085：EPISODE 85 - Reformation Centenary Broadsheet
Reformation centenary broadsheet (printed in 1617), from Germany
You can hardly turn on the radio these days without being bombarded by yet another anniversary - a hundred years since this, two hundred years since that. Our popular history seems to be written increasingly in centenaries, all generating books and exhibitions, T-shirts and special souvenir issues, in a huge and happy frenzy of commemoration.
But where did this habit of anniversary festivities begin? The answer to that question takes us to the great struggle for religious freedoms played out across northern Europe in the seventeenth century. The first of all these modern centenary celebrations seems to have been organised in Germany, in Saxony in 1617, and the object for this programme is a souvenir poster made at the time. The event it's commemorating had taken place a hundred years earlier. In 1517, the story goes, Martin Luther picked up a hammer and nailed what was effectively his religious manifesto, his 95 Theses, to the church door in Wittenberg. And, in doing so, he triggered the religious turmoil that would become the Protestant Reformation. The object for this programme is a print showing Luther's famous act. It's on a large single sheet of paper called a broadsheet, and it's not just a celebration, it's about getting ready for war.
"Well this broadsheet is clearly designed to be looked at again and again, so it's not a one hit, it's very crowded. This was meant to be passed around, hung up, distributed and talked over." (Ian Hislop)
"The broadsheet is depicting Luther as the instigator of momentous change, as a liberator, one of the crafters of the modern period, of a reformed - more vibrant - religiosity." (Karen Armstrong)
In 1617, when our broadsheet was made, European Protestants were facing an uncertain and dangerous future. The New Year had opened with public prayers by the Pope in Rome, calling for the reunion of Christendom and the eradication of heresy. He was effectively summoning the Catholic Church to arms against the Reformation. It was clear to everybody that a terrible religious war was about to break out.
In response, the Protestants tried to find a way of rallying their supporters for the fight but, unlike the Catholic Church, they had no central authority to issue directions to the faithful. Protestants had to find other ways of insisting that the Reformation had, in fact, been part of God's plan for the world. That individuals had no need of priests to gain access to God's mercy, that the Roman church was corrupt, and that Luther's Reformation was essential to the salvation of every living soul. Above all, they needed a view of their past that would give all Protestants strength to face the terrifying future.
Before then, no particular day or moment had been identified as the beginning of the Reformation. But leading Protestants in Saxony realised that it was now a hundred years since the moment when, on 31 October 1517, Luther had first publicly challenged the authority of the Pope - by, so it is said, posting his 95 Theses on to the door of the Castle Church, at Wittenberg in Saxony.
So, with a masterly sense of media management, they launched the first centenary celebration in the modern sense of the word. All the now familiar razzmatazz was there . . . ceremonies and processions, souvenirs, medals, paintings, printed sermons, and this broadsheet - a woodblock print that illustrates the critical day that Protestants now saw as the beginning of the first step on their radical religious journey.
I've got the print in front of me now. It's a crowded composition, but the key message is quite clear. In a dream, God is revealing to the Elector of Saxony the historic role of Martin Luther. We see the Elector asleep. Below him, Luther reads the Bible in a great shaft of light coming down from Heaven, where the Trinity is blessing him. As Luther looks up, light and blessings pour down on to the page in front of him. Scripture is literally the revealed word of God, and to read scripture is to encounter God, and this is not happening inside a church. You couldn't have a simpler statement that, for Protestants, Bible reading is the foundation of faith. A foundation which, thanks to the new technology of printing, was now available to all believers, in their own home.
The broadsheet was produced in Leipzig, which in 1617 was the centre of the European printing trade. By this time, religion in northern Europe had been profoundly changed by this new emphasis on reading the word of God. Here's the religious historian Karen Armstrong:
"Well it's very noticeable in this picture, the emphasis on the written word. Up until this point, religion had been precisely about listening for what lay beyond language. People had thought not in terms of words so much, or concepts, or arguments, but in terms of images, icons, in terms of music, in terms of action. Now, because of the invention of printing which helped Luther disseminate his ideas, everything is going to become much more wordy. And that has been rather the plague of western religion ever since, because we are endlessly now stuck in words. The printing enabled people for the first time to own their own Bibles, and this meant that they read them in an entirely different way."
Without printing, the Reformation might well not have survived, but the broadsheet, combining text with illustration, shows that the image also was still very much alive. Seventeenth-century Europe was still largely illiterate. Even in the cities, it's estimated that no more than a third of people could read. So, prints with images and a few key words, were the most effective means of mass communication. Even today, we all know that in public debate, a well-crafted cartoon can be lethal.
At the front of the print is Luther writing on the church door, with the world's biggest quill pen, the words "vom ablas", "about indulgence" - the title of his virulent attack on the Catholic sale of indulgences, the system by which, in return for cash, you spent less time in purgatory. The selling of indulgences had fuelled anti-papal feeling in Germany. Luther's quill is at least twice the size of himself, and it stretches half way across the print, to a walled city - helpfully labelled Rome - and straight through the head of a lion labelled Pope Leo X, who squats on top of the city. And as if that weren't enough, the quill then knocks the papal crown off the head of the Pope, shown in human form. Never was a pen mightier than this one. The message is coarse but clear. Luther, inspired by reading the scriptures, has destroyed papal authority by the power of his pen.
Woodblocks like this are the first mass media, with print-runs of up to tens of thousands, so that each single copy cost just a few 'pfennigs', the price of a pair of sausages or a couple of pints of ale. Satirical prints like this one would be pinned up in inns and market places, and then widely discussed. This is in every sense popular art, the equivalent of the tabloid press or a satirical magazine, like 'Private Eye'. We asked its editor, Ian Hislop, to comment:
"The editor of this broadsheet has done exactly what you'd expect. He's cracked his hero up, he's demonised the enemy, turned him into an animal, and then the Pope into a ludicrous figure, a sort of blank-looking rather stupid person, who has his hat knocked off. And all around the pen, there are bits of it fallen off, so that everyone else has got a pen as well. I mean this is about writing, this is about the word, and even more, it's about printing, because now that the Bible can be printed, we see that we're up in Heaven here, and the word of God comes down from Heaven straight onto the page. So no priests in the way, no Pope, nothing to get between you and the word of God.
"The thing I love about it is that it's like reading a magazine, there're big pictures with obvious sort of cartoony jokes, and then there are captions everywhere to make sure that you don't miss anything, so you get it. And my German isn't really good enough to get a lot of the jokes, but looking at it, I just put my own in. I imagine someone here saying, 'abandon Pope all ye who enter here', or Luther with the pen saying, 'it's the quill of God', or a lot of very strict Catholics saying, 'yes, but your interpretation is much Luther'. In fact, I hope the jokes are better than that, but it's pretty clear what's going on in this picture, and I think it's terrific."
The broadsheet is obviously aimed at a very wide public, but it has one particular viewer in mind - the Elector of Saxony. If religious differences were going to come to open warfare, Protestantism would survive only if its princely champions fought to defend it. The Elector of Saxony in 1617 would have to be every bit as resolute as his predecessor in 1517, and so would all the other Protestant rulers in Germany. As well as being knockabout humour, this print is a deadly serious preparation for war.
And indeed, war came the very next year, 1618, and for 30 years devastated central Europe. By 1648, the two exhausted sides recognised that this was not a winnable contest. The bloodshed of the Thirty Years War forced the reluctant acceptance that the only basis of lasting peace was pragmatic tolerance, and legal equality between Catholic and Protestant states.
In the programmes this week, I've been looking at how, across the seventeenth-century world, very different societies addressed the political consequences of religious diversity - Protestant and Catholic, Sunni and Shi'a, Hindu and Muslim. In Iran and India, the rulers contrived more-or-less peaceful accommodations. Christian Europe, on the other hand, foundered in war. But in the 1680s, the English philosopher John Locke, in his 'Letter concerning Toleration', held out the possibility of an ultimately happy outcome, even in Europe.
"The toleration of those who hold different opinions on matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel and to reason, that it seems monstrous for men to be blind in so clear a light."
This conviction, dearly and bloodily bought, that there are many ways to truth, changed the intellectual and political life of Europe. So that when 1717 came round, and new broadsheets were produced to celebrate the bicentenary of Luther nailing his Theses to the church door, the whole continent was well on the way to another revolution, just as profound as the Reformation and, in many ways, a consequence of it - the Enlightenment.
In next week's programmes, our objects range from a Hawaiian feather helmet to a bark shield, dropped by an indigenous Australian as he encountered Captain Cook. They're objects that speak of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment's desire . . . to know, to map and to control the wider world.