Going Viral in 1520

The development of the printing press, furthermore, aided Luther’s success. For all the reasons described in previous posts, the time was ripe for change. There was no other European nation that was more ready – it just needed a tipping point. Many point to the printing press as the tipping point, but the real tipping point was that Luther quickly moved to publishing in the German language. His ideas were no longer limited to the intellectual elites and Church scholars. He bypassed that “battlefield” and attacked in a language all  the people – high and low-born alike could understand – German.

Printing in German-made Luther’s ideas more accessible and assured that they were recorded in permanent form. Even though Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in Latin, unknown to Luther, the printing presses of Wittenberg printed it in German. It reached  thousands of Germans. Within a few months, the theses became the talk of  Germany; the pent-up anti-clericalism of generations thrilled at having a voice. Luther quickly understood the advantage and soon abandoned Latin and wrote in German. It is estimated that Luther’s tracts were responsible from propelling German literacy. The printing press made it accessible and relatively inexpensive. Between 1517 and 1520, Luther’s 30 publications probably sold well over 300,000 copies.

Luther had not set out to be a revolutionary; his initial intention had been to reform the Church from within. Encouraged, however, by the general support of the Germans and such learned men as Melanchthon, Andreas Carlstadt, and von Hutton, Luther changed course. In 1520, he wrote to his mentor George Spalatin, “I have cast the die…Now I no longer fear, and I am publishing a book in the German tongue about Christian reform, directed against the pope, in language as violent as if I were addressing Antichrist.” The use of the vernacular for his words was critical in solidifying the support of the German people and appealing to their new spirit of nationalism.

And by the way, the printing industry, moreover, had an economic stake in encouraging religious conflict by publishing Protestant propaganda. Luther now not only had the support of the princes, the peasants, and the burghers; Luther now had support of the printers themselves.

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