Social media in the 16th century

A thoughtful critique of social media is of course necessary and prudent. This is not my project here. I mean only to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun. We have invented nothing. We have merely made it bigger and faster.

We all know there is a lot of irrational, ungracious, and even deeply prejudiced ranting on the internet. The tone of civil discourse is widely acknowledged to be deteriorating.

Take this anti-Catholic screed I recently found on the internet:

Now we drive out the pope 
from Christ’s church and God’s house. 

Therein he has reigned in a deadly fashion 

and has uncountably many souls. 

Now move along, you damned son, 
you Whore of Babylon.
You are the abomination and the Antichrist, 
full of lies, death and cunning.

It’s a parody of the popular folk ballad Turn Out the Winter, or at least you would know that if you lived in the 1500s. And the author most probably was Martin Luther.

This song has the literary quality of Rebecca Blacks’ Friday, Friday, but Luther’s musical initiative was only part of a multimedia onslaught that would bring down popes and overthrow empires.

His social media campaign, and let’s face it, all media is social, included art published by Luther and friends, including one example where the excrement of demons was Catholic monks. And there is the famous print of Luther with a halo, not exactly a Reformation staple.

Both music and images are aspects or our daily diet via the internet today. But Luther used all these as well as that new fangled iPad, known then as a printing press.

It would be nonsense to insist the Reformation would not have happened with out the printing press, or even without Luther himself. But Gutenberg’s press is 1450 added the same thing to the process that social media does today—speed and scale.

Speed is relative, of course. It took 2 years for Philip II to get a message to his viceroys in the Philippines. And printing itself did not change the speed of a boat.

But blog-size pamphlets, which Luther and his followers used much more effectively than his opponents, spread quickly. Of the 95 Thesis themselves, Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius said “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

Luther’s sermon on Indulgences and Grace was written a few months later, and was a runaway best seller, since he wrote in vernacular German, avoiding a regional lexicon. It was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list for about two centuries. Within the first decade of the Reformation over 7 million pamphlets were printed and distributed, and over a quarter of them were by Luther.

This media offensive not only defended the Reformer’s ideas, but drew on popular humor to mock, ridicule and otherwise make fun of ecclesiastical authority, a concept I fully understand because I’ve gone to chapel at a Christian university. We can just be glad nothing like this ever happens on the Internet.

Luther’s motives can be defended, of course, provided you are Protestant. Just 66 years after the first Bible rolled off the press, Luther wrote at the top of his Wittenburg thesis, “Out of love for the truth, and the desire to bring it to light” that he wished to “defend the following statements and to dispute them in this place.”

And dispute them he did.

By 1523 over 80% of all books printed in German dealt with the reform of the church. His blog posts, I mean pamphlets, had been reposted, or rather reprinted. Printers across Europe retranslated and reprinted his work without his advice or consent. Copyright infringement was on a global scale, except of course there was no copyright. Luther had lost control of the manufacture and distribution, but he had clearly won the argument.

By the mid-1520s his ideas had spread to the Twitterverse, or rather the taverns. When people are sitting around drinking, singing your songs and talking about your blog posts you have gone viral.

Which is exactly what the pope called it.

The papal bull of 1520, called SOPA, threatened to excommunicate Luther, so as ““to cut off the advance of this plague and cancerous disease so it will not spread any further.”

The papal bull of 1521 warned that ““the whole German nation, and later all other nations, will be infected by this same disorder.”

It would have done the church little good to burn him at the stake.

They tired to burn the books, of course. The printing presses too, for that matter. And they wrote their own tracts, but mostly in Latin. These sat on shelves while Protestant literature was being passed around, read to the illiterate, discussed in the trade guilds, and increasing championed by German nobility.

Book banning was common where Catholics were in power. While Luther called the printing press “God’s highest gift of grace” the church leadership saw it a subversive. Local indexes of books people were not allowed to read existed as early as 1544, but the more famous Index of Prohibited Books in 1564 only made such books more attractive.

Eventually the Catholics made changes. Today the Chinese make changes. The Arabs make changes, because, as Samuel Hartlib said in 1641, “the art of blogging will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression.”

Actually, he said the art of printing.

But despots today face the same dilemma as the popes of the 16th century. John Fox once said “The pope must abolish knowledge and printing, or printing must at length root him out.”

And so must all tyrants end. Unless they change. And this too is possible. There is still a pope and the Catholic church addressed many of these concerns and adapted to others. Change is still possible, even in Egypt or Iran.

A thoughtful critique of social media is of course necessary and prudent. This is not my project here. I mean only to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun. We have invented nothing. We have merely made it bigger and faster. Many of the solutions still require a thoughtful look at both our history and our nature. But I will conclude with a few observations about what we can study and what role we can play.

First, we must be thoughtful about a social history of the media. Everything we know or can learn about revivals, for example, sheds light on religious movements from Islamic Fundamentalism to Apple fandom.

We can focus too on those aspects of media that set it apart from media of the past—speed and scale. What does it mean that things are faster and bigger? How does it change things? What questions can we ask and what answers can we suggest about how or why ideas that spread quickly affect us differently than ideas that move slowly? Why is new not always better?

And what role can we play?

To start with, we must defend the academy. No, I’m just kidding again. One sixteenth century scholar complained that there were so many books he didn’t have time to read the titles.

If there is anything we should guard against, it is a fortress mentality where we retreat further and further into narrower and narrower fields of inquiry, barely putting a ripple into the deluge of data pouring over us while the world goes crying for clarity, significance and even wonder.

No, we must leave the ivory towers and learn, like Luther, to speak the vernacular. Frankly much of what we write and say sounds like Latin.

We must master new technologies as well.

We shouldn’t do this to to keep up with our students, but to guide them. The digital natives are clueless. I know this. I’ve taught communication technology to college freshmen and they know what it does but not why or how.

It is our responsibility to point them to the principles and theories that will help them make sense of a world we ourselves have made much too little effort to comprehend, except perhaps as a curmudgeon.

And finally, we must, as Luther put it, do so out of a love for the truth and a desire to bring it to light.

Nail that to your office door.

Better yet, post it on your blog.

How Luther went viral

Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet

Dispatches from Blogistan: A travel guide for the modern blogger

3 thoughts on “Social media in the 16th century

  1. Mike Jennings says:

    “The digital natives are clueless….It is our responsibility to point them to the principles and theories that will help them make sense of a world we ourselves have made much too little effort to comprehend…”

    Good point! Yet it works like a teaser. So how would you go about this? What “principles and theories” would you use? No doubt some analytic frame(s) are called for that can put the history, culture, and social settings of social media in perspective. Any you recommend?

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