Andrew Pettegree is a history professor at the University of St. Andrews and founder of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. In a recent work entitled Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion, he reflects on the profound cultural impact of the Christian Scriptures in sixteenth-century Europe. In particular, the work addresses the means of persuasion: how it was that people became committed to distinctively Christian living. The primary means of this persuasion was the distribution of the Bible.
[I]t is hard in any survey to do real justice to [the Bible’s] primacy and influence. But this was a remarkable and many-faceted book, a success in so many of the categories of print that sixteenth-century readers found so fascinating. It was a travelogue and a work of history; a work of literature and poetry; it provided the model for much of the most successful drama of the age; it was a work of prophecy in an age obsessed by prophecy; it was a treasure trove for botanists, grammarians and etymologists, and a foundation text for students of the ancient languages; it was a work of jurisprudence, perhaps the sixteenth century’s most influential legal text; it was certainly the century’s most influential work of political thought. It provided role models for rulers and priests, for fathers and mothers, for soldiers and martyrs.
In this book the print culture of the sixteenth century was displayed in all its technical sophistication. It could be a handy pocket-sized book in tiny print, or a gloriously illustrated folio. The narrative illustrations in the Old Testament brought to life some of the greatest stories of the Christian tradition; even in the austere purged editions of the later Protestant tradition the text often came accompanied by maps, technical drawings, and ingenious diagrams of belief and unbelief. It is not too much to say that in this one volume is epitomized much of what sixteenth-century book culture had to offer.
The sixteenth century placed this compendious and many-sided work directly in the hands of unprecedented numbers of people. Throughout the century and in all European vernaculars there were published at least 5,000 whole or partial editions of the Bible, a total of at least 5 million copies.1
1 Andrew Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 191.