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§ 92. The Printing-Press and the Reformation.


The art of printing, which was one of the providential preparations for the Reformation, became the mightiest lever of Protestantism and modern culture.

The books before the Reformation were, for the most part, ponderous and costly folios and quartos in Latin, for limited circulation. The rarity of complete Bibles is shown by the fact that copies in the libraries were secured by a chain against theft. Now small and portable books and leaflets were printed in the vernacular for the millions.

The statistics of the book trade in the sixteenth century reveal an extraordinary increase since Luther. In the year 1513, there appeared only ninety prints in Germany; in 1514, one hundred and six; in 1515, one hundred and forty-five; in 1516, one hundred and five; in 1517, eighty-one. They are mostly little devotional tracts, flying newspapers, official notices, medical prescriptions, stories, and satirical exposures of clerical and monastic corruptions. In 1518 the number rose to one hundred and forty-six; in 1519, to two hundred and fifty-two; in 1520, to five hundred and seventy-one; in 1521, to five hundred and twenty-three; in 1522, to six hundred and seventy-seven; in 1523, to nine hundred and forty-four. Thus the total number of prints in the five years preceding the Reformation amounted only to five hundred and twenty-seven; in the six years after the Reformation, it rose to three thousand one hundred and thirteen.740740    For these figures and several facts in this paragraph I am indebted to the instructive work of Friedrich Kapp, Geschichte des deutschen Buchhandels (published by the "Börsenverein der deutschen Buchhändler," Leipzig, 1886), vol. I. 407 sq. The statistics of Ranke (II. 56) are taken from Panzer’s Annalen der älteren deutschen Literatur (1788 and 1802) and are superseded by the more recent and fuller investigations of Weller, Kuczynski, and Kapp.

These works are distributed over fifty different cities of Germany. Of all the works printed between 1518 and 1523 no less than six hundred appeared in Wittenberg; the others mostly in Nürnberg, Leipzig, Cologne, Strassburg, Hagenau, Augsburg, Basel, Halberstadt, and Magdeburg. Luther created the book-trade in Northern Germany, and made the little town of Wittenberg one of the principal book-marts, and a successful rival of neighboring Leipzig as long as this remained Catholic. In the year 1523 more than four-fifths of all the books published were on the side of the Reformation, while only about twenty books were decidedly Roman Catholic. Erasmus, hitherto the undisputed monarch in the realm of letters, complained that the people would read and buy no other books than Luther’s. He prevailed upon Froben not to publish any more of them. "Here in Basel," he wrote to King Henry VIII., "nobody dares to print a word against Luther, but you may write as much as you please against the pope." Romish authors, as we learn from Cochlaeus and Wizel, could scarcely find a publisher, except at their own expense; and the Leipzig publishers complained that their books were unsalable.

The strongest impulse was given to the book trade by Luther’s German New Testament. Of the first edition, Sept. 22, 1522, five thousand copies were printed and sold before December of the same year, at the high price of one guilder and a half per copy (about twenty-five marks of the present value). Hans Luft printed a hundred thousand copies on his press in Wittenberg. Adam Petri in Basel published seven editions between 1522 and 1525; Thomas Wolf of the same city, five editions between 1523 and 1525. Duke George commanded that all copies should be delivered up at cost, but few were returned. The precious little volume, which contains the wisdom of the whole world, made its way with lightning speed into the palaces of princes, the castles of knights, the convents of monks, the studies of priests, the houses of citizens, the huts of peasants. Mechanics, peasants, and women carried the New Testament in their pockets, and dared to dispute with priests and doctors of theology about the gospel.741741    This was the complaint of Cochlaeus, see p. 350. Luther called him Kochlöffel and Rotzlöffel (cochlear = spoon).

As there was no copyright at that time, the works of the Reformers were multiplied by reprints in Nürnberg, Augsburg, Strassburg, Basel. Republication was considered a legitimate and honorable business. Luther complained, not of the business itself, but of the reckless and scandalous character of many reprints of his books, which were so full of blunders that he could hardly recognize them.742742    He called such printers thieves and highway robbers, and their work Bubenstück, den gemeinen Mann zu betrügen"(September, 1525). Sometimes the printers stole his manuscript, and published it elsewhere. He was not hindered by any censorship, except that he received occasionally a gentle warning from the Elector when he did not spare the princes. He took no honorarium for his books, and was satisfied with a number of free copies for friends. Authors were usually supported by a professorship, and considered it beneath their dignity, or as ungentlemanlike, to receive a royalty, but were indirectly rewarded by free copies or other presents of the publishers or rich patrons, in return for dedications, which were originally, as they are now, nothing more than public testimonies of regard or gratitude, though often used, especially during the seventeenth century, for selfish purposes.743743    Kapp (I. 318) mentions that the electors of Saxony from 1571-1670 received no less than a hundred and ninety-two "most humble" (alleruntherthänigste) dedications from various authors, and that the magistrate of Zürich received thirty-eight from 1670-1685. Cash payments to authors were, down to the eighteenth century, rare and very low. Few could make a decent living from writing books; and, we may add, few publishers acquired wealth from their trade, which is very uncertain, and subject to great losses. "Habent sua fata libelli."

But, while the progressive Reformation gave wings to the printing-press, the conservative re-action matured gradually a system of restriction, which, under the name of censorship and under the direction of book-censors, assumed the control of the publishing business with authority to prevent or suppress the publication and sale of books, pamphlets, and newspapers hostile to the prevailing religious, moral, or political sentiments.744744    On the history of the book censorship (Büchercensur) and press persecutions, compare the ninth and tenth chapters of Kapp, I. 522 sqq. The Peasants’ War, which was kindled by inflammatory books, and threatened a general overthrow of social order, strengthened the reactionary tendencies of Protestant, as well as Roman Catholic, governments.

The burning of obnoxious books by public authority of church or state is indeed as old as the book-trade. A work of Protagoras, in which he doubted the existence of the Greek gods, was burned at the stake in Athens about twenty years after the death of Pericles. The Emperor Augustus subjected slanderous publications (libelli famosi) to legal prosecution and destruction by fire. Christian emperors employed their authority against heathen, heretical, and infidel books. Constantine the Great, backed by the Council of Nicaea, issued an edict against the writings of Porphyry and Arius; Accadius, against the books of the Eunomians (398); Theodosius, against the books of the Nestorians (435). Justinian commanded the destruction of sundry obnoxious works, and forbade their re-issue on pain of losing the right arm (536). The oecumenical synod of 680 at Constantinople burned the books which it had condemned, including the letters of the Monothelitic Pope Honorius.

Papal Rome inherited this practice, and improved upon it. Leo I. caused a large number of Manichaean books to be burnt (446). The popes claimed the right and duty to superintend the religious and moral literature of Christendom. They transferred the right in the thirteenth century to the universities, but they found little to do until the art of printing facilitated the publication of books. The Council of Constance condemned the books of Wiclif and Hus, and ordered the bishops to burn all the copies they could seize (1415).

The invention of the printing-press (c. 1450) called forth sharper measures in the very city where the inventor, John Gutenberg, lived and died (1400–1467). It gave rise also to the preventive policy of book-censorship which still exists in some despotic countries of Europe. Berthold, Archbishop of Mainz, took the lead in the restriction of the press. He prohibited, Jan. 10, 1486, the sale of all unauthorized German translations of Greek and Latin works, on the plea of the inefficiency of the German language, but with a hostile aim at the German Bible. In the same year Pope Innocent VIII. issued a bull against the printers of bad books. The infamous Pope Alexander VI. prohibited in 1498, on pain of excommunication, the printing and reading of heretical books; and in a bull of June 1, 1501, which was aimed chiefly against Germany, he subjected all kinds of literary publications to episcopal supervision and censorship, and required the four archbishops of Cöln, Mainz, Trier, and Magdeburg, or their officials, carefully to examine all manuscripts before giving permission to print them. He also ordered that books already printed should be examined, and burnt if they contained any thing contrary to the Catholic religion. This bull forms the basis of all subsequent prohibitions and restrictions of the press by papal, imperial, or other authority.745745    The bull is not given in the Bullarium, but by Raynaldus ad a. 1501, No. 36, Zaccaria, and Reusch (I. 54), in part also by Kapp (l.c. p. 530).

Leo X., who personally cared more for heathen art than Christian literature, went further, and prohibited, in a bull of March 3, 1515, the publication of any book in Rome without the imprimatur of the magister sacri palatii (the book-censor), and in other states and dioceses without the imprimatur of the bishop or the inquisitor of heretical depravity.746746    The bull "Inter solicitudines" was promulgated in the fifth Lateran Council. Labbe, XIV. 257, and Reusch, I. 55 sq. Offenders were to be punished by the confiscation and public burning of their books, a fine of one hundred ducats, and excommunication. Archbishop and Elector Albrecht of Mainz was the first, and it seems the only, German prince who gave force to this bull for his own large diocese by a mandate of May 17, 1517, a few months before the outbreak of the Reformation. The papal bull of excommunication, June 15, 1520, consistently ordered the burning of, all the books of Luther."747747    The bull "Exurge, Domine," is printed in full, p. 235 sqq. But he laughed it to scorn, and burned in revenge the pope’s bull, with all his decretals, Dec. 10, 1520.

Thus, with the freedom of conscience, was born the freedom of the press. But it had to pass through a severe ordeal, even in Protestant countries, and was constantly checked by Roman authorities as far as their power extended. The German Empire, by the Edict of Worms, made itself an ally of the pope against free thought and free press, and continued so until it died of old age in 1806.748748    Kapp, l.c., p. 536 sqq., shows that the Edict of Worms, drawn up by the papal legate Aleander, is the beginning of the German book-censorship, and not, as usually supposed, the recess of the Nürnberg Diet of 1524. "Wie Rom," he says (539), "die Wiege der Büchercensur für die ganze Welt, so ist Worms ihre Geburtsstätte für Deutschland." The restriction of the press, however, was begun in Germany, as we have seen, already in 1486, by Elector Berthold of Mainz. Fortunately, the weakness of the empire and the want of centralization prevented the execution of the prohibition of Protestant books, except in strictly papal countries, as Bavaria and Austria. But unfortunately, the Protestants themselves, who used the utmost freedom of the press against the Papists, denied it to each other; the Lutherans to the Reformed, and both to the Anabaptists, Schwenkfeldians and Socinians.749749    "Derselbe Luther," says Kapp, p. 552, "welcher das Papstthum für noch lange nicht genug zerscholten, zerschrieben, zersungen, zerdichtet Und zermalet hielt, rief schon 1525 die Censur für seinen nunmehrigen Standpunkt zur Hilfe." He refers to his attempt to secure a prohibition of Carlstadt’s writings in Saxony. Protestant princes liked to control the press to protect themselves against popery, or the charges of robbery of church property and other attacks. The Elector John Frederick was as narrow and intolerant as Duke George on the opposite side. But these petty restrictions are nothing compared with the radical and systematic crusade of the Papists against the freedom of the press. King Ferdinand of Austria ordered, July 24, 1528, all printers and sellers of sectarian books to be drowned, and their books to be burnt. The wholesale burning of Protestant books, including Protestant Bibles, was a favorite and very effective measure of the Jesuitical reaction which set in before the middle of the sixteenth century, and was promoted by the political arm, and the internecine wars of the Protestants. Pope Paul IV. published in 1557 and 1559 the first official Index Librorum prohibitorum; Pius IV. in 1564, an enlarged edition, generally known as Index Tridentinus, as it was made by order of the Council of Trent. It contains a list of all the books forbidden by Rome, good, bad, and indifferent. This list has been growing ever since in size (1590, 1596, 1607, 1664, 1758, 1819, etc.), but declining in authority, till it became, like the bull against the comet, an anachronism and a brutum fulmen.750750    Fr. Heinrich Reusch (old catholic Prof. at Bonn): Der Index der verbotenen Bücher, Bonn, 1883-85, 2 vols. Of older works we mention, Fr. Zaccaria, Storia polemica delle proibizioni de’ libri, Rom., 1777; and Jos. Mendham, The Literary Policy of the Church of Rome exhibited in an account of her damnatory Catalogues or indexes, both prohibitory and expurgatory, London, 1826, 3d ed. 1844.



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