Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

Luther, the Plague, and the Printing Press

Date posted: Tue, Apr. 14, 2020

At first glance, one might think it highly unlikely that the sixteenth and the twenty-first centuries would have much in common. The pandemic of 2020, however, has aligned our two eras in a way unimaginable, even as recently as a few months ago. An unknown virus to which no one is naturally immune? Meet the bubonic plague. Beginning in the middle of the fourteenth century somewhere in the Far East, the disease which came to be known as the ‘Black Death’ made its way westward, carried by fleas on rats that had stowed away on trading vessels. The ‘pestilence’ would eventually take the lives of at least one quarter of the European population before it fizzled out around the year 1351. People quickly learned that its effects could be contained principally by quarantining themselves or escaping the cities for less populated areas; but just when it seemed everything was under control, the plague would reappear episodically as it did throughout the period of the Renaissance and Reformation. In August of 1527, the plague visited the little town of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther had begun the Reformation only a decade earlier. Common sense dictated that he should decamp to cleaner air, as many of his fellow citizens had done. Luther, however, decided to stay and he publicly explained his position for doing so:

"Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another ... Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbour does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? … I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence … If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbour’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die … " (From Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1968), 43:119-138.)

The language is admittedly different, but the advice not dissimilar from what we are hearing today from public health officers around the globe. 

There is one other remarkable similarity between what Luther attempted to do and what someone like Dr Teresa Tam is currently doing in Canada. They both used all media at their disposal to get their message out. Luther finishes his exhortation to his readers by saying, ‘I hope that I’ve written enough in this pamphlet for those who can be saved.’ Luther was arguably the first person to harness the power of a relatively new technology: the printing press. With its support, he was able to inaugurate a revolution previously unseen in the Western world, the Reformation. His genius, however, was also to recognize the flexibility of this invention. He, of course, churned out weighty tomes in argumentative, learned Latin; but he also issued educational pamphlets like this one entitled ‘Whether one might flee from a deadly plague’. This new format, known as flugschriften or ‘flying writings’ in German was the Twitter of its day, communicating important information in a brief space and accessible to large numbers of people quickly.

My lecture on the role of the printing press in the Reformation is now available along with many other presentations, past and present, at the Fisher website. We hope that they might help you while away the hours of our physical and social distancing, and spare you Luther’s judgment of those who don’t co-operate in these troubled times: ‘My advice is that if any such persons are discovered, the judge should take them by the ear and turn them over to Master Jack, the hangman, as outright and deliberate murderers. What else are such people but assassins in our town?’ Perhaps a little severe, but point taken!

PJ Carefoote, Head, Rare Books and Special Collections