When an obscure monk named Martin Luther tacked his theses on the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517, protesting corrupt practices, he was virtually unknown. Within months his ideas spread across Germany then all of Europe; within years their author was not just famous but infamous, responsible for catalyzing the violent wave of religious reform that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation and engulfing Europe in decades of bloody war. Luther came of age with the printing press, and the path to glory of neither one was obvious to the casual observer of the time.
Andrew Pettegree is perhaps our most distinguished living historian of the print revolution, but he launched his career as a historian of the Reformation. That double vision positions him to comprehend this epic event not simply as a religious story but also as a story about how ideas were carried and spread in new ways by new things - things called mass-produced books. Printing was and is a risky business - the questions were how to know how much to print and how to get there before the competition. Pettegree illustrates Luther's great gift not simply as a theologian but as a communicator - indeed, as the world's first mass-media figure, its first brand. He recognized in printing the power of pamphlets, written in the colloquial German of everyday people, to win the battle of ideas. But that wasn't enough - not just words but the medium itself was the message.
Fatefully, Luther had a partner in Wittenberg in the form of artist and businessman Lucas Cranach, who, together with Wittenberg's printers, created the look of Luther's pamphlets, which included the distinct highlighting of the words "Martin Luther of Wittenberg" on the title page. Cranach also created the iconic portraits of Luther that made the reformer such a familiar figure to his fellow Germans. Together Luther and Cranach created a product that spread like wildfire - it was both incredibly successful and widely imitated. Soon Germany was overwhelmed by a blizzard of pamphlets, with Wittenberg at its heart; the Reformation itself would blaze on for more than a hundred years.
Publishing in advance of the Reformation's 500th anniversary, Brand Luther fuses the history of religion, of printing, and of capitalism - the literal marketplace of ideas - into one enthralling story, revolutionizing our understanding of one of the pivotal figures and eras in all of human history.
©2015 Andrew Pettegree (P)2015 Recorded Books
(From my Goodreads review - Audible note below)
This was a great read as a companion to Roland Bainton's classic Luther biography. The author is a British historian and specialist in the history of printing. In "Brand Luther," his particular lens on the subject is that of an informed observer of the phenomenon of the printing revolution launched by the Reformation, singularly Luther. His stance is dispassionate and his scope limited. . .almost. The narrative "Brand Luther" ranges widely over the Reformation's causes and effects, theological struggles and personalities, focusing on Luther as hero (though not in a partisan way). This is a boon for readers! Luther is so big the author can't help but betray admiration, which makes for good storytelling. Still, Pettegree is a pro, so the reader will see Luther critiqued as well as admired, the Catholic church not painted as villain, and Luther's friends and foes portrayed in dramatic relief against the background of 16th century Germany. Looming in that background--that which the book seeks to lift into the spotlight--is the nascent printing industry.
As a graduate of a Reformed seminary, I had little awareness of several facets of Luther's business-savvy personality and relationships with local (Wittenberg) printers, especially Rhau-Grunenberg. Luther had high standards of professionalism and an innate sense of timing his publications for greatest impact on either his academic interlocutors or his popular audience. For many of Luther's writings, Rhau-Grunenberg was Luther's only option. To see how he handled this situation, its impact on his management of the Reformation and the way he responded to persons--variously, with Christlike humility and/or business coolness--is to view a stunning portrait of Luther the human, a picture that reveals previously hidden virtues and flaws. There are galleries of such Luther portraits here.
Reasonably informed readers will find "Brand Luther" to be of value beyond its claim of a narrow scope and specialized historical investigation. I rated the book 5 stars for both its informative impact and its narrative interest. Luther scholars may have more to say. As for me, I highly recommend this book to any student of Luther or the Reformation.
NOTE FOR AUDIBLE READERS: I could have rated the narration higher. Paul Hecht has great pipes, and he handles all the German names and places with accuracy and skill. The one thing lacking, for me, is getting away from a "narrated" read to simply telling the story with emotive awareness and sensitivity to line and narrative arc. Still VERY listenable!
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