Anticipating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Royal Historical Society vice president Pettegree (Modern History/Univ. of St. Andrews; The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, 2014, etc.) offers a cogent and authoritative overview of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and of the burgeoning printing industry that disseminated his ideas.
Railing against clerical corruption, Luther gained renown through his prolific writings. Pettegree contends that Luther “invented a new form of theological writing: short, clear, and direct, speaking not only to his professional peers but to the wider Christian people.” In 1517, when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church—a common place for announcements to the community—he was an unknown monk who had rarely published. His document, harshly critical of the selling of indulgences that duped Christians into believing they could buy salvation, was widely circulated; “thanks to print,” the author contends, “the indulgence controversy” became “a public matter.” Four years later, after publishing prolifically, Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. By the time he died, he was a bestselling author whose works included anti-Semitic (On the Jews and Their Lies) and violently abusive tracts. Pettegree attributes Luther’s fame both to his ideas and—a bit repetitiously—to his shrewd use of publishing. Although he acknowledges that “a large proportion of the population could not read, even in relatively sophisticated urban societies such as the German imperial cities,” readership among the clergy and intelligentsia was enough to warrant massive printings of Luther’s pamphlets, catechisms, and vernacular translation of the Bible. His friend and ally the artist Lucas Cranach designed attractive title pages highlighting Luther’s name, an innovation that contributed to the creation of what Pettegree calls “Brand Luther.”
An informative history of a man of “adamantine strengths and…very human weaknesses” who incited a theological revolution.