Moving on from 1517 and Martin Luther pinning his edict to a church door Donald Trump pins his twittering to the world (twitter denotes inane chatter, how Silicon Valley just love to infantalise us)
Pettegree, a specialist in the history of printing, observes how surprising it was that a middle-aged lecturer Martin Luther who had never published a book should suddenly discover a genius for popular writing. Luther’s combination of direct vernacular style and aesthetic sense created a product which, just at the right moment, hit a newly emerging market: a lay reading public. These were people with a few spare coins and enough facility for reading to use and enjoy printed texts, and maybe read them to friends and neighbours who were not quite as skilful. This was a social media revolution. Printing was nearly a century old in Europe by 1517, but Luther suddenly made it exciting. Polemical printing was as transformative in its effect on Western behaviour as our own experience of Facebook and the rest
Luther’s fruitful alliance with some of Europe’s most accomplished printer-publishers as a way of spreading his message
Luther and Cranach (an illustrator of some genuis) between them worked out a brilliant formula for spreading Luther’s message: short pamphlets in vigorous German, but also and crucially, fronted by what looked like deluxe title pages. These title pages were something new for a pamphlet: designed for immediate impact, with intricate decoration conveying its own visual messages, but framing a central compartment in which Luther’s name was prominently displayed, under a snappy headline with a longer subtitle. Only the most expensive books had enjoyed anything like this before. Once Wittenberg imprints showed how well this device sold books, printers the length of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe) seized on the idea.
The print, with a surrealist fantasy worthy of Lewis Carroll transforms Luther’s hammer applied to the Wittenberg door into an enormous pen, whose stem stabs backwards across the picture to pierce the ear of an understandably furious lion (representing the pope of 1517, Leo X) before unceremoniously knocking the papal tiara from the head of the current pope, Paul V. Such images were close allies to the torrent of words emerging from the printing presses, the technology which made the words seem novel, even while assuring the reading public that they were older than anything the contemporary church could offer – for they were the Word of God.