Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 November 2019
Jean Calvin and Martin Luther never met, a circumstance neither of them had much cause to regret. While Martin Luther fought his existential struggle with the papacy in the 1520s, Calvin was still in receipt of a clerical prebend; the German church was well established before Calvin was forced, with some hesitation, to throw in his lot with the reformers. What both men shared was a clear understanding of the power of print. For Luther, this was an instinctive grasp of pamphleteering, how a direct appeal to a lay audience could neutralise the traditional sources of church power. Calvin’s journey was more studied. His first quest for authorial fame was a painful humiliation, a callow and premature attempt to walk in the footsteps of Erasmus. From the failure of this project the young scholar learned an important lesson, that if the print industry had ever hastened to follow the humanist agenda, those days were long gone. This was now a pragmatic alliance. Printers loved Luther because he made them money; his Catholic opponents struggled with the medium because they did not. Calvin, too, in his studied, thoughtful way, would conquer print, and in the process make of Geneva a second powerhouse of Reformation publishing. But like so much else in his life, this was a pragmatic triumph, an application of his extraordinary intelligence to a necessary task.