Next autumn marks the half-millennium since an event now so mythic that some have doubted it ever took place. If it did, the date was 31 October 1517. The main actor belonged to a religious Order known as the Hermits of Saint Augustine, Martin Luther by name, though he also tried out a hybrid Greek/Latin polish for his surname by dressing it up as ‘Eleutherius’, ‘the freed man’. This kind of personal rebranding was a humanist affectation then common among university lecturers; some of them, like his colleague in the University of Wittenberg Philip Melanchthon (‘Black-Earth’, from his original surname, Schwarzerdt), kept this name for the rest of their lives. In Dr Luther’s case, though, the new surname was also a devout play on words, reflecting a sense of the liberation which came from his action that day in October when he nailed an announcement of proposed points for a university discussion to a church door in Wittenberg, a muddy three-street town on the north German plain. The pinball machine of history then sent the consequences flying round the continent, and we are still observing the ricochets. Within fifty years of this apparently trivial action (Luther’s seminar never took place), people were calling the unintended consequences ‘the Reformation’. Modern inhabitants of the United Kingdom will be familiar with the Law of Unintended Consequences.
By the time the Reformation had become a familiar term, a second word had become embedded in the consciousness of Europeans: ‘Protestant’. At first it was simply a label for a group of German political leaders who had made an official ‘protest’ against legislation that sought to suppress the growing Lutheran movement; by the mid-16th century, however, the term was being used of anyone who felt themselves part of the Reformation. Many would contrast ‘Protestant’ with another Latin/Greek hybrid, ‘Catholic’, meaning ‘universal’, which had been appropriated by the Western or Latin Church in Europe. This church, against which Luther found himself rebelling in 1517, was a centuries-old organisation led by a bishop in Rome, one of the few bishops in the Christian world still formally styling himself by an ancient title once common for a Christian church leader, Papa (‘father’). After the initial shock of the schism Luther precipitated, the Roman papacy rallied much of European Christianity back to itself, and continued calling itself the Catholic Church, thus ignoring a multitude of other ancient Christian churches in Eastern Europe and beyond which might equally have regarded themselves as part of a universal Christianity – let alone the newly minted Protestants in Europe. ‘Catholicism’ has never been a simple usage, because Protestants were adamant that there was nothing Catholic about a church they saw as deviating from a primitive simplicity to which Luther had drawn attention in his revolutionary message. Protestants in their own eyes were the true Catholics. The pope’s followers were at best ‘Roman Catholics’, or at worst dupes of a devilish caricature of Jesus the Saviour of the World: an Italian ‘Vicar of Christ’ with papal tiara, sitting on the Seven Hills of Rome, who personified the Antichrist condemned in Holy Scripture.
Exploring words and their meanings shows what a complicated business this Reformation was. ‘Protestants’ did not succeed as they had hoped in replacing the pope’s church with a single body which could be described as Catholic, and their divisions were partly caused by Luther’s opinionated obstinacy: he was never one to avoid a stand-up row about points of principle. Plenty of Protestants rejoice in a self-consciously Lutheran tradition, especially Germans and Scandinavians, and they will be the ones most readily celebrating 1517, remembering 31 October as Reformation Day, a big annual event in Lutheran Germany. Very many Lutherans of German and Scandinavian descent throughout the world and especially in the United States will also get excited about the half-millennium, and it is no coincidence that two of the three new Luther biographies are aimed at the US market. Andrew Pettegree’s publishers seem to be trying to appeal to it through one of those inordinately long subtitles beginning with ‘How …’ beloved of the serious-minded American reading public. Maybe, however, it’s one of Pettegree’s little jokes, because subtitles were a great feature of 16th-century book production, and that – it turns out – is very relevant to Pettegree’s theme.
There will be less excitement in Britain. This isn’t just because England and Scotland are becoming among the most secular-minded regions of Europe: the historical reason is that our respective national Protestantisms sprang from a non-Lutheran variety of Protestant faith, which to avoid carrying simply a negative ‘not-Luther’ description, adopted for itself the description ‘Reformed’. Reformed Protestantism is often called Calvinism, after the French Reformer John Calvin, but that is a mistake; the Reformed had many and varied leaders and thinkers of significance, and one of the things that annoyed the Reformed about Lutheranism was its idolisation of the single figure of Martin Luther.
There was good reason for Reformed suspicions. Eisleben, the little town in Saxony where Luther was born in 1483 or 1484, turned in the course of the 16th century into a centre of Lutheran pilgrimage, styled a ‘New Jerusalem’ by its devotees. Pilgrimage generally involves a saint. Legends developed about Luther’s continuing miraculous power, most strikingly a story which circulated as early as the Diet of Worms in 1521: pictures of the burly Reformer were apparently capable of surviving attempts to burn them. It wasn’t surprising that such portraits did so well in Lutheran communities: hugely multiplied through the medium of print, they could be useful forms of elementary home insurance if pinned to a cottage wall. Joint portraits of the later Luther with his redoubtable wife, the ex-nun Katharina von Bora, were more readily identifiable role-models for married couples than Joseph and the Virgin Mary, and such engravings would have been a blessing to the unimaginative wondering what to give for a wedding present. Every trivial or profound observation of the great man over dinner had been eagerly absorbed and jotted down by guests and household lodgers who were students at Wittenberg, and within a few years of his death, anthologies of these bon mots were being published as Luther’s ‘Table Talk’.
By now, those not much acquainted with the 16th century or the concerns of European Christians may be wondering what all the fuss was about: this babble of words and definitions and excitement about holy images. Behind the Reformation lay the overriding concern of medieval Europe: salvation from eternal death and torment after the physical end of our brief lives on earth. Providing salvation was the business of the Church, the ‘Catholic’ Church, whose complex of institutions and activities centred on promoting that work for all Europeans (with the exception of the anomalous religious community precariously and often grudgingly afforded survival, the Jews). It took a real effort of independent imagination for a European to disbelieve in the all-pervading presence and active energy of God, specifically the Christian God who was both one and three: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Within this Trinity was an eternal conversation between wrath and merciful love. God the Father was angry that humanity, whom he had given a special place in creation, had from its very early days disobeyed him. God’s anger might have consigned all humans to doom, had it not been countered by God’s love. The Son entered historic time in first-century Judea when he was born as Jesus, a Jew, through the work of the Spirit. In Jesus’s awful death by crucifixion on a Roman gallows, rejected and betrayed by his own people, the Jews, the Son saved from the Father’s wrath every individual who believed in his divine mission, and his work of salvation goes on, throughout human history till the end of time.
The sketch I’ve outlined reflects the particular version of the Christian story told by a much more ancient theologian than Luther: the fourth/fifth-century Augustine of Hippo, a Latin speaker who has remained the essential reference point for Western Christian theologians, even when they strongly disagree with him (Greek or Oriental Christians have never bothered much with Augustine). Following a line of argument in the writings of Jesus’s contemporary admirer Paul of Tarsus, who never met Jesus in his earthly life but shaped much subsequent Christian thought, Augustine emphasised that humanity’s disobedience left it helpless before God’s wrath. If God chose to exercise mercy, that was his business; humanity had no cause to object if he decided not to dole out mercy. Humanity played no part in its own salvation: by his sovereign decision, God assigns dying humans either to an eternal life of blessing in heaven or to eternal life as torture in Hell.
This is a stark though depressingly logical version of Christian faith, and Western Christians brooded on how to negotiate its starkness. They borrowed an idea from early in the church’s history, indeed from well before the time of Augustine: God might permit a period of purging after earthly death, which would eventually equip the individual for heaven. ‘Purgatory’ was a comforting notion; it was a place from which there was only one exit, towards heaven. No wonder it had such a successful run as a theological idea in the West. To this notion of purgatory, Western thinkers coupled one of the basic features of Christianity: its feast of love, instituted by Jesus himself in bread and wine, and repeated in Christian worship as a thanksgiving, or ‘Eucharist’. In Western Latin usage, this liturgical drama gained a Latin tag-name, missa (‘sent’ – don’t ask what was being sent, we can’t be certain) or Mass. What could be more powerful than Jesus’s own meal of love and gratitude? The Church of Rome encouraged the idea that the Mass could be used as a mighty act of prayer, focused like the energy of sunlight through a magnifying glass on the task of pushing a soul more quickly through the time of purgatory torment into eternal bliss. That gave the clergy, who enjoyed the exclusive privilege of presiding at the Mass, an awesome responsibility for the happiness of all faithful Christians; and it meant that they also shared in the power of the Mass.
This was the thought-world into which Martin Luther was born. All Christians in the world see the Mass or Eucharist as a vehicle of salvation, but Luther’s Western tradition had come to associate one of its saving roles with mitigating the terrors of purgatory, and had made this association the major bulwark of the church’s power in everyday life. Luther never lost his love for the Mass at the centre of Christian worship – in fact he alienated other Protestants by insisting on one particular way of understanding what it signified – but he lost all respect for the theology of purgatory. It implied, against everything Augustine had said, that you and I as sinful humans can do effective things to get ourselves saved. And Augustine was the patron and founder of Luther’s religious Order.
The Western Church pushed on further than this association between the Mass and purgatory. It effectively said that such were the overflowing merits of Jesus’s death on the Cross that a vast cache of spare merit lay in the custody of the church, and in such circumstances it was only proper and merciful to dispense gobbets of merit to the faithful in order to shorten purgatory pains. In the end, only a few years before Luther was born, the theology of merit had stretched to saying that one could pay hard cash for certified amounts of time of purgatory remission – and not just for oneself, but for other people too, much loved deceased relatives, for instance. Such grants were sold as ‘indulgences’, slips of paper or parchment which by Luther’s time had long been mass-produced, using the new technology of printing. They financed good causes, like building hospitals, bridges or churches. The good causes were irrelevant for Luther, steeped as he had become in reading Augustine in fine new scholarly printed editions, and it was the misuse of indulgences he condemned on 31 October in announcing the seminar that never happened.
If one joins the theological dots, it becomes apparent why Luther’s action was revolutionary. To begin with, he only challenged the power of the institutional church in its very specific claim to dispense merit via indulgences. Despite the size of the indulgence trade, this was a relatively minor branch of theology, and many thoughtful theologians would feel that Luther was merely correcting unfortunate recent developments in it. But the church authorities were worried about the implications for clerical power in general, and bade him hold his peace. Confident that he was only repeating Augustinian truth, Luther refused. The issue shifted from salvation to obedience – not in his eyes, but theirs. So the clash escalated into full defiance, as both parties in the argument talked past each other. Appalled at such blindness in the pope and his hierarchy, Luther began considering their wider claims against his reading of Christian truth in the Bible, and found a web of falsehood based on the clergy’s general misuse of its status. It was not that the clergy were failing to fulfil their job description by laziness or inefficiency: the job description was wrong. Obedience became impossible. The wider world then took sides.
Western civilisation groans under the burden of Luther biographies, and this trio will not be the last as Luther enthusiasm swells in the approach to 2017. Those of us who have had to read many of them over the years will sigh at ploughing through the same story again, with its great set-pieces and (in an attempt to liven the tale) the various predictable arguments about historical clichés: Luther’s theological breakthrough (when was it? Was he on the loo?); the theses hammered to the door (did he do it at all, or do it on a different day?); the Diet of Worms (can Anglophones get past the schoolboy joke? Did he say ‘Here I stand’?) Devils have inkwells thrown at them, or make cameo appearances in majestic Lutheran hymns; Karlstadt moves from top don in Wittenberg to disgraced eccentric in Basel, Katie makes enormous meals, Luther says truly horrible things about Jews. It’s difficult to tell the story to the end without it having a dying fall, since Luther’s last years were not happy, as he found that revolutions are really hard work, and suffered increasingly crushing bouts of ill health. Yet, at the end of it all, it’s worth remembering that out of the clashes and miseries of the Reformation came lasting results which millions see as achievements. A five-hundred-year-old family of Lutheran Churches flourishes worldwide, and nowadays even the pope doesn’t think that Luther was a heretic.
You could argue, then, that it’s still worth having a go at Luther life-writing, and these three biographers all know their Luther. Scott Hendrix is a veteran insider historian from the American Protestant tradition, with the worthy aim of tackling some of the complacent myths all families build up about their founding fathers. His detail can be shaky when he refers to noises off, like the English Reformation, but it’s an efficient performance. Lyndal Roper made her name as analyst of the family in Reformation Germany, and is excellent on Luther’s social context (as she points out, he was not nearly the bluff simple peasant he offered up as one of his default self-presentations). She is a good guide to the ways in which the Reformer rebuilt his friendships and a clerical family as his revolution progressed, though from time to time her speculations on Luther’s deep motivations – struggles with his father prefiguring his struggles with the pope, for instance – return us to the unhelpful attempts to put Luther on the psychoanalyst’s couch which were fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s.
Andrew Pettegree has done something different from conventional biography, which is the reason (necessary disclosure) I supplied a jacket commendation. One niche service he performs is to highlight the best evidence yet that Luther really did nail those theses to the door, carefully arranged on a printed broadsheet in eye-catching groups of propositions. A newish rediscovery of a different printed broadsheet from September 1517 shows that only the previous month, he had done precisely the same thing on another academic topic, so there is every reason to think that he would have repeated the move. But the main theme of the book is more valuable still. Lightly skipping over the usual early-life-and-apprenticeship narrative, Pettegree arrives briskly at 1517 itself, to tackle one of the greatest puzzles of the Luther story, largely ignored by his fellow biographers and indeed by most chroniclers of Luther. Why did that seminar announcement, couched in relatively academic terms, lead to a national sensation within a few weeks? Any modern would-be media don would love to know the formula. It will not do to say – like pious later Lutherans – that the obvious God-given truth of what he said galvanised a waiting public.
Pettegree, a specialist in the history of printing, observes how surprising it was that a middle-aged lecturer who had never published a book should suddenly discover a genius for popular writing. Luther’s combination of direct vernacular style and aesthetic sense created a product which, just at the right moment, hit a newly emerging market: a lay reading public. These were people with a few spare coins and enough facility for reading to use and enjoy printed texts, and maybe read them to friends and neighbours who were not quite as skilful. This was a social media revolution. Printing was nearly a century old in Europe by 1517, but Luther suddenly made it exciting. Polemical printing was as transformative in its effect on Western behaviour as our own experience of Facebook and the rest.
In the 15th century printers had discovered the hard way that what made them assured profits were steady, conventional sellers, like devotional books to be used during the Mass, or administrative pieces of paper like official proclamations, or indulgence templates into which the buyer’s name was written by hand. Now in a few years the publishing industry vastly expanded its range so that one could buy texts full of loudly expressed opinions. Pettegree might have pointed out that there was one recent precedent for the widespread debate and excitement provoked by the new medium of print: in the decade before 1517,European monarchs and churchmen had poured much effort into a publicity campaign to raise popular enthusiasm for international crusades against Ottoman military expansion. Now that same reading public, newly familiar with the idea that printed texts could spur them to action, discovered a different batch of pamphlets on the printer’s stall with a startling and rousing message which, far from being the voice of lawful authority, directly attacked it.
At the heart of Pettegree’s story is Luther’s fruitful alliance with some of Europe’s most accomplished printer-publishers as a way of spreading his message. He sidelined the rather amateurish local press of Johann Rhau-Grunenberg which had previously satisfied Wittenberg’s modest printing needs, and turned the town into a major centre of the European book trade, despite its peripheral position and remoteness from the great European trade routes. One huge incidental asset was the residence in Wittenberg of Lucas Cranach, who got on well with Luther and put the friendship to profitable use. Rather unusually for an artist of genius, Cranach had a gift for entrepreneurship, and he was fascinated by the possibilities of illustration in printed books. It is thanks to him that we have all the standard visual images of the Reformer, from the lean, sternly courageous friar inspired by the Holy Spirit to the patriarchal figure who gave rise to the German proverb ‘as fat as Martin Luther’.
Luther and Cranach between them worked out a brilliant formula for spreading Luther’s message: short pamphlets in vigorous German, but also and crucially, fronted by what looked like deluxe title pages. These title pages were something new for a pamphlet: designed for immediate impact, with intricate decoration conveying its own visual messages, but framing a central compartment in which Luther’s name was prominently displayed, under a snappy headline with a longer subtitle. Only the most expensive books had enjoyed anything like this before. Once Wittenberg imprints showed how well this device sold books, printers the length of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe) seized on the idea.
My favourite Lutheran picture became wildly popular in Germany after the Protestant centenary celebrations of 1617. It claimed to portray an anti-papal dream of the enigmatic Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise, Luther’s crucial patron and protector in his first vulnerable years. The print, with a surrealist fantasy worthy of Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel, transforms Luther’s hammer applied to the Wittenberg door into an enormous pen, whose stem stabs backwards across the picture to pierce the ear of an understandably furious lion (representing the pope of 1517, Leo X) before unceremoniously knocking the papal tiara from the head of the current pope, Paul V. Such images were close allies to the torrent of words emerging from the printing presses, the technology which made the words seem novel, even while assuring the reading public that they were older than anything the contemporary church could offer – for they were the Word of God.
There is a problem of job description that none of the three biographers tackles, but which is far more significant than usually appreciated: was Martin Luther a monk or a friar? Hendrix has a capricious sprinkling of friars, but Roper and Pettegree almost always talk about Luther as a monk. I have brooded on the question for much of a career spent writing on the Reformation, and in the past, with a certain amount of intellectual squirming, I too have come down on the side of Luther as monk. In recent years, my doctoral student Anik Laferrière, studying the Order of Augustinian Eremites of which Luther was a member, has convinced me I was wrong. Luther was a friar, without qualification. Anglophone historians should have been quick to spot this obvious truth, because the common name for Luther’s Order in England was ‘Austin Friars’. Those familiar with the City of London will recognise the placename and the church rebuilt after the Blitz, on the site of the Austin Friars’ principal house in medieval England.
As Luther knew very well, the Austin Friars were particularly self-conscious about their name and status, because there was a completely different and older religious Order with an annoyingly similar name but which behaved much more like a monastic Order than they did: the Augustinian Canons Regular. From the Austin Friars’ early days of foundation in the 13th century, there was constant squabbling between these rival Augustinian corporations as to who was the true heir of Augustine of Hippo. Even though Augustine had no organic connection with either of them, he was the basis of their competing foundation myths. The two orders, predictably, were at their most bitter in contending for possession of the supposed remnants of Augustine’s body in the church of San Pietro in Pavia; it was a matter so serious that the pope had to intervene and award a joint custody arrangement, which never worked well.
Several questions arise. Why have we not noticed that Luther was a friar, not a monk? What is the difference? Why does it matter? First, our blindness has arisen from the fact that Luther is principally the property of Germans, and in German there is no great linguistic distinction between monks and friars. Germans would normally simply call a friar a Mönch just as they would a monk; even when he was named with the precision we expect from Germans, he would be a Bettelmönch (‘begging monk’). Otherwise he would just be a Bruder, which although the German sounds much vaguer than the English word ‘friar’, is exactly the same in meaning: ‘friar’ is simply a mumbled version of the Latin word for brother, frater. It follows from this that Anglophone historians, not finding any great sense of distinction in the works of their German colleagues on Luther, decided not to bother much about the distinction when writing in their own language.
We fortunate Anglophones are given a nudge by the very strong difference between the words ‘monk’ and ‘friar’ that there is something important to attend to here. Monks predate friars, and their name comes from the Greek for ‘single’ or ‘solitary’, not because most monks were hermits, but because their communities were intended to withdraw from the everyday world to concentrate on prayer. To achieve this, they were expected to be self-supporting, relying economically on their own landed estates, to minimise contact with disruptive secularity. The movement which produced the friars in the late 12th century represented a criticism of this expectation and of the separateness of the monastic way of life, which many felt led to laziness and self-indulgence. The new reforming orders of friars made sure they would never be tempted to withdraw in the same way by the simple structural device of forbidding their communities to hold property.
Friars consequently could only survive by begging for their living from the laity (hence Bettelmönch), and that would necessarily bring them into everyday contact with the whole of European lay society. Laypeople would only go on funding friars if they received benefits in return: these spiritual consumer services were principally preaching the Christian message and hearing confessions, but since such services brought the friars much esteem, friary churches also became greatly in demand for intercessory masses in the purgatory industry. Because the friars rapidly became the Western Church’s specialists in preaching, they needed to be intellectually alert and well informed, so they quickly moved to university towns to get the best intellectual training they could, and produced many academic stars before Martin Luther.
That is the importance of defining Luther as a friar. In a mood of deep thankfulness for his deliverance from death in a storm (a very medieval attitude to encountering God’s presence), he had made a sudden choice to enter this particular fraternal service of the church, in a convent of the Augustinian Eremites. He acted against the wishes of his father, who had pointed him to a profitable career as a lawyer (Hans Luther, though cross, came round reasonably quickly, and would have been puzzled by modern efforts to create psychological narratives for his son’s career). Luther’s business in his friar’s vocation was to think, to preach, to argue, to listen to the miseries and anxieties of ordinary folk, and to rejoice with them when God’s good fortune was with them. He was not primarily concerned with the monk’s characteristic mystical search for God beyond the boundaries of the everyday, and after a brief flirtation with the heritage of mystical Christian writing, he effectively sidelined such stuff. Thus he bequeathed to Protestantism a lack of interest in contemplation, and a noise and bustle in worship, which remain besetting problems for Protestant spirituality. Lutheran hymnology, in all its foursquare glory multiplied into Bach’s cantatas and chorale preludes, or the splendours of Lutheran pulpit oratory, are not hospitable to Christian silence. Far more friars than monks turned into campaigning Protestant leaders in the 16th century. It would be worth thinking about the Reformation as a revolution of friars, anguished at the way they had collaborated in the deception of the laity in doling out cheap forgiveness in the confessional, and now determined to make amends by preaching the message of salvation by God’s grace alone.
And finally, one of the most neglected facts about Luther: let me remind you that the Order of friars he joined was the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine. This has a unique distinction among all religious Orders: it was founded by the papacy. The explanation is that the 13th-century church had been caught on the back foot by the swirl of spiritual excitement released as communities of friars formed around powerful personalities such as Dominic or Francis. Church authorities feared loss of control, and heresy. So although the Dominicans and Franciscans and Carmelites coagulated into formal and regulated Orders of friars, many other little groups remained. Successive popes decided that these potentially dangerous remnants were better off forcibly unified. First Pope Innocent IV in 1243 and then Pope Alexander IV in 1255 turned to the memory of Augustine and his brief remarks on community life in order to give their new unified foundation some coherence and identity. This papal foundation proved very useful half a century later, when the Austin Friars battled with the Augustinian Canons Regular for the custody of the body of St Augustine in Pavia. Papal favour remained useful right down to the Reformation, when the English Austin Friars turned confidently to Renaissance popes for support when they were crafting a particularly high-powered indulgence campaign to sell to the faithful in early Tudor England. If Luther knew of this commercial enterprise by his English colleagues, which was still forging ahead while he nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door, we have so far not spotted his reaction to it.
What effect did the memory of the unique papal origins of his Order have on Luther, as he faced the shock of the pope in his own time first ordering him to silence, and then declaring him excommunicate by papal bull in 1520? What was the psychological cost of calling the founder of his Order Antichrist? None of our three authors considers this existential question at the heart of Luther’s revolt. Maybe we do need one more book on Martin Luther after all.