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Effect of Print Culture

Print Culture’s Effect on Early Modern Europe
LeAnne McDaniel
Dr. J. Selwood
The early modern European period was a time of tumultuous upheaval in society. The
Reformation brought an entirely new way of approaching God, with an emphasis on the personal
experience of the Scriptures. It was a period when fear of witchcraft and heresy and the search
to root out both gripped most villages and cities throughout Europe. The introduction of print
culture, including advances in printing technology and shifts in reading patterns, had a great
impact on European culture. Print culture forever changed the relationship between elites and
non-elites, paving the way towards individualism, rationality, and eventually the so-called
There are many ways to define “elite” and “non-elite.” Factors that can distinguish
between the two groups include wealth and poverty (economic status), literate and illiterate,
noble and peasant. “Elite” could also be defined as those with power and those with authority.
One way of broadly categorizing elites and non-elites is to separate them into those who
embraced book culture and those who continued practicing an oral tradition.1 In many cases, the
distinction was whether or not one could read. Many entered religious life, where the clerics and
priests taught reading and writing. The elites included priests, nobles, landowners, and those with
money such as merchants. The non-elites were ordinary people who felt that their concerns were
disregarded by these established elite groups. In The Cheese and the Worms, Menocchio, a
miller by trade, was a peasant but because of his access to controversial books and his tendency
to original thought, he was somewhat set apart from the other peasants. Though Menocchio is
not a “typical” example of a peasant, he is representative of popular culture as a whole.2
Jean François Gilmont and Karin Maag, The Reformation and the Book. (London: Routledge, Taylor &
Francis Group, 2016) 15.
Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller
(Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2013)
The whole of Europe became generally more informed due to widespread changes in
printing and reading practices. Beginning in the middle ages, shifting from the rotulus to the
codex changed how textbooks were written and read. The codex made looking up passages
easier and allowed readers to use the books for reference. In the late fourteenth and early
fifteenth century, Florentine printers simplified many abbreviations and dropped commentaries,
allowing the transcription of large, unwieldy books, formerly only available to elites, into smaller
sized books that the non-elite were more likely to afford. Finally, shifting from reading out loud
to silent reading involved engaging with an individual inner world and created momentum that
grew through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulting in a challenge to established
authority. It is nearly impossible for historians to pinpoint the exact number of literates or
illiterates in the population of early modern Europe. It is equally difficult to determine the skill
levels of either elite or non-elite. However, we can infer quite a bit about the people reading the
books by the nature of the book itself. 3
There were three physical types of books available, thanks to new technology like the
printing press and affordable paper. These were “Libri da banco, libri da bisaccia, libretti da
mano, books to go on bookrests, books to go in bags, and booklets to be carried by hand.”4 The
size, shape, and materials used indicated the function of the books. Books to go on bookrests
were large and expensive and too heavy to be transported easily. The lack of mobility meant
people had to come to the book which was limiting even for the elites. The table side book was a
book that was looked at often and capable of being moved but not moved around much, usually a
devotional. The pamphlets or booklets were made smaller and of cheaper materials and were
Gilmont, Reformation and Book, 15
Ibid., 16
easier to obtain and carry on travels. Many more peasants who could not afford to purchase even
the small books, could pool resources and also, ideas were shared when literate peasants read
material aloud to illiterates. Pamphlets and broadsheets were often very low cost and full of
thrilling etchings of the latest misdeeds of witches with the Devil.5
The advent of printing occurred around the same time Luther began his movement which
endorsed the personal reading of scripture. Given this freedom, there was a widespread demand
for Bibles and devotionals by peasants and elites, alike. Luther’s belief in personally
experiencing the text led him to declare that reading God’s Word was an awe-inspiring
sacramental event and should be experienced personally.6 Some pamphlets contained printed
images that were quite sophisticated, involving double allegories, such as another image of
Luther and Frederick the Wise, together pulling back the curtain covering a tabernacle to expose
a burning light. The image is an allegory of the revelation of the word of god and that Christ's
presence is in the scripture rather than the host.7 Previously, mainly religious people or very
wealthy people had books, and they were handmade, large and unwieldy, though some were
breathtakingly beautiful. Males of all classes were encouraged to become educated. Not only
did they need to seek divine inspiration for themselves, but also for members of his household.
Even peasants now had a compelling reason to read—because they’re souls depended on it.
They found themselves responsible for considering and interpreting what they read for
Lyndal Roper, Oedipus And The Devil London and New York, T.J. Press (1994).
Robert W. Scribner, "The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the ‘Disenchantment of the
World’", Journal Of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 3 (1993) 483.
7 R. W. Scribner, "Incombustible Luther: The Image of The Reformer in Early Modern
Germany", Past and Present 110, no. 1 (1986): 59.
8 Gilmont, Reformation and Book, 15
The result of peasants reading divine scripture personally is eventually a challenge to
authority. Menocchio read books that exposed him to revolutionary ideas like “God is
everywhere” and that the Gospels were not divine since he discovered earlier councils had
suppressed some of the original Gospels. Menocchio could not reconcile this discrepancy, so he
began to synthesize what he had read and try to reason through on his own. Perhaps most
important though, is that Menocchio took many ideas from books like the Koran, read many
years before his trial, and embellishes them with his reasoning creating a discrepancy between
his memories and the actual book.9
Heinrich Krämer wrote “Malleus Maleficarum” [The Hammer of Witches], in 1487. It
was an exhaustive treatment of witches that was widely read by elites and non-elites throughout
Europe. In it, he says witches, “disturb the elements and confound the minds of men, and
without any venomous draught, but merely by virtue of incantations, destroy souls, etc.”10 He
goes on to describe everything about finding and eliminating witches, such as what constitutes
being a witch, how to interrogate them, and finally, how to execute them.11 These guidelines
would dictate the treatment of witches for centuries.
Both Catholic and Protestant elites used allegorical images printed on flyers to
communicate their ideas during the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The symbolism
was usually very obviously chronicling something wicked so that literacy wasn’t required to
Ginzburg, Cheese, 99.
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum. Montague Summers, tr. New
York: Dover Publications, 1971. 81
Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus, 84.
understand the meaning.12 In this way, elites tried to influence non-elites to accept the new or
clarified doctrine.
Eventually, the cognitive skills required for divine inspiration from the Bible become
more attuned with individual concerns not only for the state of the soul but also in regards to
political direction. Indirectly, the trend toward peasants first becoming responsible for gaining
divine direction and their willingness to fight for it contributed to the religious wars that led to
the Enlightenment. In this way, the peasant’s willingness to fight for ideals influenced the
policies of the elite.
In conclusion, it is difficult to know the impact of print culture on either the elite or the
non-elite as separate groups. The demarcation between these groups is very difficult to impose,
probably indicating a significant amount of overlap. Ecclesiastical court records give us some
idea as to what the non-elite people thought. Print culture provided a method of disseminating
both popular and official opinion previously unknown to the average peasant. Pamphlets and
books reflect the fear-filled times within which all levels of the population lived in early modern
Europe. The consequence of the print culture on the non-elite was to awaken a desire for selfdetermination, as reading had awakened Menocchio. Print culture stirred an awakening of the
popular culture which spread to the dominant culture, ripening into a shift in thinking toward
individuality, rationality and evidence-based reasoning.
Scribner, Luther 55.
Primary Sources:
Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum. Montague Summers, tr. New
York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Secondary Sources:
Gilmont Jean François, and Karin Maag. The Reformation and the Book. London: Routledge,
Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller.
Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2013.
Roper, Lyndal. Oedipus And The Devil. London and New York, T.J. Press,1994.
Scribner, R. W. "Incombustible Luther: The Image of The Reformer in Early Modern
Germany". Past and Present 110, no. 1 (1986): 59.
Scribner, Robert W. “The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the `Disenchantment of the
World’.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (3): 475. 1993. doi:10.2307/206099.
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