The Gutenberg Galaxy Revisited: Print, Drama, and the English Reformation

Story posted November 11, 2003

During the Protestant Reformation drama and printing became weapons in the fight to determine the spiritual life of England. Assistant Professor of English Aaron Kitch used a recent faculty seminar to explore the interaction of plays, printing and protestant propaganda in early-16th-century England.

In Acts and Monuments, a 1563 book about protestant martyrs, author John Foxe explains the role many saw for protestant clergy, drama and printing during the Reformation: "Preachers, Printers & Players [should]...be set up of God, as a triple bulwarke against the triple crowne of the pope, to brynge hym down."

"If you know anything about the history of drama and the church," Kitch said, "the three groups don't get along very well."

Printing was just emerging at the time, and like any new technology it was greeted by both praise and discomfort. Printing was heralded by some because it allowed reading materials to be available to a greater number of people and at a lower cost than ever before.

sent from heaven
J.V. Schley, L'Imprimerie (1739)

One drawing from this time period demonstrated how important this was: "Here we see the printing press descending from heaven," Kitch said. Printing was "the gateway to modernity, the celebration of knowledge."

But people of the day didn't universally embrace printing. Martin Luther had concerns about scholarly writing and worried that books about the Bible would overshadow the Bible itself, and Erasmus expressed a degree of nervousness about the downside of printing. He wrote in Adages(1508), "To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books? It may be that one here and there contributes something worth knowing, but the very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful . . . [printers] fill the world with books, not just trifling things (such as I write, perhaps), but stupid, ignorant, slanderous, scandalous, raving, irreligious and seditious books, and the number of them is such that even the valuable publications lose their value."

death press
from La grant dans macabre (Lyons: Mathias Huss, 1499)

Another image of the day illustrates the nervousness with an image of a skeletal death figure reigning over a printing press.

William Caxton, the first printer in England, who came from Belgium in 1476, was well aware of possible resistance to the new technology.

"Caxton is very careful in early printing to make printing seem just like scribal culture," Kitch said. Even the print Caxton used looked like script.


In 1620, Francis Bacon championed the idea that understanding new forms of technology is important to understanding the history of a particular time. Modern scholars, among them Elizabeth Eisenstein and Marshall McLuhan, have noted the importance of printing to historical developments.

Eisenstein, wrote in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe that printing helped foster the intellectual climate that allowed the Reformation to succeed and that led to the Age of Reason that followed. And in The Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan expressed many of the negatives to come out of printing.

"For McLuhan, print is not an article of enlightenment, but rather it is an alienating force that produce a split between science and the arts," Kitch said. Suddenly, what can be written, becomes more valued than what can't be. This leads to a "unidimensional visual orientation in Western culture after printing."

"The problem with Eisenstein and McLuhan is they understand technology as being outside of history and outside of the culture in which it participates," Kitch said. "[T]echnology doesn't shape culture without being shaped by culture at the same time."

To get the whole story, one has to look at the technology as being interwined with the culture and history. That's the approach Kitch takes in his work.

One immediate challenge to printing's influence was the level of literacy in England, which was somewhere between 25 and 40%, and depended on factors such as class, gender, and location. To make endroads into the popular imagination, printers appropriated another popular cultural form — the ballad. They'd print a familiar ballad along with pictures illustrating it.

One of the most popular ballads of the day was "The Wellspoken Nobody." Nobody was a character used for displacing blame for domestic accidents. ("Nobody did it"), and an important figure in pop culture. This ballad celebrated the translation of the Bible into English.

"It's tempting to see a ballad like this as an expression of...popular upswell for the reformation," Kitch said. In fact, it was likely produced by the King's people as propaganda for the reformation. "In no country in Europe was the reformation as top down as in England."

Henry VIII knew that he needed to win over the masses for the reformation to be successful, and he made Thomas Cromwell his chief propaganda minister. Cromwell hired poets, balladeers, and playwrights to spread the ideas of the reformation. In the early 1530s, it was easy for the crown to regulate printers in England because there weren't many of them. For that reason, most of the printing of the time was pro-protestant.

Printing was already associated with the spread of knowledge and portraits of Cromwell, Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury often showed them with books nearby.

One painting, for example, shows Henry VIII on his deathbed. His son, Edward VI, is in the center with a book at his feet pushing down on the head of the pope. There are squares shown on the walls that look like blank sheets.

"If we put all of this together, we might see these squares as spaces that are as yet unwritten," Kitch said. Edward VI will write these pages and fulfill the legacy of the protestant reformation.

Henry and Cranmer commissioned translations of the Bible and had them placed in public caroles so people had access to them. (They also had them chained in place so they wouldn't be stolen.)

"So for the first time in English history, people were encouraged to go and read the Bible," Kitch said.

The title page in one of the Bibles printed at the time has an illustration that conveys the power of the book. It portrays Henry's authority, greater than that of the clergy, by showing his power to print the Bible and disperse it.

God vs. the pope
"The Word of God vs. Popish Superstition." John Foxe, Acts and Monuments 1576)

John Foxe wrote propaganda pamphlets for Cromwell, which eventually led to Act and Monuments. In a section titled "The Word of God vs. Popish Superstition" the word of God is shown as a book.

"There's a distinct imagery going on here that circles around the book," Kitch said.

Another important person in Henry VIII's propaganda machine was playwright John Bale. Bale had been a Carmelite friar before becoming a radical protestant (too radical for Henry VIII eventually).

"Henry VIII was very excited about using drama," Kitch said. (He even suggested that he be a character in a play and be shown decapitating papal clerics.)

Bale wrote 22 plays, and in writing them drew heavily from the tradition of the morality play, a form in which the central character encountered vice figures, fell into sin and was redeemed by a virtue figure. The virtues had always been associated with Catholic virtues, but to serve the goals of the reformation the vices became personified by Catholic prelates and the virtues were no longer associated with Catholicism.

In his play King John, for example, King John became a representation of the early protestants, and he encountered characters named Private Wealth, Sedition, Dissimilation, and others.

"He was the most prolific author of protestant works in the first half of the 16th century," Kitch said, however, not many of his plays survived. ("They're not what you would call, fun, reading.")

Like many artists, protestant playwrights struggled with whether their art was a true representation of their ideas, but in their case religious beliefs further complicated the matter, and many had an ambiguous relationship with their work. Drama was easily manipulated and had been used by Catholics previously.

"For Bale...there's an internal conflict in this act of creation...drama always has the risk of being false forms of representation, precisely the false forms of representation that Protestants accuse the Catholic church of having...So Bale is wrestling with this problem of what to do with the fact that he is involved in this medium."

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