Historians have often tied the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century to the development of print, which Reformation leader Martin Luther once called “God’s highest act of grace.”
Modern history professor Andrew Pettegree, D.Phil., of the University of St. Andrews, wanted to test a different narrative.
Over a decade, Pettegree, his family and his students visited 300 provincial libraries in France, collecting pamphlets and broadsheets from the religious propaganda wars between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots.
“We found a story that overturned the conventional wisdom with regard to Catholicism and print,” said Pettegree, delivering the Southwell Lecture on March 31 at Fordham. “Unlike in Germany, the French Catholics’ works consistently outnumbered their Protestant opponents [and]Catholics won the wars of religion very early.”
In Germany, Luther used the new medium of print to oppose the Catholic Church’s practice of issuing indulgences—certificates of forgiveness that had, ironically, become a mainstay of the new printing industry, Pettegree said. In developing his polemical materials, Luther used the vernacular instead of Latin—something the German Catholic Church was reluctant to do.
As printing grew less expensive, the pamphlet wars intensified, Pettegree said. The Italian Dominican reformer Savonarola capitalized on the excitement of live preaching by turning his fiery sermons into short books of up to 2,000 copies.
“He was followed into print by prominent supporters,” said Pettegree, author of The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010). “[The] pamphlets were repetitive, but they created the impression of a multiplicity of voices.”
In France, Calvinist refugees returned to their homeland and were given permission by the French crown to practice their religion. But when the Huguenots created a flood of literature against Catholicism, it inspired a ferocious outpouring of counterattacks. This time, the church not only used the vernacular, it also employed educated professionals who were expert polemicists.
“In France, they successfully associated the Catholic Church with the cause of patriotism,” Pettegree said. “France was the ‘bulwark of Christendom,’ and its monarch the ‘most Christian King.’
“In contrast, Protestants stood for sedition and the creation of a new church that overturned the natural order.”
Leading writer Anthoine du Val claimed that such religious division encouraged disorder among families, and thus jeopardized the entire French kingdom. Pamphlets accused the Huguenots of holding “wild bacchanalian orgies” and of sacrificing their children.
“Protestantism, Catholic writers assured their readers, was a spiritual leprosy,” Pettegree said. “Like a diseased limb, heresy demanded amputation.”
Another boon to Catholics was the allegiance of the Parisian printing industry. During the roughly 40 years of religious unrest, there were only two years, 1561 and 1562, when Protestant publishing outpaced Catholic publishing in France.
“By 1563, Catholic supremacy was assured,” Pettegree said. “The crown’s policy of conciliation lay in tatters.”
During the course of his research, Pettegree said he was chagrined to find that governments and historians had failed to include many historically relevant documents in their collections. The German national bibliography, for example, excluded common broadsheet indulgences and had even omitted the broadsheet version of Luther’s “95 Theses,” he said. Some French historians had denigrated the Catholic controversy, calling the pamphlets trivial.
To remedy some of the gaps, the University of St. Andrews, under Pettegree’s direction, will publish an online bibliography, the Universal Short Title Catalogue, in November. The catalogue will bring together data on all books published in Europe during the first age of print, approximately 370,000 titles. Pettegree estimates that 35 to 40 percent of those books were religious titles.
“Religious texts were the bedrock of the printing industry in Europe,” he said. “The full extent of Catholic exploitation of print will only become clear when we publish our survey.”
The Southwell Lecture is devoted to the scholarship of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The series is administered by Susan Wabuda, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Fordham.