DP15454 Vernacularization, Knowledge Creation, and Growth: Evidence from the Protestant Reformation

Author(s): Christine Binzel, Andreas Link, Rajesh Ramachandran
Publication Date: November 2020
Date Revised: June 2021
Keyword(s): Inclusive institutions, Language, Long-run development, Protestant Reformation
JEL(s): E02, N13, Z12, Z13
Programme Areas: Macroeconomics and Growth
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=15454

The use of a language in written and formal contexts that is distinct from the varieties used in everyday communication - such as Latin in early modern Europe and Standard Arabic in the Arabic-speaking world - comes with benefits, but also with costs. Drawing on city-level data on books and pamphlets published in Europe between 1451 and 1600, we document that the Protestant Reformation was associated with a sharp rise in religious vernacular printing in Protestant cities, which was soon followed by a rise in vernacular printing outside the religious field and beyond Protestant cities. As a result, by the end of the 16th century, the majority of works were printed in spoken tongues rather than in Latin. This transformation not only allowed broader segments of society to access available knowledge, but also, as we show, to contribute to knowledge production. As a consequence, book content diversified. Finally, we provide evidence that an increase in vernacular printing at the city level is associated with an increase in future city population growth - a proxy for economic development - and in the future birth of notable innovators and creative individuals. In this way, we argue that the vernacularization of printing was an important driver of European dynamism in the early modern period.