most of all, the indulgence certificates themselves.

So one of the ironies of Luther’s movement is that he was attacking one of the major sources of income of the print industry, and he, therefore, had to be a better bet for them than what he was urging them to discontinue. This worked. A lot of the people who printed for Luther had, in the years before the Reformation, printed for the church, and therefore, printed indulgences. What the Reformation did, and why this is critical to the history of printing, is it inculcated the habit of buying books into many people who would not have previously owned books and certainly not have owned a collection of books.

Luther managed this by his instinctive sense that the printing press was a way to present theology, in German, to a wider audience in short text. All of these things were new, and together they were a revolutionary cocktail.

‘Badges of Identity’

Tony Reinke: Incredible. That’s a very fascinating story. I want to talk about indulgences a little later, but I want to underline this point here, because I think we take it for granted. Luther’s use of the printing press brought about the new need to sell books to people who didn’t know what was inside the book, and that meant broadening the market considerably. So what drew new book buyers to Luther?

Andrew Pettegree: That’s correct at the beginning. What would have sold the books to these people is the scandal of Luther. The sense buzzing around the news world was that something very odd was going on in this tiny place in North Germany — this monk was standing up against the whole church. I think what attracted people to Luther was first of all curiosity.

Now it’s also true that for Luther’s protest to become a movement, it needed other people to join in. It was because ministers would stand up in their own pulpits and priests would stand up in their own pulpits and say, “You’ve heard of this man Martin Luther, and I have to tell you that what he’s teaching is right. His criticisms of the church are justified.” The Reformation actually doesn’t really establish itself successfully in many places where there isn’t a local minister preaching in support of Luther. That’s where Luther’s Latin works are important. He’s still a very effective Latin writer, and this is persuading his fellow priests that his criticisms are justified.

This has a sort of snowball effect. Once their respected local preacher is preaching in this way, people will begin to go out and buy Luther’s work. Once they buy one, they buy many, because one of the things about Luther is he writes an extraordinary number of different, original works in this first five years of the Reformation. These are printed all around Germany in a sort of sequence. First, they print in Wittenberg, then in Leipzig, then in Augsburg and Nuremberg, Basalt, and Strasbourg. So they ricochet in this way around all of the major printing centers of Germany.

Tony Reinke:Fascinating. So Luther’s books become more than just books; they seem to signify the growing momentum of the man and his movement.

Andrew Pettegree: Yes, it’s an opportunity for inquiring minds to delve deeper. It also becomes, as people become more convinced of Luther, a way in which people can make a token (if you like) of allegiance. People may already have decided, based on what they heard in the pulpit and based on what they heard about Luther, that he was a holy man. They respected him, and they worried about his fate. Maybe they’d seen him on one of his great journeys across Germany in the first years of the Reformation. So they buy a book in order to attach themselves to a party. I’ve said before, it’s almost like buying the program when you go to a major sports event. It’s not as if by buying the program you can affect the outcome of what’s going to happen, but it is a way of signaling allegiance. I think books become in this way badges of identity.

How a Brand Was Built

Tony Reinke: Fascinating. Alright, so Gutenberg himself, as I understand it, was a devout Roman Catholic. As you mentioned earlier, his printing press was employed by the church to churn out certificates of indulgences. So now take us forward to 1517. Luther was a preacher in Wittenberg. Now in 1517 or thereabouts, he launches his brand, as you call it, by using the press. In a nutshell, how did Luther pull together his press to support his ambitions from the rudimentary printing press available locally?

Andrew Pettegree: Well this is actually quite difficult. And this is one of the major obstacles to the spread of the Reformation. The first press isn’t established in Wittenberg until 1502. That’s right at the beginning of the university, and a full fifty years since printing had been operating in other parts of Germany. Until that point, any books required in this small place would have been supplied from either Erfurt or Leipzig.

To be honest, things didn’t much change when the first printing press arrived. I think in the first fifteen years of the press, which went through several pairs of hands, it turned out fewer than ten works a year, and most of these were very small. It wouldn’t even be fully occupied. The works were of quite a rudimentary quality, and even the professors, if they wanted something done which was more serious, wouldn’t use the Wittenberg press to do it. This wasn’t very loyal, but academic ambition doesn’t always go with local loyalty.

When Luther came along, he did use the local printer, Johannes Rhau-Grunenberg. It simply wasn’t satisfactory. Rhau-Grunenberg had a single press. He was rather slow. He was rather deliberate. And though he was a faithful supporter of Luther — and Luther was quite faithful to him too — he simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of events. Eventually, Luther was forced to send books to Leipzig to get them printed.

Now in the first days of the Reformation, this worked by this sort of ricochet effect I’ve been describing: Rhau-Grunenberg’s first editions were reprinted quickly elsewhere, and this was quite an effective way of spreading the word. But Luther realized it just couldn’t stay like this. He had to have a better source of printing in Wittenberg. He actually took the personal initiative of ensuring that a second print shop was established in Wittenberg. He got one of the most experienced Leipzig printers to send his son to start a branch office in Wittenberg. Then with this much better equipped shop, the Wittenberg press improved enormously.

Perhaps the critical element of this was not the Leipzig shop itself moving to Wittenberg; it was the involvement of the painter Lucas Cranach. Cranach was, by this point, one of the richest people in Wittenberg. He built a huge workshop and factory where he turned out art for the prints. He also was extremely shrewd financially, and he recognized that printing was a big growth area to get into. This is what created the brand, because Cranach created for Wittenberg printed works beautiful title pages with exquisite Renaissance borders. And into these woodcut frames could then be placed a title with Luther’s name, and below that, Wittenberg. It’s this which I think brands Luther’s works very effectively.

I think I’m more sure of this now than when I wrote the book. One of my students has been working on this material, and he’s discovered not only the vast number of books which appeared in this uniform, with these wonderful woodcuts, but a number of times that these Wittenberg images were plagiarized by printers outside Wittenberg. Not only did they recut the woodcuts to give them the appearance of Cranach’s work, but they actually put Wittenberg on the title pages as well. So they were appropriating the Wittenberg brand in order to sell books which weren’t printed in Wittenberg. I think that must have been very frustrating for Cranach, but it was a mark of just how successful this had been.

Economics of the Press

Tony Reinke: Yeah, that’s interesting. Designers have always been important to the history of Reformation book printing, even five hundred years ago. And of course, Cranach is most famous for Luther portraits. Luther himself was very clearly a master of book aesthetics and design. These are big deals for him. So the popularity of Luther’s works generate massive sales that benefit the press and push his further works. Give us a sense of the economics of Luther’s publishing momentum.

Andrew Pettegree: Well, there was some absolute growth in the market in the sense that people spent more to put disposable ink in books. There was also an extent to which these sums were being redirected to the public and to the buying of Luther pamphlets from other purposes — whether it was longer Latin books or, indeed, indulgence certificates because a single certificate of indulgence might actually cost you a very considerable sum.

Just before 1517, the German church had introduced a sort of sliding scale, a sort of income-related tax which you had to pay for your indulgence. So if you decided that on theological grounds you would no longer supply yourself with indulgences, that left quite a lot of disposable income which could then be redeployed into other sorts of books. In general, the market grew in absolute terms and also shifted from Latin to German. It was also the case that so many of Luther’s texts are so short, that you actually could buy quite a lot of texts for the same amount of money that you would want to spend on a single Latin text. The economics were very much in favor of the Reformation.

The good thing about these small books was the rate of return. If you published a sixteen-page quarto pamphlet, that needed only two pieces of paper printed front and back and then folded, so that’s basically two days’ work. So within three or four days of getting the text into the shop, and getting your compositor to make up the printed pages, you’ve got something to sell. And Luther sold so well that you might sell out the whole edition without the need to send it anywhere but where your shop was — whether that was Wittenberg or Augsburg.

Compare that to a major Latin text that would have required perhaps nine months to complete the printing. It would then have to be sent to other major towns in order to sell the entire edition. Which means that in order to make back your costs, it might take you the better part of two years, and indeed, you might not make back the whole cost because by the time all these larger books have been sold there were so many other people involved — the carters who carried them along, the booksellers who sold them, the wholesalers who took stock off your hands, the money changers who brought the cash back to you in terms of bills of exchange — all of this was eroding profit. With Luther’s books, because of their local sales and because it was so rapid, you got a very, very rapid rate of return. That meant that these small print shops in places like Wittenberg were quickly building capital to take on the bigger projects like Luther’s translation of the Bible.

When Reformation Really Began

Tony Reinke: And the translation and printing of that Bible is no small footnote in Luther’s legacy. But you actually use one of those key short works to date the real beginning of the Protestant Reformation to the spring of 1518. I’m talking about Luther’s short book The Sermon on Indulgences and Grace. It’s a very short book of just 1,500 words. Writing theology for the masses through short-form writings was a particular innovation of Luther, as you say in your own book. So for Luther, how fast could he turn out a new book like this one — from writing to printing?

Andrew Pettegree: Well, that’s a very interesting question. You have to think that he was writing extremely fast because he published, I think, something like forty-five original writings in the first three years of the Reformation. It’s an astonishing achievement. All of these were very reactive. They were responses to other people.

It’s also the case that none of this work reduced his normal duties — his duties in the university, or his preaching in the town church. I read a letter recently where Luther is complaining about his workload. He’s overwhelmed by all this, not least his correspondence because, of course, he responded to people personally who wrote in to say, “I’m very troubled by what you’ve been saying.” Or, “I’m very enthusiastic about what you’ve been saying.” All of these letters required an individual response. And then he tells us he’s actually teaching the children of Wittenberg their catechism on a daily basis.

So the sheer physical resilience of this man at a time of extreme stress must have been quite remarkable. By about 1530 he was pretty sick, and although he lives on till 1546, he was really never in good health again. I think the first years were just a sort of wild, adrenalized ride, helped by the fact that he was fairly phlegmatic about the outcomes for himself. He didn’t really expect to survive this confrontation.

Rome Outsold

Tony Reinke: No he did not, and that is an important point in the story. Marshall McLuhan, the late Roman Catholic and media ecologist, is less impressed by all this. He once said, on the rise of the printing press by Luther, “The church was destroyed or dismembered in that era by a stupid historical blunder, by a technology” (The Medium and the Light, 46). Luther, I presume, did not think of the printing press as a “stupid historical blunder,” but as a divine gift. From Rome’s view, what do you think McLuhan means?

Andrew Pettegree: Well, I’m not sure what Marshall McLuhan means there. If he means that the blunder from the point of view of the Church was not to embrace the press themselves, then he may have something. Before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church — the orthodox Church — was the major client of the press. Forty percent of everything that was produced on the press was produced for the Church. The difficulty for opponents of Luther was that they really didn’t think this popular theology was appropriate. They didn’t think that theology should be discussed with lay people. They thought this should be kept in the clerical family. It was that which really hamstrung people who disapproved of Luther.

Luther’s opponents were actually very capable. But they were, by and large, writing in Latin. The historical blunder of Rome was the refusal to follow Luther into the vernacular. By the time they woke up to that fact and began producing vernacular works, Luther had so much of an advantage that, by and large, their works didn’t sell. The test is the marketplace here. Luther and his supporters sold nine books for every one that their Catholic opponents sold. It was that imbalance that really made it very difficult to restrain the impact of the Reformation.

Personality on the Page

Tony Reinke: Luther’s vernacular works, even today, are loaded with a profound amount of his personal verve and unction and magnetism, and even quite a bit of his profanity. I can only imagine what he was like in person. Unlike other Reformation leaders, Luther’s personality (for good or bad) really oozes from the printed page. Where did Luther learn how to transfer his personality to the page?

Andrew Pettegree: Well, that’s one of the miracles of the Reformation. I mean, there’s nothing in Luther’s training to suggest this astonishing facility as a vernacular writer. He was in his thirties before he’d published anything. He’d had a perfectly conventional theological education. He was known famously for having been assailed by prodigious doubts about his own salvation and about his relationship with God. That doesn’t suggest someone who would bring to the written word tremendous clarity.

This is a gift, and it’s an unpredictable gift. But the reward, as has always been the case for early adopters of technological innovation, is that they get the field to themselves — much in the sense that the first politicians to look good on television are still inscribed in our memory because they sensed something that was not yet a completely formed being. Somehow Luther did this. And it’s quite right to say that, until Luther, theological writing was never brief and never had this extraordinary directness.

How did Luther find this? I think what’s important, but doesn’t quite explain it, is his experience as a parish minister. He was not just a professor, but he was also the minister of the parish church. He would have had the experience of standing in front of the congregation in the one and only parish church in Wittenberg. He would have seen the congregation in front of him, would have seen their reactions, and he would have known when they were listening and when they were not.

I see something of this same sense — the sense of what the people could understand — in his early work, even in the Ninety-Five Theses themselves. I mean, ten of the theses towards the end are basically quotes of what people have said to them: “People complain that . . .” or “People say this about Rome . . .” And that’s quite unusual, taking the original Latin, in an academic document like the dissertation theses.