A riveting dual biography reveals the social, political, and religious tensions roiling 16th-century Europe.
Massing (Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq, 2004, etc.), a former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, focuses on the well-known rivalry between the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1467-1536) and the German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) to create a majestic, deeply informed portrait of their tempestuous times. Both men were revolutionaries, rebelling against the ethical and theological assumptions of the medieval world and the hierarchical, dissolute Catholic Church; each sought an authentic spiritual path to enlightenment and salvation. For Erasmus, performing “works of an ethical nature” was central to being “a pious Christian.” For Luther, good works were “not just useless but dangerous—a self-seeking expression that imparted a false sense of security.” Although both became monks, Erasmus was cosmopolitan and gregarious; Luther, provincial, harsh, and viciously anti-Semitic. Erasmus appealed “to reason, free will, and moral virtue”; Luther thundered that faith alone led to redemption. In their prolific writings, which gained wide readership from the burgeoning printing industry, they railed against rampant “papal, curial, and ecclesiastical excesses.” Both offered their own translations of the Bible, accessible to common readers, an affront to clerical authority that incited the church’s wrath. Luther went farther than Erasmus by condemning the church for collecting fees for performing rites, insisting on celibacy among the clergy, and selling indulgences. Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, made public in 1517 as the 95 theses, catapulted Luther to sudden fame—and also led to virulent attacks that dogged his life: his books were burned, and he was summoned to recant before judges at Worms. His “unflinching stand,” Thomas Carlyle later wrote, “was the greatest moment in the Modern History of Men,” setting the stage for English Puritanism, parliamentary government, the French Revolution, and modernity. Massing argues persuasively that the discordant views represented by the two men continue to shape Western culture.
An impressive, powerful intellectual history.