Typography I: Heritage

I recently gave a presentation on typography internally at Mighty in the Midwest and to the public at GRDevDay. I want to share it here as well, so I am breaking the material up into sections and repurposing it here. This is the first segment.

Typography I: Heritage

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a man who disappointed his father by becoming a monk and then a priest, rather than embracing a respectable worldly profession. He lived in Saxony (modern Germany) and gradually became disillusioned with his ministry because of attitudes and practices in the Church that he saw as a fall from grace. Principle among his concerns were the sale of indulgences. So, as was the custom for scholarly disputes, he nailed his concerns in the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517.

Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

Luther could not have known at that moment what he would set in motion. The movement this written rant would start spark massive upheavals across Europe. Eventually the church would reform these practices and discontinue the sale of indulgences, however they would not be able to stop continued dissatisfaction and the over-through of Catholic dominance in many nations. Within Luther’s own country a peasant revolt would flare, claiming the lives of thousands and earning his condemnation.

Luther’s frustration would have immense consequences, but he could not have been the first person at odds with the societal and religious order of Europe. Christian monasticism had existed for over a thousand years, giving many people access to written history and sacred texts. Surely Luther could not have been the first to protest. What made the difference this time?

Printing

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Within two months the 95 Theses had spread across Europe. It was reprinted, expanded upon, and remixed everywhere to appeal to people of all classes, including the illiterate. The printing press allowed Luther’s ideas to reach beyond his town and inspire action in others. Technological progression collapsed the distance between people.

95 Theses Reprint

A reprint of the 95 Theses

Christ & the money changers vs priests gathering offerings

A political cartoon contrasting the Biblical story of Christ casting the money changers from the temple with priests collecting payment from peasants.

Previously, knowledge of history, scripture, theology, and philosophy were strictly the domain of the educated. Which meant aristocrats, monarchs, and monks. But with the printing press literacy began to spread throughout society. Suddenly, people could realize that maybe the Bible didn’t say what they had been taught it said, but religion wasn’t the only thing brought into discussion by the advent of widespread printing. The historical writings of the ancient Romans and Greeks exposed alternate forms of government and unchurched philosophy to Enlightenment thinkers. These sea-changes would eventually lead to the establishment of a democratic republic in the United States.

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The Boston Massacre

A broadsheet describing The Boston Massacre, a key historical event leading to the American Revolution. Although the version of events described in the piece were dubious, this is how people throughout the colonies would have learned about it.

The Declaration of Independence

A printing of the Declaration of Independence. Modern Americans are more familiar with the handwritten copy, but most colonists would have seen a printing like this.

Printing has been at the center of every society shift since Martin Luther and typography is at the center of printing. The transmission of ideas projected power in ways that only armies could do before. This is the heavy heritage of typography. In this craft of printers who labored over letters in musty workshops with pulp, hot lead, ink, and heavy machinery we find the seeds of our modern world.

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