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Importance of Printed Media for the Spread of the Reformation

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Martin Luther’s rise in popularity began when he nailed his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517. Luther aimed to show how corrupt the Catholic Church had become and in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, he wrote: “Works of piety and love are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet these are not preached with such ceremony or such zeal; nay, for the sake of preaching the indulgences they are kept quiet, though it is the first and the sole duty of all bishops that the people should learn the Gospel and the love of Christ”. He aimed to demonstrate with this message that the church was based greatly on luxuries and not God himself. Luther needed to spread this message and create his own Protestant Reformation. ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ failed to be answered, but it did cause a lot of controversies. Luther began his spreading of media and created a German translation with twenty-two German editions being printed. If it had not been for the accessibility and efficiency of type printing for copying documents, Luther’s Reformation and its influence on others could never have happened, and therefore the printed media was the most important reason for the spread of the Reformation.

Literacy in Germany was extremely low, was estimated to be as low as five percent in rural areas, and urban literacy around thirty percent. This made Luther’s printed media less common in Germany. However, people were still taught about them, and it was known that his books were read out loud in markets and people also made transcripts of Luther’s work. This was extremely important for the growth of the Reformation and further solidifies the idea that printed media was extremely important for the growth of the Reformation. People who could read, such as teachers, lawyers, and doctors acquire Luther's latest pamphlet and then read it to crowds or households. A lot of the time people who could read, read his work to others. As Luther’s work spread via printed work, it gave certain people motivation to learn how to read, which further increased the popularity of the Reformation.

For Luther and other Reformers to express their views on the Catholic Church, they required printing services that could assist in the distribution of Luther’s publications. Johannes Gutenberg was a German inventor who introduced printing to Europe. At the request of the Wittenberg University leadership, Gutenberg had moved to Wittenberg from Erfurt in 1508 to set up a printing operation. His skills as a printer are shown in his publication of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt's ‘Distinctiones Thomistarum’. Without this invention, Luther would not have been as known due to people disagreeing with him and wanting him dead, such as Charles V who made him an outlaw who could be killed without consequence.

Luther's use of technology in the 1520s brought a significant increase in the number of printing businesses. Richard Glenn Cole looked at the industry's publication of works by Martin Luther and other Protestants and concluded that Germany dominated the industry with almost fifty printers of Luther's works in the 1520s printing in twelve separate locations. He also found that there were seventy printers in various locations printing mostly Reformation tracts. During the sixteenth century, three hundred and ninety-one printers were printing Luther’s works. Without these Luther would not have been able to spread his beliefs quickly and could have ended up being killed before achieving his goals of pointing out the corruption of the Catholic Church. Richard Cole would agree that printed media was one of the most crucial reasons why the Reformation could spread. Cole also went on to say that it is likely that German printers chose to publish Protestant material on pamphlets during the 1520s. It cannot be ignored that these printers and publications were the beginning of something huge. The ease in sharing his views with others was thanks to Gutenberg’s genius. In all regions of Germany, a given purchaser could buy more books at lower prices out of appreciation for buying more stock. These purchasers could bring them into their library. This made Germany an excellent location for publishing, as the country had enough printers to allow for a large distribution of his writings. Furthermore, it allowed people to purchase his work for a good price making it more accessible to the general public.

With presses available and secondary ways of presenting his writings to the illiterate, Luther kept on giving Germany his work and teachings. Richard Crofts noted the number of publications produced in Germany during the period 1521 and 1545 and then compared them with Luther’s work. He found the information on German publications via ‘Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in the German-Speaking Countries’. The statistics he talked about were the number of printed works per five-year period. These included non-religious works, works by Reformers, and works by Catholics. The period of 1521 to 1545 produced 5,651 works with 34.1% being non-religious titles, 30.2% published by Reformers, and 17.6% were by Catholics. In the first half of the same period, the works by Reformers had an even greater percentage of work being presented with Reformers' producing 46% of the works. Crofts’ notes show that Reformation teachings were being printed more than the works from the Catholic Church. This demonstrates the complete importance of printed media. Without it, the chance of Luther being talked about more than the Catholic Church would be almost impossible. What was also incredible about the statistics was that on average, Luther’s work was just over 50% of the works by Reformers, showing how influential his work was.

Luther needed a printer that could print his work, and this must include them not finding his views controversial. Luther's first Wittenberg printer was Johann Gutenberg. Gutenberg published Luther's translation and commentary on ‘The Seven Penitential Psalms’. This publication became very popular and was republished in Leipzig, Strasburg, and Erfurt. Using Gutenberg for his printer was a good choice for Luther as he could keep a close eye on what was being printed while he taught at the university.

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Gutenberg’s work wasn’t up to Luther’s standard, and he became dissatisfied, so he brought the more experienced and established printer named Melchior Lotter to Wittenberg from Leipzig to set up a printing shop. Lotter completed establishing his Wittenberg facility. He then gave the management of the facility to Melchior and Michael, his sons. Lotter’s facilities seemed to do the job for Luther. Furthermore, it is believed that Luther had a good relationship with the Lotter family, as Michael married one of Luther's first cousins. Luther found Lotter’s printing business an efficient operation for publishing his writings and spreading the Reformation. Lotter, it meant Luther could continue to expand further and have better prints of his work, making his ideas more interesting.

Luther's contributed to the Reformation greatly with his German translation of the New Testament, which was published in 1522. He then went on to translate the Bible into German which was a success and was completed in 1534. Luther knew it was of importance to turn the Word of God into the language of the people. However, Germany during the 16th century didn’t have a common tongue. This didn’t dampen the success of the translation, as it allowed for Luther to reveal the true words of the Bible to people who may have been corrupted by the Catholic teachings, further showing the importance of printed media to the spread of the Reformation. Luther's translation of the New Testament provided was used to teach reading to the illiterate, which helped unite a mother tongue as people were learning that form of German more than anything. The translations were a great success and were accepted by most of the German population. A printer in Wittenberg named Hans Lufft produced thousands of Luther's Bibles between 1534 and 1574. These thousands of Bibles were used to help people with their literacy so not only were they learning the language, but they were also learning about the true contents of the Bible, making these printings vital in the success of the Reformation.

Lucas Cranach partnered with the goldsmith Christian Döring to establish a printing shop. This resulted in the production of several dozen Luther pamphlets between 1522 and 1525 and a few of the first versions of the Bible in native German. Joseph Klug published Luther's 'A Mighty Fortress' in his shop in 1529. With all these different printers assisting in the spread of Luther’s Reformation, it meant that the Reformation could spread with such ease, covering as many people as possible a day that it would take Luther months if he were to be working alone.

Although printed media was vital to the success of the Reformation, it did come with issues. As Luther's popularity kept spreading and more of his work came to light, certain printers took advantage of this opportunity to make money. Printers began the printing of Martin Luther's publications in an unauthorized manner, and this was a problem. Publishers saw the profit potential and would make and print their own editions of his works. This was very bad for Luther’s Reformation as it meant that some ideas could be changed and then mass-printed, or the production quality of his work could be not of standard, which could ultimately turn people away from the Reformation. Some of Luther's unfinished books were stolen from his printers and printed and re-sold by others with certain modifications by someone else. In a later edition of Luther's German New Testament, he included in his preface a comment, “I beg all my friends and foes, my masters, printers, and readers, let this New Testament be mine. If you lack one, then make one for yourselves... But this Testament is Luther's German Testament”. This comment shows the worry that people were changing his word and urged others to make their version, instead of copying his. These printing problems luckily didn’t escalate to become out of control with Luther sharing all this work to printing industries, it did increase the risk of his work would be in jeopardy.

Luther was annoyed by his works being copied, but he was also angry about the quality that they were being produced at. He wrote to George Spalatin in 1521, expressing his thoughts about his work being pirated and the errors in his work: “I have received the second and third parts of my ‘Sermon on Confession’ from you and the first part from Melanchthon. I cannot say how sorry and disgusted I am with the printing. I wish I had sent nothing in German, because they print it so poorly, carelessly, and confusedly, to say nothing of bad types and paper”. Despite Luther’s anger at the failure of certain printing, it is undeniable that the main reason for the success and widespread popularity of Luther’s Reformation to this day was down to the printed media. You can argue that it was risky as work can be changed and then printed off to favor the Catholic Church, but without taking that risk, the Reformation would never have been known as it is today, and we must thank printing for that.

To conclude, printed media was fully important for the spread of the Reformation. In this essay I have shown that printing completely changed the life of many, as it allowed popularity that was never seen before, a revolution within technology. During the sixty years of development, the printers of Luther's era were able to publish all his books, pamphlets, tracts, treatises, hymns, and his translations of the Bible into German. Of course, he faced challenges with this technology, but it did not slow him down too much. Printing was so important for Luther as it meant that people across the country could learn of the corruption within the Catholic Church and understand that the poor are just as equal as the wealthy. People were motivated to learn German so that they could understand Luther’s teachings. Printed media also allowed for the Bible translation and made people realize that the Bible doesn’t encourage the ways of the Catholic Church, such as the church selling indulgences for money for the dead so they could go to Heaven faster. Finally, Gutenberg’s introduction of the printer changed the West. “A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330”. This quote sums up the argument that printing was vital for the success of the Reformation. Without the printer, Luther likely wouldn’t be known today, and people would have taken him for a fool, but the printer meant that he could spread his message quickly, making printed media the most important reason for the success and popularity of Luther’s Reformation. Martin Luther used this technology and efficiently used it for the distribution of his writings and exposed the Word of God to the people who were trapped within the belief that the Catholic Church was correct in all their teachings.

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Importance of Printed Media for the Spread of the Reformation. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 30, 2023, from
“Importance of Printed Media for the Spread of the Reformation.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023,
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