The World Took Sides

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Brand 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
  • Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper
    Bodley Head, 577 pp, £30.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 84792 004 1
  • Martin 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.

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’.

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