Word Made Print: Reformation and the History of the Book

Overview of the Reformation

Few historical events have touched so many lives around the world, whether Christian or not, as the Reformation, 500 years ago. Historians question whether Martin Luther actually hammered the manuscript of his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, setting in motion a series of events that split Christendom. Yet, the story itself illustrates the immense power of the printed word: Luther’s words were printed within weeks and spread like wildfire.

Together, Reformation and print generated a revolution in communication. For one, the combination dealt a mortal blow to the scribal cultures of an earlier era: the dissolution of the monasteries, the main centers of book production and preservation in pre-Reformation Europe, meant the wholesale dismembering of many medieval manuscripts and the scribal arts that produced them. Alongside destruction, however, came new uses, forms, and aesthetics of the printed word, varying across the different Christian churches that soon emerged. For example, print offered both the reformers and their opponents a powerful tool for reaching audiences and building up new alliances in the fight for souls. The proliferation of sacred and liturgical texts translated into the vernacular made complex religious controversies accessible to publics of unprecedented size. They also elevated and standardized vernacular languages like German, French, Dutch and English. The reformed and reinvigorated Catholic Church, in its efforts to defend, educate, and convert also turned to print as a spectacular means of spreading the faith, investing in awe-inspiring images to reinforce Catholic faith through woodblocks and engravings.

The fusion of print and reform accelerated another revolution – the unprecedented transformation of Christianity into the first globe-spanning religion. The contest with Protestant churches in Europe propelled Catholic expansion, already underway, into zones of Portuguese, Spanish, and French exploration, trade, and conquest. As it had in Europe, the printed word accelerated the volume and flow of Christian images and texts throughout the world.

Word Made Print is a collaborative exhibit between the University of Oregon and Northwest Christian University, the UO Libraries’ Special Collections & University Archives, and NCU’s Edward P. Kellenberger Library and was on display October 31, 2017 until December 31, 2017. Curators for the exhibit were Vera Keller, David Luebke, Bruce Tabb and Steve Silver.