In addition to the woman-and-the-Reformation specific material I’ve been reading, I’ve also been looking at a few books that cover the Reformation in general. Since today is the day the Reformation is in the news, I thought I’d talk about them a bit.
First, Carlos Eire’s massive Reformations. Some of you might know Eire as the author of two affecting memoirs, including Waiting for Snow in Havana. His day job is that of historian, being a professor of history and religious studies at Yale.
It’s a survey, yes, but it’s worth a look for a couple of reasons. First, history cannot be apprehended as an objective entity in the present. History is a story and is always remembered and told from a point of view. I am interested in Eire’s point of view, so I’m going to read his book on this topic.
Secondly, history may explore events that happened long ago, but we in the present are continually discovering new information that shifts or even radically changes our understanding of those events. History is also written with varied resources and methodologies. Forgotten or newly embraced methodologies shed new light on old narratives.
So it is with the Protestant Reformation. It’s helpful to periodically take stock and reevaluate this set of events so complex and usually narrated from such entrenched, specific perspectives.
I’ve only read through the Luther material in the Eire book, but I do intend to finish it if I can renew it from the library enough times (700+ pages of text). If you are at all familiar with the basics, you might be skimming parts, but Eire does highlight some elements with which I was not familiar, primarily those related to Catholic life on the Continent before the Reformation, and particularly reform movements within Catholicism that sought to strengthen Catholicism, rather than break it apart – and succeeded, especially those in Spain. Very interesting.
The material on Luther himself provides not much new to me and draws on standard sources (Bainton, for example) with surprising frequency, but what the general reader might find most illuminating is, indeed, the juxtaposition of the pre-Reformation material with Luther. Given the liveliness, breadth, depth and seriousness of Catholic reform happening in Europe pre-1517, it makes it all the more tragic that the particular, peculiar and narrow theological stylings of one individual gained so much traction and came to dominate and shatter the landscape.
Brand Luther is a very interesting book that offers one angle on how that happened. Historian Andrew Pettegree surveys the Lutheran movement in great detail, but through the particular prism of the history of printing.
Even if you only have the vaguest familiarity with Luther, you probably associate his movement with the still relatively new technology of moveable type. Pettegree explores that relationship in great depth, making clear that this association was no accident. Luther came from a craft/business family background and knew what he was doing. He was quite particular about how his work was presented, knew that this was a powerful tool, and was deeply involved in making his work attractive, easy to read and accessible. And the printers loved him, of course – well, those of whom he approved that is. Luther and his controversies were a boon for the printing industry, and the particular political and economic arrangements of Germany only helped deepen the bond. In most other areas of Europe, printing was centrally controlled by stronger central governments. The political patchwork that was “Germany” meant that even if your local Duke had more Catholic sympathies and refused printers permission from printing Luther’s works, the neighboring duchy which was going all in could flood the area with Luther’s tracts nonetheless.
An interesting side point. Luther’s works were immensely popular and millions were printed and sold over just the span of a few years. His theological and political arguments, his Bible translations, his catechisms and his works for the laity were the bread and butter of German printers for decades. One gets the impression from histories of the Luther movement that the Catholic response to all of this was characterized by not much more than ineptitude and short-sightedness. There may have been some of that, but what stands out from Brand Luther is the sheer marketing force and ingenuity that Luther exerted. He saw right away that if his cause was to succeed and if his life was to be preserved, he had to take this beyond academic circles to the popular arena. Therefore, he wrote in German rather than only in Latin, and he wrote works specifically directed at laypeople. This is what the Catholic side could not or would not understand. And, to come back around the printers – Pettegree points out that it got to a point at which Catholic writers had plenty of responses to Luther ready to roll, but printers were uninterested in taking them on because they didn’t sell.
As I was reading Brand Luther, I toyed with a slightly different take on this early period of the Reformation and the fire it spread – and so quickly- through German lands at the time. There are countless reasons for this wildfire: the authentic appeal of Luther’s ideas of “freedom” from Roman Catholic religious ritual and spiritual sensibilities, real, scandalous and problematic Catholic corruption, the support of secular rulers, disdain of Rome as a foreign power, and the new technology. It’s all there. But what struck me in the reading was, honestly, the titillating, profitable appeal of scandal and taboo-breaking. When I read Luther’s best-selling bold, cocky, profane and dismissive invectives against almost every aspect of Catholic life that every person reading him would have grown up knowing and holding as sacred, and contemplate the violent, scatological images of clergy and religious practices that were printed and distributed by the thousands, it doesn’t seem like a culture in which there is calm-truth seeking happening. It feels frantic, taboo-shattering, dam-bursting and addictively scandalous. And that, as we know, will always, always sell.
(By the way – this is being posted on October 31 – “Reformation Day” – the day Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door. both Eire and Pettegree point out that there is little evidence that such an event happened on that date, or even happened at all, at least to any fanfare or notice. FYI.)