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Reforming religion

In this video, we will look at how books helped reform religion.
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This week, we’re going to explore how books changed the world and today, we’re going to think about the reformation of religion in the early 16th century and print. Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in 1517. In the decades that followed, the reformation spread across Europe transforming society in many ways. Books and print were essential to the success of the European reformation. There had been earlier attempts to reform the teaching and practise of the Catholic church. A century before Luther, John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Czechoslovakia had raised some of the same issues, especially the corruption of the Catholic church and the doctrine of transubstantiation.
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But without access to print, their ideas could only spread by means of manuscript volumes like Wycliffe’s Bible, which were slow and expensive to produce. Although their teaching was locally influential, its wider impact was easily contained by the church. By the time that Luther wrote his 95 Theses, the popularisation of printing made it possible to spread ideas quickly and cheaply. Luther was quick to realise the potential of printing. Previously, most theological debates had taken place in large and expensive Latin volumes. Luther broke with this tradition by writing short, accessible books in German. He partnered with woodcut artists, printers, and booksellers to develop the infrastructure needed to spread his ideas across Europe.
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His impact on the European book market was so great that Andrew Pettegree, a leading book historian, has argued that Luther saved print. In any case, it is certainly the case that Luther became Europe’s first celebrity author. This little book, an edition in Latin of the letters of Jan Hus, gives us a fascinating insight into the way in which print supported the Reformation. It was published in Wittenberg in 1537, and it’s an edition by Luther of a number of texts and letters written by the 15th century Czech reformer Jan Hus. Hus was condemned as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church and was burned at the stake in 1415.
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Fewer than 20 copies of this book survive, but this one is unique. It bears the name of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s reforming archbishop. Cranmer himself was burnt at the stake during the reign of Mary I of England, who is often known as Bloody Mary. Combining the writings of Hus with Luther’s editorial work and Cranmer’s signature, this book is a wonderful physical example of how print helped to spread the ideas of reformation from Czechoslovakia to Germany and onwards to England. The printing of works of controversial theology was vital to the start of the Reformation. But as the Reformation became established, books were an important part of being Protestant. Protestantism quickly became known as a religion of the book.
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And the provision of bibles in the language of the people was a priority for the European reformers. The Matthew Bible was the first legal translation of the English Reformation. Hymnbooks and liturgical text also played a vital role in ingraining the Reformation into society. It’s very significant, for example, like The Book of Common Praier that we have here, was the first book to be printed in Ireland. The Gospel of John tells us that of the making of books there is no end. As European reformers harnessed the power of the printing press, they did their best to prove the apostle right.

Welcome back to the final week of this course. This week, we are going to explore how books changed the world including the:

  • Reformation in the early 16th century.
  • Transformation of medicine and the medical marketplace in the early modern period.
  • Change in our understanding of science during the Scientific Revolution.
  • Reformation of the state during the Enlightenment.

We hope you enjoy it!

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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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