Christendom Divided, the World United

From Mainz, the printing press conquered Europe, and from Europe the world. Its effects became part of all of us, with the odd consequence that the details have not been much analysed. In the words of someone who has written the best review of the subject, Elizabeth Eisenstein, ‘those who seem to agree that momentous changes were entailed always seem to stop short of telling us just what they were’. Luckily, I can stop short as well, because this is a book about beginnings. What follows is a flavour of the new universe opened by Gutenberg, and a sharp focus on the second explosion set off by his invention.


Scribes were gone. An Italian businessman, Vespaniano da Bisticci, employed forty-five scribes to produce 200 books for Cosimo de Medici’s library in the 1460s and pretended to despise the new invention, but by 1478 he was out of business. Scribes actually copied printed typefaces – now evolving away from their scribal roots – in a vain attempt to hold back the flood, to no avail. Along with the scribes went the illuminators and their gorgeous work of decorating capitals and margins.

In their place came new specialities. Markets expanded, building on their own success, in a flurry of feedbacks. Accountancy books were bought by authors writing more accountancy books; books on etiquette ostensibly to teach demureness to young ladies sold to their anxious parents and tutors; shepherds did not buy shepherds’ almanacs, but poets did (as, in our own time, country diaries of Edwardian ladies do not sell to gardeners, nor survival manuals to survivors, nor brief histories of the universe to astronomers, unless they all happen to be wondering how to write bestsellers).

Printing, of course, allowed the spread of reason, science and scholarship, but rather slowly. What sold fast was good old-fashioned dross: astrology, alchemy and esoteric lore (Gutenberg leading the way with his reproduction of Sibylline Prophecies). Cosimo de Medici gathered a mass of dialogues attributed to the Egyptian god Thoth, whose Greek name was Hermes Trismegistus. Books on so-called ‘hermetic’ lore formed a medieval equivalent of New Age publishing, catering to the belief that the past was a treasury of ancient wisdom. It fitted well with the secretive nature of those who had an interest in preserving an aura of secrecy, like guildsmen – and to some extent printers, who in some eyes acquired the status of divine or satanic adepts (witness the confusion in the Coster legend of Fust with the medieval necromancer Faust).

Still, reason, science and scholarship advanced. For the first time specialists could agree on their agendas and feed off each other, as if stabilised by the whirling gyroscope of printing. Once, the norms of classical architecture were known only from a few hand-copied manuscripts, or from personal observation, or from travelling experts. Now Vitruvius, who laid down the rules of classical architecture around the time of Christ, could be reproduced in all major languages, and architects armed with the works of Vitruvius’s modern disciples – Giacomo Vignola and Andrea Palladio – could eventually recreate Greek and Roman glories in estates from Yorkshire to St Petersburg. When the map-maker Abraham Ortelius published a collection of maps in his Theatrum orbis terrarum in Antwerp in 1570, it acted as a focus for new information, leading to an explosion of geographical knowledge that inspired twenty-eight editions by the time he died in 1598. Scientists gathering information from newly discovered lands – this was the century in which the New World was opened and the earth first circumnavigated – could stand on each other’s shoulders in recording distant plants, animals, landforms, cities and peoples. In Ortelius’s early editions, paradise had its place; later he admitted that he didn’t really know where it was (‘By Paradise,’ he said, ‘I do think the blessed life to be understood’) and dropped it.

In this, the print shops of Europe became a force for commercial and academic change. The master printer emerged as a social force, coordinating finance, authors, proofreaders, suppliers, punch-cutters, typefounders, pressmen and salesmen, rivalling each other with promises of clearer title pages and better indexes and ever more perfect proofreading. But the print shops were also mini-universities under their deans, the master printers, attracting multilingual scholars, gathering and dispersing information. (It worked both ways: literati loved to mess with ink, compose a page and use a press.) In Italy, the home from home of the printing press, it found good rich earth already bursting with the growths of Renaissance art and scholarship. It was the printing press that seized these creative forces and catapulted them across the face of Europe.

For the first time people began to form a more accurate picture of their own past. In medieval scribal culture, it was hard to know what was known, because nothing could be checked without copying and selling manuscripts or visiting every library. To advance, existing knowledge – if you can call what is not widely known ‘knowledge’ – had to be recovered. Hence the significance of the classical revival, which, once in full flow, quickly moved on from being a wellspring to a foundation for further progress. It remained widely believed that the earth was, in accordance with biblical and Jewish tradition, no more than about 6,000 years old. To upset that timescale would demand the opening of another ancient book, the pages of which are geological strata. But historical time fits into those six millennia, and it began to acquire substance as authors and translators piled up information about vanished civilisations from Pharaonic Egypt forward.

Print inspired new forms of writing. In the old days rulers had addressed followers, or lawyers had addressed courts, and their words endured, if at all, as records. Popular works of literature, as opposed to works of scholarship, record or instruction, were rarities (like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Boccaccio’s Decameron, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or even Piccolomini’s Two Lovers, a novel included in a letter). Now the possibility existed of addressing directly anyone, anywhere – in theory, everyone who could read – if only they could be reached and spoken to persuasively, in the vernacular as opposed to Latin. No one had ever done that before (at least, not in books). New styles would be invented. In a castle tower near Bordeaux, Montaigne would write what he called ‘essays’, telling you and me about himself. Somewhere in Spain an unknown writer would produce the first true novel of the new medium (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, 1554).

Science, particularly astronomy, was a little slow off the mark, because there was a lot of the past to absorb before new research produced new theories. But printing allowed a foundation for progress. Germany produced the greatest fifteenth-century astronomer in Johann Müller, born in Königsberg (‘King’s Mountain’), which he adopted in a Latinised form as his surname: Regiomontanus. He studied Ptolemy, whose Almagest explained planetary movements in terms of perfect circles moving around the earth; he learned Greek; realised the inadequacies of current astronomical records; and moved to Nuremberg at about the time Koberger was getting started. There he set up both an observatory and a printing press, to publish his detailed observations of the position of the moon and planets. In 1474 he came up with an entirely new method that offered the possibility of calculating longitude by working out the distance to the moon, a system that proved so complicated that no one could make it work. Though armed with one of Regiomontanus’s almanacs, Columbus was none the wiser about his position when he stumbled on America twenty years later. Still, Regiomontanus’s work fed into a tradition of detailed observation that, seventy years later, helped Copernicus replace Ptolemy with his sun-centred model of the solar system.

An area in which the coming of print had one of its most significant effects was in the sudden ability to categorise almost any aspect of human activity and knowledge. Print shops always had to be highly organised places, with a place for everything and everything in its place, in drawers, upper cases, lower cases and boxes galore. It was the same with the contents of books. Since it was now possible to reproduce texts page for page, and number the pages, it also became possible to give readers a quick insight into the text, both on title pages (which also allowed the printer to publicise his own creation) and in indexes. The first printed index appeared in two editions of St Augustine’s De Arte Praedicandi, published both by Fust and Schöffer in Mainz and by Mentelin in Strasbourg in the early 1460s. By 1500 eighty-three books had alphabetical indexes.

Do not underrate the index. The index is a key to modern life, allowing access to everything from a Filofax to a national library catalogue. An index is no mere device; it may be the epitome of a book, a distillation, exhibiting insight, judgement, even creativity (for the indexer must decide on categories and subcategories, and cross-references). For that advance, printing is responsible. Before then, librarians, usually monks, had the most arcane ways of cataloguing. For one thing they had few books, few readers and no lending system, so they could store books however they wished, by size, or subject, or date of acquisition.* Such a medieval system endures today in that most brilliant and humane of collections, the London Library, where over a million books are shelved by subject, by size, and only then by letter. Entering, you become an electrical impulse in a brain, snatching at neurons. If, researching incunabula along its ringing metal floors and shadowy stacks, you find nothing in the Quarto section of Science and Miscellaneous – surely one of the most creative categories ever invented – then you can try Octavo, even Folio, and then fossick further in Bibliography: Printing, or Biography: Gutenberg, or History: Germany. Arthur Koestler, who suspected there was more in heaven and earth etc., claimed that once a book he didn’t know he wanted fell off the shelf at his approach. But to find specific volumes you get down to the alphabetical index in the end.

Let the indexer take centre stage for a moment as a major contributor to the growth of democracy. The statutes on which English law was based were unknown to the general public until the time of John Rastell and his son William, who in the sixteenth century published every statute since 1327. With a glance at the ‘Tabula’, anyone could check how many times Magna Carta had been confirmed in subsequent statutes. Monarchs and parliaments could no longer escape the fact that their rulings would be on display to any literate person, and that they or their descendants would be answerable. English law as it then evolved would hardly have been conceivable without easy access – via page numbers and indexes – to these fundamental documents.

In terms of scholarship, one measure of what was now possible emerged in the Polyglot Bible (1568–72) issued in Antwerp by the French printer and publisher Christophe Plantin (after whom the typeface was named). In his eight-volume work, Plantin published the original texts of the Old and New Testaments, using Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Syriac. Other polyglots followed: a ten-volume one in Paris in 1645, adding Arabic and Samaritan, and in London one of six volumes 1654–7, which added Ethiopian and Persian. All, of course, needed their own typefaces, each one adding a new dimension to oriental studies. And the whole mighty project was held together by its appendices and index.


In Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, a scholar gazes at the first printed book to come his way and stares out at the cathedral, an encyclopedia in stone and statuary and stained glass recording Christian faith and knowledge passed on from generation to generation. ‘Ceci tuera cela,’ he says: ‘This will kill that’, the printed word will bring an end to stories in stone, and – the words imply – to received religion as passed on by priests and their artists. Hugo, speaking with the advantage of hindsight, was distilling into three words a process of fragmentation that, although under way since before Gutenberg’s time, was made irreversible by the printed word.

The Church at first welcomed the power of the press as a gift of God when it was used to raise cash for a crusade against the Turks. Its blessings seemed somewhat mixed when used by opposing sides in Mainz’s civil war. But the true power of what had been unleashed became apparent only in the beginnings of the vast and permanent change in European history that came to be called the Reformation. As with printing, the elements were all present – anticlericalism, corruption, the non-religious philosophies of humanism, a desire for change, resurgent nationalism, a hatred of Roman domination – lacking only a focus and a flashpoint. Wittenberg, a small town in Saxony, was the tinderbox, and Martin Luther the match.

It’s a story often told, but, like Gutenberg’s, there is still a mystery at its heart. It repays a close look, because these events reveal again the explosive power released when character, circumstances and technology collide. We are about to see a gear shift in the engine of revolution started by Gutenberg.

Luther was the son of a peasant miner in Saxony who made good as a foundry owner and was determined young Martin would as well. His childhood was a harsh and fearful one, haunted by witches and demons, full of obscenities and high demands. All left their impression on him. He had a talent for coarse invective, and later often spoke of being beaten by parents and teachers until the blood ran. Pop psychologists have seized on this to explain Martin’s tortured character, but such treatment and beliefs were normal for rural, upright, authoritarian families in sixteenth-century Germany. For whatever reason, he grew up highly strung, easily angered and more fearful than most of a death-haunted universe in which God, the sovereign, allowed evil spirits to stalk the dark forests. He had a particular fear of storms.

Destined for law, he trained at Erfurt (in the footsteps, perhaps, of Gutenberg). It was near Erfurt, as a devout, impulsive and passionate twenty-one-year-old, that something happened to change the course of his life. He was walking a lonely road outside the village of Stotternheim when a thunderstorm broke, awakening his childhood fears. Afraid of imminent death, he cried out: ‘Help, St Anne, I will become a monk!’ (St Anne, the Virgin’s mother, was the patron saint of miners, for in her womb she held a treasure, as the earth held treasures that miners revealed.) So, in the face of paternal anger, he vanished into an Augustinian monastery, taking his fears with him.

There he wrestled with his demons. His fears were of death, and the inexplicable mystery of life, of a universe created by an omnipotent God who had, weirdly, made a mankind mired in sin. Were we therefore damned? He could not accept that. We have been given the gift of choice, and we could choose to incline towards God, and might, perhaps, be saved. It was a big ‘perhaps’. There is no bargaining with God, no way to guarantee salvation. All you could do was follow Christ and do your best. Ah, but what was that? No one can know. We are beset by paradox. If you confess you haven’t done your best, you’re damned; if you do, and are rightly proud of the fact, you’re damned for the sin of pride. It was enough to make a man despair. But despair was a sin, and deserving of damnation. It seemed there was no avoiding purgatory, that limbo between heaven and hell in which you could endure punishments that would purge your sins. And so on, in turmoil and spiritual agony, for ten years.

Gradually, though, he fought his way, if not quite through, at least forward. It was the way of faith, which led to the bridge over the gulf of sin and death. But you could not build the bridge yourself, through force of will, or abstinence, or good works, for they only prepared the way. No one else could do it for you, either. Only God could save you. And so Luther came to his guiding principle: justification by faith alone.

If perfection was for ever out of reach, imperfections were easy to recognise. This he discovered, to his horror, when he visited Rome in 1511. He was part of a team going to plead for their monastery’s continued independence. He walked all the way, was there for a month, and achieved nothing. But he saw Rome, and was appalled. Outside St Peter’s, it was a clutter of decaying antiquities and malarial swamps and muggy rain. He hated the Italians (to call someone an ‘Italian’ was thereafter his greatest insult). They pissed in the streets. The place swarmed with prostitutes, thanks to the trade from the clergy. Pope Julius II was supposedly syphilitic and gay. The streets were full of beggars, some of them priests. Their irreverence during services made him want to vomit. Later he said he had not looked the Pope in the face, but he had looked up his arse. You can see his character in his observations: cutting, obscene, contemptuous of his fellows, driven to open a direct line to God by pessimism and incipient despair. No wonder the Church did nothing for him.

Before his trip, his monastery had received a request from the little town of Wittenberg for a professor for their town’s new university, the brainchild of one of Germany’s electors, Frederick the Wise. Frederick lived in a castle, which had its own church, soon to play rather a central role in our story. To Wittenberg Luther now went, as a Bible lecturer, developing his own brand of passionate and fiercely internalised mysticism, which was independent of history, learning, the saints, miracles and those fools who thought that the empty splendours and rituals of the Church could lead to grace.

His particular horror was the market for indulgences, those bits of paper that freed you from sin. From 1476 you could buy an indulgence for a dead person and save them from further purging, and yourself from mentioning them in your prayers. In 1515 Pope Leo X, a Medici, with ambitions and a head for finance, wanted to finish a basilica over the supposed tomb of St Peter in the Vatican. To finance it, he authorised an indulgence to raise the cash. German leaders resented the flow of funds to Rome; some – notably the emperor and Mainz’s young elector-archbishop, of whom more shortly – went along with it, but others balked. Among the latter was Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Luther’s local sovereign, who banned indulgence-sellers, thereby starting an interesting chain of events.

An enterprising indulgence-seller named Johann Tetzel now comes on the scene. Tetzel was a Dominican monk, and like many of his kind he was the medieval equivalent of a snake-oil-salesman-cum-hot-gospeller. An indulgence from Tetzel would free you from the pains of purgatory, he is supposed to have said, ‘even if you raped the Virgin Mary’. Want to be forgiven for robbing a church? Nine Venetian ducats (or the same in gulden). Get away with murder? Eight ducats. Why, you could even buy indulgences that would free you of sins you had not yet committed. No need for any further suffering, beyond the pain of hearing your coins drop into Tetzel’s metal-bound chest. He had been selling indulgences for the last fifteen years, couldn’t afford to stop at his age (forty-eight) and saw that Saxony, now free of rivals, was his for the taking. He set up shop just over Saxony’s border, in Jüterbog, a mere thirty kilometres from Wittenberg. ‘Behold, you are on the raging sea of the world in storm and danger, not knowing if you will safely reach the harbour of salvation,’ he bellowed at the credulous. ‘You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer, according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins.’

Luther, now thirty-three, was appalled. Tetzel’s cynicism and materialism mocked his God, and the true nature of Christianity. He wrote later:

It was reported to me that Tetzel was preaching some cruel and terrible propositions, such as the following: He had grace and power from the Pope to offer forgiveness even if someone had slept with the Holy Virgin Mother of God . . . Furthermore, he had redeemed more souls with his indulgences than Peter with his sermons. Furthermore, if anyone put money into the coffer for a soul in purgatory, the soul would leave purgatory for heaven in the moment one could hear the penny hit the bottom.

He did the correct thing. He wrote to his supreme spiritual authority (excluding only the Pope), Albrecht of Brandenburg, Diether’s successor as the archbishop of Mainz, now recovering from its terrible civil war of fifty years before.

He must, when he did so, have been aware that Albrecht was not exactly the person to take his complaints seriously. Albrecht of Brandenburg was a Hohenzollern, the family from which the future kings of Prussia would spring, and who were rivals to Wittenberg’s Wettin rulers. Albrecht was a plump, genial young man who loved the good life, and already knew a thing or two about risk and investment. He had a collection of 9,000 relics, which was enough to save him from several million years of purgatory. This gave him the confidence to be somewhat lax in his moral standards. He was also remarkably ambitious. Family connections made him archbishop of Magdeburg when he was just twenty-three. A year later, in 1514, he bought himself the archbishopric of Mainz. He was far too young – archbishops were supposed to be at least thirty – and it was against the law to have multiple benefices, let alone two archbishoprics, but rules could be bent for a price, and Pope Leo X’s was not the usual 10,000 gulden, but 29,000 (think of it as £3 million; but also think a percentage of a state budget). In brief, Albrecht, a double archbishop, Primas Germaniae, brother of the Brandenburg elector, scion of one of Germany’s most notable families, was ridiculously powerful and rich, with estates dotted over all northern Germany. His arrangement with the Pope was a sweetheart deal, which benefited everyone. His investment could be financed by the sale of the indulgences sanctioned by Leo for the building of his latest project in the Vatican. Leo awarded Albrecht the local franchise, agreeing to split proceeds 50–50. (He did a similar deal with Henry VIII, though in his case it was 75–25 in the Pope’s favour.) With this as security, Albrecht borrowed (from the eminent Fugger banking family), paid up what the Pope demanded and stood by to receive the proceeds from his indulgence salesmen, among them the frightful Tetzel. The cash was already rolling in – some 36,000 gulden, half of which was being passed on to Rome – when Luther’s letter arrived damning Tetzel and indulgences and threatening to upset the whole financial applecart.

With his letter, Luther enclosed ninety-five bullet points, in Latin, ostensibly ‘for discussion’. It was all very proper on the surface, hedged around with humility. Luther was, after all, a nobody, a mere monk, a fex hominum – a shit of a man – daring to address so exalted a prelate. Imagine Luther’s feelings at adopting this stance. Exalted? A corrupt twenty-seven-year-old in bed, as it were, with a syphilitic homosexual? But one, nevertheless, who had the power to burn a little shit of a priest if he was deemed heretical. True, some of his points were explosive:

•The Pope cannot forgive sins; he can only make known and testify to God’s forgiveness.

• It was stupid and wicked of priests to hand out penances for the dying to perform in purgatory.

• The Pope should know of the greed and crookedness of indulgence-sellers, for then he would know that St Peter’s was built with the skins, bodies and bones of his flock.

• A true penitent should not whine to have his punishment lifted, but accept it, as Christ did.

• Why, if the Pope was so powerful, did he not forgive all the sins of the dead, and empty purgatory forthwith?

• Why, since he had the money to do it, did he not build his basilica himself rather than rob the poor?

But these were only theses, in the original sense of ‘propositions’ – discussion points. Luther could always take the position of the faithful servant humbly floating provocative ideas, which might or might not have value, the better to rid the Church of the unfaithful.

What happened next has been the subject of a huge debate. Traditionally, on the eve of All Saints’ Day, 31 October 1517, Luther took his ninety-five ‘theses’ and nailed them to the door of Wittenberg’s castle church, so that those entering that morning to view the relics put on show for the feast day would see them. It is a powerful image, a man hammering on a church door, driving a nail into the coffin of Catholic corruption. It was, we were told, the way one announced an academic debate. Then, suddenly, it was out of his hands. Someone copied the theses, and they were printed and flew all over Germany, leaving no one more surprised than Luther. It is a story now embedded in history books, and recalled on Wittenberg’s church doors today; not the original wooden doors, which were damaged by fire in the nineteenth century, but their bronze replacements, across which the theses run in six columns.

Yet, as the late Catholic scholar Erwin Iserloh pointed out in 1961, it turns out that no one actually mentioned his action at the time. In Luther’s own voluminous, self-absorbed writings – nothing. The story seems to have come from his friend, Philip Melanchthon, reformer, educator and the Reformation’s future bulldog, who included it in a short biographical account after Luther’s death in 1547. But that was thirty years after the event. And he was not in Wittenberg when Luther wrote his theses, arriving only in August 1518, almost a year later. Luther’s most recent biographer, Richard Marius, argues that Luther would not have risked embarrassing the elector by making the theses public before they had been cleared officially for debate, which makes it seem odd that he would nail them up just where they would be seen by Frederick, right under his nose as he came to Mass that morning. In brief, the story is almost certainly a legend. Iserloh’s suggestion caused outrage among Protestants unwilling to contemplate the sudden destruction of their founding icon. The story – which after all captures an essential truth – is still reproduced as gospel.

There is one item of evidence that does not seem to have attracted expert attention. Albrecht was not in Mainz at the time. He was sixty kilometres away, in his official residence in Aschaffenburg, the other side of Frankfurt, and he did not receive Luther’s letter until the end of November. Publication did not follow until after this date. Therefore, there was no copying done in Wittenberg, or the theses would have been in the public domain even before Albrecht received them. There was a printer ready and waiting locally – Johann Rhau-Grünenberg, who had been in business since 1508, drawn there by Frederick’s new university – but he seemingly had no whiff of what was in the air.

Albrecht did not quite see what was coming. He asked his experts in Mainz for their opinion. On 17 December they told him he’d better move, fast. As it happened, he had already sent the theses to the Pope a few days earlier ‘in the expectation that Your Holiness will take up the matter and act, so that such an entanglement may be opposed in timely fashion, as opportunity and need arise’.

At this moment events leaped out of control. Somehow, as is the way with sensitive documents, the theses got out. Possibly, the source was one of the experts in Mainz, though it seems unlikely that any local printer (like Johann Schöffer, Peter’s eldest son) would risk Albrecht’s anger by publishing without permission. There are other possibilities. Luther had sent copies to a few other trusted friends, among them his immediate superior, Jerome Scultetus (Hieronymus Schultze), the bishop of Brandenburg. In any event, by mid-December enough people knew for security to be compromised. Someone, no one knows who, leaked the theses, and the dam broke with astonishing speed.

Later, Luther would claim that it was all over Germany in two weeks. Not quite; but just before Christmas – virtually the same day that Albrecht received the advice of his Mainz experts – editions of the theses, translated into German, appeared in Leipzig, Basel, Nuremberg and (almost certainly) Wittenberg itself. As suddenly as fame comes to pop singers and football superstars today, Luther was a household name and everyone was talking about his devastating theses. The indulgences market collapsed like a popped dot com.

The noises that accompanied Luther’s message of doom were probably not hammer-blows; they were the squeaks and bangs of busy printing presses.


Luther was not a deliberate revolutionary. Many times he expressed shock at what he had unleashed. But the wave of publication – not only his theses but his subsequent voluminous writings – carried him forward into a storm of controversy, which made Christendom’s crack into a permanent schism.

The following year he attacked indulgences head-on as things for lazy Christians who wanted to avoid good works. Tetzel’s Dominicans turned shrill in their hunt for heretics: ‘Domini canes’, they were nicknamed, ‘the Lord’s dogs’. This only spread Luther’s fame. His writings became harder-edged. What need of priests, he implied, if priests only confirmed the forgiveness God granted to the truly penitent? In Rome, prelates muttered about heresy, and in August 1518 he was summoned to answer the charges. Luther was furious. He was a loyal son of the Church. He demanded a hearing among his peers, in Germany. Rome ordered that he be bound in chains and forced to submit. Frederick the Wise of Saxony, eager to assert his own rights, backed Luther. There would be no trip to Rome.

In October Luther went to an imperial diet in Augsburg, where an Italian cardinal, the papal legate Tommaso da Gaeta, would try to raise the astonishing sum of 800,000 gulden as German backing for an anti-Turkish crusade. He failed, not surprisingly. When Tommaso (usually known as Cajetan, after the Latinised form of his home town) finally met Luther, he was in a vile temper and ended up yelling at him to recant. Luther refused, said he would appeal to the Pope direct, and walked home seething. Cajetan demanded Luther’s immediate arrest. Seventy legal briefs arrived in Wittenberg, with more orders to bind him and send him to Rome. For a moment Frederick wavered. Luther prepared to flee. Then Frederick’s resolve hardened; he told Luther to stay, under his protection. If there was to be a council to resolve the matters Luther raised, it was indeed going to be a German one – a direct political challenge to the Pope, signalling a return to the dark days when Popes deferred to councils.

In June 1519 the screws tightened further, when Luther met a renowned papist, Johann Eck, in open debate in Leipzig. Pamphlets flew, crowds gathered, the rival camps as vociferous as football fans. From the start – 7 a.m. on 27 June – the two argued the issue of papal authority. Luther scored often, driving home his points that Christian authority lay with Christ and his faithful flock, not with the Pope – in effect, Nicholas of Cusa’s argument from consent. For day after day, before an audience of hundreds, the two bombarded each other with erudition, passion and argument, in Latin, Eck proclaiming Luther as heretical as the Hussites, Luther striking back that at least Hussites followed their consciences, Eck claiming papal supremacy, Luther saying no, scriptures were supreme, interrupting to call Eck a liar, turning to the crowd to summarise his arguments in German. It lasted for two and a half weeks, and the two fought each other to a standstill. Luther came away thinking the Pope was the devil come in religious guise to subvert humanity. Eck advised papal condemnation.

As Rome prepared its heavy artillery, Luther fired off more salvos, with the help of the press. His sermons, tracts and polemics, all in German the better to appeal to his audience, streamed from presses by the hundreds of thousands across the land, many with his portrait (some 700 of these Flugschriften – ‘flying writings’ – have survived). He became the focus of a propaganda war of which Mainz in 1460–62 had been a tiny precedent, and a publishing phenomenon, unrivalled anywhere, ever, except perhaps by Mao’s Little Red Book at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution. At least two of Luther’s sermons ran through twenty editions in two or three years. According to one estimate, a third of all books printed in Germany between 1518 and 1525 were by him. Pause to consider that figure. Of course, printing was in its infancy, but Germany at the time was turning out about a million books a year, of which a third – 300,000 – were by Luther. No comparison with the modern world stands up, but it would be the equivalent of one author selling almost 300 million books in Britain (which prints some 800 million a year), or 700 million in the US, every year, for seven years running.

Of his thunderous outpourings, perhaps the most powerful was his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, a sort of Reformation manifesto. His conclusion, in German of course, was virtually a call to arms. Every Christian leader had a duty to reform the Church: ‘Whoever is guilty should suffer,’ he said, and then in a righteous fury: ‘Listen to this, Pope, not the all-holiest but the all-most-sinful, let God right now destroy thy seat!’ Its first run was in the shops on 18 August. Within days it was sold out, to be reprinted a week later. In three weeks it sold 4,000 copies – in Wittenberg alone, where the printers became rich. In the next two years it went through thirteen editions, with pirated versions appearing in Leipzig, Strasbourg and Basel. German princes heard and took note.

By then Leo X had issued the terms of excommunication: recant in sixty days, or else. Luther’s books were to be burned, and any Catholic reader of them excommunicated. Luther, naturally, did not recant. In September Eck toured Germany, avoiding Saxony, publishing copies of the papal bull. Everywhere, it caused riots. People threatened distributors and burned their pamphlets. Luther replied with his vicious Babylonian Captivity, comparing Rome to Babylon and Christians to exiled and enslaved Jews, decrying the value of those sacraments not mentioned in the Bible (even marriage, which should be a union so based on love and God-given natural urges that an impotent husband should be happy if his wife found someone else to impregnate her). Finally, he delivered the ultimate insult to the Pope, calling him a blasphemer: renounce, he demanded, ‘and if you will not, we shall hold your seat as possessed and oppressed by Satan, the damned seat of Antichrist’. In Wittenberg, in a great bonfire, Luther supervised the burning of the Canon Law, the document that recorded the laws of the Church.

His excommunication followed in January 1521, driving Luther into a paroxysm: ‘Why do we not . . . fling ourselves with all our weapons upon these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of Roman sodomy?’

A final confrontation was inevitable, but it could hardly be in Rome, because he wouldn’t go. It would take place in Worms later that year. Violence was in the air, and Luther was nervous, fearing the fate of Jan Hus, burned when he came to Constance under the promise of imperial protection. But Luther was German, not some upstart Bohemian. He allowed himself to be reassured and travelled under imperial safe-conduct, in a cart led by a herald and mobbed by crowds. In every town he was irked to see the imperial poster announcing to all that his books should be burned, though by now it was doubtful whose works would end up on the pyre. He could have taken heart – the posters acted as advertisements, and people who had never owned a book rushed to buy.

Worms went wild to see him. ‘Nine-tenths of the people are shouting “Luther!”,’ recorded one of Rome’s nuncios apprehensively. ‘And the other tenth are shouting “Down with Rome!”.’ Everywhere, his publications were stacked in shops. He was the first bestseller, and a godsend for local printers (one of them, by the way, being Peter Schöffer, younger son of Gutenberg’s partner and rival, and brother of Johann, back in Mainz).

On 17 April Luther stood before Charles V – a Habsburg, raised in Burgundy, ruling in Spain, and now Holy Roman Emperor – in the bishop’s palace. By a window were his books, all twenty titles, which should, by papal edict, be consigned to the flames. Their titles were read. Then he was asked: ‘Will you recant?’ Knowing this was the moment at which the Church must formally break, he requested time. He was given twenty-four hours. When he returned the next day the room was so packed that only the emperor could sit. They wanted a simple yes or no, but he refused to comply, and to the obvious annoyance of his interrogators, he began to speak, compellingly.

There was no simple answer: he could not renounce all his books, for some were harmless. But even for his controversial books, he had a defence. His judges should beware of avoiding conflict, for sometimes the avoidance of battle preserves evil. He quoted Jesus’ words: ‘I come to send not peace, but the sword.’ His prosecutor, Johann von der Ecken, again demanded a simple answer: yes or no. And now at last he was ready. In often-quoted words, he replied: ‘My conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.’ ‘Here I stand,’ a later printed version interpolates at this point. ‘I can do no other.’ Not for the first time, print added drama to truth, so persuasively that the words now form part of Luther’s memorial in Worms.

The emperor gave his reply next day. He would honour Luther’s safe-conduct, but Luther was a heretic nevertheless. It was a circumspect reply, with no assertion of papal authority. Luther was allowed to stay on, for further talks, in particular with a nasty piece of work named Johannes Dobneck, a onetime peasant, now a priest and scholar, and fervid opponent of Luther and all he stood for. He threw out the scurrilous accusation that Luther was only against indulgences because he wasn’t allowed to sell them himself. He made no impact on Luther, though his zeal remained undimmed, to the point that he wrote up his invective-laden views into German. Finding no friendly printer in Worms, he took off to find one elsewhere, ending in Cologne, with consequences we shall discover later.

Official circumspection was wise. Placards, signed by someone or something called Bundschuh – some peasant group, apparently – proclaimed that 400 knights stood ready to back Luther. Perhaps the lives of his accusers, perhaps the emperor’s were at risk. No one knows if the knights existed, but no one was about to tempt fate.

Luther left on 26 April under imperial safe-conduct – but who knew how safe that was? Not he; nor his protector, Frederick, who wanted no risks taken, and ordered a faked kidnap. In a forest, horsemen surrounded Luther’s cavalcade, seized him and galloped off with him to the castle of Wartburg, in Frederick’s special care.

Back in Worms, the imperial diet declared Luther an outlaw, banned his books and forbade ‘defamation’. It was a judgement that hung over Luther, and limited his freedom to move far from Wittenberg. But it wasn’t going to change things. The mood remained overwhelmingly for Luther. One of his opponents, Thomas Murner, a satirist, had Of the Great Lutheran Fool printed in Strasbourg in 1522. ‘Murner’ meant ‘grumbler’, but was also the folk-tale name for a cat, so cartoonists across Germany portrayed him with a cat’s head. Anyway, the edict of Worms had omitted to state that only papists should not be defamed, and Murner’s book was seized by the local pro-Lutherite authorities.

Luther remained in hiding in Wartburg as ‘Junker Georg’, growing a beard and getting fat, there to begin his next work, the translation of the Bible into German. His New Testament, which took him just eleven weeks, appeared in 1522, a work of astonishing power based on the Hebrew and the Greek, vastly superior to Mentel’s Latin-based efforts produced in Strasbourg sixty years before. Followed by the Old Testament in 1534, his Bible was not exactly a single-handed operation – he sought help for all languages concerned, including German – but his skill infused the project and acted as a milestone in the emergence of modern High German. He deliberately set out to escape from his own Lower Saxony dialect, aiming, as he said, ‘to be understood by the people of both Upper and Lower Germany’. He avoided the purely local where he could, choosing words known across dialect boundaries, simplifying and standardising his spelling. It worked: his Bible became a model of excellence and comprehensibility, and so it remains. In linguistic influence, he was a German equivalent of both a Shakespeare and an Authorised Version.

A year later, as the Christian world went to pieces in war and rebellion, he was back in Wittenberg. The break Luther had initiated was now unstoppable. Priests started to hold services in German. Monks married (as Luther was to do four years later). His Bible set a seal on his work, speaking, as he had done, directly to the people, in ordinary language, which he continued to do, bringing calm to a city bubbling with fanaticism. He lived for another twenty-five years, long enough to see other princes seize on his ideas to strengthen their own ambitions against those of the Pope and emperor. His Reformist stream split many ways, under Zwingli in Switzerland, Calvin in France, Knox in Scotland.

After his death, a decade of war ended in 1555 with the Peace of Augsburg, which for the first time acknowledged that Germany was indeed divided between the Catholic and the Lutherans. Religious pluralism had become mainstream, or rather two main streams, the Reformist branch of which would soon divide and subdivide into a delta of Huguenots, Anabaptists, Arminians and Evangelicals, spreading into every country of Northern and Central Europe, and then across the Atlantic, in churches that shared little but their prickly independence.


In this story, a dominant theme is the emergence of a new national sentiment. Luther addressed the ‘German nation’ in its own language; his appeal was to a people fed up with foreign domination; his robust language founded a cultural nationalism with dramatic and enduring political impact, though it would take four centuries to work to its logical conclusion, the creation of a nation-state. But the forces unleashed in Germany – press, language, nationalism – applied everywhere in Europe, in England as much as anywhere, with comparable consequences, and almost as much high drama.

The central figure in this act was William Tyndale. He studied at Oxford in the wake, as it were, of Wycliffe, who a century before had explored the same ground as Luther – he was anti-corruption, anti-clerical, anti-papal and a Bible translator (actually, he probably didn’t do it himself, but he certainly inspired it). Tyndale was a tutor in Gloucestershire when the idea of doing a new translation dawned on him. This was in the 1520s, when he was about thirty. In 1522 he heard of Luther’s translation and was inspired. In London, he asked permission to publish his own translation from Cuthbert Tunstall, the bishop of London. But Tunstall, a traditionalist utterly opposed to Luther, rejected the idea. Tyndale took off to the fount of his inspiration, Wittenberg, where his name was mentioned as a matriculant in 1524. Heady times, with the triumphant Luther just back home, keeping unruly fanatics in check, putting into practice his new teaching. The following year, Tyndale was in Cologne, the most significant centre for religious publishing, new translation in hand and knocking on the door of Peter Quentell, whose father had virtually monopolised publishing in the city after its first post-Gutenberg boom faded.

Quentell welcomed him and started work. But Cologne was no Wittenberg. Here, the old religion was still very much alive, and so was our acquaintance, Luther’s luckless opponent, the embittered Johannes Dobneck, who, having fled Worms to seek a printer, had found one in the same Peter Quentell who was now at work with Tyndale. Dobneck, known by his Latin name of Cochlaeus, must have been astonished, coming from a confrontation with the satanic Luther, only to find a Lutheran protégé trying to infect his very own printer. He complained to the authorities, who obeyed the terms of the Worms edict against further dissemination of anything Lutheran and prepared to arrest Tyndale. Just in time, bearing the first ten quires of his newly printed quarto-sized sheets, he fled – to Worms, naturally.

There, he had his pages bound, the first of a printed English translation – a prologue and Matthew’s Gospel (and possibly Mark’s as well). The pages were then smuggled into England, to the fury of Bishop Tunstall, to whose attention they were at once brought. In Worms, the printer involved was none other than Peter Schöffer, who took on the task of printing Tyndale’s whole New Testament translation. Now an expert in the art of distributing dangerous literature, Schöffer suggested a smaller trim-size than Quentell’s impressive but bulky quarto sheets. Octavo volumes would be easier to smuggle. In 1526 he printed 3,000 copies of the New Testament.

Schöffer père had been both businessman and artist, and young Peter was even more business-minded than his father. So Tyndale’s Bible is no masterpiece of printing. That was not important. It did its job brilliantly. Schöffer contacted merchants, like the wealthy Humphrey Monmouth, who arranged the smuggling. Lesser men acted as mules, unpacking the contraband and finding buyers. This was dangerous work, for discovery meant certain death for the men and their customers. Men like Robert Necton of Norwich and William Garrard of Oxford – their names known from the records of their interrogation – were burned. Monmouth himself was arrested, but proved too fat a cat to bring to trial.

The risks were willingly undertaken by a committed team. No one, it seemed, was after high profits, for Tyndale’s New Testament was priced as low as possible. At a time when a hand-copied Bible cost over £30 – and when a labourer earned £2 a year – Tyndale’s New Testament retailed for 4s. (20p) or less, sometimes much less. Robert Necton did a bulk deal with a Dutch importer for 300 copies at 9d. (30p), a week’s wages, and well within reach of a merchant or small group of like-minded friends. By May 1526 the New Testaments were under many counters; by autumn they were sold.

Tunstall, livid, ordered as many copies as possible to be bought up and burned. Hundreds were, in a huge pyre outside Paul’s Cross, a lead-covered pulpit in Old St Paul’s from which papal bulls were traditionally read. Nothing could have been better calculated to help the Reformation on its way. Tyndale’s Bible sold out quicker, and financed him to reprint faster – six editions, 18,000 copies, over the next three years.

He was, of course, a heretic and an outlaw, relentlessly pursued by Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. Despite the paradoxes in which his faith landed him, More’s stern morals made him constant in his condemnation of Tyndale. It was, he said, necessary to eradicate his books – to burn them, and Tyndale himself – in order to preserve peace in the realm. Heresy was bad but tolerable, subversion intolerable. In the end More’s ideology was his undoing. When his king, determined to get a male heir, set aside his Spanish wife, Catherine, and defied the Pope, Thomas stood firm for papal supremacy, and he went to the scaffold in 1535. The very same year, Tyndale, still struggling with the Old Testament, was betrayed while in the Netherlands, imprisoned for eighteen months, then strangled and burned. What madness, that an English Catholic and an English Protestant should be executed almost simultaneously for their opposing faiths.

By then Tyndale’s contribution to England’s tortuous and bloody passage from Catholicism to Protestantism was firmly in place. He opened the great torrent of Englishness that within a century would produce Shakespeare and the King James Version. Tyndale was England’s Luther in that he used plain language. Ordinary people, he said, could not understand the Christian message ‘except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue’. He is said to have told a doubting cleric: ‘Ere many years I will cause a boy who driveth the plough shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost!’ His lessons are with us still, or should be. In Matthew 6, the King James Version verges on the pompous: ‘When ye pray, use not vain repetitions.’ Tyndale doesn’t mince things: ‘When ye praye, bable not moche.’ In I Corinthians 13, in the popular passage which in the King James contains so many puzzling references to ‘charity’, Tyndale uses the direct ‘love’, to which the New English Bible reverts. His are the tones and rhythms of the spoken word, and they, like Luther’s language, anchored English-speakers in a cultural bedrock.


Few doubted how much these momentous changes owed to the power of the press. Gutenberg, once the darling of the Catholics, now became a Protestant hero. Printing, Luther said, was ‘God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward’, freeing Germany from the shackles of Rome, and his followers agreed. Johann Sleidan, historian, wrote in 1542: ‘As if to offer proof that God has chosen to accomplish a special mission, there was invented in our land a marvellous new and subtle art, the art of printing. This opened Germany eyes, even as it is now bringing enlightenment to other countries.’ A popular metaphor, echoed in many Reformation publications, compared the printing press to its forerunner, the wine press, from which poured a new and noble vintage. As John Foxe put it in his Book of Martyrs (1563): ‘The Lord began to work for His Church not with sword and target to subdue His exalted adversary, but with printing, writing and reading . . . Either the Pope must abolish knowledge and printing or printing must at length root him out.’

The papacy, of course, had no intention of being rooted out, and fought back, using the same ‘divine art’, as Nicholas of Cusa had called it. In a sense, Nicholas of Cusa and Gutenberg achieved their aim in part, in that it was now possible to produce uniform texts throughout the Catholic world. But since that world was now under threat, uniformity turned into something that was rather less of a virtue – a severe conservatism, denying change. Certain ideas that were once merely up for discussion, like Aristotelian cosmology, became fixed. Rule books on how to define sin and how sermons were to be preached issued from Rome’s stern presses.

It was not enough. If some works needed to be published, others certainly didn’t – a view that inspired the response that has won the Church its most scathing condemnation from non-Catholics: its attempt to control the press by banning those works of which it disapproved.

The Church had always claimed the right to approve or disapprove of books, and there had been occasional bannings, easy to impose by the Inquisition when monks produced the books for other monks. But the advent of printing raised the stakes, and the coming of the Reformation raised them higher still. In 1542, Pope Paul III set up a local branch of the Inquisition, as opposed to its fearsome Spanish counterpart, to counteract the Reformation, which it did by initiating a reign of terror that Spanish inquisitors must have envied. One of its functions was to condemn heretical books, a task paralleled in France by the Sorbonne, which published its own list of banned books. The Council of Trent (1545–63), called to retrench after the Protestant defection, established a centralised list of books that existed thanks to that accursed invention, printing – a list that, thanks to that divine invention, printing, could be distributed across the world of the faithful. Published first in 1559, the list grew year by year, and so did its malign reputation.

Actually, it was not all malign, because the Index Librorum Prohibitorum proclaimed what was new and interesting, and acted as good advertising for Protestant publishers. Banning never really worked: in France the official bookseller Jean André printed both the Index and the work of the banned heretic poet Clément Marot. Being banned was a sort of recommendation. Those on the Index in the early days included Peter Abelard, Lefèvre d’Etaples (the first translator of the Bible into French), Boccaccio, Calvin, Dante, Erasmus, Rabelais and, of course, Luther. Eventually, there would be 4,000 books on the Index by the time it was disbanded in 1966.

It’s easy to carp. It is the fate of censors worldwide to be reviled and ridiculed. But since the Index was a notorious failure – its banned authors included Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Balzac, Flaubert, Descartes and Darwin – perhaps it should not be condemned with quite the severity that should be reserved for successful censorships, of which the last century has seen a few. In its favour, as Norman Davies points out in Europe: A History, the Vatican saw nothing subversive about Milton’s Eikonoklastes (banned in England in 1660) or even Lady Chatterley’s Lover (banned in Britain from 1928 to 1960). Its inconsistencies and inadequacies seem now an admission that it was too late to do anything much about a medium that was beyond control.


This book has mostly focused on starting-points and their immediate consequences. Of later consequences there is no end, nor ever will be until paper becomes obsolete, and perhaps not then, because Gutenberg’s invention introduced a change that goes deeper than any of its technical elements, singly or in combination.

When Gutenberg printed the Bible, one of his purposes was to make an object that would last as well as any scribal copy. His assumption, a universal one at the time, was that vellum was preferable to paper, because vellum was permanent, paper temporary. There are two ironies here. His paper Bibles have actually lasted pretty well. It would surely have astonished him to know that some of them are now half a millennium old. Such major works aside, paper does indeed dissolve, disastrously, but – and this is the second irony, which he would have found equally astonishing – quite often it doesn’t matter, because now that books could be printed and reprinted it was not the material that was of significance, but the information content.

Gutenberg’s invention had created the possibility of an intellectual genome, a basis of knowledge which could be passed on from generation to generation, finding expression in individual books, as the human genome is expressed in you and me, itself remaining untouched, a river of knowledge into which every new generation could tap and to which it would add, even after the last press ceases, and paper is no more, and all the vast store of accumulated knowledge is gathered in cyberspace. For there, in perpetuo, will be Gutenberg’s Bible in all its electronic glory, to remind our children’s children that this was the thing that started the revolution made by Johannes Gutenberg.

* In Chinese, indexes – like dictionaries and catalogues – are highly complex affairs, based on the 227 fundamental strokes used in writing characters, subdivided by the number of strokes per character (up to fourteen, or more in classical Chinese). Alternatively, each character could be number-coded, based on the ‘fourcorner system’ which in theory provides an order for 9,999 characters. Now, with some relief, scholars have embraced the romanised version of Chinese, Pinyin.

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