Though it may seem like 2017 is far away, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses is fast approaching. Plans for the celebration are being finalized and publishers are lining up works to be released leading up to the anniversary. Anticipating of all this, Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther (Penguin, 2015; source: publisher) starts things off with a biography of Martin Luther.
Though I say biography, Brand Luther does not follow the traditional format of a biography on Luther. As with other biographies such as Bainton’s Here I Stand or Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Pettegree writes in a chronological order and provides accounts of the key events within Luther’s life. However, Pettegree’s main objective attempts to answer “how, in the very different communication environment of five hundred years ago, a theological spat could become a great public event, embracing churchmen and laypeople over a wide span of the European landmass” (Brand Luther, x).
Without denying theological reasons for the spread of Luther’s message, Pettegree brings our attention to other factors in the rise of the early Reformation, and how Luther’s theological pursuits had an effect beyond the church. Central to Pettegree’s argument is a study of the printing industry and all of its various components.
Beginning with Frederick the Wise and his role of protector, which allowed Luther to write damning treatise after treatise against the Catholic Church, Pettegree details the role of printing in Luther’s reforms. For instance, two thirds of all European printing production was conducted in just twelve towns, all of which had a population no less than thirty thousand (Brand Luther, 10). Largely due to Luther’s publications, the provincial town of Wittenberg would become the epicenter of the Reformation and a publishing city that rivaled much larger cities. In addition, Luther’s publications revived stagnant publishing centers such as Augsburg, taking their output to new heights (Brand Luther, 209-215).
In addition to the theological content of Luther’s message, critical to its dissemination was the way Luther wrote. Rather than the massive Latin tomes which dominated the printing format before Luther, the reformer tended to write short work in the vernacular. These works often optimized the particular nature of paper size during this time and limited treatises to eight pages (Brand Luther, 79). With such brevity, the publisher was able to print works without manipulating the paper and adding an additional time consuming step in the printing process.
Not only were Luther’s works relatively cheap, allowing people who would not have owned any books or perhaps one or two which were considered family heirlooms, he also wrote in German. Luther’s German works allowed the vast majority of laymen access to theological issues previously limited to scholars who could read Latin. These German works also gave readers an opportunity to read Luther with his fiery wit and well thought-out theology.
Publishers considered Luther a sure bet. His works were not large endeavors with high financial risk. They were works that required a minimum of time to print and offered little financial risk as they were sure to sell. Whereas publishers previously sold to a specialized market of scholars and the wealthy, Luther’s works completely opened the market to all members of the church. It was these types of factors that produced Europe’s best-selling author and what Pettegree has called “Brand Luther.”
Brand Luther is a great study of Luther and the printing industry. The work is as much about the measurable and physical changes of print as it is about how print contributed to the Reformation. The strength of the work explores the way Luther’s works such as To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On Christian Liberty are rapidly disseminated through a detailed study of the printing industry. If Brand Luther is an indication of the level of scholarship that will be coming out in conjunction with Reformation 2017, we all can look forward to the great things to come.