It was a world where fear of hellfire was real and ever-present; where people tossed precious coins into the heavy trunks of unscrupulous priests in return for a promise of heaven — payments known as indulgences. The iconoclast reformer Martin Luther shook that world to its core by challenging the all-powerful Catholic Church on the indulgence issue and launching the Protestant Reformation.
An exhibit now on view at the Morgan Library & Museum documents Luther’s role. It even includes one of the trunks, physical evidence of a world characterized by widely-held beliefs far different from today’s.
But some things remain the same. The exhibit highlights one aspect of life that has hardly changed at all: a new technology’s ability to drastically change the way people communicate, helping them challenge an out-of-touch elite. For Luther, that technology was the printing press.
Luther wanted to reach people any way he could, says Euan Cameron, professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary. That included sermons, but Luther was truly effective at being one of the first to “write short and to write in both German and Latin.” That and small-sized books allowed his revolution to travel, and be understood.
Those widely distributed pamphlets were as effective as some fear Donald Trump’s tweets could be today.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses which challenged Catholic doctrine and upended Europe’s defining power structure. That document, which by tradition was nailed on the door of Wittenberg Castle in fall of 1517, reverberated far beyond the small German town with the help of the nascent printing industry.
Until Luther, publishers had failed to establish themselves with sufficient loans and investment, says Cameron. And their products were still similar to the large, old theological books created for centuries by hand: “boring, difficult,” large and in Latin.
The printing press allowed Luther’s ideas to circulate rapidly. But they also circulated the secondary material that Luther and his allies swiftly created in their lifelong battle against the Roman Catholic Church.
Some of these “bestsellers in the field of antipapal polemics” are on display at the Morgan: a satirical picture of the pope as a “grotesque, donkey-like creature” along with Luther’s commentary. A juxtaposition of the life of Christ with the life of the pope, including illustrations of Christ expelling the moneylenders from the Temple on one side, the Pope selling people indulgences on the other.
Church supporters fought back, such as with a 1529 diatribe by Johannes Cochlaeus that included an image of Luther as the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse.
But the powers that be couldn’t quash Luther entirely, whose pamphlets and broadsides made their way around Christian Europe, where paintings show the common sight of single sheet woodcuts pinned up in village centers, says Cameron. There, they stirred opposition to elites whose rules seemed arbitrary and harsh. Passions were inflamed by the surprise of an image, or a well-turned, defiant phrase, as with Luther’s description of the pope as “your Hellishness.”
While battling the pope by proxy, Luther also spent more than 10 years translating the Bible into accurate, readable German. The printing press spread the Holy Book along with his diatribes, making mysteries of religion more accessible.
Technology brought more truth, even as some adopted it to distribute propaganda. This has been the promise and pitfall of the social media innovations of today as well — leaders like Trump provided with much more direct access to followers, while social media users have a far wider world of information at their fingertips.
Trump continues to use Twitter in the crass, crude and entertaining way that has fixated his followers. He decided it was necessary for the soon-to-be inheritor of Lincoln’s office to cast aspersions about a Golden Globes speech, describing Meryl Streep as “over-rated” and a “flunky.” He cheers defenders in simplistic terms (Rupert Murdoch is a “great guy”) and slams the opposition, media, in similar ways. (“Terrible!”)
In doing so he has contributed, along with technological change, to the undercutting of the status quo powers that be in government and media alike. If he keeps thumbs to keyboard even upon assuming the presidency — and spokespeople have taken to saying that his tweets “speak for themselves” — he will have an even larger platform to skewer the status quo. Some may tire of the propaganda, but many followers will likely cheer him on.
Luther, who so benefited from the printing industry, also “called it into being” in some ways, Cameron said. He supported and encouraged the printers he used, and his successes created copycats both among those who supported and those who opposed him.
Cameron compares this to “the way the internet called new genres of writing into being,” including blogs which presaged modern forms of social media. Trump has been maybe the ultimate maestro and impresario of that form, in terms of spinning online success into real-world power. It could be just the beginning.