Martin Luther was already one of the most written about figures in history even before this year’s 500th anniversary. Now we are flooded with new biographies and histories of the Reformation, perhaps in emulation of the overworked printing presses of Luther’s day, but this is a blessing, as historians are still enriching our picture of these events.
One positive of all this new writing is that it draws our attention to the fact that it wasn’t simply Luther’s Reformation. Carlos Eire, in his massive yet engaging history of the two hundred years surrounding Luther (Reformations, Yale Uni Press), argues not only that it is better to speak of Reformations plural but that they were ‘a long time coming’. Luther lit the bonfire others had compiled. Eire puts Luther into the wider context of an old world giving way to a new one, with the discovery of the Americas, a rise in literacy and piety, the new technology of moveable type for printing, and a rise in the power of the city state, all of which, except for America’s discovery, directly accelerated the Reformation.
Andrew Pettegrew prioritises the new printing presses in his book Brand Luther (Penguin) for their part in the success of the Reformation, as they allowed for the brisk dissemination of Luther’s ideas. Luther brought in a new era of writing for the masses, and while Heinz Schilling writes in his biography of Luther (see below) that opponents in Rome were not as slow to catch on as is often said, Luther’s books, written increasingly in the language of the day, sold by the cartloads.
The people were so receptive to the message because, at one level, humanism was creating scepticism of some of the superstitions and traditions of the Church, while refocussing on the Bible itself. At another level, reaction to the noticeable corruption, extravagance and spiritual ignorance of both the Church’s hierarchy and many of its clergy was already leading to grassroots reform and renewal.
Peter Stanford, in his very accessible biography from a Catholic but sympathetic angle (Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident, Hodder), suggests also that although the Council of Trent was supposedly anti-Lutheran, its Counter-Reformation agenda of education for clergy and removal of excesses ended up channelling Luther anyway. Eventually, Vatican II would endorse the worth of the laity as the ‘people of God’, mirroring Luther’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Stanford further suggests that Catholics should be thankful for Luther, and notes that Pope Benedict stated Luther’s idea of grace alone for salvation was essentially correct.
One of the first off the ranks with his biography (Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Yale), Scott Hendrix, as do other biographers, points out the context of Luther’s colleagues, friends and family, and how a man painted as a lone visionary was challenged, moderated and supported by this network. Hendrix also questions Luther’s later view of the life-changing thunderstorm, arguing, not without plausibility, that while the parallels to Saint Paul’s conversion made for a good story, Luther was likely at least contemplating the monastery when he made his vow.
Luther’s personality has been the subject of plenty of hagiography, to be contrasted with the hostile psychoanalytical treatments that were trendy in the later twentieth century. Nowadays there is more balance, sympathy, and overall much admiration. In Lyndall Roper’s biography (Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Random House) and in German historian Heinz Schilling’s comprehensive biography (Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, Oxford), at the pinnacle of the recent biographical heap, is careful consideration of Luther’s upbringing and education, and how the perilousness and superstitions of the Harz region’s mining industry, as well as the general medieval mindset of an ‘enchanted’ world, contributed to Luther’s feelings of being continuously spiritually beset.
These days there is also more awareness of the multidimensionality of Luther’s personality. Stanford argues against the caricature of Luther as ‘depressive, punitive, pious, unbending’. Hendrix notes that contemporaries praised Luther’s patience and listening skills, though he could also be impulsive. Luther had an earthy humour, and was practical and moderate, evidenced in his approving attitude to church images and music. Though when it came to food and beer, perhaps Luther was not moderate enough.
This stands in contrast to the Swiss Reformers, who (even though they also can be unfairly caricatured) tried to create the perfect society on Earth. Luther instead emphasised freedom, which is where he was perhaps at his most radical, even beyond those in the Radical Reformation camp. Luther was realistic about our deficiencies and thought grace, and not more rules, was the answer. Eire notes, however, that it is the Swiss tradition that has ultimately had more influence globally, considering the USA’s history. Eire suggests cheekily that Calvin is responsible for much of the Enlightenment, and atheism and our secular society, because of his emphasis on reason. (Luther was happier to live with paradox and contradiction.)
The legacy of the Reformers, and the history of Protestantism, where, strangely, people of such widely differing beliefs still identify themselves against Catholicism, is explored by Alec Ryrie (Protestants, Collins). He argues that it is the passion of the individual’s relationship with God, without the mediation of human authority, that is the centre of this movement and that its ideas, and, interestingly, its patterns of migration, have created our modern world.
Plenty more books on the Reformation tackle specific areas, including yet more reappraisals of Luther’s theology. In 1517 (Oxford) Peter Marshall explores the reception of the 95 Theses. Unlike, say, the US Declaration of Independence, Luther never intended them to be a revolutionary document. Marshall concludes that the actual nailing was a myth, but contemplates how important they have been in history and legend.
Prominent English Reformation scholar Eamon Duffy’s Reformation Divided (Bloomsbury) reminds us that the Reformation was not confined to the continent, and that in the UK it forged its own distinctive path, both complementary and often conflicting with that of the European Reformation, and that the whole was never straight-forward and predictable.