Woodcuts, the Mass Media of the Reformation?

1521 woodcut of Luther by Hans Baldung Grien. Luther discouraged the symbolism of halo and dove, too closely related to medieval hagiography. He preferred simple representations of him as professor or preacher. Image from http://www.wga.hu/html_m/b/baldung/4/41luther.html

Right now I’m working my way through an excellent monograph that explores persuasive media used in the Reformation, Andrew Pettegree’s Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion. He discusses the various media by which the Reformation advanced, situating the book alongside other important vehicles: preaching, singing, drama, visual arts, and ephemeral print. So far the chapter on the visual arts has proved the most contentious, overturning a commonplace of the scholarly guild.

Pettegree challenges one of the classic studies in the discipline, Robert Scribner’s For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation. Scribner attempted to answer the question “how the Reformation appealed to the common folk” (1) through an examination of illustrations. In particular he focused on images he thought drawn from popular culture, involving crudeness, featuring lower-class protagonists, or exhibiting aspects of carnival. These images were supposed to work as a kind of mass media, transmitting the ideas of the Reformation beyond the narrow circle of the elite and literate. However, one of his conclusions was that the very populist features of these images limited their effectiveness; aimed at simple folk, they could not transcend their simplicity.

(It is important to remember that Scribner’s argument is only for the German Reformation. It is clear that Huguenots made little use of woodcuts and that the Dutch turned to woodcut propaganda rather late for particular political reasons.)

Pettegree focuses on only one medium, the woodcut, but insofar as he does, his conclusions are almost directly opposite to Scribner’s. He notes that Scribner’s argument is built on several assumptions that seem plausible at first glance but lack concrete support. Scribner assumed that images reached a wider audience than text, that they were simple to interpret, and that literate persons would be available to read accompanying text and explain more complex ideas to the illiterate.

Did images reach a wider audience than text? Pettegree considers to what extent early modern populations suffered from impaired vision and how that may have affected their interest in images or ability to see and “read” them. This section did not strike me as a particularly direct counter to Scribner, but it is certainly an important topic in its own right, a kind of people’s history counterpart to Patrick Trevor-Roper’s The World through Blunted Sight, a study of the effects of impaired vision on Renaissance artists. In any case, the fact that European elites did have access to spectacles means that access to images was still partially dependent on class; more elites than commoners would have been able to see them clearly.

A more significant argument deals with the location of woodcuts. Very simple woodcuts were mass produced, but many of these have scant informational content. Many were simply Luther in his doctor’s robe or something similar. Pettegree offers a helpful analogy here. Medieval pilgrims often received pilgrim tokens, simple images of the saints to whose shrines they journeyed. The point of the tokens was possessing them, not “reading” them. They were more to create a bond between owner and saint than to transmit ideological content. Pettegree suggests these simple Reformation portraits functioned similarly: momento, not manifesto. The more didactic or ideologically rich woodcuts were expensive to create. As a result, they appeared almost exclusively in more costly books, out of the price range of peasants but perhaps not successful burghers. Furthermore, books marketed to the wealthy often featured pastoral and peasant scenes. Thus, images of peasants did not indicate that images were for peasants. Rather, they fit into an upper-class aesthetic.

But if, for the sake of argument, it was conceded that peasants in large numbers had access to images and no problem seeing them, would those images effectively transmit Reformation ideals? Pettegree considers at length two famous woodcuts, The Divine Mill and Luther Leading the Faithful out of Darkness (see pages 18 and 19 of this PDF). Both of these include explanatory text within the image itself, an indication that their meaning cannot easily be “read” right off them by illiterates. But assuming the presence of a literate mediator, are they comprehensible? Both contain complex allusions both to commonplaces in the artistic tradition and to topical current events. There is no reason to believe the average uneducated peasant would have understood most of these themes. I am a Reformation historian, and I needed experts to explain some details to me. Pettegree concludes that these were aimed at a small, literate in-group already invested in the controversies at an academic level. I think a decent analogy would be modern high-brow political satire, in which part of the enjoyment consists of knowing current events well enough to be able to get the joke. This is almost the opposite of a populist approach.

Finally, there is the issue of whether literate persons were in the habit of translating visual propaganda to illiterates. Pettegree acknowledges that Scribner provided examples of reading as a public practice, but he questions the relevance of those examples. Most public reading was by public inferiors to their superiors for entertainment. This circumstance surely circumscribed the choice of material. Other examples were economic in nature, such as literate persons being paid to read advertisements or news aloud in the public square. Now, certainly literate persons could have done such a thing, and some Reformation propaganda explicitly encourages them to do so, but that is far from establishing that public reading of propaganda was a common practice, much less the basis for the German Reformation as a mass movement.

In summary, Pettegree gives a number of good reasons to doubt the claim that printed images were a primary means of transmitting Reformation ideals to a largely illiterate populace. Since drama was sporadic and overwhelmingly urban, this moves us back to preaching and song as the most likely candidates for widespread diffusion of Reformation ideals.