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How the Printing Press broke the Church's grip
Part Four in a series of articles about Copyright in the Age of Generative Artificial Intelligence.
This is the fourth item in a series. In the first two articles, available here and here, we opened with the collision between generative AI and copyright, and we explored why society needs copyright laws.
This week, we are taking a short historical detour to the time before copyright. By studying the political dynamics of the late Middle Ages, we can appreciate the disruptive power of the free expression of unconventional ideas; and we can see how the mechanical reproduction of books amplified and intensified this power. Yesterday’s article explained how the printing press expanded public debate to accelerate beyond the control of the Catholic Church. Today, we continue with the Church’s reaction.
The Church’s backlash against printing included censorship and suppression.
Unable to mount an effective strategy to counter the spread of the printing press, in the mid-16th century, the Church doubled down on censorship.
Censorship in certain forms had been introduced by the Romans centuries earlier. The Latin verb censere means “to evaluate, to examine, to check.” From this Roman concept emerged the practice of official censorship as exercised by the Church.
The proliferation of mechanical printing presses across Europe and the flood of heretical ideas that followed goaded the Church to intensify the practice of censorship.
In 1486, just a few decades after the earliest moveable type printing presses were developed in Mainz, the archbishop-elector of that city issued the first decree establishing a censorship commission.
The following year, a papal bull decreed the pre-authorization of texts for printing.
According to Dr Jurgen Wilke of the Johannes Gutenberg University:
Censorship by the Catholic Church reached its apogee during the Counter Reformation. In 1557, an index of proscribed books was introduced, the Index librorum prohibitorum, which gave a permanent form to the censorship policies of the church.5 This Index was only abolished in 1966 by Pope Paul VI (1897–1978).
Censorship was a difficult habit for the Catholic Church to break. It persisted until fairly recently.
A personal anecdote: as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I was an altar boy. Each week, my local Catholic parish issued a list of popular fiction that was “condemned” by the Church. The Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum had ceased publication in 1966, but that didn’t stop the Cleveland Diocese from issuing a prohibition on certain works. I liked reading this list: it helped me to discover new movies. When the film The Exorcist appeared on the list, it sparked my curiosity, so I watched the midnight showing, which I found thrilling and frightening. The film exposed me to the archaic practice of exorcism, a tradition that the Church considered an embarrassing relic in the 1970s. Censorship, like all prohibitions, is a geyser of unintended consequences.
To summarize our story so far, the introduction of the printing press destabilized a centuries-old social order by defying the Church’s dominion over ideas and ideology. The Church responded with a crackdown, intensifying censorship. What followed was an eruption of new expression and radicalization that demolished the old order.
In the rest of this article, we will consider how the printing press popularized the Reformation across the continent.
A call to overturn the established order
How Martin Luther Used the Printing Press To Advance the Reform Agenda
One of the primary reasons the Church deployed censorship and revived the Inquisition was to stop the Reformation.
The surge of novel ideas in the early print era included radical alternatives to Catholic doctrine and some harshly critical analyses of Church policy, particularly sharp critique of the corruption that grew from the sale of indulgences. The authors of these screeds dared to criticize the Pope himself, casting doubt on his role as the sole arbiter of relations between God and mankind.
Those were fighting words. To the Church, these publications contained vile heresy that must be suppressed.
For modern readers: when you consider the clash between today’s copyright holders and AI companies, you might ask yourself: who is playing the role of the Church, fighting a rearguard action to preserve the old order, and who is playing the role of renegade printer, heralding change and a free flow of ideas for everyone?
(Okay, I admit that the previous sentence was a cheap shot… but maybe it was worth it if it helps readers make the connection between this story about the Middle Ages to today’s controversy about AI).
When the Reformation began in the early 1500s, about 70 years after Gutenberg’s invention, printing presses were operating in more than 200 European cities. These presses equipped the Reformers with a new kind of distribution system for radical ideas.
In the past, the lack of distribution had constrained rebellions. They were easily crushed because they remained regional uprisings that never managed to spread far.
The German priest and scholar Martin Luther made use of the printing press in two dramatic steps that broke the church’s centuries-long grip on information in Europe.
First, Luther printed the 95 Theses, a 16th century tweetstorm that raised awkward questions about rampant corruption in the Church. According to legend, Luther nailed the theses to the door of the All-Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517.
Luther used the printing press to produce multiple copies of his theses, which he distributed in secrecy to likeminded scholars, thereby ensuring that his ideas would outlast him if the church attempted to kill or imprison him.
Modern readers might say that Luther invented the external backup copy. Clearly he understood the lesson from the experiences of previous scholars, whose heretical works were burned.
Luther’s ideas survived. Then they thrived in a way that was previously unimaginable.
The Theses were translated in German. Then they spread like fire throughout Germany and, within mere weeks, onwards to France, England, and Italy. At a time when roads were poor and sailing was dangerous, this rate of diffusion was unprecedented. Printing presses in each town ensured the further reproduction of Luther’s ideas
The Church responded to Luther’s prolific writing with formal edicts and papal bulls, but these were written in Latin and circulated only within the churches. They had little effect because they only reached true believers.
Luther’s second feat occurred after his excommunication in 1521, when he was obliged to spend many months in isolation under the protection of Frederick III in Wartburg castle. The renegade priest used his time in hiding to complete his translation of the New Testament of the Bible in vernacular German. This edition was published in 1522, followed by his edition of the Old Testament a decade later.
This was a radical move. The impact of Luther’s German-language Bible greatly exceeded the more famous incident of his 95 Theses.
Luther’s decision to publish in a vernacular that was comprehensible in both the northern and southern regions of Germany profoundly influenced the codification and standardization of written High German. Luther’s Bible promoted literacy within German-speaking nations and it enabled his work to be read aloud to illiterate crowds. It was the first German-language blockbuster hit. Its very existence promoted Luther’s concept of the sovereign individual seeking direct spiritual justification without the intervention of clergy or priest.
Luther was astoundingly prolific, publishing a new work every two weeks for 25 years. Between 1500 and 1530, works written by Martin Luther represented 20% of all materials printed in Germany. It is estimated that Luther’s work sold more than 2 million copies and had more than 2200 printings and re-printings by 1530.
Luther was keenly aware of the power of putting his ideas into print. He made savvy use of books and pamphlets to obtain broad circulation for his subversive notions. His decision to write in German rather than Latin enabled him to reach a broader audience beyond the confines of the Church. By making use of new formats like pamphlets and songbooks, Luther dramatically expanded the circulation of new ideas.
Within Luther’s lifetime, these ideas would plunge Europe into a series of long and violent conflicts that redefined the structure of society, and brought the Catholic Church’s domination of the information space to an end.
Fighting fire with fire
How propaganda turned ideas into weapons
Today we tend to think of propaganda as an instrument of spy-craft or perhaps national foreign policy. State use of publications to promote ideology and degrade the perception of rival nations has been employed since the Napoleonic era.
But propaganda did not begin with the secular state. It first began as a formal program inside the Catholic Church around 1400. As the term suggests, it was initially a communication program that was intended to propagate the faith.
With the advent of the printing press, however, propaganda turned into a weapon. It was adapted by the Church to counteract the spread of heretical ideas, particularly those transmitted by works on paper.
As the leading author of Protestant literature, Luther was singled out as the object of vicious Catholic propaganda. Many of his works were refuted by Catholic scholars and he was personally attacked.
During the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic propagandists made extensive use of the printing press to persuade audiences. The Protestants greatly outpaced the Catholics in sheer volume of publication, and they were far more successful at reaching the broad public because they borrowed Luther’s trick of publishing in local vernacular dialects rather than in Latin. Short pamphlets were the weapon of choice for the Protestants, because these were small, cheap, and easy to conceal from the authorities.
The advent of large-scale propaganda campaigns demonstrates that both sides in the Reformation conflict understood how much damage ideas could inflict on opponents.
The proliferation of new ideas divides the populace
Martin Luther began by raising humble questions about indulgences. This act met a hostile response. After a series of escalating attacks and threats, Luther’s attitude hardened into open defiance of the corrupt Church.
He founded a new church and thereby split the entire population of Europe into hostile camps of Protestants and Catholics.
Luther’s fearless radicalism spurred others to bolder action. A century of warfare followed. His tracts were the opening shots in a widening conflict that smoldered and occasionally flared for about a century before erupting in a massive conflagration that would eventually consume several million lives in France, Switzerland, Netherlands and mainly Central Europe.
Violence between warring factions became the defining legacy of the Reformation. The Peasants’ War in Germany (1524 – 25) began as a revolt against princes who imposed taxation and serfdom, which later split along religious lines, followed by: the Kappel Wars in Switzerland (1531); the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598); the Dutch Revolt and the Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), all of which thrust Protestants against Catholics in brutal, bloodthirsty conflict that left cities razed and some regions depopulated.
Those gruesome conflicts were just a preview of the bloodbath that occurred in the 17th Century. Beginning in 1618, the Thirty Years’ War pitted Protestant communities against Catholics in a grinding war that killed up to one half of the population of central Europe and devastated entire regions.
Three decades of ceaseless war left entire towns in Bohemia, the Palatinate, Bavaria and other areas of central Europe depopulated. More than 200 principalities participated in the conflict. The war drew in England, France, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and Austria.
The Thirty Years’ War rearranged the landscape of Europe with a wrecking ball and a scythe. Wars and fire were followed by rampant disease and widespread poverty. Ceaseless campaigns weakened the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire by draining their finances and depriving them of territory and productive subjects.
Rival centers of power emerged. Princes formed new alliances among Protestant nations and principalities. Breakaway regions like the Netherlands began to flourish after they shed the dual mantel of Spanish subjugation and Catholic orthodoxy.
The war exhausted dominant European powers and shattered the myth of the Holy Roman Emperor as the universal leader. It ended with the durable Peace of Westphalia, a grudging acceptance of Protestantism, and the entirely new concept of independent sovereign nations; but these gains came at a terrible human cost.
Did the printing press cause the Thirty Years’ War? No, not exactly, but the press unquestionably hastened the dissemination of radical ideas that broke the Church’s grip on information; and those ideas inspired the Reformation movement that led to the war. In these respects, the reproduction of ideas proved to be powerfully destabilizing.
In the next articles in this series, we will turn out attention to the aftermath of the religious wars, when secular rulers took over the job of managing the landscape of ideas. The techniques used by monarchs to co-opt, persuade and coerce printers to comply laid the groundwork for laws that governed the publication of ideas.
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