Early in the sixteenth century, Thomas Platter traveled with five friends through Switzerland, stopping in a small village en route to St. Gallen to attend the Mass. After Vespers, the early evening service, one of the priests called them heretics because they had come from the city of Zurich, which no longer considered the pope as the head of the church. When Platter asked this priest why he thought the pope was head of the church, the priest answered, “Because St. Peter was pope at Rome and has given the papacy there to his successors.” Platter replied, “St. Peter was very likely never at Rome.” Then Platter pulled his New Testament from his bag and showed the priest how in Romans 16 the apostle Paul sends greetings to so many but does not mention Peter, who was, according to the priest’s own assertion, the most eminent among Christians in Rome. But, the priest objected, when Christ met Peter outside Rome and asked him where he was going, Peter answered, “To Rome, to allow myself to be crucified.” When Platter asked the priest where he had read this, the priest said that his grandmother had often told him the story. Armed with a rapier wit, Platter responded, “I perceive truly that your grandmother is your Bible!”
Like John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and accounts from other martyrologies, this story is sharply defined. Platter may well have embellished it when he recorded it in his memoirs, as he likely did when he described his boyhood routine of sneaking away at night from his rope-maker apprenticeship to read books by Homer and Pindar in Greek. But the story is also illustrative, even if it is somewhat staged. For the Reformation was nothing if not the recovery of the book—namely, the Bible. The priest did not rely on the New Testament but on the apocryphal second-century Acts of Peter. Moreover, he came to this source indirectly through family and oral tradition.
Platter was, in fact, a young Protestant and a humanist. He carried with him in his rucksack a freshly printed copy of the New Testament. He was equipped with critical faculties of reading and interpreting because he always privileged the written and now the printed word. Before long, he settled in Basel, Switzerland—a thriving hub of Renaissance print culture. With three new friends, he bought a printing shop and taught himself to become a master printer. In 1535 and 1536, he printed the first edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
In some circles, the shift from script to print through Gutenberg’s movable type is no longer considered quite so world shattering as scholars once claimed. The rise of mechanically reproduced texts on its own did not give birth to modern culture or exclusive shape to the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the Scientific Revolution. Yet, print played an important role nonetheless, not least by giving the Bible a more prominent presence and by allowing Protestant teaching to spread as it did.
Martin Luther was, of course, a regular visitor at printing shops and fully aware of the revolutionary aspects of the enterprise. While he did learn the process, he also seemed to somehow know instinctually that a treatise of eight pages was ideal for faster printing. He invented a new form of theological writing in the German vernacular that was lucid, accessible, and short. With Lucas Cranach, he transformed the title page that provided books from Wittenberg with a striking and easily identifiable brand. Soon, he became the most published author in the history of Christianity and a mass media event in himself. “The pen is light,” he affirmed. “All that is needed is a goose feather, found anywhere”—though “the whole body and soul work at it too.”
No one was busier than Luther and company. Humanists and statesmen, teachers and churchmen, these the Reformers labored unceasingly and with dizzying speed. In April 1507, Luther sent his first letter, and in April 1564, Calvin dictated his last will and testament. The period in between swarmed with millions of Protestant documents, many of which were handwritten while many others were printed. From first to last, the Reformation world overflowed with ink.
Learned Martin Bucer, for example, was unmatched as an administrator of the Reformation in Strasbourg and Oxford. “I am amazed, for I have never seen Bucer inactive,” confirmed Calvinist Italian exile Peter Martyr Vermigli, who spent weeks in Bucer’s household. Never one to miss an opportunity, Bucer crammed each of his biblical commentaries to the brim—so much so that Bucer, Calvin sighed, “does not know how to take his hand off the writing pad.” Calvin himself was the master of brevity. Yet he was a prodigious writer overall and almost always worked in a hurry. “I hardly know what I may have written here,” Calvin once confessed in the postscript to a note for Pierre Viret, a Reformed churchman in Lausanne, “because my eyesight is so blurred” from constant writing. The bent nibs wielded by the Reformers often accompanied them to the end. Ulrich von Hutten, the solider-poet who fought Desiderius Erasmus and the papacy, died on a tiny island in Lake Zurich. “He left nothing of value,” Zurich Reformer Huldrych Zwingli observed, “nothing but a pen.”
Printing offered new careers and widespread influence; it certainly enabled Platter’s dramatic encounter with the priest and helped get new Protestant pamphlets into untold hands. Printing itself, however, was not able to change hearts and minds. Luther and others characterized the church not as a “pen house” but as a “mouth house” that hears and speaks God’s word. He identified the proper organ of the church as the ear—not the eye or the pen—for the church lives in this age by hearing the promises of God and beholding them by faith. He described preachers as those who shout the word from the pulpit in two kinds of speech: law and gospel. And when he tried to explain the Reformation, he did not turn to the harnessed power of print but to the gospel of Christ: “I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and [Nikolaus von] Amsdorf. . . . I did nothing. The Word did everything.” The story of the medium ultimately cannot be substituted for the story of the message.
Zachary Purvis (DPhil, University of Oxford) is lecturer of church history at Edinburgh Theological Seminary.
2. Cf. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
3. Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York: Random House, 2015).
4. Martin Luther, “Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” 1522, in D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883–2009), 30.2:573 (hereafter WA).
5. Peter Martyr Vermigli, Loci communes . . . (Heidelberg, 1613), 1071; Marc Lienhard and Jakob Willer, Straßburg und die Reformation (Kehl: Morstadt, 1981), 57.
6. John Calvin to Simon Grynaeus, 18 October 1539, in Ioannis Calvini opera omnia quae supersunt, ed. G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss (Brunswick: Schwetschke, 1863–1900), 10b:404.
7. Calvin to Pierre Viret, 25/28 October 1542, in Ioannis Calvini opera omnia quae supersunt, 11:460.
8. Huldrych Zwingli, Huldreich Zwinglis sämtliche Werke, vol. 8 (Leipzig: Heinsius, 1914), 127.
9. Luther, “Sermon on the First Sunday in Advent, Matthew 21:1–9,” 1522, in WA 10/1.2:48.
10. Luther, “Sermon on the First Monday in Lent,” 10 March 1522, in WA 10/3:18–19.