Martin Luther, individualism and the writing revolution

I am reading the Reformation: a Brief History by Kenneth G Appold. In the current section he is describing the sources of his radical re-interpretation of Christianity. The author goes on to describe the political manoeuvrings around Luther – why he was at first ignored, then the politics of bringing him to trial, or at least debate. This occurred between the time of the posting of the 95 theses in 1517 and 1521, when Luther was excommunicated. In this period a pamphlet war was engaged.

What this all says to me is two factors had changed – one the rise of individualism and the other the necessity of reading and of relatively cheap material to read. Reading is an essentially individual activity – this is not to say it is necessarily private – one can read out loud, one publishes [as here] for others to read. But writing and reading are the dissemination of internal, personal and individual thought.

The Protestant Reformation is usually, and quite sensibly, approached as a revolution in religion – but it can be seen from another angle if you turn it on its side. The Reformation was a cultural turn from the mediaeval world of communal and oral life where what you knew, you knew because others said it to you and you said it to others as you lived your life in a small community. Learning was also visual and tactile. Words and sight and touch moved in a dance of reinforcement, integrated into the oral and communal life of people.

The Reformation is the label historians of religion stick onto a cultural change in western Europe – religion being integral to culture and culture to religion [I use the term ‘culture’ here in its anthropological sense, of course, as the ‘total way of life of a people’].

Reading and writing came to the fore for a growing class of intellectuals in that broad, other cultural movement called the Renaissance. The dissemination of ideas now rocketed off in all directions with the new technology of communication called the printing press, movable type, and paper. This new form of mass communication could not be contained by the old ‘powers-that-be’, at that time aka the ‘Church’. I will here give the standard ‘historian’s caveat’ – this did not all happen at once – the ‘Church’, now much constrained and limited to far fewer lands than before [well … and another caveat – European lands, because at this same time, the old religion was busily establishing itself in the Americas and on other continents]. Anyway, this did not all happen at once because there was not to be one Reformation, but rather, ‘reformations’ – Luther’s ideas dominated the northern German and Scandinavian lands, but other Reformations took hold – those of Jean Calvin most importantly, but also the state reformed Catholicism of England, and the small persecuted groups of so-called anabaptists.

Again my point in all this is this cultural turn came out of a perfect storm of multiple changes. The change that interests me here, in this blog, is the very change I am a part of in the 21st century -the communications revolution. To put the Reformations in a modern mode – Luther’s ideas went viral – and just as ideas spread via the internet today, were altered and changed as they spun there way across western European society.

Those who defended the old ways – principally what we today call the Catholic Church, or the Roman Catholic church, which until the ideas of Luther went viral, simply, ‘The Church’, was changed – adapted to the new reality of a war of words and of control over communication.

So too today, email, instant messenger programs, YouTube, facebook, twitter, Linkedin, cell phone cameras, self published eBooks, website, ftp….. I have probably missed something here – constitute the technological drivers of another cultural revolution not seen in the world since the printing press and movable type and paper.

What is the ‘church’ today? Well for a writer such as myself, it is the legacy publishers, the academic presses, peer review old style, copyright law. What is the Reformation (s) today? Smashwords, Creative Commons licensing, the world wide web [not to be confused with the internet – the WWW is a part of the internet], experiments in online peer review for academics [for example, the History Working papers project http://www.historyworkingpapers.org ] , wikipedia.

Who is our Luther? Probably, Tim Berners-Lee who created the first web page and convinced his supporters at CERN where he then worked to give it to the world and built into it the protocols that prevented any one ‘church’ [as in big computer company] from owning or controlling it. The essence of the WWW is that it cannot be owned or controlled and this philosophy still very much has driven all the changes that I write about in this blog.

All this is something of a personal irony for me, as I am a Roman Catholic – but the double irony is I belong to the Church of Rome, not by birth, but by my individual choice. There is a triple layer of irony also – I belong not through cold reason – an intellectual assent to theological fact, but because I am also an heir of the Romantic movement and enjoy the wafting scent of faux mediaevalism and of even older memories stretching back to the world of imperial Rome.

Ah well, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and to the technological revolution that brought about computers and the internet, I am liberated to choose and write as I will – but thanks even more so to the much older cultural revolution of the early modern era, the essence of which is the rise of the individual and individual ideas.

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