2: Literacy and the Clergy

The Reformation brought with it an increasing stress on the education of clergy. This pedagogical focus was important to the early reformers because they needed to spread their new ideas. Why was the push for literacy and an educated clergy felt to be so important? To answer this question, first it will be necessary to look at some of the developments that set the stage for the Reformation, and how the early reformers responded to the challenges of their time. We will focus especially on the change from scribal to print culture that altered the world into which the reformers offered their voices, and especially, their writings. From there we will look specifically at Luther’s reaction to the transforming world and the existing medieval Catholic culture, with a focus on his opinions about the role of clergy, and the emergence of a priesthood of all believers. We will examine improvements in clerical education as well as Catholic and Protestant schooling. Examining these historical factors will help us to see more clearly the shifting relationships to language that evolved during this period, and Christianity’s unique susceptibility to these changes given its traditional understanding as the religion of the book.

I. Defining Literacy

Understanding Levels of Literacy in the Reformation Period

Literacy needs to be understood as manifesting itself in different ways. Some people could read texts aloud well enough to share and memorize them. Medieval religion was, however, communicated through images and symbols, as well as certain kinds of ritual performances. Reading was generally a communal activity. Oral, visual, and literary culture was closely intertwined in the medieval world. Even the manuscripts read by the learned were illuminated with images meant to jog the memory to return to its sacred task.

14th Century Illuminated Manuscript
14th Century Illuminated Manuscript (National Heritage Memorial Fund)

The Advent of Printing

Probably the most significant factor affecting literacy and its relationship to language in the 15th and 16th centuries and beyond was the development of the printing press following its invention of Johannes Gutenberg in 1453. Older scribal culture consisted in certain techniques for categorizing and sharing knowledge, which fundamentally depended upon making and sharing books by hand. The habits of mind and the material conditions of writing that were suited to scribal culture were transformed with the advent of printing and eventually swept away. Ways of learning, thinking, and perceiving were changed during this period and a long transformation leading to our familiar experiences was begun. Print was slowly disseminated in the process transforming the existing blend of oral, visual, and literary culture, as it went.

Replica of Gutenberg’s Printing Press (Wikimedia Commons)
Replica of Gutenberg’s Printing Press (Wikimedia Commons)

For the first time texts could be standardized and mass-produced, but as that new mode of dissemination came up against the older culture, interesting hybrids emerged. As Protestants reacted to the imagistic medieval religion with varying degrees of fervour, it can be easy to paint their movement as purely iconoclastic, as a harsh conflict between new print culture and older religion, but the reality is more complex. Although there was growing hostility towards art in general, there was a real give and take between the visual and oral ways of understanding religion and the new textual approach. There was an integration of text and visual culture in Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda that defined Protestantism as a mass movement, in a way that the older Hussite or Lollard movements had been unable to achieve.

16th Century Anti-Jesuit Broadsheet, Berlin Germany
16th Century Anti-Jesuit Broadsheet (Directmedia Publishing GmbH, Berlin Germany)
In this broadsheet we can see the appeal to both textual literacy, and a story told through a picture, thus appealing to a wider variety of literacy levels.

Hence, even if the common folk were unable to read the writings of Luther or Calvin, they were influenced by the productions of print that were designed for the semi-literate. Broadsheets, for example, were printed Protestant propaganda that told the story of the emerging Reformation in such a way that everyone could understand, depending upon images as much as words brought together and then disseminated.

The printing press, the culture of print it engendered, and the new kinds of social relationships invading the collapsing medieval order, constitute a revolution in communication. The significance of an educated, literate clergy then revolves around the desire of ordinary people to have some sort of guide though such a revolutionary time.

II. Literacy Rates

It is estimated that in the 16th century in the Holy Roman Empire around 10-15% of people were literate in the sense of capable of reading texts. This number may have been as high as 30% in urban areas, though estimates vary greatly. At the time of Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in England in 1558 it is estimated that 20% of men and 5% of women were literate.
Changes in educational infrastructure contributed to a rise in textual literacy, and as scribal culture gave way to print culture, the accessibility of texts for reading increased and the need to read texts in day-to-day life increased as well.

Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and the Jesuit Theologians
Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and the Jesuit Theologians

Focus was increasingly placed upon the ability to read texts and understand them. Education and schooling increased, and the church’s monopoly on education began to recede. Lay interest in schooling increased as wealthier merchants and artisans desired better education for their children, hiring schoolteachers and financing new schools. Between 1480 and 1660, about a thousand new grammar schools were established in England. By the mid-16th century new religious orders such as the Jesuits established a network of schools throughout Western Europe.

In general, Catholics were more inclined to control the spread of literacy, desiring to limit access and hence interpretation of scriptural texts to the clergy. Even Protestants were concerned with the effects of allowing everyone to read the Bible; however, they made it their mission to make the Bible accessible to all. Protestant beliefs about the priesthood of all believers, left them better equipped to deal with a literary environment in which a critical reading public could engage in ecclesiastical and theological conversations. However, this is not to say that Catholics were unable to take advantage of the new technology, as printing allowed for a degree of standardization in their liturgy and schooling never before attained, and allowed the church to implement reforms that had long been desired.

III. Clergy Served A More Literate Laity

Part of the need for a more educated clergy came from the fact that they were serving an increasingly literate laity. The laity’s attitude towards religious matters was significantly shaped by the emerging print culture, and they had both the capability and desire to engage in religious debate and teaching.

Not only in religious matters but in many aspects of life, laypeople were able to learn things that previously had been hidden behind barriers of institutional secrecy. The business of publishing how-to and self-help books during the 16th century and onwards was booming. For the first time it became easier to learn something by reading it for oneself, than to learn from a master over the course of many years, whether one was learning theology, or bricklaying.

English printer William Caxton shows his printed works to the royal family
English printer William Caxton shows his printed works to the royal family (Wikimedia Commons).
This image gives a sense of the intimacy between intellectuals and printers during the early days of printing. An intellectual culture built up around the print shops and printers themselves.

Contributing to the phenomenon of a changing lay milieu were the print shops, which starting in 1460 spread from Germany, to Italy, to France, the Netherlands, and England. By 1520 Europe had a dense network of print shops. Prior to the industrial revolution, writers, scholars, and other literati had a much more intimate relationship with printers. Print shops were hubs for meeting and exchanging ideas, as well as learning of new developments as soon as they occurred. One anecdote tells of Erasmus (1466-1536) composing a satirical work on the press while friends and admirers looked on. The printers themselves were both businessmen and dispensers of literary glory, often they were even compilers of the various books they sought to print. The culture developing around print shops was partially composed of clergy, but it also included laypeople from middle social classes developing their own perspectives.

Print Culture, Humanism, and the Shift from Medieval Forms of Knowledge

While the medieval mind had an ardor for systems, yet the organization of knowledge on a large scale was impossible because of scribal culture. In print culture, on the other hand, it became possible to organize and standardize texts, and compare them in unprecedented ways. In the print shops the older religious intellectual ardor was combined with the stringent discipline required for copy-editing, and with the rationality of profit-seeking merchants.

New print culture interacted with other powerful trends in the 16th century that led to literacy appearing more attractive to wider groups. Humanism represents one such trend, with new kinds of curricula being instituted across Europe emphasizing grammatical education, classical learning, and what we might now call the sciences. In the middle ages grammar had been the ars before and within all other ars. Its position went unchallenged in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was deeply bound up with theology. The grammar revolution in the 16th century did not so much challenge its position as emphasize it, and bring to light old tensions. Latin grammatical rules were ineffective as learning in Greek and Hebrew deepened. Furthermore, grammar was a major battleground for incipient nationalism, as teaching and printing in the vernacular languages rose to prominence. Reformers contrasted the plainness and simplicity of vernacular languages to what they saw as the complexity of church Latin.

John Colet and Humanist Theology

Dean John Colet
Dean John Colet (Wikimedia Commons)

To take an English example that is representative of an important emerging trend, in 1496-7 at Oxford, John Colet (1467-1519) lectured in theology directly from the Epistle to Romans. These lectures attracted large audiences of laypeople as well as those intending to become clergy. His style was not scholastic but natural, and he was lauded as revealing the true spirit of St. Paul’s writings. These lectures broke with the tradition of lecturing in theology as exemplified in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the works of Duns Scotus (1266-1308), or other scholastic theologians. Erasmus was visiting England at the time and praised Colet, claiming “You are trying to bring back the Christianity of the Apostles, and clear away the thorns and briars with which it is overgrown; a noble undertaking.”

Lay Literacy and Intellectual Ferment

When these factors are considered together—a new print shop culture with novel standards of intellectual rigour, an emphasis on grammar, texts in their original languages and vernacular, and a desire to cut through scholastic complexity and learn the true religion of Christ—it is not difficult to see why the great masters of the Middle Ages were seen more and more as inadequate. In the words of Erasmus, they were great men, but they were men. The authorities of the past came to be viewed by men of letters more and more as precisely men of letters like themselves, and not as the privileged purveyors of true religion.

With the availability of new ideas to laypeople, they increasingly required from their clergy higher standards of learning. Laypeople were part of the movement that challenged the traditional authorities of the Christian religion, and armed with their own vernacular bibles and new printed materials and the attending habits of mind, the guidance they sought for navigating their world was more complex. Along with this increasingly volatile intellectual environment, they required pastors and counselors who could help them to understand the world and make sense of the changes that they were witness to.

IV. Luther and The Clergy

Luther’s Revolutionary Moment

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was different from other clerical reformers such as John Wycliffe (1320-1384) and Jan Hus (1369-1415). It can be difficult to understand why, given the proximity of so many of their religious perspectives. But Luther strode onto the historical stage at a time when the developments we have been examining so far—printing, increase in lay education, widespread desire for the true Christian religion—had reached a certain apex that his ideas were widely broadcast and well received, sparking a movement that reached far beyond what he could have hoped for.

Martin Luther in 1529
Martin Luther in 1529 (Wikimedia Commons)

People followed Luther for a variety of reasons, sometimes because they believed in his cause and the rightness of his understanding of the gospel. Other times they followed him because he seemed to belong to the new age, and helped to bring about new forms of social cohesion. Often Luther was bewildered by the new world that confronted him, and in those moments his instincts tended to be conservative.

That said, Luther was nothing if not bold. His ideas, while they were hardly revolutionary in the sense of breaking radically from the past, were drawn from his attempts to understand Scripture. Eventually this led him to a position that appeared quite radical to the eyes of the medieval church.

Emerging Protestant Clergy

Luther rejected clerical hierarchy and put forward the notion of a priesthood of all believers, in other words, the common right to preach and dispense the sacraments. The Protestant churches retained ordination as the public conferring of those offices upon individuals. No indelible character or special sacramental powers were conferred.

Katharina von Bora
Katharina von Bora (Wikimedia Commons)

Luther rejected priestly celibacy, and rather waxed poetic about the joys of married life. He was a happy husband and father. Luther’s own wife, Katharina von Bora (1499-1552), became a renowned figure within the Protestant movement and is portrayed in Catholic propaganda as an essential part of the Protestant threat. Although women were not allowed to be ordained in Protestant churches until the 20th century, the role of the pastor's wife unofficially assumed the status of a second church office of immense importance. In fact, the example of the pastor's family as a whole provided the model for Christian family life for Protestants.

Crucially, following from his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, Luther transformed the role of the clergy. He rejected the sacramental character of the medieval church practice, acknowledging only two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist. Rejecting the Catholic teaching that the latter was a sacrifice offered by the priest to God for the congregation, Luther also refused the function and distinctive title of priest to minister. For Luther the sacraments were the visible word, concrete parts of the proclamation of the gospel. It is in the preaching office that the Protestant tradition has seen the true locus of the ministry.

These changes in the essence and function of the clergy were given expression in the physical appearance of the Protestant ministry. Late medieval Catholic priests had been tonsured and had been required to wear distinctive clothing at all times, as well as to don consecrated vestments during the liturgy. Luther and Huldrych Zwingli set the new pattern by adopting sober bourgeois attire both during services and in daily life and by rejecting the tonsure as superstitious.

The Pastor as a Professional

The reformers regarded an ordained ministry as essential and they abandoned the notion that it was a sacrificing priesthood which it had been in the Middle Ages. Given that the sacral boundary around the clergy had been broken down, Protestant pastors were now set apart on the basis of their learning. The new doctrines had shaken the clerical estate to its core, and in Protestant countries clergy were no longer considered to belong to their own special class. Instead, the clergy became members of the professional class.

They were a preaching clergy, and so of necessity learned. There was some dissatisfaction amongst rural parishioners with this situation. The Protestant clergy being for the most part university educated led to some mutual incomprehension between the two groups. But the new alliance between Protestant clergy and secular authorities meant that paying the clergy and their families was legally enforced.

“The Lord’s Prayer in German” a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder
“The Lord’s Prayer in German” a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Wikimedia Commons).
It shows a clergyman dressed in similar garb to his parishioners.

The Protestant critique of the Catholic hierarchy had effectively undermined the traditional governing structure of the church. Luther and other reformers had looked to the secular rulers as “emergency bishops” (Notbischöfe) to provide for order and the material support of the church. The result, in Lutheran lands, was the formation of territorial state churches (Landeskirche). The local ruler became the head of the church and was advised by a consistory of clerics and other princely servitors. Local overseers—superintendents—replaced the Catholic bishops. The church became a branch of government, and the clergy were absorbed into the civil service and civil society. Clerical exemptions, immunities, and the benefit of clergy were abolished. Though the clergy still occupied a privileged position in an in-egalitarian society, their legal status now approximated to that of lay professional groups.

V. Conclusion

The medieval world was profoundly transformed in the 16th century into something we can begin to call modern. These transformations took place at a variety of levels. There were social and political transformations where villages grew to urban centers and residents lost their fealty towards feudal lords. There were deep spiritual transformations where people displayed a real desire to know and practice the true religion of Christ. And there were technological transformations whereby the spiritual writings of a humble monk from Wittenberg could shake the ancient throne of St. Peter.

From comments by Luther and John Foxe (1516/17-1587, Protestant author of The Book of Martyrs) on the printing press, we can see the apocalyptic tone with which these transformations were greeted. Luther described the printing press both as God’s highest act of grace, and also as the last flame before the extinction of the world. Foxe saw the press as a means by which the great light of the Apostles and Church Fathers could be brought into their darkened times. The feeling of transformation in their age was palpable.

As the understanding of who a pastor ought to be changed—from a sacral specialist to a counselor and guide—people turned to their clergy with new kinds of needs. It is out of the desire to navigate the rapidly changing world that laypeople and reformers demanded a higher level of literacy from their clergy. The real significance of the desire for a more literate clergy lies in this, that literacy and linguistic power represented the means by which the transformations of the age could be mastered and put into a perspective that kept the faith intact, and in fact revealed its true heart.