Gutenberg’s genius paved the way for Luther and Estonian literacy
Archived Articles 21 Apr 2006 Eva VabasaluEWR
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Fifteenth century Europe was a transitional period between the medieval dark ages‚ and middle ages. Two German giants were born into this era - Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz, a city west of Frankfurt, in 1400, and Martin Luther in 1483. It would be interesting to know how Luther would have made out without Gutenberg, as it was Gutenberg who in the middle 1450's had an ingenious idea - movable type. The previous form of printing was done on wooden presses carving out the background on a single wooden block leaving a raised impression (like a rubber stamp), and pressing a sheet of vellum, a high quality parchment (made from calfskin, lambskin or kidskin) over the mold. This was block printing, slow and very expensive.

Gutenberg began exploring with single alphabet re-useable molds carved out of wood that would be dropped into sockets with appropriate spaces to form words and sentences making printing a far less costly and time consuming process. In 1455 he produced the two-volume Gutenberg Bible, Latin edition, equivalent in price to 3 years of an average man wages. Later Gutenberg’s metallurgical experience enabled him to create metal molds, which required switching from a water-based ink to an oil- base as metal needed an ink that was thick and sticky. The metal alloy had to be soft enough to cast into a mold, yet durable enough to withstand the pressure of a new printing press that would now use paper. Gutenberg adapted old wine and cheese presses for printing purposes, kicking off a media force that would revolutionize society. The result being that millions of books had been printed after the advent of movable type by the time of Gutenberg’s death in 1468. His method letterpress printing was used for the next 400 years until 1886, when the Linotype Composing Machine became the next greatest advance in printing history.

Incidentally, Gutenberg was not the first to come up with movable type, however it is unlikely he had prior knowledge of the Chinese invention of movable type (in 1041), a process they abandoned due to the thousands of Chinese characters which made the method inefficacious.

Astonishingly, 1483 was still nine years before Christopher Columbus anchored the Santa Maria in the Bahamas, 14 years before Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) explored the eastern coast of Canada or prior to Leonardo da Vinci painting The Last Supper. The earth was considered flat, and common thought held that the sun, moon and stars revolved around its edges.

Into this world was born Martin Luder on November 10, 1483. (He later called himself Luther.) He endured a strict and oppressive childhood at the hands of his mother and the Latin school he attended. He enrolled in the University of Erfurt and in the same year was caught in a lightning storm where hurt and frightened he made a pact with St. Anne that if he survived he would become a Monk. This was distressing news to Luther‚s father who had expectations that his son would complete his law studies to become a lawyer. True to his word Luther sought out the life of an Augustinian Monk.

In 1512 he returned to university and rose to Theology Professor at Wittenberg University. On reading Romans 1:17 he realized that God’s grace was not received through behaviour or good works, it was simply received through faith and a direct relationship with God.

Two years later he was ordained a Priest. What particularly galled Luther was the sale of indulgence slips by the Catholic Church that for a price would exonerate a sin. (Gutenberg had mass-produced these slips for the Church.) Wanting to reform the Catholic Church, Luther sent his 95 Theses in a letter to his church superiors. The reformation was born causing wild excitement. The Catholic Church, the only Christian church in existence considered Luther a heretic and attacked, inducing Luther, a prolific writer, to defend his theses in three books Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity and The Freedom of the Christian Man, books which in their essence developed an independent theology.

On June 15, 1520 there was an inquisition ordering Luther to retract his teachings. Luther burned the Papal Bull of excommunication. On January 3, 1521 the pope excommunicated Martin Luther and three months later he was commanded by the 21 year-old Emperor Charles V to appear before the Imperial Diet [court] in Worms, located on the Rhine River south of Frankfurt. Although there was very strong support for Luther in the country the authorities considered him a heretic. The Emperor and the Church wanted Luther to surrender his maverick teachings (one of which was a priest’s right to marry) however in Luther’s corner were powerful royal allies who wanted the Church’s influence over Germany reduced and many resented Germany’s money going to Rome. Especially invaluable to Luther was Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, a Roman Catholic with vise-like connections in Rome, a sovereign who supported Luther’s work and a man who had helped Emperor Charles V get elected. Frederick, a masterful diplomat, insisted that Luther deserved a fair hearing in his jurisdiction at the Court of Inquisition.

After two hearings, Luther, who was a volatile personality and subject to outbursts, was declared an “outlaw”‚ with the consequences being that he could be killed by anyone without penalty or retribution. For his own safety Luther was kidnapped by his friends (with Frederick’s knowledge) and hidden at Wartburg Castle. While in exile he translated the New Testament from Greek into German. A year later, in 1522, when the more radical fractions of the reformation had gained control, Luther returned to Wittenberg, his university town.

At 41 years of age Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun and a woman 16 years younger, and together they had six children. The couple also took in his sister’s six children. Luther, an enthusiastic singer, published The One Who Sings Prays Double, and in 1530 completed his translation of the Old Testament.

To the end of his life he railed against the Catholic Church. Great as this man’s vision, conviction and courage was, it is sad to report he wrote the anti-semitic book Jews and Their Lies in 1543 and Against the Papacy of Rome Founded by the Devil in 1545. (Lutheran Churches have distanced themselves from these writings.) Luther continued teaching at Wittenberg University until his death in the town of his birth, Eisleben, in 1546.

Lutheran reformers came to Tallinn in 1523, and in 1525 a book of common prayer was published in Lübeck with text in Estonian, Livonian and Latvian but all copies were destroyed by the Lübeck Council who called it Lutheran silliness. A Lutheran catechism printed in Germany in 1535 was translated into Estonian by Johann Koell. A part of this book has survived. Printing offices were established in the academies of Tartu (in 1631) and Tallinn (in 1633) under the Swedes, who strongly promoted education. Estonia was one of the first Northern countries to print books, although in Tartu they were restricted to scientific books in Latin, but in Tallinn the enterprise was private and printing of clerical books was profitable.

A great debt is owed to Bengt Gottfried Forselius, a Swede, who trained Estonian schoolteachers how to teach reading and writing in peasant schools in the 17th century. When famine and war followed in the late 17th and early 18th century, and school attendance was impossible, learned peasants homeschooled and Estonian literacy continued to grow. An incentive to learning to read was also due to the stipulation by the Swedish church law that in order to be confirmed one had to be able to read the catechism, since without confirmation one did not have the right to marry.

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