A Literary Weapon: The printing press and the dissolution of Catholic culture in 16th Century England

It has been made a Question long agoe, whether more mischief then advantage were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the Invention of Typography.

—Roger L’Estrange ( 1660 )

In 1517, a German Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in the city of Wittenberg.[1] Titled, the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of indulgences,” the 95 Theses were written in protest of papal indulgency.[2] In response to Luther’s “protest,” a religious movement known as “Protestantism,” emerged and in the 150 years that followed, Western Europe would suffer as a result of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants.[3] The 16th century is known as the age of European Reformation, an era defined by violent hostilities between two religious bodies, both of whom fought zealously to protect their beliefs.[4] In considering the hostilities that existed between Catholic and Protestant bodies, physical warfare is most commonly discussed. However, in the wake of stirring dissension, the printing press played a vital role in shaping public attitudes toward Protestantism. Concepts pertaining to intellectual freedom and the emergence of news reporting infiltrated cities and the minds of Europeans. The invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century sparked intense political debate pertaining to doctrinal authority in early modern Europe by promoting and enabling the circulation of reformist literature. The propagation of anti-Catholic writings distributed by the press perpetuated the cultural and political upheaval that defined Europe’s social landscape in the 16th century.

The European Reformation was, therefor, more than just a religious revolution. It was a literary revolution. It paralleled an intellectual revolution that transformed European cities and ultimately pervaded the minds of citizens. The press itself could be seen as a major propagandist in the wake of mass textual distribution.

Protestantism was the first religious movement to fully exploit the printing press. Reformers distributed anti-Catholic pamphlets, cartoons and writings at an unprecedented rate and used the new presses for “overt propaganda,” which would ultimately agitate public opinion.[5] Protestant incendiaries used the press to print disparaging and often satirical caricatures of Catholic figures. One 16th century print depicts the pope with several cardinals and bishops, all of whom have had their heads replaced by those of wolves, ducks or geese.[6]

Satire played an important role in the spread of propagandist pamphleteering, which gained particular momentum in Elizabethan England when an event known as the Marprelate controversy unfolded in 1589.[7] A collection of Puritan writers published a series of “satirical tracts” under the pseudonym “Martin Marprelate.” The pamphlets were written in support of Presbyterian beliefs and were an outright attack on episcopal hierarchy.[8] The pamphlets published slanderous writings that attacked Anglican bishops, vilifying them as “profane, proud, paltry, popish, pestilent, pernicious” and “presumptuous prelates.”[9] In response, the government condemned a suspected man named John Penry, a Welsh Puritan sometimes referred to as the “hot-headed Welshman.”[10] He was charged with “inciting rebellion,” and was hung in 1593.[11]

The Marprelate tracts are a compelling example of how “populist” literature vehemently deliberated on the era’s most important controversies.[12] They sparked heated debate and considerations pertaining to the nature of printed works and the role of the printing press in England.[13] The controversy’s ensuing response included the emergence of Marprelate antagonists such as the brothers Richard and Gabriel Harvey and anti-Martinist writers like Thomas Nashe. Nashe relied on the use of a “Martin-esque scurrilous voice”[14] in his counter-attacks and the development of varying literary voices forced writers to examine their positions in the industry as well as those of their rivals. (44).

The press was gaining popularity, and “populist” works spread quickly. The public was impressionable and the pamphlets had proved to be an incredibly strong weapon in swaying public opinion. For this very reason, Gabriel Harvey deeply objected to defamatory anti-Martinist writing. He argued that the proliferate nature of the press “attracted an indescrimante readerships which sought controversy for its own sake.”[15]  Harvey’s apprehension grew from the fact that the market for printed works was flourishing at a revolutionary rate.[16] Furthermore, populist writing in Elizabethan England was seen as a form of writing that pre-meditatively conjured scandalous stories in an attempt to capture the interest of a “fickle public.”[17] As the press expanded, opportunities arose and populist literature was fuelled by the emergence of a market that deployed non-academic writing.[18] As the literary scene developed, so too did public opinion. The scale on which information was distributed forever changed, and in turn, the social landscape changed too, giving impetus to riots, libel and a splintered belief system.

Propagandist works infiltrated many public institutions. Although the fortunes of printing industries across Europe varied in reasons for their success, religion played an inherent role in the thriving nature of certain printing enterprises. The first export industry in Geneva, for instance, was developed by religious French refugees.[19]

John Calvin, a French Theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation helped reform the Church in Geneva and the city’s disposition was greatly altered. At the time of his death in 1564, the only exportable product in Geneva was the printed book, and was considered a “religious as well as economic enterprise.”[20] The influx of French refugees into Calvinist Geneva further precipitated changes to the city’s professional structure.[21] The number of printers and book vendors increased from somewhere around six, to three hundred or more.[22] In the 1550’s numerous French printing companies began to fail. Prior to the printing boom in Geneva, the movement of workers between Lyons and Geneva had gone two-ways, but following the rapid expansion of Geneva’s press traffic flooded out of Lyon, and some other regions of France, and into Geneva.

The fate of Protestant printers and booksellers in Lyon and other French cities was precarious. They were frequently the target of attacks by Catholic mobs.[23] In 1562, Protestant forces took control of Lyon, but the city was later re-taken by Catholic forces in 1567.[24] The banks of the Rhone were flooded by celebrations which entailed the burning of heretical books.[25] Such celebrations greatly characterize the attitudes and behaviour that defined social life in France as a result of controversies highlighted in the press. Similarly, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres in 1572 were characterized by attacks on printers in cities including, but not limited to Lyon, Paris, Orleans and Rouen.[26]

Not only did the press affect the demographic of different cities as industries boomed and collapsed, but systems of trade influenced flourishing communities.[27] The demand for “vernacular Scriptures, Psalters and service books” among Protestant enclaves fostered reciprocal relationships between printers and “communities of strangers.”[28] Supplying minority groups with service books not only led these minorities to develop affiliations with foreign traders, but it also brought about an awareness of existing nuances in the Christian approach to liturgy.[29]

In considering the printing press, Luther described it as “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”[30] Protestant reformers were well aware of the press’ importance in their writing and it is increasingly evident to the modern historian that the anti-papist cartoons and writings produced by Lutheran exponents aroused passionate discourse in the 16th century.[31]

Meanwhile, the press’ massive impact on social life may be noted in the number of distributed works. Between 1517 and 1520, Luther’s thirty publications likely sold over 300,000 copies.[32] Without the press, a revolution of such magnitude may never have come into existence. For the first time in human history, the works of writers and cartoonists reached an emerging class of literate individuals. These individuals would judge the “validity of revolutionary ideas,”[33] sparking a religious and political revolution that extended beyond the clergy, the monarchy or the opinions of aristocrats. The changing political and social landscape would henceforth be equally manipulated by commoners. The printing press ultimately came to be recognized as an important instrument in overcoming a societal structure that had been monopolized by the Church for ages. Propagandist works, distributed by members of opposing religious parties, shaped the political and religious landscape of the 16th century, all the while, wielding printed work like a whetted sword.

 

 

Bibliography

“The Scottish Reformation.” BBC Scotland. 2014. Accessed April 1, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/scottish_reformation/.

Mullett, Michael. “Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: Michael Mullett Defines the Role of the 95 Theses in the Lutheran Reformation.” Academic OneFile. Accessed March 29, 2016. http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/ps/i.do?id=GALE|A111646883&sid=summon&v=2.1&u=ucalgary&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=b3fb5b277ced8e642a591734273817c6.

Petheram, John. The Marprelate Controversy. 2nd ed. London, 1843. Accessed April 1, 2016. https://books.google.ca/books?id=5oXYAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London. New York: Routledge, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2016. http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/lib/ucalgary/detail.action?docID=10837880

“Marprelate Controversy”. 2015. In The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon. http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?url=http://literati.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/marprelate_controversy/0

Pamphlet. (2015). In The Hutchinson unabridged encyclopedia with atlas and weather guide. Abington, United Kingdom: Helicon. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?url=http://literati.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/pamphlet/0

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London. New York: Routledge, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2016. http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/lib/ucalgary/detail.action?docID=10837880

McLeod, Jane. Licensing Loyalty: Printers, Patrons, and the State in Early Modern France. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. https://books.google.ca/boo

Footnotes

[1] “The Scottish Reformation.” BBC Scotland. 2014. Accessed April 1, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/scottish_reformation/.[2] Mullett, Michael. “Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: Michael Mullett Defines the Role of the 95 Theses in the Lutheran Reformation.” Academic OneFile. Accessed March 29, 2016. http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/ps/i.do?id=GALE|A111646883&sid=summon&v=2.1&u=ucalgary&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=b3fb5b277ced8e642a591734273817c6.[3] Ibid.[4] Ibid.[5] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 165.[6] Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 166.[7] Pamphlet. (2015). In The Hutchinson unabridged encyclopedia with atlas and weather guide. Abington, United Kingdom: Helicon. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?url=http://literati.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/pamphlet/0[8] “Marprelate Controversy”. 2015. In The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon. http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?url=http://literati.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/marprelate_controversy/0[9] Ibid.[10] Petheram, John. The Marprelate Controversy. 2nd ed. London, 1843. Accessed April 1, 2016. https://books.google.ca/books?id=5oXYAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London. New York: Routledge, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2016. http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/lib/ucalgary/detail.action?docID=10837880[11] “Marprelate Controversy”. 2015. In The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon.[12] Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London. New York: Routledge, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2016. http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/lib/ucalgary/detail.action?docID=10837880[13] Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, 44.[14] Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, 44.[15] Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, 44.[16] Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, 45.[17] Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, 45.[18] Bayman, Anna. Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, 45.[19] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 192.[20] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 192.[21] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 192.[22] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 192.[23] McLeod, Jane. Licensing Loyalty: Printers, Patrons, and the State in Early Modern France. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) 25.[24] McLeod, Jane. Licensing Loyalty, 26.[25] McLeod, Jane. Licensing Loyalty, 26.[26] McLeod, Jane. Licensing Loyalty, 26.[27] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 202.[28] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 202.[29] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 202.[30] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 165.[31] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 165.[32] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.) https://books.google.ca/books. 303.[33] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 303.

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