The World Took Sides

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • BuyBrand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Centre of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Started the Protestant Reformation by Andrew Pettegree
    Penguin, 383 pp, £21.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 59420 496 8
  • BuyMartin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper
    Bodley Head, 577 pp, £30.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 84792 004 1
  • BuyMartin Luther: Visionary Reformer by Scott H. Hendrix
    Yale, 341 pp, £25.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 16669 9

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.

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