Does it make you radical to own a radical book?

guest post by Kat Hill

read Kat’s article in the journal here

Think about a controversial book you own. Even something which just takes a very pointed stance on an issue. It might be political literature, or a piece of polemical historiography or literary criticism. Just because you own the work does it mean that you agree with it? Does it make you a Christian to own the Bible? Or a Nazi to own Mein Kampf? In a similar vein, does reading Anne Widdecomb’s forays into fiction mean you agree with her politics? It might, but not necessarily. We are aware that the connections between objects and belief are rarely so clear cut, or at least we know this when we think about our own book and media collections.

Does it make you radical to own a radical book? This and related questions stimulated my research into Anabaptism in the sixteenth century. Anabaptists, those who rejected infant baptism and embraced adult baptism, have come to epitomise what has been termed the radical Reformation. Movements which fall under this umbrella supposedly went further than mainstream Protestants dared, more radical and more extreme, rejecting more social and cultural conventions. But what were the markers of radicalism? How did you know someone was an Anabaptist? Beliefs and actions are seemingly obvious ways to identify confessional allegiance. But how did the categories of mainstream and radical play out in reality, in social and cultural relations? In particular, I became interested in this question in relation to in the world of print. Books and print fuelled the Reformation but the question of the relationship between print and confessional identities is problematic. Did it make you an Anabaptist to print or buy an Anabaptist work? And did all Anabaptists produce recognisably Anabaptist literature?

The first problem I faced was to map Anabaptist printing patterns, something which would have been very difficult a few years ago. Scholars of early modern Europe have been increasingly spoilt by new toys in the form of online catalogues of printed books. Databases for England, France, and Germany, and other countries, and now the Universal Short Title Catalogue with its added bonus of single leaf broadsheets have opened up a treasure-trove of information, often with links to fully digitised copies of books. In my browser RSS feeds signal the addition of another electronic early modern book to the collections. VD16, the catalogue for sixteenth-century books from German speaking lands, made it possible to map when, where, and how often all Anabaptist authors in the sixteenth century published.

The actual legwork of searching for names, cataloguing printers and places, and mastering databases was rather dull, but the results were intriguing. My conclusions about Anabaptist printing boiled down to three central, surprising facts. First Anabaptists printed in many places, Augsburg, Strasbourg, and beyond, partaking in a dynamic and widespread book trade. Second they used big name printers, men like Philip Ulhart in Augsburg who owned successful, productive print shops which churned out a variety of material during the Reformation. And third, Anabaptists used the same printers as many of the supposedly mainstream reformers.

Why does any of this matter? To return to the original question: does it make you an Anabaptist to print an Anabaptist work? On the evidence of printing patterns, it would seem not. If we can’t make simplistic assumptions about religious belief and printing patterns, then is there another, more complicated story to be told about how books were printed, marketed, and sold.

Let’s say you own an illustrated translation of Faust. How many people go into making the work? The original author of course, a translator, an editor, a copy-editor, a type-setter, an artist, amongst others. Whilst the structures of the early modern book market were not quite the same, similar dynamics were at work. Anabaptists themselves had often worked as proof-readers and translators and were well-connected to widespread networks which provided avenues for publication. Ludwig Hӓtzer for example had lived with the Augsburg printer Silvan Otmar and turned to him to print a controversial work in 1525, even relying on Otmar to publish biblical commentaries in Augsburg after Hӓtzer himself had been expelled from the city. Printing was a business of people and personal relationships, the reality of which often crossed more obvious confessional boundaries.

Just as the workings of the production process complicate our view of the radical Reformation, so does the issue of selling, marketing, and reception. Anabaptist works came in all shapes and sizes – some were polemical pieces, but there were also translations or biblical commentaries, songs and hymns which appealed to a broader market. Ludwig Hӓtzer and Hans Denck’s translations of the Old Testament Prophets were lumped together with Luther’s New Testament translations in a conglomerate bible, printed by Peter Schӧffer in 1529, clearly aimed to fill a gap in the market in the absence of a complete Lutheran biblical translation. Even controversial disputes between reformers had a market which could transcend neat confessional lines. Everyone likes a fight, and since the Reformation grew out of a theological argument which turned into a public debate, it is not surprising that publicised disputes between many reformers, like that between Ulrich Zwingli and the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, found an audience.

The last query which arose from my work was this: if Anabaptists were so hated and feared, why didn’t the authorities crack down and censor their attempts to print? Economic and practical issues complicated censorship. Crippling big print houses might damage or upset a profitable trade, whilst also meaning that printers upon whom the authorities too relied might shut up shop. Moreover identifying Anabaptist works was not always straightforward. Ulhart’s copy of a radical Hans Hut work did not name the author and used the same decorative border for this pamphlet and for a work by Zwingli, in itself a copy of a Lucas Cranach design; whether this blurring of authorship was by chance or design remains up for debate. But such cases remind us that in reality early modern censorship did not operate simply on the basis of religious difference but dealt with practical and economic considerations, as well as concerns about what constituted a radical work or how it could be identified.

When we approach radicalism in the early Reformation from the point of view of the functional dynamics of print, we get a picture that differs from the traditional narrative of mainstream and radical. What we see is a dynamic, fluid world of exchange where who you knew was important and where material objects like books were not just vehicles for confessional positions, but embodied the complex reality of intellectual, personal, and cultural exchange in the Reformation era.

read the full article here

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