Wild Boar in the Vineyard: Martin Luther at the Birth of the Modern World

"Flying Writings"

Ain Sermon von der Beraitung zum sterben / Doctor Martini Luthers; Title page recto

Sermon on Preparing to Die
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Augsburg: Silvan Otmar, 1519
Burke Tower 03-B1120

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A key factor in the spread of Luther’s ideas and teachings was his effective use of printed pamphlets (flugschriften, “flying writings”). These were relatively easy and inexpensive both to produce and to distribute, facilitating Luther’s voluminous production of short, pithy, often vernacular works. A master communicator with a growing cult of personality, Luther possessed what can only be called, however anachronistically, “media savvy.” He and other reforming writers dominated their Catholic opponents in leveraging the printing press in support of their cause.

Many of Luther’s pamphlets were sermons or brief, topical works on matters of contemporary or practical concern. Luther exercised considerable control over his printed oeuvre at time when an author’s works, both in content and form, might often be altered in the course of reprinting in various, unauthorized editions. The pamphlets which he published at Wittenberg on his own account came to have a distinctive, “branded” look, distinguished from the unofficial editions produced by other printers. (See items 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18 – all printed in Wittenberg and so would have appeared with Luther’s approval.)

His popularity is also noteworthy in that, unlike the classical and Christian works that had until then driven the book market, Luther was a living (and celebrity) author as well as a subversive, renegade figure. By one estimate, in the mid-1520s there were as many as one million copies of Luther’s pamphlets in circulation among a German population of six million, most of the titles having been reprinted a dozen or more times.

Many of these pamphlets were numbered as part of the Library of Leander van Ess.   It is noteworthy that one of the earliest and largest collections of Protestant Reformation pamphlets to come to the United States was that of van Ess, a Roman Catholic cleric and biblical scholar.



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