>Gutenberg, Luther and the Literate Masses

>On the headquarters building of the Toronto Sun newspaper, there is painting depicting the first printing press made by Johannes Gutenberg circa 1450. The message they are trying to portray is simple; “we owe it all to this machine.”

Gutenberg’s mechanical printing press was the first machine in Europe that used movable type to reproduce books, newspapers, and all manner of printed material. The use of movable type was a vast improvement in both quality and speed over the previously used methods of publishing; woodblock printing or handwriting. Use of Gutenberg’s printing press spread rapidly throughout Europe and is attributed by historians as the key technological advancement of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment period. Suddenly it became practical to reproduce and widely distribute written material.

With access to increasing amounts of printed material came the need for education and literacy. Before Gutenberg literacy was reserved for the upper classes of society, nobility, aristocracy and clergy. It was very easy for these upper classes to have their way with the illiterate underclass by pointing to a higher power that had written down instructions. Whether it be the king who had instructed an official to collect taxes or God who spoke through the local priest, all the educated had to say was “it is written” and the illiterate individual had no recourse.

Slowly the peasants learned to read and what they found didn’t always match up with what the educated were saying. Corrupt tax collectors were exposed, simple minded priests were questioned and within a few decades Martin Luther arrived on the scene and challenged one of the greatest abuses of power by the educated in history; the selling of indulgences.

In the early 1500s The Pope dispatched officials from the Vatican throughout the world to take payment from parishioners as restitution for sin. The money was ostensibly used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome but much of it also found its’ way into the pockets of the Vatican envoys and local priest. The official teaching of the church at the time was that faith alone could not justify man and that in order to receive absolution from sin you must also purchase it. Luther, a theological professor at the University of Wittenberg, knew that there was no justification for this in scripture and believed that the practise exploited the poor. His 95 Point Thesis was a scholarly dissertation on this abuse of power that eventually got him excommunicated.

The thesis was quickly translated into German, French, Dutch and English copied and distributed throughout Europe. Luther continued to write challenges to the church and is credited with the first German translation of the bible. All thanks to Gutenberg and the burgeoning literacy that he helped to start.

Where am I going with this? It’s simple, when people can read they begin to think. When literate masses are able to read rather than just be told what is written they can challenge all manner of corruption and oppressive authority. What began with Luther soon spread throughout Europe and absolute authority has never been the same. Two hundred years later in both France and the Americas peasants demanded equal rights and representation based on many of the same principles Luther first laid out in the 95 point thesis.

Like the excommunication of Luther many regimes have tried to control literacy by arresting authors and banning their writings. It took 200 years for peasants in France and America to gain enough knowledge and strength to stand up to their kings but as technology advances information moves faster and it is becoming harder and harder for authorities to prevent it’s spread. Literacy has toppled Monarchies, Colonialism and the Berlin Wall. It has freed Nelson Mandela and caused thousands of students to stage a sit-in at Tiananmen Square. I believe that in the future literacy will overthrow Chinese communism, the Ayatollah and African warlords.

We learned nearly 600 years ago that literacy is the first building block in developing societies. The lessons continue today in regions of the world were education is restricted by religious and political leaders (as in most of the Muslim world) and the free flow of information through internet service providers is blocked (China). Just last week Afghan President, Hamid Karzai upheld a law restricting access to education for girls and in my own country (Canada) the Indian Affairs Ministry has been struggling to find ways to ensure that impoverished native communities have standards of education that are equal to the rest of the country.

Further Info

Afghanistan: Law Curbing Women’s Rights Takes Effect; Human Rights Watch, Aug 13 2009

Fixing The Native Economy – Macleans Aug 11 2009

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