The freedom to propagate

The adoption and diffusion of new things have less to do with technology than with concerted opposition. The success of an idea, a movement or a model depends more on the freedom it enjoys than on the channel it uses to disseminate. A good example is the Reformation.

The popular opinion is that Martin Luther’s ideas became mainstream in 16th-century Europe because of the impact of the printing press. It has been assumed that without print, the Reformation would not have taken off the ground. That the success of the theologian from Wittenberg depended on the printer from Mainz. These, in turn, depend on other assumptions: that the printing press disrupted the scribal culture of the Middle Ages – the keyword here is revolution. That mass communication underlying Luther’s movement was an essentially 16th-century phenomenon that print made possible. That mass communication was born in the wake of the printing press.

Over the last fifteen years, medieval historians have argued that’s not the case. Print replaced the manuscript culture only gradually – it was faster and cheaper, but there was no overnight adoption. For a while, printers imitated scribes and scribes imitated printers – books looked like manuscripts, and manuscripts looked very much like books. There was more coexistence than conflict, especially in the first decades of print.

Then there is heresy. The medieval period had its own heretical movements, several of which had been very successful centuries before Gutenberg. There was also medieval mass communication in the form of preaching and dissemination of moral, biblical and theological information orally from the pulpit and carried far and wide by ear-pricked churchgoers. Networks of Franciscan and Dominican friars created a web of information across Western Europe.

Luther’s movement did not succeed because of mass communication enabled by the emerging technology of print. It succeeded because of the lack of concerted opposition. Previous heresies had not been that lucky – they encountered serious political resistance everywhere they spread, and that put an end to them. Luther did not. His ideas became widespread mainly because they went relatively unopposed. When European leaders woke up to the magnitude of the Reformation, the movement had gathered enough momentum to be a serious force for cultural change in Europe. There was no going back.

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