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First Impressions

From the printing revolution to the Reformation

In fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe the intellectual and cultural re-birth known as the Renaissance had started to affect people's values, their views of the world and the knowledge they sought. The innovation of print technology increased the number of books in circulation and helped to satisfy the demand for access to information from an increasingly curious and inquisitive population. As the number of books in circulation grew, the way in which people read changed: there was a move away from an individual reading a book aloud to a group, to private and silent reading. The activity of reading and gaining knowledge gradually broke down the monopoly that the literate elite had on learning and education. New ideas and novel thinking started to challenge the teachings and authority of religious and political leaders.

At this time the Roman Catholic Church was a powerful organisation whose role was far-reaching. Immensely wealthy, it was much more than a religious institution; it influenced the whole rhythm of peoples' lives. In the early sixteenth century a number of individuals began speaking out against some of the practices of the Church including the issuing of indulgences. Most famous among these early reformers was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in Wittenberg, Germany.

For years people had given money to the Church as a way of paying for their sins or seeking to reduce the time they would spend in purgatory after death. A piece of paper called an indulgence would then be given to them confirming what had been paid and what sin had been absolved. The invention of the printing press saw indulgences being produced at an astonishing rate, which in turn brought in huge sums of money for the Church. Luther saw this and other financial abuses by the Catholic Church as intolerable and submitted a long list of complaints against the Church in the form of Ninety-Five Theses that he attached to the door of his local rectory in Wittenberg. Recognising the threat to its authority, the Church responded with its own propaganda, but Luther published his dissenting arguments in the form of cheaply printed booklets that were easily carried and flooded the cities of Europe, spreading the idea of reform. Without the output of the printing press, it is likely that the Reformation would have remained a local quarrel. But by using the new technology Luther and his followers were able rapidly to spread their ideas and change the whole nature of religious and theological debate.