'The Medium and the Message': Evangelical Propaganda and the German Reformation: Simon Lemieux Examines Examples of German Protestant Propaganda

By Lemieux, Simon | History Review, December 2009 | Go to article overview

'The Medium and the Message': Evangelical Propaganda and the German Reformation: Simon Lemieux Examines Examples of German Protestant Propaganda


Lemieux, Simon, History Review


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In 1964, the Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase 'The Medium is the Message'. By this he meant that the form of the medium (be it written, visual etc) embeds itself in the message, and that one has to study the medium itself more than its content or message. The nature of the media should therefore be a key focus for study, influencing as it does the culture and society in which it was produced. Perhaps nowhere in Early Modern History is this truer than the written propaganda, woodcuts and images associated with the German Reformation.

This essay seeks to explore and to analyse a number of aspects of this medium. Firstly, its origins and methods of production and distribution will be evaluated, including the debunking of a few myths about printing and the Reformation. Secondly, several examples of Reformation illustrations and images will be analysed, in order to show the complexity of meaning such woodcuts could possess. We will also review briefly how images and illustrations changed from 1517 to the middle of the 16th century. By touching the surface of this fascinating area of propaganda, we may begin to assess the overall importance of visual propaganda to the German Reformation, both in terms of its impact and for the reformers themselves.

The Media Reformation

As most students of the German Reformation are well aware, it was the first major historical event where both the written text and the visual image played key roles, In this sense it perhaps truly deserves to be called the first modern historical movement in terms of its media. Propaganda and the written word have subsequently come to be part and parcel of milestone events such as the French Revolution, the world wars and the October Revolution in Russia. Part of Martin Luther's genius, perhaps his most original aspect aside from some of his theology, was his ability to recognise the power and importance of the visual. Ever the effective teacher, he shrewdly noted that images had enormous instructive potential, 'Above all for the sake of the children and the simple folk, who are easily moved by pictures and images'. The German Reformation was undoubtedly a turning point in European History, since it split Europe into two religious camps (Catholic and Protestant) and introduced new religious ideas such as the priesthood of all believers and salvation by faith alone. But it was also a war of words and images, with the Protestant or evangelical side having the upper hand in terms of both volume and creativity. What form exactly did these publications take?

The Power of Print

Vast numbers of cheap pamphlets, called flugschriften, were produced by German printers. These usually contained graphic images accompanied by written text promoting Protestant ideas or attacking aspects of the Catholic Church. Good use was made of the twin technologies of woodcuts, to mass produce images, and the printing press, first used by Johann Gutenberg at Mainz in 1454, which enabled large numbers of pamphlets to be produced easily and cheaply. One block could, for example, produce around 3,000 copies. By 1500, there were already 64 printing presses in the German lands. Luther, perhaps rightly, referred to printing as 'God's highest and extremist act of grace'. Precise numbers are impossible to provide, but historians have noted that while perhaps there were around 20 million printed books in Europe in the period 1450-1500, by 1550 that figure was nearer 200 million. Whereas in 1518 150 different titles were published in Germany, by 1524 that had grown to 990, suggesting the revolution in output stimulated by Luther and his ideas. Some have estimated that by 1600, around one million copies of Luther's translation of the New Testament had been distributed.

So, from the evidence above, we can certainly conclude that not only was the Reformation the first historical phenomenon to make massive use of the printed medium, but also that the quantities involved were very substantial.

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