A revolutionary look at Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the birth of publishing, on the eve of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary
When Martin Luther posted 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. 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 gifts 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 the form of artist and businessman Lucas Cranach, who together with Wittenberg’s printers created the distinctive look of Luther's pamphlets. 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 human history.
British historian Pettegree (The Invention of News), professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, takes a new look at 16th-century theologist Martin Luther and how his complaints against Rome might have been ignored were it not for their dissemination through the new invention of the printing press. Pettegree follows Luther's career not from the point of view of theology and reform, but as a masterfully managed use of technology by a savvy promoter. Luther understood how printing worked; to get his message to the general public, he wrote clear, short pamphlets in German that could be printed and sold locally within a few days. Pettegree emphasizes the importance of Luther's innovations to publishing, including his collaboration with artist and entrepreneur Lucas Cranach, who designed Luther's frontispieces and carved woodcuts of the author. Luther's copious writings, in both German and Latin, made him the most published author in Europe; he also autographed books and wrote glowing recommendations for other reformers. Pettegree notes that Catholic refutations of Luther existed but were printed less because "those of Luther's supporters sold much better." Readers with experience in publishing will be amazed by how little has changed.