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A/N: Part I, paper 16 essay on the reformation. This is from the Lent term of the 2008/09 academic year, and I was supervised by Dr. M. Laven at Jesus.

'The Protestant Reformation succeeded as it did because those who advanced its message were masters of the modes of mass communication.' Discuss.

For many historians the driving force behind the Protestant reformation was the invention of the printing press and increasing literacy. The Protestant focus on the ‘truth’ of the gospel thus neatly coincided with a rapid growth in its availability. More recently there has been a trend towards recognising the role of Protestant reformers in shaping and manipulating both their own image and public opinion. Historians such as Scribner point to continued Protestant use of images for propaganda purposes. Rublack draws attention to the personal networking and careful self-imaging employed by key figures such as Martin Luther. Far from being dependant on print Protestant reformers made use of a wide range of media; everything from plays to songs to impromptu public preaching was utilised to get the Protestant message across. In spite of this, the success of the Protestant reformation was not founded on mass communication alone. For any real hope of large scale reform the support of state rulers and councils was of the utmost necessity. Similarly the support of the lay community often rested more on the willingness of Protestant clergy to compromise their ideals in favour of local custom, than in the effectiveness of their preaching or propaganda. In short the ability of Protestant reformers to make full use of the modes of mass communication was undoubtedly important, but was not necessarily a certain means of success.

The traditional explanation for the success of the Protestant reformation has been the story of the printed word. Protestant theology centred on the fundamental truth of scripture, and the fact that it had been polluted by the lies and corruption of the Catholic Church. To truly understand the word of God, then, church doctrine had to be stripped away; the best thing was to return to the original texts and read them for oneself, rather than relying on the church gloss. This preoccupation can be seen in the teaching of ancient languages such as Hebrew in the universities and a huge number of translations of scripture into the vernacular. 3.1 million copies of Luther’s works were sold in the period 1516-1546, excluding his bible translation. Such an explanation remains problematic however. The masses were certainly familiar with the written word; church paintings had depicted demonic scribes noting down sins on parchment in place of earlier representations of demons who had collected sounds in sacks from the thirteenth-century for example. Similarly the rapid growth in record keeping dating from the middle ages meant few could have been completely untouched by the printed word. Yet, familiarity with the written word and literacy are two very different things. Pettigree argues that even visual Protestant propaganda was ineffectual because the captions and accompanying textual explanations would have been incomprehensible to the illiterate. Regardless of how well reformer’s used the printed word as a method of communication it could still be rendered useless if we consider that fifty to eighty per cent of the population of Europe was illiterate in the sixteenth century.

The case against the importance of Protestant use of the printed word can easily be overstated however. Printed material in the early modern period was meant to be read aloud; there is even evidence that solitary reading was actively discouraged, as it was thought to lead to melancholy. This means that Protestant reformers could use the printed word to reach the masses, through an intermediary who would read it aloud. Sebastian Tuschler, a baker arrested for heresy in Munich in 1525, claimed to have been told that the Virgin was just an ordinary woman by his master, who had himself read it in a book. In this way ideas disseminated orally from an original printed source. It was not just discussion of printed works that helped spread the Protestant message, preaching was also an integral element. Indeed Scribner argues that ‘hearing the word’ became virtually a third sacrament for Protestant communities. A talented preacher had the power to convert, but also to inspire direct action. At Magdeburg in August 1524 for example a Protestant preacher encouraged his audience to disrupt the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. They threw the herbs that were to be blessed at mass into the street, and pelted the Franciscan preacher, who was to give the mass, with stones and eggs. Through preachers Protestant reformers could use the written word to reach not only the literate elite, but also the illiterate masses.

The iconoclastic doctrine of the Protestant denominations has often led historians to disregard visual means of conveying the Protestant message. Historians like Scribner and Rublack refute this idea of a ‘visually anorexic’ culture however; in fact the Protestant reformers made extensive and effective use of visual media for propagandist purposes. Indeed, how could they not have when faced with the huge linguistic variation across Europe and even within individual states? One of the most famous examples of Protestant visual propaganda is Luther’s ‘Depiction of the Papacy’. A collection of anti-catholic woodcuts they were disseminated from 1545 in book form, as well as individual prints. These images were very carefully arranged so as to appeal to a wide audience; accompanying text added to the image but it was not essential to read them to make sense of the image. One image shows common men defecating into the Pope’s crown; the accompanying text saying that they were simply treating the Pope’s kingdom as the Pope was treating the kingdom of Christ. The anti-papal message was apparent to both the literate and the illiterate. Other images employed patriotism to rally the German audience to support a break from Papal ‘tyranny’. Yet despite this skilful manipulation of visual media there are still criticisms; some would argue that all such popular propaganda succeeded in doing was simplifying the Protestant message to a struggle between good (i.e. Protestantism) and evil (i.e. Catholicism). This meant that as the different Protestant denominations fought between themselves for pre-eminence the message was diluted and resulted in nothing but confusion amongst the masses. 

Such a view is perhaps overly negative however. Popular propaganda might have over-simplified, but it was certainly effective. In any case, pamphlets and posters were not the only modes of communication pressed into use by Protestant reformers. Anything that could help get the message across was used to their advantage. Popular secular melodies had religious verses written for them for example. The traditional Catholic Passion plays were rewritten in some areas to prove the folly of the Catholic Church; anecdotal evidence, such as the peasant whose only knowledge of Christ came through a play he saw as a boy, suggests that this was a particularly effective means of getting through to audiences. The licence of carnival and festivals was also used to express discontent with the Catholic Church. At Buchholz, Saxony, in 1524 a carnival procession carried a mock Pope who was later thrown into a dung heap; spectators were said to laugh so hard they could hardly stand. In 1560 some peasants took the opportunity of the disorder of ‘Faschingtag’ to dress as fools and disrupt mass by urinating in a chalice and whipping those taking communion. Regardless of how effectively spectators were able to link such mockery at carnival to discontent in ‘reality’, the fact remains that such events must have had a negative impact on the Catholic Church. Such examples show the diversity of ways in which Protestant reformers sought to manipulate means of mass communication to their own advantage.

Perhaps the true strength of Protestant uses of mass communication was the way in which they encouraged interaction with religion. Turner suggests that the inversion of traditional rituals at carnival presented an opportunity for people to combine action and awareness; helping them to understand the reality of Catholicism to reflect all too closely the mock Catholic rituals of Carnival. The Protestant doctrines encouraged participation in other ways. Whereas the Catholic Church had only allowed for involvement through veneration of the saints, the Protestants encouraged people to study and unravel scripture for themselves; to find, as it were, their own truth. That the ideal often fell far short of the practical reality is indisputable; at the University of Leiden for example, a lack of teaching staff forced Snellius, a Mathematics professor, to teach Hebrew (a language necessary for understanding the Old Testament) even though ‘he himself did not understand the rudiments’ of the language. Yet for many reformers this new focus on personal development enabled them to reach ever wider audiences. …. From Wittenberg developed the Slovene alphabet. .. A more modest example is the lay preacher, Hans Haeberlin. After hearing a Lutheran preacher in Kempten Haeberlin bought a copy of the New Testament and studied it with the help of the preacher. Once satisfied with the Protestant argument he became a lay preacher in Wiggenbach; when arrested for unauthorised preaching in 1526 Haeberlin had an audience of around 800 peasants from twenty different parishes. Protestantism provided a means for personal involvement with religion, but also by using modes of mass communication individuals could take that interaction further and begin the cycle again.

It might be expected from the evidence displayed so far that this success at gathering popular support was the cornerstone of the success of the Protestant reformation. However this simply was not the case. The English reformation under Henry VIII was a ‘top-down’ affair with discussion of theology strictly off limits for the lower orders; a decree of … explicitly forbid their reading of the bible by as they, it was believed, could not possibly understand it. Similarly in Catholic France where Lutheran and Calvinist ideas were circulating there was little support for Protestantism in the sixteenth-century. The real reason for the success – or otherwise – of Protestantism seems to lie in the support of the secular authorities. As suggested, England was able to impose new beliefs, albeit imperfectly, through the strength of the state. Sweden, a great success story for Lutheranism was able to thoroughly convert its population through the loyal support of the secular authorities of Lutheranism. Similarly in Zurich, Zwinglinism prospered precisely because it first won over the secular council. Ideas such as worshipping Christ through the poor meant the needy could be supported through religious charity, relieving the secular authorities of the burden. Such two-way relationships between church and state were far more likely to result in success for Protestantism than simple propagandist manipulation of the media.

This means that the true success of Protestant manipulation of the modes of mass communication was not in the way it demonised the Catholic Church, but in the creation of personality cults. Not only did such cults help to fill the void created by the abolition of Saint veneration in the popular mindset, they also helped reformers gain support from the establishment. Luther for example worked hard at creating a substantial network of loyal supporters. He carefully cultivated his image, rejecting portraits that presented him as a monkish member of the old Catholic order for example. Instead he encouraged his own celebrity status, signing autographs in the bibles of his students at Wittenberg University and writing explicitly against the Peasants War in a bid to secure the support of secular rulers. Rublack points out his skilful emotional manipulation of his supporters; for example Luther tried to make Georg Spalt emotionally dependent on his approval in order to ensure Spalt’s loyalty and stop him from siding with Erasmus over the concept of intrinsic human sin. Luther also encouraged the formulation of his image as a pseudo-saint. From the 1520s his image was printed with the inscription that although he might be mortal, his message would never die. In addition the 1520s saw the beginnings of the idea of the ‘incombustible Luther’, with a pamphlet detailing how his image would not burn. Such stories continued into the seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries. The image of other leading Protestant reformers, such as Calvin, was manipulated in a similar way; Theodore Beze’s sixteenth-century biography of Calvin read like the Life of a Saint for instance. By using modes of mass communication to manipulate their own images, Protestant reformers hoped to gain prestige and bypass the finer doctrinal points of their message through their own personality cults.

Even so, personality cults could only ensure support up to a point. These were new personalities in a world where local Saints had been venerated for hundreds of years; it was a tough task to displace such ancient loyalties. Aside from the vital aspect of state support, the key to long-term success for Protestantism lay with convincing the masses that it was a workable doctrine. By that I mean Protestantism had to be proven to work on an every day level; the good versus evil message of early Protestant propaganda was all well and good but it would not sustain a community when they realised that Protestantism could mean sweeping all their old rituals and customs away. Parker suggests that a failure to gain popular support led to a widespread feeling of failure of the reformation as a whole by the late sixteenth-century. On a clerical visit to Brunswick-Calenberg in 1584 the investigators were appalled to find ‘not a soul who could give an answer’ to their questions. Despite the best efforts of the Protestant reformers the vast majority remained ignorant of the differences between Protestant schisms (such as Calvinism and the Ana-baptists) and even between that and Catholic doctrine. This is where manipulation of the media fell short; the real way to success was compromise. Charles Perrot, pastor of a rural Calvinist parish near Geneva, told his successor that it was pointless trying to teach people the subtleties of theology, or even to preach from scripture. For Perrot the most important thing was that the congregation made some effort to attend church and learn their catcheism – just what would be expected of a Catholic congregation. It was not the content of sermons that mattered, but how long they lasted. Similarly the intellectualism of the pastor was far less important in terms of securing support, than his simply being an amiable character. How successfully they manipulated modes of mass communication might have been one of the main factors in the initial stages of Protestant reformation, but the key to long term success was compromise and continuity with what had gone before.

In conclusion then Protestant reformers were, in some ways, masters of the modes of mass communication. Dissemination of the printed word was happening on an ever larger scale, and freelance preaching was found to be effective in many areas. Similarly visual modes were used to incite both patriotic and religious fervour as a means of securing support. Key figures amongst the Protestant reformers carefully cultivated their images and, in many cases, became pseudo-saints to all intents and purposes as the cults of celebrity and saint veneration merged. Yet no matter how skilfully the media was used, the successful implementation of Protestant ideas on a large scale depended on the support of the secular authorities. Contemporaries such as Luther understood this and were careful to disassociate themselves from popular movements against state authority. Reformers used their personality cults to help attract this support, and so might be said to masters at self-imaging. However it must be remembered that long term success for Protestantism rested not on self-imaging, but on the willingness of clergy of all branches of Protestantism to compromise between theology and custom. Without state support the new Protestant churches had little hope of forcing obedience, making an easy transition from the old to the new more important to success than manipulation of the modes of mass communication.

Piety and Confessional Change Bibliography 

  • Englander, D., et al; ed., Culture and Belief in Europe 1450–1600, (1990), pt III, docs 3, 6, 7; pt IV, docs 4, 5, 6. 
  • Duke, A., et al., ed., Calvinism in Europe 1540-1610: A collection of documents, (1992), 15-24, 30-33. 
  • Strauss, G., ed., Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation, (1971), 52-63, 144-46. 
  • Rublack, U; Reformation Europe, (2005), chs. 1, 2, 4. -Scribner, R; Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany, (1987), chs. 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 13, 15.
  • Parker, G; ‘Success and Failure in the First Century of the Reformation’, Past and Present, (1992).


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