Wars Over the Printed Word

James Simpson’s book, Burning to Read, is a lively and detailed study of the early-sixteenth-century reformers (here described as “fundamentalists”) who believed the Bible and not the papacy to be the sole authority in matters of religious faith. His object is not merely to offer a new look at an old controversy but to argue that historians have long been under the delusion that the reformers can be regarded as the ancestors of modern liberal thought. On the contrary, says Simpson: for their insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible they deserve to be called the ancestors not of modern liberalism but of modern fundamentalism, which, as we are all aware, exists in many pernicious forms. The purpose of his book, then, is, first, to offer a fresh, authoritative account of a spectacular increase in Bible-reading some five hundred years ago and, second, to suggest that the threat of modern fundamentalisms is as great as, and may even derive from, the threat of an earlier fundamentalism to the authority and the inherited, extra-biblical wisdom of the Roman Church.

Unlike earlier heresies, which had to make their way without its help, the new religions of the Reformation had at their disposal the power of a fifteenth-century technology, the printing press. We are told that in 1517 Martin Luther wrote out his ninety-five theses in Latin and published them by affixing them to a church door in Wittenberg; but he was dismayed to learn that they were very soon translated into German, printed, and published everywhere.

Lutheranism is therefore rightly described as the child of the printed book. It is estimated that between 1517 and 1520 the writings of Luther alone sold over 30,000 copies. His German translation of the Bible appeared in 1534, and its defiance of the ecclesiastical opposition to vernacular versions of Scripture inspired the printing of translations in many other European languages.

That the introduction of printing powerfully affected not only religious practices but the life of the age more generally—its politics, economics, and culture—has always been recognized, though a fuller understanding of its revolutionary implications had to wait for Marshall McLuhan’s “probes” into the subject in The Gutenberg Galaxy,1 and for Elizabeth Eisenstein’s masterly study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.2 An immediate benefit of the new technology was liberation from the constraints imposed by manuscript circulation, which called for the slow and expensive labor of scribes. Less obviously, and with consequences no one could have imagined at the time, the printing press provided the archetypal model for later forms of mass production. But in the sixteenth century, its importance was that it made possible, almost from the outset, the relatively cheap production, in vast numbers, of more or less identical vernacular Bibles, often with explanatory glosses. To study the Bible had been the privilege of the few who knew Hebrew and Greek, or those, more numerous, who could read the Latin of Saint Jerome’s fourth-century version. It now became available to…

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