Thiel Professor Presents: Martin Luther and the Growth of Printing and Publishing

By Brian L Brink

“After (Martin) Luther, print and public communication would never be the same again,” said Professor Dane Claussen on Monday, Dec. 11 at Thiel College, during his lecture on Martin Luther and the print industry.

Before his 95 Theses, in 1517, Claussen said, Luther wasn’t known by people other than his friends and followers. After that publication, Luther would go on to write and print over 900 works by the time of his death, in 1546. Claussen said the most of Luther’s early works were eight pages or less.

One audience member described the timing of the printing industry and Luther being able to use it to spread his message as, “a perfect storm.”

The printing industry didn’t just help the reformers of the time spread their message. Claussen said that it also helped the traditional religion of Catholicism. One example he used was the Gutenberg Bible, which was the first books ever mass produced on a printing press.

After the Bible was printed Guttenberg never had another major project because he went bankrupt, Claussen said. He also said that at the beginning, the industry suffered from, “fits and starts.” He said it wasn’t until 1585, after Luther’s death that the industry began linking with rich businessmen, who knew how to trade, transport, and store large cargo, such as books.

Still, print made Luther became a national figure at the time, Claussen said. However, he had much help from supports such as: Lucas Cranach, an engraver and painter; Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony; and Melchior Lotter, who was the printer who Luther worked with most.

Cranach was working for Frederick at the time in a “government job as court painter,” but could take outside work also, Claussen said. Cranach would do the engravings for the type of Luther’s books along with illustrate them. As Luther’s reputation grew, Cranach would paint pictures of him to allow the readers to see who was writing the books.

Claussen also said that Luther’s book became so popular, not only because of the mindset of Europe at the time, but also, because he wrote short works, in German. Luther became the first author to have his name in big print and easy to read.

Thanks to Luther, Claussen said, Wittenberg went from having one printer when he first arrived to having five at the time of his death. Claussen said that the printers knew that Luther was good business for them.

As Luther’s fame rose he would receive letters from reader and eventually had to delegate writing responses to those closest to him. During the Frankfurt book fair, the word of Luther’s books spread even further, Claussen said. Eventually, Luther would be known as the most popular author in history, at the time.

As Luther grew older, he slowed down on his writing. The printers in Wittenberg, Claussen said, offered Luther 400 gulden a year for having first crack at what he was writing. Luther declined the offer because he was already allowing them first crack and because Luther said, he wasn’t doing it for the money.

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