Review of Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin Press 2015).
In the lead up to 1617, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, a flood of celebratory and educational publications poured over Protestant Germany. These publications included sermons, plays, prayers, hymns and, of course, reprints of the works of Martin Luther. That the lead up to the Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary would be accompanied by an analogous flood of new books on the Wittenberg Reformer is entirely consistent with Luther’s own life and legacy—a life and legacy intimately tied to the power of the printed page and the explosive growth of the publishing industry.
The present deluge of anniversary books on Luther and the Reformation has yet to crest, but in Brand Luther, Andrew Pettegree—a distinguished scholar of both the Reformation and the history of communication—has already given us a refreshingly original account of Luther and his movement that deserves particular attention. Brand Luther includes the usual elements of a traditional biography. All the major events and controversies of Luther’s life are recounted. At every step, however, Pettegree shows how Luther’s rise was in a symbiotic relationship with the printing industry. Thus Pettegree simultaneously tells the history of the explosive development printing in Germany—especially in Wittenberg—and argues that Luther became a brand that reshaped both the book industry and the church.
In 1522, still relatively early in his contest with the church hierarchy, Luther gave this famous account of the reason for his movement’s success: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Without evaluating Luther’s claim regarding ultimate, divine causality, we can still say that Luther is correct in the sense of secondary causality. That is, regardless of whether it was ultimately the Word of God or merely the word of Luther, the written and printed word did in fact do everything. Certainly iconography, preaching, liturgy and song had their impact as well, but as Pettegree’s account illustrates, the printed word—the book—was central to the success of the movement.
The sales figures and statistics for Luther’s (and his supporters’) books are sprinkled throughout Pettegree’s account. These numbers are astounding. Pettegree writes, “Within five years of penning the ninety-five theses, [Luther] was Europe’s most published author— ever.” Luther’s Sermon on Indulgence and Grace went through at least two Wittenberg editions, four reprints in Leipzig and two each in Nuremberg, Augsburg and Basel—all in 1518, the first year of its publication. And that was merely the beginning. By the end of 1522, Luther had written about 160 works and these had been published in 828 editions. “The next eight years,” Pettegree notes, “would see the publication of some 1,245 more, an estimated total of some two million copies.” Between 1521 and 1525, during the height of the pamphlet war over Luther’s ideas, “Luther and his supporters outpublished their opponents by a margin of nine to one.”
Truly Luther was a prolific author who sent a constant stream of works to the various Wittenberg publishers. But what explains such a voracious public appetite for these books? According to Pettegree, the Luther brand and its many facets are the key to understanding the unprecedented popularity of Luther’s writings and the wild success of his movement.
One facet of brand Luther is so often stated as to be almost cliché: Luther’s great success was due to his decision to write in the vernacular and thus to relocatea theological contest from the academy to the realm of the common folk. Pettegree, however, carefully nuances this well-worn observation. He points out that Luther’s opponents also wrote in the vernacular and attempted to meet him on the same ground. The difference was that the vernacular books of Luther’s opponents sold miserably, and so publishers—largely irrespective of their own individual religious convictions—chose to print what sold. Thus Luther’s opponents could scarcely find German printers who would publish their books.