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The Significance of Social Communication Processes on War and Peace: Media Hype in the 16th Century

Printing, the Reformation, and wars: Historian Prof. Gabriele Haug-Moritz is studying the significance of the 16th century’s new media in her project at the Freiburg Institute For Advanced Studies (FRIAS) of the University of Freiburg.


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Media Hype in the 16th century: The people read out loud - on market squares and in front of churches. (Foto: © FotoMike1976 /


The new media boom is by no means unique to our own day and age. “The phenomenon was already evident in the 16th century,” reports Gabriele Haug-Moritz. And innovations in media were closely interconnected with rapid changes in societal conditions just as they are today. Just as globalization and its consequences are intimately intertwined with the new possibilities of electronic communication today, the new print media were closely associated with the new theologies of reformers like Martin Luther or Huldrych Zwingli in the 16th century,“ explains the historian. Luther used the technology of printing, which Johannes Gutenberg had invented only decades before, to disseminate his ideas, leading to the Reformation. In the aftermath, Protestant towns and rulers formed the Schmalkaldic League in 1531, which understood itself as a defensive alliance against the religious policies of the Catholic emperor Charles V.

  • The Significance of Pamphlets

The tension between the Protestants in the empire and the emperor came to a head in the Schmalkaldic War (1546/47), and this time the common people were kept informed of developments with the help of small pamphlets known in German as “Flugschriften”. “Our knowledge of the role the pamphlets played in the contemporary media ensemble is still very unsatisfactory,” says the researcher. But as she points out, one central aspect of the phenomenon is characteristic for European history in the 16th and 17th centuries: the close link between religious dissent, unrest, and media change. “The wars become media events and are an expression as well as the cause of media change,” says Gabriele Haug-Moritz.

  • Research Project at FRIAS

The historian, professor for “general history of the modern period” at the Karl-Franzen University in Graz, Austria, is conducting a research project at FRIAS on the role of new media in the Schmalkaldic War as well as the First French War of Religion (1562/63), both of which lasted only one year, and their significance for societal communication processes on war and peace. The extent to which the Schmalkaldic War was covered in the print media was previously unknown. Not until the dramatic ascendancy of the Internet as (among other things) a scientific information medium was it, according to Haug-Moritz, possible to address the research issues raised by this phenomenon more systematically using the new possibilities of electronic searching.


  • Media Hype in the Schmalkaldic War

“The communicative impact of the Schmalkaldic War in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which lasted almost exactly one year, may be described from the perspective of media history as hype, ”concludes the historian. 500,000 pamphlets were printed and sold within the space of just less than twelve months. “Printing production was governed by free-market mechanisms,” explains the researcher, “and that means that only printers who correctly appraised society’s communication needs were able to stay in business.” This makes the pamphlets an extremely important source for studying how people understood their own age. One of the best selling titles was “A Prayer for the Elector of Saxony, ”one of the main protagonists of the war. Not only was this pamphlet translated into Czech, but in 1546/47 alone it reached a phenomenal 15 editions. The printers were all located in cities with Protestant rulers, some of them members of the Schmalkaldic League. The view of things advocated in the pamphlet was correspondingly pro-Schmalkalic League and anti-emperor. What Gabriele Haug-Moritz finds particularly fascinating is how this new technology was able to establish itself in a society in which people traditionally exchanged their views on current political issues face to face. The interesting answer is that the people read out loud — on market squares, in front of churches.

  • Language More Important Than Images

Moreover, the commonly held assumption that images were particularly significant in those times is incorrect. “People communicated on this war using language,” stresses the researcher. “It was the great age of rhetoric, and the authors of the pamphlets, most of them theologians, lawyers, and humanistic scholars, relied on the persuasive force of language and lived — this also an interesting parallel to our own times — in the belief that they could shape reality with words.”


  • The Situation in Neighboring France

This opinion was also held in France, although the situation there was completely different in the first half of the 16th century. The Reformation did not have a widespread impact on the country for many years. It was only in small circles meeting in secret that these new ideas were discussed. But then the unexpected death of the French king Henry II (1559) ushered in a decades-long phase of weakness in the monarchy in which the conflict between two fractions at the court in Paris, the House of Guise and the House of Bourbon, the latter a collateral line of the royal family, flared up again and again due to confessional issues. In March 1562 this power struggle led to the First French War of Religion, which was to be followed by seven more by 1598. As in Central Europe, the violent escalation of the confessional conflict in France went hand in hand with the printing of pamphlets. ”But contrary to what is often assumed, it wasn’t the Huguenots who used the printing press. Rather, it was especially the underage French king and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, who attempted to consolidate their rule with printed material,” reports Gabriele Haug-Moritz. They passed well over 300 laws in 1562 alone and explained them in pamphlets. Many of them addressed the conflict directly and were meant to illustrate that France was still in possession of that which it seemed so clear had been lost in the years following 1559 — the king as guarantor of public order. As the historian demonstrates, this function of printing in conflict, so different from that in the Holy Roman Empire, highlights a decisive point: “Media and processes of media change influence processes of perception in society, but they way in which they do so is always also a representation of power structures in society. Yesterday just as today.“

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Haug Moritz

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Haug-Moritz

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Haug-Moritz was an external senior fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) of the University of Freiburg from October 2009 to September 2010. During her stay in Freiburg she investigated the significance of the 16th century’s new media as part of her research project “Religious Dissent, War, and Media Change in the German Empire and 16th Century France.” Haug-Moritz has served since 2004 as professor for general history of the modern period at the Karl- Franzen University in Graz, Austria.


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