How religion shapes the spread of information.
If there is one part of Christian history that “everybody knows,” it is that printing changed religious consciousness during the Reformation era, by allowing the Bible to be placed in the hands of every individual, young and old, male and female. But this fact is part of a much larger truth about the relationship between the dominant medium of information and the nature of the religious message, both in Christianity, and outside that faith.
Not just in the realm of Christianity, religion shapes the spread of information. Printing emerged in response to the demands of Buddhist religious organizations, and the first printed books, in China and Korea, were Buddhist sutras. The very first printed book that we can date reliably is a copy of the Diamond Sutra, from 868, some six hundred years before Gutenberg’s Bible. To print a text is to agree definitively on its final form.
The story of Christianity is intimately bound up with the rise of new ways of presenting information, especially in the replacement of the traditional scroll by the codex, the ancestor of the modern book. (I am here drawing heavily on Alan Jacobs’s excellent article from 2011 on “Christianity and the Future of the Book”.)
The invention of the codex created the Bible. In Greek, ta Biblia can mean either “the books" (neuter plural) or "the book" (feminine singular). When the books of the Bible were available on separate scrolls, it was easy to see them as separate free-standing works, “the books”, which could be subject to a mix and match approach of acceptance and rejection. But when they were kept within a single text between two covers, then it was clearly The Book, one book, a concept that gave a mighty boost to the notion of canonizing certain texts and excluding others.
The codex was, in its origins, a highly theological invention. As Jacobs suggests, one primary goal of the new medium was to include both Old and New Testaments within one cover, to stress the harmony and continuity of the texts, and to refute heretics like the Marcionites who set the two at odds. As anyone could see or feel, clearly the two Testaments were one. This allowed and encouraged the quest for parallels and resonances between the two, the ancient quest for typology that so shaped Christian art through the centuries.
To return to the Reformation, in no respect were Protestants more radical than in the dominant forms of media used to teach and discuss religious truths, with all that shift implies for cultural sensibilities. As has often been remarked, the Reformation was a media revolution. Traditional societies had taught their truths through visual imagery, such as stained glass and sculpture; through music; and above all, through drama and ritual action, which often involved a large amount of communal participation. Protestants taught through the word, in the form of books and tracts, hymns and sermons. God became Word.
The new religious model was made possible only by the rise of printing, which we think of most directly in terms of books and especially Bibles. Equally significant though were pamphlets, handbills, song-books, chapbooks, and especially cartoons, which were a major vehicle for distributing the Reformation message throughout Germany and Northern Europe. In creating the modern world, printing was as significant as the new mechanisms of central state power made possible by artillery. Thomas Carlyle famously listed "the three great elements of modern civilization, Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant religion."
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