Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation
Martin Luther’s life was never dull, so a boring book about him would be a crime. Thankfully, Andrew Pettegree has produced a barnstormer of a book which not only helps capture the excitement and upheaval of the Reformation years, but does so from a unique angle. Astonishingly, despite the settled assumption of the close relationship between print and the Reformation, there has been little scholarly attention devoted to the Wittenberg printing industry. This is something which Pettegree seeks to correct. As he does so, a picture emerges in which Luther doesn’t just benefit from the rise of the print industry as a spectator, but who deliberately, indeed ‘instinctively’, tailored his writing to benefit from it. In a rebuke to churches who are happy to put out mediocre leaflets, Luther’s frustrations with the work of his local printer made him persuade a better one to set-up shop in Wittenberg – even though he had previously been printing anti-Luther works. In conjunction with Lucas Cranch, court painter in Wittenberg, Luther developed ‘a form of book that was itself a powerful representative of the movement—bold, clear, and recognizably distinct from what had gone before. This was Brand Luther, and its success…lies at the heart of Luther’s success, and of the transforming impact of the Reformation’.
The book doesn’t focus exclusively on print however. Pettegree’s portrayal of the relationship between Luther and Melanchthon, to take just one example, is very instructive. Luther ‘knew himself to be in the presence of a superior intellect’ and often got frustrated with Philip’s timidity, yet the relationship worked partly because both men recognised their limitations and the corresponding strengths of the other. This was encapsulated in a preface Luther wrote for Melanchthon: ‘I am the crude woodsman, who has to clear and make the path. But Master Philip comes after me meticulously and quietly, builds and plants, sows and waters happily, according to the talents God has richly given him’.
Carl Trueman recently called this ‘one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read’. That might be going too far for the average reader, but for fans of Luther, especially those with a bit of an interest in books and print culture, it’s a fascinating read. Pettegree remarks that in the support of Frederick the Wise (a devout Catholic who never left the old faith), Luther was ‘lucky, in this, perhaps above all else’. Even those who would want to be more explicit about divine sovereignty however would find it hard to argue against the evidence that, under God, ‘the medium…was in many respects as important as the message’.
If you want to read one book about the Reformation to mark its five-hundredth annivesary in 2017, you won’t go far wrong with this one.
Thanks to Penguin for a complimentary copy of this book