Category Archives: Renaissance

Gutenberg’s Gift to Renaissance and Reformation

Johannes Gutenberg portrait
By de Larmessin – Scanned from “Die großen Deutschen im Bilde” (1936) by Michael Schönitzer, Public Domain,

Johannes Gutenberg began his life in 1400 as a merchant’s youngest son in Mainz, yet by the time he died in 1468, even the pope knew his reputation—all because this goldsmith found a way to print using movable type. His journey to fame came painstakingly slowly (detailed by Alix Christie in her novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice).

Gutenberg decided to print Bibles as his first priority (for both spiritual and financial reasons), but the printing press also led to many other accessible, relatively affordable books that nurtured the Italian Renaissance.

Gutenberg Bible
By Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg –, Public Domain,

Yet perhaps the greatest impact of Gutenberg’s invention came more than half a century later, when Martin Luther’s deft harnessing of the printing press  enabled his message to spread quickly to sympathizers (creating a vast audience) as well as enemies (who would have happily silenced Luther’s voice).

Would the printing industry have mushroomed without Luther’s prolific writing and the Roman Church’s responses? Not likely;  the relationship between Luther and the printing press proved mutually beneficial (as Andrew Pettegree points out in Brand Luther).

Without the printing press, would the Reformation have taken place in the sixteenth century?  When might the printing industry have developed if not for Martin Luther’s calls for church reform?

Heroes* Who Felt the Heat

Wycliffe at work
John Wycliffe at work, unknown artist, Public Domain,


In England, John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English in 1382, and insisted the scriptures, not the pope, should have authority over the Christian church. He also attacked the sale of indulgences, certain Church doctrines, and the clergy’s immorality and privileges. After years of speaking out, he lost his position at Oxford.  Although he died of natural causes, the Church Council of Constance ordered his writings and his bones burned in 1428.

Jan HusJan Hus, by Christoph Murer 1587 – Selbstgefertigter Scan eines Holzschnitts aus eigenem Bildarchiv, Public Domain,

In the early 1400s in Bohemia, Jan Hus preached that the Bible should be the authority for the Church, and spoke out against the pope’s use of indulgences. His protest lasted until 1415, when he was burned at the stake.

Girolamo Savonarola
Girolamo Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo, Public domain,

At the height of the Italian Renaissance, a monk named Savonarola stirred up the people of Florence, preaching Christian renewal, condemning vanities, and prophesying glory for the city-state. At the peak of the monk’s influence, Florentines expelled their rulers and threw their precious books and paintings onto bonfires, but in 1498, Savonarola himself was burned.

These three men, as well as many others, shared Martin Luther’s concern for a purified Church that wouldn’t  contaminate God’s truth—but didn’t live to see it happen.

Martin Luther, too felt the heat of persecution at his heels. Why did he survive and found a reform movement that changed not only religion, but history, throughout Europe and beyond?

In real estate, location is everything, and Luther had the advantage of residing in German lands, far from the pope. More than that, he had an agile mind for theology and a publicist’s eye to use the recently-invented printing press to build support, and a protector (Frederick the Wise) who resisted the pope’s control of Frederick’s territory.

Luther’s success relied on more than the coincidence of chance factors, but that’s a topic for the future.

Why do you think Luther’s Reformation succeeded?

*Editor’s note: many contemporaries referred to these individuals as heroes, but this writer doesn’t endorse everything they said and did.

In the Beginning


Hands of God and Man, detail from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Why this blog?

As October 31st, 2017 approaches,  media coverage of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation increases daily.  What more should be said, and why by me, a devotée of the Renaissance since a college semester spent in Italy?

Simply put, focusing on the Reformation without the Renaissance would be like paying attention to one twin while ignoring the other.  For good and for ill, the Renaissance shaped the Reformation. To understand the Reformation, we must appreciate its twin movement of modernity, the Renaissance.

Why me?

The Renaissance and Reformation period was my mental world for years as I earned my PhD in History at Stanford University. Under my mentor, Lewis W. Spitz, my understanding and appreciation of the Reformation grew to rival my passion for the Renaissance.

I’ve continued to expand my knowledge of the Renaissance/Reformation era as I’ve researched and written my forthcoming historical novel, Lucia’s Renaissance. (When Martin Luther’s writings ignite a young girl’s faith, she must choose—abandon her beliefs or risk her life in the turbulent world of late Renaissance Italy.)

Join me in exploring the stories of the key figures as Renaissance meets Reform!