Tag Archives: Protestant

Going viral 1517-style

Some people are great self-promoters. Most aren’t. Johannes Gutenberg created world-changing technology but didn’t know how to capitalize on it. Martin Luther saw the printing press and knew exactly what to do.

It was movable type and the printing press that got the Protestant Reformation off to such a fiery start. Within days of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, printed copies were circulating all over Europe. If the Pope had wanted to respond to each one, he’d have to wait for an army of monks to calligraph his remarks on parchment.

In England, across the Channel, they could read what Luther had posted in Saxony just a few days earlier. Can you imagine what it was to have news delivered so quickly? Well, of course you can. Nowadays Martin Luther would take a selfie in front of All Saints Church and post it on Instagram with a link to his blog where there’d be a pdf of his 95 Theses and you’d download it a few moments later. But it was 1517, so he used Gutenberg’s hot new technology to spread his ideas. He followed up the Theses with cheap, easy-to-read printed pamphlets where he defended his arguments in German. These were bestsellers and Luther even got big-shot artist Lucas Cranach to draw illustrations for them—his drawings were made into woodcuts. Luther’s pamphlets would be carried to every port city and printers there would run up copies and sell them.

Luther translated the Bible into German. It was a bestseller, too—5,000 copies.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-power-of-luthers-printing-press/2015/12/18/a74da424-743c-11e5-8d93-0af317ed58c9_story.html
https://www.history.com/news/printing-press-renaissance
https://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/treasures/the-reformation/95-theses/
Yes, it’s a word https://www.dictionary.com/browse/calligraph

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Thanks, Phoenicians!

By the 1400s movable type had made its way west along the Silk Road. Like the compass, movable type wasn’t a big deal in China. But when Johannes Gutenberg got ahold of it, movable type changed Western Civ. Why? The Phoenicians, that’s why.

Those Phoenicians left us a gift: a tight, efficient little alphabet of only 26 letters to represent every sound in any language. Our alphabet is ideal for movable type. You only need 26 upper-case and 26 lower-case (capitals and small) letters, numbers 0-9 and punctuation marks to print an entire book.

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The Chinese invent movable type

If you’re printing something with words, like a poster or an announcement or 95 Theses, every letter of every word needs to be carved out of your wood or linoleum block. Carving blocks for pages of an entire book is a king-sized headache.

Way over in China in the ad 1000s, printers got tired of having to carve every stinkin’ character on a block. One printer, Bi Sheng, thought: “Why not make individual characters ahead of time that you can mix and match to make paragraphs and pages?” That’s what he did. He made teeny little blocks with only one character. They were interchangeable. You arrange them together in a frame for printing. This idea is called movable type.

Bi Sheng’s characters were made out of fired clay so they were kind of fragile—they chipped easily. In the 1200s another Chinese printer, Wang Zhen, introduced characters carved out of wood which were less likely to chip. Around the same time Korean printers were using characters cast in bronze or iron.

Believe it or not, movable type didn’t make books in Asia any cheaper. It was actually less expensive to carve an entire page of characters from one block. The reason could be this: the Chinese written language has over 3,500 characters. It was maybe too time-consuming to organize thousands of characters into an efficient sorting & printing system. By the time you finally locate the characters you need from a supply of 3,500, the guy with the chisels has a page carved and ready to print. So movable type didn’t take off in Asia back in those days. There’s at least one Chinese printer today that still uses cold type, though (see the links below).*

* The type was stored on big lazy-Susan-style discs that rotated so they could get to all the characters (kind of funny: food used to be served in Chinese restaurants this way). Chinese printers used a rhyme to remember where all the characters were. I’m not a Chinese speaker so I don’t know what the rhyme is, but it’s the same kind of rhyme you use to remember which months have 30 days—a mnemonic.

http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/songdynasty-module/tech-printing.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LvhjgW9zh0
Dig the sneer quotes around the word ‘invented’—like they finally brought that wily rascal Gutenberg to justice:
https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/world/world-record.html
http://idsgn.org/posts/the-end-of-movable-type-in-china/
https://ich.unesco.org/en/USL/wooden-movable-type-printing-of-china-00322
http://www.silk-road.com/artl/movableprt.shtml

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That one afternoon hanging out at the winery really paid off

Johannes Gutenberg

Now we know what relief printing is. What really got the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation going was the printing press. Printing is for making multiple images, the printing press is for making many multiple images quickly.

What if you could save time by applying even pressure across an inked block with a giant screw instead of laboriously rubbing it down with a baren?

In 1436, in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg came up with the screw press idea, or at least he saw a wine press in use and adapted it for printing. A wine press has a straight-sided barrel with gaps between the staves. You load the grapes into the barrel, then lower a heavy metal disk on top of them to break the skins and crush the grapes. You put additional pressure on the disk by turning a big vertical screw. The grape juice runs out the gaps in the barrel and into a tray.

Gutenberg’s press

Gutenberg used the same technology to exert pressure on an inked wood block and paper. Watch these Youtube videos to see how it works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeikqw0kyqI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLctAw4JZXE

http://www.bargaintraveleurope.com/12/Germany_Wine_Museum_Rudesheim.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_wine_press

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How block printing is done

The block or plate is a flat piece of wood or linoleum that you cut a design into with cutting tools.
You spread the ink onto the block with a brayer—a rubber roller. The ink goes on the parts that stick up.
You lay a sheet of paper on top of the inked block and apply pressure to it (make sure the ink is pressed to the paper) with a baren.
Carefully pull the sheet off the block and hang it to dry.

Here’s your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about block printing— https://www.boardingallrows.com/block-printing
https://www.dickblick.com/categories/printmaking/tools/

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Relief printing

Wait a minute—how did the Protestant Reformation become such a big deal so quickly? How did copies of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe? Copies? Who copied ‘em? Not the monks—copying 95 Theses was the kind of thing that got you fired from your church job.

One word: printing. Er—no, make that 2 words: printing press.

Let’s talk about printing first. Printing allows you to make many images that are all alike.



Printing is a graphic design process where you transfer an image onto a surface. Printing can be as simple as leaving muddy footprints—you transfer the image of your feet in mud onto the clean kitchen floor. That’s called ‘relief printing.’ ‘Relief’ refers to the raised treads on your sneakers. Relief is the part that sticks up. A rubber stamp is a relief printer. The raised parts transfer ink onto a piece of paper. Maybe when you were young you cut a potato in half, carved a drawing into the flat surface, dipped it in paint and pressed it onto a piece of paper. That’s relief printing.

Print artists carve an image into wood or linoleum, roll ink onto it and transfer the ink onto paper by applying pressure—
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-printmaking
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-process
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/family-how-to-relief-printing

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Honey, I started the Reformation

Martin Luther famously wrote down all his beefs with the Church and nailed them to the front door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. They were the 95 Theses (plural of thesis)—ideas to be discussed. His goal was simply to reform the Church, get it back on track. He didn’t take into account that people were tired of overbearing institutions like the feudal system and the Church. Martin Luther had set off unintentionally the Protestant Reformation. Oops. Copies of his 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe. People seized on these theses and seethed. The Pope was not happy with Martin Luther and put him on trial. Luther refused to take back what he said. The upshot was Luther was excommunicated—made an outlaw who couldn’t be part of the Church any more. He couldn’t even attend mass. So Martin Luther started up his own church. This branch of the Christian Church, which includes Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, &c, &c, is called ‘Protestant.’ To differentiate it, the old Church is called ‘Catholic,’ which means universal.

While he was in exile (and this is why I brought up the Reformation), Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German so Germans could read it. What a guy! The only problem was, handwritten books are expensive. Getting a team of monks to write out a whole bible is no picnic. The Bible (KJV) has 783,137 words. Up until around the Year of our Lord 1450, owning a bible was a rich-guy luxury, whatever the language. If only there were some way to make more bibles, cheaper and faster.**

** Martin Luther left out 7 books from his translation of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) because they’d been rejected by the Jewish Council of Jamnia in ad 90. Those books are still in the Catholic Bible tucked in between the Old & New Testaments. They’re known as the Apocrypha. 

ps—Luther, like the Church he reformed, was flawed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he was capable of the antisemitism that must have been common in Europe 500 years ago—he published a screed against Jews. As I said last post: we’re imperfect; we try to learn from our mistakes and trust G-d loves us anyway.

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https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses
https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/thesis
https://wordcounter.net/blog/2015/12/08/10975_how-many-words-bible.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/apocrypha

Martin Luther

My take on Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther. His studio cranked out a bunch of these. There’s one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436047 They got Joseph Fiennes to play Luther in the 2003 movie. I think they should have gone with a beefier actor like Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wasn’t he still alive back then?). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309820/

I wrote in earlier posts about 2 things that were troubling about the mediæval Church:
1) the Bible was not accessible to ordinary shmos, mainly because it was in Latin. Hardly anybody spoke Latin anymore. Hardly anybody could even read.
2) the clergy sold indulgences, which promoted the idea you could buy your way into Heaven.*

Both of these conditions were troubling to a monk in Saxony (where Germany is now) named Martin Luther (ad 1483 – 1546). He was a philosopher as well as a religious scholar. His philosophical mind told him there should be nothing to stand between you and G-d. The clergy shouldn’t need to intercede on your behalf—anybody can have a conversation with G-d directly in the form of prayer.

Why? Because Jesus was crucified to pay for our sins. That’s it. Paid in full. Selling indulgences to absolve sin belittles Jesus’ sacrifice. Martin Luther put forth the idea that only your faith and G-d’s grace are needed to get into Heaven. Grace is a gift freely given. You have merely to believe in Christ’s sacrifice to benefit from it. 

* I want to reassure my Catholic Christian pals that the corruption of the Church we’re talking about was from 500 years ago. I’m not knocking Catholicism nor promoting Protestantism. Churches, like human beings, aren’t perfect. We muddle along. We try to learn from our mistakes and trust that G-d loves us in spite of them.

https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/

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