Technology As a Catalyst for Social Change and the Devolution of Authority
An informative article in the Economist on how Luther’s theses went viral in the 16th century:
Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”…
Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.
Medieval illuminated manuscripts were very costly to produce, requiring conspicuous attention to detail, craftsmanship, and rare materials, not to mention highly skilled labor. The lingua franca of the establishment church was Latin. By and large only priests could read and write it. Since readership was small, so were the number of interpretations of the Bible. The laity left understanding the word of God to the priest.
But the printing press disrupted this market. Suddenly the costs of producing and disseminating Bibles and pamphlets decreased dramatically. With many Bibles and more readers came more interpretations. Authority began to fragment.
There are all sorts of caveats to this narrative, but it’s a great example of how technology can alter the balance of power between the center and the periphery.