“How Luther went viral”

The Economist tells how Luther, in effect, used social media:

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.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

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.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. . . .

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. . . .

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

via Social media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral | The Economist.

The article also tells about the role music and visual images (with a shout out to Lucas Cranach), both of which also went viral, in the spread of the Reformation.

Can you envision a time and a cultural context in which this sort of thing–the spread of the gospel–could happen again, now that we really have the technology for it?

HT:  Joe Carter

The 4th most accomplished president?

President Obama on himself, speaking in an interview with 60 Minutes:

“The issue here is not going be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history. But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

via Blogs bash Obama’s historic claim – MJ Lee – POLITICO.com.

Covering for these grandiose claims, CBS edited out the remarks in the version shown on television.  They were, however, in the complete version posted online.  (Politico has the links.)

But let’s test his claims.  Since he considers Lincoln part of “modern history,” we can go back into the 19th century.  And he is talking about both his legislative and  his foreign policy accomplishments.  How would you say he measures up?  What other presidents had greater accomplishments in these areas?

Bringing down an empire with words

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who spent 5 years in prison for undermining the communist regime, has died.  After communism in Russia and eastern Europe was so discredited that it fell apart, Havel was elected president of his newly freed nation.

It was the writers who did more than anyone else–yes, more than Ronald Reagan and more than the Pope–to bring down the communist system.  It isn’t enough–though it’s very important–for outsiders to stand strong against an evil empire.  The key to bringing down an evil empire is to turn its own people, including those who run the empire, against it by awakening their conscience to its evil and their complicity in it.

Some words from Havel:

After being unanimously elected president of Czechoslovakia by the newly free country’s Parliament in December 1989, Mr. Havel set the tone of the new era in a speech Jan. 1, 1990, his first day in office. Communism, he said, was “a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine” whose worst legacy was not economic failure but a “spoiled moral environment.”

“We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another,” he said. “We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. . . . Love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension. . . . They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times.”

Vaclav Havel, dissident playwright and former Czech president, dies – The Washington Post.

Does our free society now share that moral illness?  What dissidents do we need?

The Iraq war is over

Yesterday the war in Iraq officially came to an end.  The American flag in Baghdad was taken down, a somber ceremony was held (with no representation from the Iraqi government), and peace was declared.

The war lasted 9 years, with 4,500 Americans giving their lives.

So it’s over.  Where is the jubilation?  Where is the celebration in Times Square?  The Washington Post put the story on p.3.

We conquered the country and overthrew Saddam Hussein.  Doesn’t that count as a victory?  Why doesn’t it feel like one?  Do you think the war was worth it?

What do you think will happen now?

via As Iraq War ends, soldiers’ families reflect.

TIME’s Person of the Year: The Protester

Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011 is, once again, not a person but the personification of a category:  The Protester.   By which is meant the protesters in Egypt, the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and America.  That is to say, Occupy Wall Street.  Strangely, the Tea Party protesters do not count.

See TIME’s Person of the Year 2011 – TIME.

A fitting choice, or not?

Who would YOU nominate for person of the year?

Remember Pearl Harbor

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which took the lives of 2,300 Americans, destroyed 12 ships and 160 aircraft, and brought the nation into World War II.

See Pearl Harbor attacked: A witness remembers, 70 years later – The Washington Post.

Reflections, thoughts, and lessons learned?


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