A substantial new look at the life of Martin Luther (1483-1546), published to coincide with the 500-year anniversary of his revolutionary theses.
Refreshingly, Roper (Modern History/Univ. of Oxford; Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany, 2004, etc.) does not take for granted any of the received wisdom from previous scholars regarding the life of this fearless, self-styled prophet. There are numerous biographies of Luther, a fact the author acknowledges in the introduction, but she finds that the long closure of Eastern Germany to scholarship has skewed the interpretation of Lutheranism by emphasizing the Reformation activity in the cities of the south rather than in Luther’s “home social and cultural context,” namely Wittenberg and environs, in Saxony-Anhalt. For example, Roper shows how Luther’s vision narrowed after his release from the Castle of Wartburg, and he attempted to reign in the speeding reforms he put into play while the genie of his revolutionary ideas, so to speak, was out of the bottle. The author examines his close influences and friendships, neglected elsewhere, such as with Andreas Karlstadt (and with many others he fell out with), and his artistic collaboration with Lucas Cranach the Elder, an official painter of Wittenberg who essentially molded the reformer’s public image in his published works. Roper emphasizes how novel, even feminist, his ideas were about marriage and sex, as he had to act as essentially a matchmaker for the nuns who were leaving the convents in response to Reformation ideas. These included the mature, strong-willed Katharina von Bora, who became Luther’s wife and the mother of their children. Roper also shows how uncompromising Luther could be—e.g., in rejecting the humanism of Erasmus; excoriating the peasants who rose up for better treatment during the War of the Peasants of 1524-25; and espousing vehement anti-Semitism.
An engaging, enlightening study of the historical effects of one galvanizing personality.