Mocking Pope And Preacher

Popular Propaganda In The Age Of Reformation


  • Christopher Carlsmith University of Massachusetts, Lowell



As we enter the twenty-first century, students increasingly rely upon visual imagery for their understanding of past (and present) events. My students can quote confidently from "Troy," "Alexander," "Amistad," and "JFK" to illustrate their knowledge of Classical Greek or American life, even as they struggle to memorize a basic chronology or analyze a written document. Although we might bemoan the rise of television, video games, and "McNewspapers" that favor style over substance, such reliance upon visual information is hardly unique to our era. Editorial cartoons, posters, and pamphlets for centuries have simplified complex ideas or debates into recognizable "image bytes." Similarly, in earlier times, Roman bas-reliefs, Byzantine icons, medieval stained glass, and Renaissance frescoes conveyed intricate theological and political concepts to a largely illiterate population. Textual sources remain fundamental to the study of history, but teaching students to "read" visual primary sources can provoke their curiosity and enhance their understanding of complex issues. In addition to printed documents (i.e., maps, cartoons, engravings), visual primary sources might include sculpture, paintings, numismatics, architectural designs, and so forth. Because coins, cartoons, and buildings were often designed for mass viewing, analysis of visual primary sources not only teaches students a new skill but also allows us to view historical developments as they were presented to non-elite men and women.

Nowhere is the impact of visual imagery more evident than in the religious conflict of sixteenth-century Europe. Protestants and Catholics alike produced thousands of images designed to glorify their own position and demonize their opponents. Fueled by the invention of the printing press and inexpensive paper, printers and preachers could produce broadsheets and pamphlets that even day laborers and widows could afford. This explosion of "popular" propaganda might or might not represent an accurate sampling of popular opinion in the sixteenth century. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to accurately interpret what Everyman (and Everywoman) believed five hundred years ago, particularly about a topic at once as personal and as universal as salvation. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the plethora of cheap, accessible images fundamentally transformed the transmission of ideas. In the same way that television and the Internet revolutionized (and democratized) the acquisition of information in recent decades, pamphlets with simple line drawings expanded the distribution of new concepts more broadly.


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How to Cite

Carlsmith, Christopher. 2006. “Mocking Pope And Preacher: Popular Propaganda In The Age Of Reformation”. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods 31 (1):3-18.