Brand Luther

Brand Luther; How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Started the Protestant Reformation by Andrew Pettegree. Penguin, 2016, paper.

Andrew Pettegree argues that Martin Luther was Europe’s first mass-media figure, and its first ‘brand,’ Lutheranism. This’ brand’ began in October 1517 when Luther nailed his track, Ninety-Five Theses, to the door of the parish church where he was pastor. This year is its five-hundredth anniversary.

Luther’s bold act is often singled out to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Luther was then a monk associated with an Augustinian monastery in the small Saxon town of Wittenberg. He also taught theology at the University of Wittenberg.

Pettegree has, however, limited his discussion of Luther’s theology to making sense of his publication history. Brand Luther is an opportunity to look at Luther’s attitude toward the selling of indulgences. You could purchase forgiveness (indulgences) for past transgressions and hence shorten your time in purgatory. As a critic mocked “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Acquiring indulgences was an important part of popular devotion and peace of mind.

Both the religious and political leadership in early sixteenth-century Saxony disliked the fact that a considerable revenue stream in the form of indulgences was leaving Saxony.  This current ‘campaign’ were organized by the Church to raise money to redecorate St. Peter’s in Rome. But for the most part the German nobility stood apart from the controversy that quickly developed around Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. It had, they noted, the appearance of a theological argument amongst monks.

Neither were church officials in Saxony – or in Rome – thought it fit to have church doctrine on indulgences and forgiveness aired before the laity. Nor were Saxon churchmen happy with the Papacy’s involving itself in Saxony’s ecclesiastical politics. Luther’s objections would eventually become a full-throated argument about a ‘state church’ and its integration into the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire.

Pettegree suggests a number of factors that contributed to the success of Luther’s marketing and communication methods. How his literary output, his Brand, competed successfully with Catholic apologists and rival evangelicals.

The printing press with moveable type had been engineered by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fourteenth century and by 1517 a printing industry was already well-established in a half-dozen German cities. There was a wealthy urban population in Germany and the nearby Netherlands, and hence a market for Luther’s tracks. This moderately inexpensive production and sale of tracks in large numbers allowed Luther to disseminate his writings, both those in German intended for the literate German public and those in Latin intended for the conversation within the clerical class. With Luther’s huge output of writing, Wittenberg became a major publishing center.

The title pages of most of these booklets were framed by woodblock prints and engravings by the resident artist at the Saxon court, Lucas Cranach.

Luther had the protection of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Frederick remained a devout Catholic, but welcomed the public discussion of indulgences. When Luther was called to appear before the Diet of Worms in 1521 to answer charges of heresy, he was guaranteed safe conduct by Frederick to and from Worms. On the return trip to Wittenberg, Frederick arranged to have Luther bushwhacked and hidden away in the Wartburg Castle, until matters cooled down. Being judged a heretic was a capital offense.

Soon enough Frederick the Wise and the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, turned to a greater threat to Christianity, the Turkish threat to Hungary. Any settlement about Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses would have to await their dealing with that threat.

In 1524-1525 the Holy Roman Empire was convulsed by what historians have called the Peasants’ War. Its leadership borrowed their language from the evangelical movement and Luther had to answer to the reproach “See what you have stirred up?” Even though Luther was quick to condemn any resistance to properly ordained government. He thundered Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. He was no advocate of class warfare. While that response to peasant demands may have been understandable given Luther’s continued reliance on the political elite for support and also for his safety, it has left a blot on his reputation.

That is also the case with his position on German Jewry. He sounds Anti-Sematic. What else would you make of the booklet from 1543 entitled On the Jews and Their Lies?  It is easy for historians to append the German Anti-Semitism of the twentieth century onto this and several other of Luther’s publications. The Jewish presence in Germany was a plague and should be eradicated. He suggested that synagogues should be destroyed and Jewish books burned. It could be argued, however, that Luther was thinking about a war between texts, Protestant and Jewish.

Brand Luther has its limits as a study of the early Protestant Reformation in Germany. It is, however, an interesting effort to position Martin Luther in that milieu.



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