The Protestant Reformation in the 15th century was devastating for the catholic church because it broke its exclusive hold over Christendom and ended up leading to the diverse branches of today. Due to the overspending on monuments, selling of indulgences, and the promoting of family members to valuable offices, the church made itself vulnerable to criticisms. Martin Luther and his 95 theses, referred to as the Disposition on the Power of Indulgences, brought these actions to light and eventually led to the schism that changed Europe. The Renaissance Popes saw this as a challenge to their authority. At any other time, Luther would have just been labeled a heretic and executed. However, one thing allowed him to become immortalized in the minds of the public: Johaness Gutenberg and The printing press.

The press introduced the era of mass media and communication which changed the power structure of Europe. It broke the hold that the aristocracy had over literacy, allowing the poorer dregs of society access to education and creating the middle class.The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities. The invention of the printing press removed control of written material from the Catholic Church and made it difficult for the church to inhibit the spread of what it regarded as heretical ideas.

I am the Anti-Doctor, a timelord that has traveled back in time to the 14th century. I have chosen the beginning of the Renaissance era to warn the Pope of the schism and alter the timeline. Eliminating Guttenberg would not stop the reformation, as someone else will simply come along to invent the printing press sooner or later. For the corrupt church to continue its decadence in peace, the influence of the printing press must be curtailed and prevented from spreading. What measures should the catholic church take to ensure this?

  • $\begingroup$ Curious question. You're right, the church could delay invention of the printing press, but not stop it. One reason proposed for the RCC continuing mass in Latin was additional control (since most people weren't trained in Latin). Other arguments are that the church controlled the human perception of sexuality to maintain a patriarchical power base. But could anything have stopped the reformation and maintained RCC power? Probably not. Totalitarianism breeds the desire for freedom. The only way to hold the status quo is for crowd-control tech to advance faster than crowd size. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ Great question. I'm going to agree with @Separatrix and say that the solution is for the Catholic Church to embrace and control printing. But it will probably only delay the inevitable. Though that might be enough for the Church. $\endgroup$
    – Cyn
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ "Exclusive hold over Christendom": as a member of one of several European nations in which the Orthodox have always greatly outnumbered Catholics (and even more so in the 15th century) I strongly suspect that the querent has no idea of what they are talking about. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ I'd also like to note that monastery scribes did a huge lot of all book copying and writing before book press was invented. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ Surely a better option would be to use Future Knowledge to present yourself as a Prophet, and kick-start the Counter-Reformation early enough that the Catholic Church's response to Martin Luther's 95 theses is "We finished fixing those last month - nice catch though. Want a job making sure no one backslides?" $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 13:10

7 Answers 7

  • [The] exclusive hold over Christendom of the Catholic Church in the 15th century:

    The Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians and Russians would beg to forcefully disagree.

  • The hold that the aristocracy had over literacy:

    That's ... strange. The aristocracy had never ever ever had a hold over literacy. There were many more literate professionals (= lawyers, medical doctors, architects), merchants and tradesmen than aristocrats, by several orders of magnitude. Not to mention clerics, of course.

  • "Guttenberg:"

    His name was Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg. One single "t".

  • "The invention of the printing press removed control of written material from the Catholic Church:"

    The Catholic Church never had control of written material. Well, maybe, a little, in the High Middle Ages; but even in those dark times the (Eastern) Roman Empire and the Arabs did not bother to ask the Catholic Church about what books ought to be copied. And don't forget the Jews; they had their own copy shops, and most definitely did not care about the opinion of the bishop of Rome.

Ah, and Johannes Gutenberg was not the only inventor dreaming of movable type: in the Netherlands, Laurens Coster had come upon the same idea roughly at the same time.

Seriously speaking, by the 15th century the temporal (= political, administrative, economic and military) power of the Catholic Church had been reduced to a strip of territory in central Italy, plus a number of Princely Bishoprics in the Germanies. England and France were definitely not controlled by the Catholic Church in any meaningful way; Spain had a more cosy relationship with the Supreme Pontiff, but even in Spain the Crown did not allow any kind of direct interference by the Church. In the Germanies the extreme political fragmentation, and the unstoppable rise of the Free Cities, assured that Gutenberg would have found a place to practice his trade.

The Church had already lost political control over western Europe, even if we assume (counterfactually) that it ever had it.

So the answer is...

There is nothing the Catholic Church could have done in the 15th, or even in the 14th, century. All they could have done is to move the birthplace of the movable type from Mainz somewhere else; maybe to Hamburg, maybe to Amsterdam, maybe to Paris, maybe to London. Maybe instead of a Latin Bible, the first book printed with movable type would have been a Hebrew Bible. But movable type was an idea whose time had come, and trying to stop the tide of technological progress is seldom successful.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Pretty much this. I really doubt the printing press had anything to do with the religion wars of the XVIth century. There were a lot of germanic princes who wanted to rebel against the central authority, and only an alibi was needed. Religious reform was better than most. Martin Luther was still alive and the protestant churches he contributed to create were every bit as corrupt as the Catholic Church he denounced. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 8:38

By not being so blatantly corrupt

Unfortunately they'd taken it too far and been too obvious, a reformation was coming. If they hadn't been so greedy in the preceding decades then there wouldn't have been the external pressure for reformation.

A certain level of cleaning of house, a little subtlety in their actions, some attempt at PR perhaps even using the printing press, and then maybe it could have been kept going for another generation. But as it was their corruption and decadence was being rubbed in people's faces.

All in all, a little common sense and some basic precautions would have helped.

Of course that's not what you want

You want to keep being exactly so corrupt and you've realised you can't actually prevent the printing press. So don't fight the press, take control of it.

Once again this comes down to PR. What you need to do is invent fake news and character assassination a few decades early. It took people a while to get used to the idea of cheap distribution of information. Going into the past as an anti-Doctor gives you an attitude advantage of understanding how to leverage this new tool that's centuries ahead of its time. Let the news that goes out be your news. There is no corruption, this is the will of god as expressed through his representatives on Earth, and his representatives on Earth should not suffer as others do. It is god's will that they should live as princes, and your duty to provide for that.

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    $\begingroup$ Side note: actually coming back in time and telling the Pope that would be likely to have him thinking of you... more or less like he thought of Martin Luther. After all, Martin Luther himself was essentially trying to tell the Catholic Church just that, at least initially. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ @BenBarden, absolutely, it's already a couple of centuries too late to stop the rot, a revolution was in order and all it needed was a trigger. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ The Church kinda did try this, and it didn't work. The publishers were simply printing more Protestant material than Catholic. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ Not a viable long-term plan. It's one thing for one Pope to decide not to be corrupt, maybe difficult even for him, but certainly impossible to determine that every subsequent Pope will also be pure as the driven snow. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe, I didn't suggest they shouldn't be corrupt, I suggested they shouldn't rub people's faces in it. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 14:06

Inventing fake news and other negativity early is one good approach. Another is to delegitimize the press before it comes about. The Catholic leaders have a few decades to develop and start spreading legends of machines that say stuff that sounds divine (the first printed book will be a bible, after all) but is actually the work of Satan -- much like what the church teaches about the snake in the garden.

Don't be too specific; a good legend is vague enough to serve multiple purposes. Eventually your church is going to want to fight radio, television, and the Internet. Having a long tradition of Satan distorting the truth and attacking vulnerable people will make it easier to point to the printing press and say "yes, like that -- but we're here to protect you with the actual truth of what God says in the bible".

The church will not be able to completely neutralize the press, any more than it could neutralize science that conflicted with church doctrine, but you can make things harder by planting the seeds of distrust before the press ever shows up. When it arrives is too late; only the extreme faithful will follow if you react against a new thing without a solid basis in tradition. This is why most people laugh at churches' attacks on Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, and the like. You've got to use your time-travel advantage to plant seeds early; fortunately, you've arrived a century before the press, so you have time to do that.


Just what does this church want to preserve?

  • The unity of Christianity is an Europe-centric viewpoint. There was the Orthodox church in Russia and the eastern Mediterranean. Constantinople only fell in the 15th century.
  • Some clerics were exercising temporal power as prince-bishops. Stripping them of this temporal power and the trappings which go with it would have left a dangerous vacuum.

So they probably want unity of the church in Europe and business almost as usual for the church leaders.

  • Get more flexible on doctrine in order to preserve spiritual unity? It would be an oversimplification to say that Henry VIII seceded from Rome only because he wanted to re-marry, but his personal desires played a role.
  • Would it have been possible to establish a proactive censorship which controls the printing presses? The inquisition was initially reactive and concerned with doctrinal error by clerics. Put a monk next to each typesetter who watches in realtime.
  • Get monastries into the printing business and produce lots (relatively speaking) of high-quality publications directed at the educated laity.

It can't and won't. The church is the ultimate mass media consumer. It's entire purpose is to reach out and bring people closer to God. Mass media opens up an entire new world of effective outreach.


The only way I can think to suppress the printing press is to render it useless. This would probably also not possible as it would need the entire educated population to learn a new form of writing that would be based on something that could not be achieved by movable type. In addition to the historical efforts the Church was making to suppress the press, the first and easiest to implement would be the total control of all education. This was already to some extent the case for the most part in Europe. Next the introduction of the new system of writing maybe based on colour context pictographs or 3D writing such as cuneiform or that had to be written on both sides of the edge of something such as Ogham. To get this new system to be the dominant form some benefit would need to be attached to it greater than just a free education, perhaps better or higher social or spiritual status, lower taxes, access to public services. The same could be denied to those unable to read or write the new form. I don't think this would work, for centuries the English tried, using all manner of schemes and incentives, to stamp out the Welsh language to no effect


Uh, the way they actually did?

The catholic church held back development in Europe for centuries by monopolising knowledge down to the level of who could read and write. For hundreds of years the only books you could find where in monasteries, and the only learnt men available in any quantity where priests.

The first printed book in history that we know for sure about is from 868 AD and was obviously not printed by Gutenberg, but in China. They also invented moveable type (11th century). When Gutenberg followed 300 years later, it is telling that the first book he printed was the bible.

So in summary, the church did stop mass media from spreading, for hundreds of years.


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