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Printing, Propaganda, and Public Opinion in the Age of Martin Luther

Bagchi, David


David Bagchi


Summary: Luther had a notoriously ambivalent attitude towards what was still the new technology of the printing press. He could both praise it as God’s highest act of grace for the proclamation of God’s Word, and condemn it for its unprecedented ability to mangle the same beyond recognition. That ambivalence seems to be reflected in the judgment of modern scholarship. Some have characterized the Reformation as a paradigmatic event in the history of mass communications (a Medien- or Kommunikationsereignis), while others have poured scorn on any reductionist attempt to attribute a complex movement to a technological advance and to posit in effect a doctrine of ‘Justification by Print Alone’. The evidence in favour of some sort of correlation between the use of printing and the success of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland is certainly formidable. Thousands of German Reformation pamphlets (Flugschriften) survive to this day in research libraries and other collections (with Luther’s own works predominant among them), suggesting that the Holy Roman Empire was once awash with millions of affordable little tracts in the vernacular. Contemporary opponents of the Reformation lamented the potency of cheap print for propaganda and even for agitation among ‘the people’, and did their best either to beat the evangelical writers through legislation or else to join them by launching their own literary campaigns. But, ubiquitous as the Reformation Flugschrift was for a comparatively short time, the long-term impact of printing on Luther’s Reformation was even more impressive, above all in the production and dissemination of Bibles and partial Bibles which used Luther’s German translation. The message of the Lutheran Reformation, with its emphasis on the proclamation of God’s Word to all, seemed to coincide perfectly with the emergence of a new medium which could, for the first time, transmit that Word to all. Against this correlation must be set the very low literacy rate in the Holy Roman Empire in the early sixteenth century, which on some estimates ranged between only five and ten per cent. of the entire population. Even taking into account the fact that historical literacy rates are notoriously difficult to estimate, the impact of printing on the majority must have been negligible. This fact has led historians to develop more nuanced ways of understanding the early-modern communication process than simply imagining a reader sitting in front of a text. One is to recognize the ‘hybridity’ of many publications—a pamphlet might contain labelled illustrations, or be capable of being read out aloud as a sermon, or of being sung. Luther himself published many successful hybrid works of this kind. Another is the notion of the ‘two-stage communication process’, by which propagandists or advertisers direct their message principally to influential, literate, opinion-formers who cascade the new ideas down. Clearly much work remains to be done in understanding how Luther’s propaganda and public opinion interacted. The fact that our present generations are living through a series of equally transformative and disruptive communications revolutions will no doubt inspire new questions as well as new insights.


Bagchi, D. (2016). Printing, Propaganda, and Public Opinion in the Age of Martin Luther. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Oxford University Press.

Publication Date Aug 31, 2016
Deposit Date Jun 28, 2016
Publicly Available Date Nov 23, 2017
Journal Oxford research encyclopedia of religion
Publisher Oxford University Press
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Book Title Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion
Keywords Print, Propaganda, Public opinion, Media, Reformation pamphlets/flugschriften, Bible, Priesthood of all believers, Papacy
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