Was the Printing Press and growing literacy rates the main reasons for Martin Luther’s widespread support in Germany?

In the 16th century, majority of the people in Germany were illiterate, meaning that it was difficult to communicate or circulate ideas, as this could only be done by word of mouth. However, growing literacy and the introduction of the printing press, which was invented in the 1400s, provided Luther with an opportunity to spread his reformist views and ideas. Luther developed his ideas in response to papal corruption, which would become the basis of the Protestant faith. ‘Widespread’ is defined as gaining support from multiple areas and people. The printing press and growing literacy can be seen as the main reasons for the widespread suport Luther received, as it increased his support from the laity and the nobility. However, Luther could also be seen to gain support due to the weak structure of the Holy Roman Empire, which the Princes took advantage of, as well as the papal corruptions within the Roman Catholic Church.

The printing press and growing literacy can be seen as the main reasons for the widespread support given to Luther’s ideas in Germany in the years 1517 to 1555, as they increased Luther’s support from the laity and the nobility. Among those who were literate, Luther was able to circulate his ideas with the use of pamphlets, such as “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” This pamphlet, published in 1520, declared that the pope was an adversary and attacked church doctrine. The deployment of the printing press ensured that many pamphlets were distributed quickly, thus spreading Luther’s ideas in the same fashion, which gave his idea’s support from many different people and places. Growing literacy rates meant that they could be appreciated, which gained Luther popular support. In 1524, Luther also published his first collection of hymns, aimed at those who were not fully literate. By replacing the rude, bawdy lyrics with religious teaching, Luther also used word of mouth to spread his ideas, which gained him further support from more people and areas. Luther also gained support from the laity, after he supported them in putting down the Peasant’s Revolt of 1524. After this, Luther dedicated much of his time ensuring that people understood his doctrine, which gained him further support from the nobility, as they were more able to understand his doctrine and teachings. The use of the printing press ensured the fast spread and movement of Luther’s ideas, while the growing literacy rates ensured that people could appreciate and understand his pamphlets, thus making both of these factors main reasons for his the widespread support Luther received in Germany. From 1530 to 1555, Luther began to receive wider support from the Prince’s, who were able to appreciate his work because of the growing literacy rates. The Princes also had the power to install Lutheranism within their individual towns and cities, and many Princes, such as Philip of Hesse, began to convert. The growing support for Lutheranism, as aided by the printing press and growing literacy eventually culminated in the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which meant that Lutheranism achieved legal status in the empire. As support for Luther’s ideas was strong, and Charles V and Ferdinand I could not quash it, their only way of uniting Germany was to legalise it. It must be noted that this support would not have been so strong if it were not for the printing press and growing literacy rates. Both of these factors ensured that Luther’s ideas were circulated around the whole of Germany, and the growing literacy rates ensured that people of any class were able to understand his ideas, thus providing him with a great deal of support in the years 1517 to 1555.

One could argue that a more prominent reason for Luther’s widespread support was due to the weak structure of the Holy Roman Emperor. One can easily criticise the behaviour of Charles V, and has lack of influence over the empire, partly because of its size. This reduced influence meant that Charles did not have much control over Germany, and was more of an afterthought in the minds of the people, who were more concerned with Luther’s ideas, due to the rapid circulation of pamphlets. The power of Charles was also suppressed and weakened by the Princes. The Princes had full autonomy when governing their individual states, and would only carry out the emperor’s commands if they agreed with them themselves. This meant that Charles lacked a significant amount of control, which can be seen throughout the 1530s when the Prince’s began converting their own states to Lutheranism. When looking at the structure of the Holy Roman Empire, it can be argued that growing literacy rates and the printing press were not main reasons for Luther’s widespread support, as the lack of a significant authority within the Holy Roman Empire meant that Luther was not suppressed or stopped. Charles’ lack of authority, when compared to the Princes, ensured the spread of Lutheranism, as well as its support, as the Princes openly welcomed the new religion into their states, against the wishes of the Holy Roman Emperor. For majority of his rule, Charles was not in Germany, but was away dealing with threats from France, Spain or the Ottoman empire. This is also a significant reason as to why Luther’s ideas gained support from many people and places, as there was no authority present to stop him. For example, in 1542, Charles faced attacks on his Italian inheritance from the French and the Ottomans. This issue took precedence over the threat of Lutheranism, and Charles left Germany. This provided Luther, and the Lutheran Princes with an opportunity to gain more support in Charles’ absence, as there was no significant authority present to stop them. Charles absence was taken advantage of by the Lutherans, to ensure that Luther’s ideas gained more popular support, and with the addition of people becoming more literate, Luther’s ideas did acquire this support. The weak structure of the Holy Roman Emperor can be seen as one of the main reasons Luther’s ideas gained popular support in the years 1517 to 1555.

It could also be argued that one of the main reasons for the increase in widespread support of Luther’s ideas was due to the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the Humanists, such as Ulrich Von Hutten, who brought attention to these issues, and informed the laity about them. These corruptions formed the basis of Luther’s ideas, as he developed his faith as a response to Catholicism, and considered his ideas to be an improvement on it. The Indulgency scandal of 1517 was heavily mentioned in Luther’s 95 Theses, and he openly criticised it, declaring it to be a significant example of papal corruption. Another example of this is Luther’s support of papal marriage, which would stop priests and clergyman engaging in sodomy, which was condemned in the Bible. The growing literacy rates helped people understand corruptions within the church, and also helped them to see Lutheranism as an attractive alternative, and a way in which issues could be solved. Luther also sought to combat issues of absenteeism, as the laity felt neglected by their local spiritual authority. In response to this Luther believed that priests should live within the parish, or very close to it. This gained Luther support from the people as he was seen as a heroic, national figure, who was fighting for the rights of the German people, in a time in which Germany was being heavily exploited by Germany. From this perspective, it could be argued that Luther gained support from many areas and people because the laity, nobility and humanists were dissatisfied with the corruptions of the church.

The most important reasons for the support given to Luther’s ideas from many people and areas in Germany are the use of the printing press ad growing literary rates. These combined factors ensured that more people are able to access Luther’s ideas, and also meant that people from all over the country and from different classes could read and understand them. This made Luther appeal to the people, as they believed he was fighting for their rights, and he became a nationalist figure. As the printing press and growing literacy rates ensured more people could understand Luther’s doctrine, they can be seen as the main reasons for the widespread support that Luther gained from 1517 to 1555.[1]


[1] A. Grundy, Religion and state in early modern Europe, (London, Pearson Education, 2015).

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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