The Disorder of Things: Politics and The Printing Press in The Early Reformation (1517-1526)

The Disorder of Things: Politics and The Printing Press in The Early Reformation (1517-1526)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wrote this essay as a term paper for a graduate-level history class back in 2005. It would form the basis for my master’s thesis. (I will upload that later this year.) Despite its obscure subject matter – Martin Luther’s “Mooncalf” pamphlet – the political, religious, and technological aspects surrounding the pamphlet are still relevant today. Like our current poisoned, divisive, and sanctimonious environment, early modern Germany dealt with sectarian turmoil, a fragile electoral-based political system, and an emergent Christian nationalism. Amid this chaos (and exploiting it) were cheap and easily reproducible means of communication. We live in an era of weaponized social media, but religious conflict helped weaponize the printing press. The more things change, etc.

Additionally, the structure of the essay has not been altered, except in the case of overlong paragraphs. Those have been broken up in aid of readability.

Introduction: Geopolitics, Monstrosity, and Technology

“Literature is not innocent” – Georges Bataille1

Printed documents have a magical quality surrounding them. The magical quality originates from their power, transferable from commodity to reader, exciting the intellect and emotions. Some documents are innocuous, others radiate with a toxic glow undimmed by time, location, or culture. This is the case with the short document known as “The Mooncalf.” Originally published in 1523, while the Reformation was still in embryo, it depicted two monstrous animals, the Pope-ass and the Mooncalf. With short one line descriptions for each, the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder illustrated the work, under the guidance of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.

The work was nothing short of revolutionary in the broadest sense of the term. Because demonically deformed animals represented the papacy and monastic orders, it signaled to the subjects of the Holy Roman Empire that the status quo must be overturned. During this time period, works such as “The Mooncalf” were not uncommon. These works characterized the ecclesiastic hierarchy of the Catholic Church was seen as demons, animals, monstrosities, and abominations, and Catholic works characterized Luther as an agent of Satan.

In order to comprehend this short, strange document, the political situation of the Holy Roman Empire will be examined. Unlike other monarchies at the time, the Holy Roman Empire’s advantageous geographic position, isolated from Ottoman invaders, made it possible for dissent to exist without being violently crushed. The Holy Roman Empire also had the elector system, whereby seven princes (three archbishops and four nobles) elected the Emperor. Although non-hereditary in theory, by the sixteenth century, the Hapsburgs had become a longstanding dynasty, controlling the imperial throne for hundreds of years. When Lutheranism increased in its popularity, especially among the princes, the Holy Roman Empire faced a constitutional crisis. Could a prince revolt against the Emperor? Was the Emperor’s rule absolute or shared among the electors? Can a Christian subject revolt if the cause is legitimated through Scripture? These questions threatened to unravel the power accumulated over the centuries by the Hapsburgs and their aristocratic allies.

The momentous events have made historians eager to label and divide the events into major epochs. Labeling has simultaneously clarified and obscured these decades. There is The Reformation and The Renaissance as well as Lutherans and later the Reformed (followers of John Calvin). Trouble also situated itself in the arbitrariness of historical genres. Are events taking place in the Holy Roman Empire religious or national history? Either route presents pitfalls and blind spots, allegiances and generalizations. Can the Holy Roman Empire even be considered Germany? It is difficult to say, although, in comparison, Italy was nothing more than a collection of independent states with The Papal States in the center. It is imperative to avoid the major labels (Renaissance, Reformation) and get beneath the layers of history to bedrock buried under the totalizing histories and the over-determined personalities (especially in the case of Martin Luther).

Because of its material cheapness and sensationalist imagery, “The Mooncalf” pamphlet has not been discussed at length. “The Mooncalf” has been mentioned in works primarily on the subjects of monstrosity, printing, and popular culture. It has never appeared in any biographies of Luther and has rarely appeared in histories of the Reformation. Histories of the Reformation are serious affairs, full of heroes, martyrs, and the metanarrative of the triumph of religious freedom. “The Mooncalf” is rarely mentioned either because it subverts the genre’s conventions of scope or seriousness. The lurid appearance and exaggerated descriptions of the monsters would come across as an anomaly. It would be unfit to place it into the stream of history. Either too small or too weird to merit mention.2

This paper seeks to investigate and explore the political and technological aspects of the document and how they link up with the popular culture of the time. Popular culture in the Holy Roman Empire will be explored, especially with the simultaneous development of mock carnivals and the woodcut. The mock carnivals were amateur performances that scoffed at the established Catholic order, functioning in much the same way as the polemic literature. The woodcut became a vehicle for visual representation in printed material, but also became the perfect tool for propaganda. Beneath the comedic performances and printed monstrous representations, the underlying threat of disorder lay in wait. Animal symbolism, its aesthetics and the semiotics, along with the important concept of Lutheran self-identity, will be not be investigated here due to size constraints.

Getting Mentioned: A Brief Historiography of “The Mooncalf”

In 1523 Johann Rhau-Grunenberg of Wittenberg published a pamphlet entitled “Deuttung der czwo grewliche(n) Figuren Bapstesels czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Freyburg ynn Meysszen funden.”3 The authors were Philipp Melanchthon and Martin Luther, with illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder.4 Because of its sensational illustrations and harsh anti-Catholic rhetoric, it has remained a footnote in Reformation histories and the biographies of Lutheran theologians. Only in recent years, with more academics focusing on popular culture and monstrosity, has “The Mooncalf” been given more attention. Prior to these examinations, the three-page pamphlet has had a history of only being mentioned.

Preserved Smith wrote the first major investigation in a 1914 paper simply entitled “The Mooncalf.”5 Smith gives a detailed background of the discoveries of the two monstrous animals. One of his bolder assertions was that “The Mooncalf” pamphlet parodied the genre of monstrous interpretation, a practice common at the time. He later explains the publishing history of the pamphlet and later translations, including the French (1557)6 and the English (1579)7 versions. To this day, there have not been any more academic papers solely devoted to “The Mooncalf.”

The rest of the academic literature mentions “The Mooncalf” obliquely, usually because the subject matter indirectly touches upon certain characteristics that make the little pamphlet relevant, whether it is its production (therefore relevant to the subject of printing and woodcuts), its imagery (the subject of monstrosity), or its authorship (the subject of The Reformation). Depending on the author’s specialty, the discourse surrounding the pamphlet changes.

The first examination of “The Mooncalf” in the last two decades occurred in 1981 with the publication of the article “Unnatural Conceptions.”8 Unlike Smith’s article, which primarily focuses on the publishing history and linguistic roots of the word, Daston and Park investigate the issue of monstrosity in early modern Europe. The article explains the origins of the monsters and Luther “as a mediator between more popular and learned culture.”9 They also mention a Catholic version of the Pope-Ass from 1567, detailed in Pierre Boaistau’s book Histoires prodigieuses … augementees les precedentes impressions, de douze histories.

While they focus on the production of cheap pamphlets for propagandistic purposes, they also place the Mooncalf and Pope-ass within the larger tradition of prodigy literature. They speak of the great and the little traditions. The little tradition means the recent development of the cheap broadside. The great tradition was the tradition of learned “philological treatises produced in the context of Latin humanism, the most elite of cultures.”10 Smith’s work, published in the journal Modern Philology, can be seen as the last remnant of the great tradition of the learned philological treatise on monstrosity. It would be seventeen years before Daston and Park would revisit the topic of monstrosity and “The Mooncalf.”

In 1987 “The Mooncalf” was explored in the context of popular culture.11 Scribner devotes two pages to recounting the history of “The Mooncalf,” touching upon a similar history that can be found in Smith and Daston and Park. His research yields the history of “The Papal Ass” and its link to the political vilification of Pope Alexander VI. The involvement of the Bohemian Brethren allowed the monstrous image to be transported back to Germany. Scribner’s nomenclature appears nationalistic, calling the Holy Roman Empire Germany and the collection of peninsular states Italy. Since the discourse is based on the ideas of popular culture, the political precision becomes less clear.

Marie Annette Le Duc wrote a master’s thesis on visual persuasion during the Reformation.12 Again, there is a retelling of the origins of the creatures and a cursory publication history, mentioning a sensational recycling of the Papal-ass image in 1545. Instead of focusing on the image’s monstrosity, the thesis has its focus on the woodcut itself, especially as an instrument of popular persuasion. The thesis is more in line with Scribner’s work, which is cited, regarding the use of mass-produced works for political purposes.

Daston and Park revisited the topic of monstrosity with their 1998 book Wonders and the Order of Nature. In the chapter entitled “Monsters: A Case Study,” the pair collaborated in exploring monstrosity in early modern Europe. In the chapter, they compare “The Pope-ass” with the Ravenna monster. The Ravenna monster (1502, 1506), like “The Pope-ass”, was “portrayed as a composite, each element of its monstrous body pointing to a particular sin.”13 The book sought to explore the differences between the wondrous, the miraculous, and the monstrous. Each of these types of phenomena was explored individually, from the medieval period to the Age of Enlightenment. This broad scope provided an open field with numerous examples, thus broadening their focus from “Unnatural Conceptions.”

In their case study of monstrosity, they examined it in three permutations: monsters as prodigies, monsters as sport, and monsters as error. A major discursive shift occurred during these centuries. The monster originated as an entity that manifested an ominous future for a community because of its physical deformity. Later, especially during the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, monsters were displayed as curiosities, some even becoming court favorites. With the development of science, most notably in the eighteenth century, this specialized knowledge created a negative discourse of monstrosity. The positivity of prophecy in a physical form had been transformed into the negativity of Nature in error.14 While the philosophical shift seems radical, the shift appears as degrees of the Same. A prophetic physicality and an error of Nature assume a Platonic ideal, either in regards to an afterlife or the natural world. Both interpretations illustrate that monstrosity became a disruption, both of society and of an orderly Nature.

Peter Matheson focuses on the Mooncalf as an example of a demonic nightmare made real, “that the core of reality had been perverted, the genetic stock of creation, as it were, distorted. Monstrosities walked the earth.”15 Unlike the others, Matheson included the original painting, by an unknown artist, of the Mooncalf.16 Because of the disruptive nature of monstrosity, Matheson asserts that this changed people’s conception of reality.

The subjectivities given to the pamphlet by the various perspectives, ranging from issues technological to the monstrous to the semiotic, have made “The Mooncalf” a disruptive document. Unlike other treatments of printed material, this sensational polemic fractures any attempt to construct a totalizing history. Because it is a little known document, causalities become difficult to establish. Although direct consequences of its publication may be hard to determine, the different histories have linked the document to various relevant aspects of Reformation society. Because the majority of the works merely mention the pamphlet, the unique document gets drowned out amidst the other examples. Since it is nearly impossible to establish a sustainable “truth” about “The Mooncalf,” future examinations of Reformation-era polemic should focus on becoming part of an amorphous, multivocal canon of literature. Because of the small amount of literature available regarding this specific polemic, linkages between works, disciplines, and theories should be established.

The Holy Roman Empire: Politics, Religion, and Society

“The agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire” – Voltaire, Essai sur les Moeurs [1756]

Because of the Holy Roman Empire’s unique geopolitical situation, the Reformation became a successful religious revolt against the established order of the Catholic Church. In the sixteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire faced a constitutional crisis. With the rise in popularity of Lutheranism in the 1520s and its results on the loyalties of the four non-ecclesiastical electors, the potential for the end of Hapsburg rule became imminent. In less than a decade since Martin Luther’s initial complaint about indulgences, southern Germany erupted into what would become the Peasant’s War of 1525-1526. The Lutheran justification for revolt will be explored alongside the cheap broadsides that characterized the monastic orders as corrupt and the pope as Anti-Christ. Issues as diverse as theological interpretation and constitutional powers jostle alongside rapidly produced polemical writing meant to sensationalize and literally demonize the opposition. Since politics, religion, and society are so highly intertwined in the Holy Roman Empire, they have become entangled in a muddy bog of misinformation, periodization, and hagiography, it is vital to clarify what was at stake for the Holy Roman Empire, princes, religious groups, and the peasantry.

The Elector System

In 1356 Emperor Charles IV established the process of election with the Golden Bull, papal approval has never been mentioned.17 In two hundred years, from the mid-thirteenth- to the mid-fifteenth-century, only five Holy Roman Emperors chose to be crowned by the Pope. The relationship with Rome was emphasized by the title originating with Emperor Frederick III: ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German people.’18 Because of this ambivalent attitude towards Roman obedience and its central location, this made debate and conversation about religious issues easier than in other monarchies like Spain and the states of the Italian peninsula, both of which faced potential attack from the Ottoman Turks and the wrath of the Inquisition.

In Luther’s early years, the noble alliances he formed in the divided duchy of Saxony proved to be highly advantageous. Luther taught in Wittenberg at the new university, in ‘Ernestine’ Saxony, since 1511. Saxony itself bad been divided between the two branches of the Wettin dynasty since 1485. Duke Georg ruled Albertine, or Ducal, Saxony and would remain one of Luther’s longstanding enemies until Georg’s death in 1539. The other part of Saxony was called ‘Ernestine’ Saxony, ruled by the cultured Friedrich the Wise. Unlike Georg, Friedrich would become an ally to Luther as well as a patron of the arts, supporting such artists as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Friedrich was also an Elector, which gave him much more power than most nobles. Because of his status, Friedrich and six others (three noble, three ecclesiastic), elected the Holy Roman Emperor.19 When the Reformation became more politically dangerous, Luther would be thankful for having such politically powerful allies.

The Constitution in Flux

In the 1520s, as printing presses churned out anti-Catholic polemic, the Holy Roman Empire found itself in a state of flux. Because the new religious movement of Luther reached up into the loyalties of the nobility, the issue of rebellion came to the forefront. Even though Luther had reformation of a corrupted Catholic hierarchy in mind, he had to make political decisions that would eventually influence the behaviors of the lowly peasants, the princes, and even the Emperor. The constant, incremental positioning of Luther reconfigures the characterization of the Reformation as a principally religious movement. Luther’s interpretation of Scripture to justify or condemn revolt, either by peasants or by Lutheran princes, made the Reformation a primarily political movement. The heavily political situations Luther confronted made him into a theologian-diplomat of sorts.

Shoenberger summarizes the disconnect between Luther’s volcanic criticism of his opponents and his more moderate, even conservative, attitude towards his noble supporters. She asserts:

Thus, despite the revolutionary individualistic overtones of his theology, with its proclamation of the priesthood of all believers, the validity of the individual conscience, and the church as a community of all the faithful, Luther did not wish to lose the support of the Protestant princes by arousing fears of a general popular rebellion.20

As a critic of iconoclasm and as a proponent of passive resistance, especially for peasant subjects, Luther staked out a political middle ground.21 This middle ground also manifested itself in Luther’s opinions regarding the Eucharist.22

The Wittenberg disturbances of 1521 and the later Peasant’s War would harden his opinions and “deepened … [his] extreme personal fear of disorder.”23 Because of this fear, he advocated more power to the state, in hopes of curbing the power of the Church.24 “In the Empire, God-given authority was multilayered, and it might be seen as just as much residing in its princes as in its Emperor.”25 Although a strong state would be instrumental in checking the corruptions of the Catholic Church, the blurry divisions of power made the political situation complicated and delicate.

In 1521 Luther communicated with Philip, the Landgrave of Hesse, regarding the justifications to resist the Emperor. Through these communications, there developed the notion of the limited monarchy.26 Philip expressed the thought that the Emperor’s power had to be shared with the princes. But Luther also thought that the Electors owed their allegiance to the Emperor “[U]nless he were formally deposed by the Electors.”27

The conflict between limited monarchy and absolutism would play itself in the ensuing decades. The constitutional crisis also gave Lutheran theologians an open space to discuss important political issues in a relatively safe atmosphere. Since the Reformation was about breaking away from Roman obedience, the question of obedience to temporal political authority also forced theologians, princes, and peasants to think critically about the distribution of noble and imperial power.

The Printing Press: The Word of God in the Deus ex machina

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – The Gospel According to St. John 1:1 (KJV)


A common metanarrative in history is with technological change there follows societal change. Prior to more recent studies on the printing press, especially Elisabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, a common myth had been formulated within Reformation histories. This mythology revolved around the printing press. In simplistic fashion, it was assumed that the printing press caused the Reformation. If only the causality were that simple.

Eisenstein posits another, more complex, interrelationship based not on technological determinism. Hadfield remarks:

Rather, printing exaggerated and distorted a number of already existing intellectual phenomena. … In short, what Eisenstein’s analysis highlights is that the rising hegemony of printing did not precipitate a transformation [but] altered the relations of intellectual production forever, serving to magnify some questions and problems as others faded into the background.28

Eisenstein also adds another fold in the analysis when she declares “In addition to the industrialization of printing trades and new divisions of intellectual labor, problems of censorship and ideology also need to be brought into the picture.”29 The difficulties in power relations in the Holy Roman Empire during the Lutheran printing boom of the 1520s had printers working in concert with Lutheran polemicists. Since power relations remained undefined, the boundaries of power for the Emperor, princes, and subjects became increasingly blurry.

The “large cluster of relatively simultaneous, closely interrelated changes” coincided with “the advent of printing … in urban centers beyond the Rhineland in the 1460s.”30 The Lutheran printing boom was still sixty years into the future. Although the transition from scribal culture to print culture was a gradual, complex process, this section will be devoted to detailing print production and consumption, specifically in the 1520s during the height of the boom. Data will be analyzed on what subjects of the Holy Roman Empire produced and how they consumed these print commodities. Power relations will be explored, both in the consumption of political pamphlets and the Bible itself. These patterns of consumption also inform issues of who holds the power to interpret the Word of God. An overly Marxist interpretation of technological determinism will be avoided. Instead the technology’s relationship with the content and participatory exchanges (discussions, mock carnivals, violence) that characterize a field of discourse, rather than simply the means of production, will be analyzed.


The data on text production in 1520s Germany is relatively sparse. In the span of sixty years since Gutenberg’s Bible, cities became flooded with books of every sort. Anti-Lutheran and anti-Catholic polemics, usually in the form of a pamphlet or a broadside, also figured into the mélange of printed material readily available.

With new technology came a new technological class, secular and learned, in charge of its operations. The new secular class of printers tended to have loyalties to the Lutheran confession. Cole illustrates this with his description of how Luther himself wanted to keep close ties with the printing class.31 This is an example of what Daston and Park characterize as “Luther the publicist.” Luther, in the increasingly technological age, had to maintain control over his production. Unlike a monastic scrivener copying a single text over a long period of time, the flood of printed material required a keen eye and a sense of quality control over a mass produced commodity. As he struck up relationships with printers to publish learned theological treatises, he also had to contend with the quickly produced polemical pamphlets. Regardless of the amount of actual text (treatises were text-heavy, polemics, not so much), both were weapons produced for one use: to openly criticize the Catholic hierarchy. Thus, the Reformation was not only a political movement, based on the allegiances of princes and interpreting their power, it was also a movement based on information warfare. Those who controlled the latest technology, and possessed the genius to use it effectively, maintained a strategic advantage. While Catholics had had the printing press for more than a half-century, the printing boom illustrates the Lutheran ability to exploit it.32

With the arrival of faster, cheaper production, the concept of the book changed. Prior to the printing press, a book was an individually commissioned object. In the Renaissance the book became a mass produced commodity. The transition from object to commodity can be seen in production rates. Instead of 45 scribes taking two years to produce 200 texts, three men could produce 200 copies of a single text in 100 days. This is a 720% increase in the rate of production.33

With the increased speed of production, the printing press could be harnessed as a tool of propaganda. “At the beginning of the sixteenth century the German woodcut reached the peak of its artistic development, combining simplicity of line with sophistication of expression, making it ideal for propaganda purposes.”34 Simplicity is the key word here. The simplicity was also seen in books. Gone were the days of elaborate letters and ornate, gold leaf covered pages. Space became minimized into a field of black letters on a white page. Hand coloring could have been done on more expensive editions, but minimal decorations adorned cheaper editions.

Because of aesthetic cheapness (or crudity), speed in production increased. Crofts associates this printing boom with the pivotal years of the Reformation, during the 1520s, when “The Mooncalf” and many other sensational pamphlets flooded the market.35 In his analysis of Reformation-era printing, Crofts analyzed books published from 1521 to 1545.36 The data collected reveals a startling contrast between Catholic and Reformed (Lutheran, Calvinist, and other sects) print production. From 1521 to 1525 works by Reformers comprised 46% of the total books published.

In another chart, Crofts compares the number of works and the percentage of works in German by Reformers and Catholics.37,38 From 1521 to 1523 Reformed production trends upwards as Catholic works trend downwards. At no point does Catholic production reach 100 works per year. In 1523, the year of publication for “The Mooncalf” pamphlet, Reformed production reached a staggering 4.22:1. As Luther debated theology among the learned, the market overflowed with Reformed literature.39 A subject of The Holy Roman was four times more likely to purchase or see Lutheran books than Catholic books. During the mid-1520s, print production fell precipitously, with Reformed works falling from 145 titles per year (1525) to 66 titles per year (1526). This represents a decline of 45%. The depredations of the Peasant’s War can account for this steep decline in production.

A principle of modern capitalism asserts that when more commodities are in the market, the commodities will become cheaper because of their increased availability. It is hard to know for sure whether this principle is correct in the 1520s, an era still economically dependent on barter and with an emergent mercantilist economy facilitated by the discovery of the New World. Even if prices were prohibitive to the farmer, peasant, or laborer, the means of communicating the message were manifold. How subjects communicated the message, along with alternative venues for voicing disagreement will be explored more fully in the next section: Consumption.


  1. Information Warfare

“War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means.” – Karl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (On War) [1833]

“It is best to win without fighting” – Sun-tzu, The Art of War. Planning a Siege

The early Reformation ended with two very real wars, the Knight’s War and the Peasant’s War. Prior to these outbreaks of violence, information had been the field of battle for the Reformation. Those who could out-produce their opponent had the upper hand to a populace aching for spiritual reform and political stability. The printing boom offered a plethora of material to a widening audience of readers. Those who could read passed along the information to others who could not in a variety of venues, including discussion groups, taverns, and through kinship. The consumption of printed material also did not occur in a vacuum. Apart from the aforementioned venues, mock carnivals, parodying the pomp and splendor of Catholic festivals, achieved a parallel function of criticizing the established order. Where the pamphlet sensationalized through print and woodcuts, mock carnivals sensationalized through performance.

The other major field of battle was fought over The Word itself. Both the priesthood and the monastic orders monopolized the Bible, long the treasured storehouse of information and source of moral guidance. Only a few could read and translate the Latin of the ‘Vulgate.’ In the sixteenth century, with translations by Erasmus, Luther, and others, the information came into the hands of unschooled subjects. Unlike theologians, they lacked the training to “properly interpret” the Bible. Vernacular translations posed a threat to the established religious order, but also represented a political threat to Catholic princes. Even when a vernacular translation existed, they existed only as unimaginative translations of the ‘Vulgate.’

With pamphlets and the Bible in the vernacular, the Catholic Church became associated with spiritual abomination. This decadent and corrupted hierarchy of wealthy ecclesiasts and their loyal nobles became targets of destruction. Luther’s stance on rebellion helped prevent an immediate overthrow of the nobility and iconoclasm, but the pamphlets, including “The Mooncalf,” had a different message: Destroy that which is corrupt in the eyes of God.

  1. Literacy

During the Reformation, the ability to read and write was far from being universal. “Reading ability was doubtless very mixed, in many areas consisting perhaps of the ability to stumble through a few lines of text. … Reading aloud was common.”40

Because reading still occupied a privileged place, “The Mooncalf” pamphlet possessed the right combination of minimal text and maximal sensationalist visuals.41 Apart from its rather long, didactic title, the images were presented with one line of text. The text above the animals was minimal to the point of abstraction. Instead of sentences, the descriptions of the animals were nothing more than fragments. Distraction would not last long when a reader came across the pamphlet. Instead of lingering over text-heavy descriptions, the reader could briefly glance at the description, and then concentrate attention on the horrifying images.

Since reading aloud was common, the reader, depending on the level of expertise attained or self-appointed, could explain the pamphlet in more detail to friends, family, or passersby. Melanchthon provided an elaborate explanation of the pamphlet, but in the bustle and commotion of everyday life, readers could either base their interpretations on Biblical readings or merely improvise.42

  1. Other Venues of Discontent

“They openly declare that their ends can be obtained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” – Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

The spoken word’s common currency gave readers a chance to converse with fellow subjects in many different venues. Along with the variety of venues where they could voice their discontent, the mock processional became a public form of criticism.

Throughout the popular culture of the Reformation, rumor became a major influence of public opinion.43 Society was not too radically different from today, with communities discussing the latest scandal in both private and public venues. Rumor provided the engine to stage mock carnivals and produce polemical pamphlets.

Three venues dominate Reformation popular culture for the transmission of information. These venues include: discussion circles and inns, the workplace, and kinship.44 These areas of everyday life allowed for explanation, interpretation, and argument to occur. The pamphlet, like “The Mooncalf,” could be endlessly debated or become the subject of a theological lecture. A father could use it as a teaching tool for his wife and children. It could also be used as an object lesson for overthrowing the apparatus of the status quo, either political or religious or both.

A non-violent method of toppling the established order was in the mock carnival. Scribner describes the mock carnival as an “alternative mass medium. … because it also seeks to expose and degrade the values and style of official culture, [and] to submit it to observability.”45 The mock carnivals parodied a number of topics including: the Pope, bishops, indulgences, Luther, relics, and mockery of religious ceremonies.46 When working in concert with inflammatory pamphlets, the potential for violence was increased, but the mockery and festive nature of the carnivals defused the latent violence.

The mock carnival and the pamphlet illustrate the concept of the verkehrte Welt (insane / upside-down world) with its “inversions in nature, in signs and wonders in the heavens, in rains of blood or of crosses, and in the birth of monsters.”47 The Catholic hierarchy “was thus not merely a mistake or a delusion, it was the very antithesis of true belief.”48 When the subjects of the Holy Roman Empire saw the Pope as a hideous monster, the monastic orders as a deformed calf, and a mock bishop wearing a straw cloak with a fish basket for his mitre,49 the world did indeed seem upside down. What course of action should be taken to remedy this situation? In 1525 in Swabia and Thuringia and other areas in southern Germany, peasants revolted.

  1. The Bible

Another potential weapon of information warfare was the Bible itself. With the development of Bibles written in the vernacular, the power relations once again shifted. Instead of a priest or a monk reading and interpreting it for someone, a person could read or interpret the text individually. The political implications surrounding Biblical translation were immense and extremely threatening.

The Bible has had a long and storied history, including conflicts over certain editions. The ‘Vulgate’ (meaning ‘popular’) “would comprise a complicated series of multiple texts, mostly based on the works of Jerome.”50 Jerome revised the Bible in the 380s. Gutenberg’s Latin Bible was an edition of the ‘Vulgate.’ The language of the Bible, although a universal language, remained a hidden, secret language to those who consumed it, the Catholic congregations.

This secret language, unknown to an illiterate or semi-literate population, had to be deciphered and its meanings unlocked by an ecclesiastical elite. This was an intellectual elite, united in their mutual understanding and similar interpretations of this text. Because of its hidden status and the Church’s political power among the various medieval realms, there lay in wait, like the serpent tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit, the potential both for enlightenment and corruption. The ecclesiasts and rulers legitimizing their rule by divine right could easily abuse the power they possessed. Because the subjects had no knowledge of Latin, unless they were associated with a more learned trade, they had no knowledge that corruption took place. Luther, as a member of the ecclesiastical elite, exposed the corruptions of the institution in German with his “Ninety-Five Theses” and a volcanic writing style, prodigious and inflammatory.

During the Diet of Worms, where the Catholic hierarchy offered him a chance to recant, Luther defended himself before Emperor Charles V. “Speaking first in German and then in Latin, Luther argued that he could not disavow his work unless he proved wrong either by Scripture or by logic.”51 This struck a serious blow to the Catholic Church, since it built up a series of institutions based on tradition. Luther was declared a heretic.

Although the ‘Vulgate’ was used as the official version of the Bible for the Catholic Church, humanist scholars had been researching “the original texts of the Old and New Testaments.”52 Both Luther and the Catholic humanist Erasmus had their own versions of a vernacular Bible. Erasmus published his version of the New Testament in Basle in 1516. It “became the first edition of the New Testament in its original language.”53 The next year Luther would write “The Ninety-Five Theses.”

Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into German. De Hamel states that “As many as 18 editions … were published between 1466 and 1522.”54 The previous translation were “adapted directly and uncritically from the Vulgate.”55 In September 1522 Luther’s version of the New Testament appeared, having been closely edited with Philipp Melanchthon.56 One year later, with the help of Lucas Cranach the Elder as illustrator, would create “The Mooncalf” pamphlet. Luther’s “extreme ability to write clearly and articulately” was an advantage when he translated the New Testament, abandoning the “stilted sentences” of the translated ‘Vulgate.’57 Luther’s clarity and verbal precision would be distilled and concentrated into a weapon of propaganda, the pamphlet.

  1. The Pamphlet as Weapon

The pamphlet, like the haiku, represents information at its most economical and compact. The combination of compact form and a flooded market could potentially tip the scales of the audience’s loyalties. While pamphlets were not tabulated in Croft’s analysis, one can imagine, because of their small size, cheapness, and sensationalism, that many could have been produced. The small size could also facilitate rapid production, since it was a lot smaller than an edition of the New Testament.

“The Mooncalf” focuses all of the political and religious controversies into a microscopic ferocity. The ease and speed of consumption is evident because there are only three pages of the pamphlet. Punchy fragments are the only text, excluding the long title. Because of the sensational imagery, the pamphlet had potential to agitate the reader or listener. The imagery was coded, but overt blatantly anti-Catholic propaganda. The politically dangerous atmosphere of the Holy Roman Empire, coupled with a frustrated Pope and clergy, could make possession of this pamphlet dangerous. Luckily the pamphlet was small, therefore easy to conceal.

All of these characteristics made the pamphlet, to reiterate Scribner, the perfect tool for propaganda. The causality of “The Mooncalf” pamphlet’s publication and the Peasant’s War is difficult to assess. Part of the reason is the near constant violence in the lives of people. Wittenberg had disturbances, followed shortly thereafter by the Knight’s War in the Palatine. Then, a year later, the Peasant’s War broke out, first as a reasoned political protest and plea for more rights, then ending in carnage and slaughter.58

Conclusion: The Reformation Reconsidered

The Reformation poses many challenges to the historian, an era brimming with complexities, political and technological. After the complexities have become disentangled and the personalities humanized, the Reformation appears as a different kind of movement than is commonly believed. The yearning for change and an end to corruption in the Catholic Church became the impetus for the Reformation, but Luther, the verbal firebrand, developed into less of a revolutionary and more of a diplomat. His diplomacy, utilizing his knowledge of Scripture and his clarity of expression, aided princes who sought an increase in their share of power with the Emperor, while tempering the passions of subjects craving to overthrow the verkehrte Welt and establish a purified Christian regime. Luther’s political machinations eventually failed as the Peasant’s War broke out, prompting him to say:

Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly and openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish as a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.59

This volcanic outpouring of verbal ferocity reflects a change in Luther’s attitude toward violence. Instead of pleading for moderation and passive resistance, he called for a violent quashing of the revolt he found to be against God and Scripture. The violent destruction of the Peasant’s War foreshadows a larger, longer, more destructive conflict, the Thirty Year’s War, which pitted Lutheran and Catholic realms against each other.

The political scene became exacerbated with the Lutheran exploitation of the printing press and the pamphlet used in tandem with mock carnivals. Unlike Luther’s pleas for moderation and passive resistance, the pamphlets and mock carnivals viciously ridiculed the established order, equating the Papacy and monastic orders as agents of the Devil. Catholic forces also used pamphlets to mock Luther (see title page, “The Seven-headed Luther”60), but the Lutherans flooded the market, out-producing their opponents year after year.

This paper illustrates the political complexities of the Holy Roman Empire’s elector system and power relations in a state of flux. It also illustrates the Lutheran exploitation of the relatively new technology of the printing press. The pamphlet became the most succinct and sensational weapon that both sides used against each other. But even with the political and technological perspectives illustrated, more perspectives need investigation for “The Mooncalf” to be fully contextualized.

These perspectives include the issue of Lutheran self-identity. How did Lutherans define themselves when the movement was not even a decade old when “The Mooncalf” appeared? Was Reformation of the Catholic Church still possible, or even desired? Or was the desire to overthrow the verkehrte Welt too overwhelming and appealing?

Another perspective includes aesthetics and interpretation. Both the Pope-ass and the Mooncalf exist as semiotic clusters, accumulating representations in tight economical packages. The semiotic clusters must be unpacked and analyzed. The career of Lucas Cranach the Elder should be discussed especially in regards to the confessional allegiances of his clientele. While Cranach was a friend of Luther and had patronage from a Luther-friendly prince, he also painted works for Catholic clients.

Tiersymbolik (animal symbolism) should also be discussed more fully, since the SLSA includes it as a separate category in their archive. The practice of animal symbolism and its history from the medieval period should be analyzed in greater detail.

These multiple perspectives, ranging from monstrosity to technology to politics to aesthetics, exemplify the wide range of discourses surrounding “The Mooncalf.” This paper represents a prelude to a longer, more in-depth excavation that seeks to dig beneath periodization, hagiography, and disinformation.

Hier stehe ich; ich kann nich anders; Gott helfe mich; Amen.”61



Appendix A

Popes, Holy Roman Emperors, and Electors62


1492-1503 Alexander VI (1431-1503)

1503 Pius III (1439-1503)

  1. Julius II (1453-1513)
  2. Leo X (1475-1521)
  3. Adrian VI (1459-1523)
  4. Clement VII (1478-1534)

Holy Roman Emperors

House of Hapsburg

  1. Frederick III
  2. Maximilian I2
  3. Charles V (crowned emperor 1530)

Electors of Brandenburg

House of Hohenzollern

  1. Joachim I, Nestor

Electors of Saxony

House of Wettin

  1. Frederick III, the Wise
  2. John the Constant (brother)

Electors of the Palatine

House of Wittelsbach

  1. Louis V, the Pacific

Kingdom of Bohemia

House of Poland

  1. Vladislav II
  2. Louis (son; co-regent 1509)

House of Hapsburg

  1. Ferdinand I

Appendix B

The Seven Electors of the Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Emperor was decided by “the doctrine of election” in which “only seven of the great princes had a right to participate.”64 The electors were divided between spiritual and temporal leaders. The electors were:


Location Title

The Archbishop of Mainz Arch-Chancellor of Germany

The Archbishop of Trier Arch-Chancellor of Gaul

The Archbishop of Cologne Arch-Chancellor of Italy


Location Title

King of Bohemia Imperial Cupbearer

The Count Palatine of the Rhine Imperial Seneschal

The Duke of Saxony Imperial Marshal

The Margrave of Brandenburg Imperial Chamberlain

Appendix C



The Gutenberg Bible is printed in Mainz. The two-volume, large format Latin Bible has a print run of approximately 180 copies.


The Conquest of Naples occurs as the Italian state system collapses. King Charles VIII of France begins “Italian Wars.”


Pope-ass allegedly found dead in the Tiber River.


Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” his critique of the Catholic ecclesiastic hierarchy and the practice of indulgences. The common beginning of what would become The Reformation.


Luther denies obedience to the Pope and formally breaks with Rome.


The Wittenberg disturbances.

The Diet of Worms. Luther condemned as a heretic.


Alleged birth of the ‘Monk-calf’ in Freiburg.

Alleged birth of the ‘Parson-calf’ in Landsberg.

Publication of “The Mooncalf” pamphlet.


The Knight’s War


The Peasant’s War

Appendix D: “The Mooncalf” pamphlet, 152366

Appendix E: Analysis of Carnival Incidents67

Works Cited


Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt (Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt) [online archive], abbrev. SLSA

Books and Journal Articles

Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil, translated by Alastair Hamilton. New York: Marion Boyars, 2001.

Cole, Richard. “Reformation Printers: Unsung Heroes,” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, No. 3 (1984), 328 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed Sept. 16, 2005

Crofts, Richard. “Printing, Reform, and the Catholic Reformation in Germany (1521-1545),” Sixteenth Century Journal 16 No. 2 (1985), 370 [journal on-line]; Internet; available from http://links.jstor/org/sici?sici=3061-0160%28198523%2916%3A3%3C369%3APRATCR%3B2-%23; accessed on Sept. 16, 2005.

Daston, Lorraine and Katherine Park. “Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France and England.” Past and Present 92 (1981), 20-54 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed on July 15, 2005.

———————————————. Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.

De Hamel, Christian. The Book. A History of the Bible. New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001.

Eisenstein, Elisabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, Volumes I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Hadfield, Andrew. “National and International Knowledge: The Limits of The Histories of Nations” in Rhodes, Neil, and Jonathan Sawday, editors. The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print. Eds. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kinder, Hermann and Werner Hilgemann. The Anchor Atlas of World History: Volume I: From the Stone Age to the Eve of the French Revolution, translated by Ernest A. Menze. New York: Anchor Books, 1974.

Le Duc, Marie Annette. “The Art of Persuasion: The Role of Woodcuts During the Era of The Reformation.” Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1994.

Lehmann, Helmut T., general editor. Luther’s Works, Vol. 46. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967

Louda, Jiŕí (Tables) and Michael Maclagan (Text). Lines of Succession: Heraldry of the Royal Families of Europe. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2002.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Matheson, Peter. The Imaginative World of the Reformation. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2001.

Rhodes, Neil, and Jonathan Sawday, editors. The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print. Eds. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kinder, Hermann and Werner Hilgemann. The Anchor Atlas of World History: Volume I: From the Stone Age to the Eve of the French Revolution, translated by Ernest A. Menze. New York: Anchor Books, 1974.

Lehmann, Helmut T., general editor. Luther’s Works, Vol. 46. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

Morby, John E., Dynasties of the World: A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Rhodes, Neil, and Jonathan Sawday, editors. The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print. Eds. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Shoenberger, Cynthia Grant. “Luther and the Justifiability of Resistance to Legitimate Authority.” Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 1 (1979), 5 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed Oct. 30, 2005.

Scribner, R. W. Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany. London: The Hambledon Press, 1987.

Smith, Preserved. “The Mooncalf.” Modern Philology 11, no. 3 (1914): 355-361 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed on July 19, 2005.

Wetterau, Bruce. The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990.

1 Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil, translated by Alastair Hamilton (New York: Marion Boyars, 2001), x.

2 The excavation will eventually focus on animal imagery (Tiersymbolik) in polemical writings of the early Reformation (1517-1525), from Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” to the outbreak of the Peasant’s War. The use of animal imagery itself becomes an open field of discourse between the two opponents. As Luther debated with Catholic officials about the particulars of theology, the animal imagery worked at a lower level, appealing to the peasantry and urban subjects. This paper will focus on the pamphlet in general and the relations of production with other modes of communication.

3 “A Pair of Dreadful Figures [being] the Pope-donkey from Rome [and] the Monk-calf [that was] found in Freiburg in Meissen” (translation mine). For the sake of brevity, the pamphlet can be called “The Mooncalf.”

4 from Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt (Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt) [online archive], hereafter abbreviated SLSA. The SLSA website has digitized a number of works by Martin Luther, his supporters, and his critics. This website has been invaluable as a researching resource for this paper.

5 Preserved Smith, “The Mooncalf”, Modern Philology 11, no. 3 (1914): 355-361 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed on July 19, 2005.

6 The French version had an unknown but was published by Jean Crespin. Crespin worked in Geneva publishing the works of John Calvin. Smith, 358.

7 The English version was translated from the French version by John Brooke, an academic in Ash-next-Sandwich, and published by East “a well known printer, probably a scion of the Italian house of Este.” Smith, 359.

8 Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, “Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France and England”, Past and Present 92 (1981), 20-54 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed on July 15, 2005.

9 Daston and Park, 26.

10 Daston and Park, 28.

11 R. W. Scribner, Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987), 284-286.

12 Marie Annette Le Duc, “The Art of Persuasion: The Role of Woodcuts During the Era of The Reformation” (master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1994), 84-86.

13 Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998), 178-9.

14 Ibid., 173-214.

15 Peter Matheson, The Imaginative World of the Reformation (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2001), 92.

16 Ibid., 93.

17 Jiŕí Louda (Tables) and Michael Maclagan (Text), Lines of Succession: Heraldry of the Royal Families of Europe (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2002), 179.

18 Louda and Maclagan, 179.

19 Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 116.

20 Cynthia Grant Shoenberger, “Luther and the Justifiability of Resistance to Legitimate Authority”, Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 1 (1979), 5 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed Oct. 30, 2005.

21 Ibid.

22 Luther interpreted the Eucharist as “the presence” of Christ. This is in contrast to the orthodox Catholic belief in transubstantiation (that the Eucharist actually became the body of Christ) and the Calvinist belief that the Communion wafer was nothing more than a symbol of Christ’s body. It should be noted that the concept of “presence” (or “shown forth” [exhibeantur]) became Lutheran dogma in 1540 after Philipp Melanchthon’s revision of the 1530 Augsburg Confession. MacCulloch, 129-30, 228.

23 Shoeberger, 5.

24 Schoenberger, 6.

25 MacColloch, 135.

26 Shoenberger, 8.

27 Ibid., 9.

28 Andrew Hadfield, “National and International Knowledge: The Limits of The Histories of Nations” in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print, eds. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday (New York: Routledge, 2000), 108-9.

29 Elisabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, Volumes I and II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 18-9.

30 Eisenstein, 44.

31 Richard G. Cole, “Reformation Printers: Unsung Heroes,” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, No. 3 (1984), 328 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed Sept. 16, 2005.

32 In more modern times, compare the history of the tractor and the rise of the tank. A tank is nothing more than a tractor with a gun mounted on the top. One can possess a printing press, but one can exploit it with the use of woodcuts, sensational imagery, and short length.

33 Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, “Introduction: Paperworlds: Imagining the Renaissance Computer” in Rhodes and Sawday, 4. The example is not entirely accurate since the scribes made individual books, each existing as a unique object, whereas the printers were reproducing the same book.

34 Scribner, 277-8.

35 Richard A. Crofts, “Printing, Reform, and the Catholic Reformation in Germany (1521-1545),” Sixteenth Century Journal 16 No. 2 (1985), 370 [journal on-line]; Internet; available from http://links.jstor/org/sici?sici=3061-0160%28198523%2916%3A3%3C369%3APRATCR%3B2-%23; accessed on Sept. 16, 2005.

36 Crofts tabulated books listed in the British Museum’s Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in German-Speaking Countries. While it is always difficult to get the full picture of a phenomena, the data collected does reveal some startling revelations about Catholic and Reformed print production.

37 Crofts, 373. Non-Religious WorksWorks by ReformersWorks by CatholicsTotal Works1521-1525291=15%890=46%328=16.9%1936

38 Reformers Catholic  # of Works% in German# of Works% in GermanRatio152112579.774501.69152217685.86940.62.55152324990.45944.14.22152419587.15955.93.31152514582.16726.92.1615266677.350361.32

39 It should be noted that the two major figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther and later John Calvin, were phenomenally prolific writers. The English translation of Luther’s works is 55 volumes. (Curiously, the collected works of Luther does not contain “The Mooncalf” pamphlet and other polemical work, even though he was credited in its publication. A partial explanation, or excuse, is that “The Mooncalf” is primarily visual, whereas Luther’s collected works are a textual shrine to his words.)

40 Scribner, 277.

41 See Appendix D.

42 Scribner, 285.

43 Ibid., 63.

44 Scribner, 56, 58-9.

45 Ibid., 93.

46 Ibid., 79. See Appendix E.

47 Ibid., 99.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid., 74.

50 Christian De Hamel, The Book. A History of the Bible (New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001), 18-21.

51 Stephen Jay Gould, “The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague”, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), 253.

52 De Hamel, 218.

53 Ibid., 226.

54 Ibid., 228.

55 Ibid., 229.

56 Ibid., 230.

57 De Hamel, 230.

58 MacCulloch, 157-63.

59 Luther’s Works, Vol. 46, ed. Robert C. Schultz, general ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, 1525”, tr. Charles m. Jacobs, revised by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 50.

60 Source: SLSA.

61 “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me; Amen.” Translated by Stephen Jay Gould. Luther in Gould, 253.

62 Bruce Wetterau, The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990), 312; John E. Morby, Dynasties of the World: A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 123-4, 137, 138, 141, 156.

63 “Uncrowned by the pope, Maximilian proclaimed himself ‘Roman emperor elect’ (1508); this was thenceforth the monarch’s strict legal title[.]” Morby, 124

64 Louda and Maclagan, 178.

65 Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, The Anchor Atlas of World History: Volume I: From the Stone Age to the Eve of the French Revolution, translated by Ernest A. Menze (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), 191, 217, 219, 230-1; Wetterau, 315, 479; regarding “Pope-ass and Moon-calf” histories, see Historiography. De Hamel, 192.

66 Source: SLSA

67 Source: Scribner, 79.

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