A few of our stores are closed. Please see our store pages
A few of our stores are closed. Please see our store pages

Brand Luther

Paperback|Oct 2016
Product Rating: 0
$27.9920% OFFsave $5.60

: 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...

In Stock
1 available

Expected to ship within 14 hours from Australia.

Free Shipping
for orders over $99.

You May Also Like

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years Paperback
in stock
A Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 Paperback
in stock
The Jewish War (Penguin Black Classics Series) Paperback
in stock
Early Christian Writings (Penguin Black Classics Series) Paperback
in stock
The History of the Church (Penguin Black Classics Series) Paperback
in stock
Luther's Wittenberg World eBook
in stock
The Making of Martin Luther Paperback
in stock
A History of Luther Seminary eBook
in stock
A Short Life of Martin Luther Paperback
in stock

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.

From the Hardcover edition.


  • Catalogue Code 476113
  • Product Code 9780399563232
  • ISBN 0399563237
  • EAN 9780399563232
  • Pages 400
  • Department Academic
  • Category History
  • Sub-Category General
  • Publisher Penguin Books
  • Publication Date Oct 2016
  • Sales Rank 51433
  • Dimensions 212 x 138 x 19mm
  • Weight 0.358kg

Andrew Pettegree

Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History and Founding Director of the Reformation Studies Institute at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of a number of studies of the European Reformation, sixteenth century Europe, and the history of the printed book.

:***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2015 Andrew Pettegree
Chapter 1

A Small Town in Germany

Like many of history’s most commanding personalities, Martin Luther was gregarious by nature. He was interested in people and loved to be in company. That was certainly a mercy, for in the second half of his life he was seldom alone. From the point in 1517 when he first registered on the consciousness of his fellow Germans, Luther was a controversial, divisive, charismatic, and inspiring figure; to some extent, he has remained so ever since. Those who came into his company seldom forgot the experience. Even in his early career the intense young monk attracted the interest of a number of influential figures who discerned in him a special talent. In later life, among his intimates, he inspired a passionate devotion. Thousands flocked to Wittenberg to hear him preach, or in the hope of attending his lectures. Those admitted to his circle of friends enjoyed the particular privilege of joining him at table, where Luther would relax and hold forth. This was Luther’s especial domain. The day’s labors past, he would sit with his friends and talk. Fueled by his wife’s excellent beer, conversation would become general, discursive, and sometimes unbuttoned. Often one of the more eager of his dinner companions would make a record of his master’s pronouncements; Luther, a university teacher for thirty years and used to being surrounded by note-takers, thought little of this.

Not all of what passed at table reads particularly well today. Luther was among friends and relaxed; he sometimes spoke to shock, and delighted in the outrageous. His jokes don’t always amuse us. But the Table Talk is also full of profound, though unstructured, theological observations and acute perceptions of contemporary society.[1]

It is curious that, in this great mass of words, Luther said so little about his own movement, the Reformation. Between 1517, when Luther first attracted public attention, and his death thirty years later, Luther and his followers reshaped their world. Western Christianity was split in two, as it turned out, permanently. Families, cities, and nation-states were forced to choose sides: whether to remain with the old church, or to follow Luther into schism and new patterns of worship and belief. All this Luther accepted with remarkable calm. His actions had been dictated by God: the path he had taken was shaped by a higher power. In that respect the remarkable life he had led was not of his own making, but the consequence of patient obedience to God’s command.

So it is left to us, in our more secular age, to reflect on the magnitude of Luther’s achievement; but also, the sheer improbability of it all Luther’s career was a monument to a towering talent, but it was also a pyramid of multiple improbabilities. There was nothing in the first thirty years of his life to suggest that here was an individual who would convulse a continent. It was extraordinary that a man who had built a steady and, for someone of his background, remarkably successful career within the church should suddenly repudiate both the institution and its spiritual leadership. It was even more extraordinary that he should survive to tell the tale.

When, at the height of the “Luther affair” in 1521, Martin journeyed across Germany to face the judgment of the German Empire at the Diet of Worms, he did so under guarantee of safe-conduct. Luther would be allowed to arrive and depart unharmed. But there were those among the emperor’s entourage who urged him to repudiate this promise and have Luther arrested and executed.[2] Such had been the fate of another heretic, Jan Hus, a century before, and it was the fate that many of Luther’s friends expected for him. Luther himself did not expect to leave Worms alive. That he had reached this climactic moment at all he owed to the stolid support of his own local ruler, Frederick the Wise, a devout Catholic who never left the old faith. He also, incidentally, owned one of Europe’s finest collection of relics, the sacred remains that lay at the heart of the theology of indulgence that Luther denounced with such vehemence. Curiously he had never met his turbulent professor; it may have been at the Diet of Worms that he cast eyes on Luther for the first time. Many contemporaries found Frederick’s protection of him unfathomable. Certainly without it Luther’s career as a reformer would have been stifled very quickly.

Luther owed his notoriety during these years to another of the Reformation’s extraordinary improbabilities: that a monk who into his thirtieth year had published nothing, and who shared the conventional education of other churchmen, should somehow reinvent himself as a writer and polemicist of astonishing power. More than that, in an age that valued prolonged and detailed exposition, complexity and repetition, it was astonishing that Luther should have instinctively discerned the value of brevity. Luther in effect invented a new form of theological writing: short, clear, and direct, speaking not only to his professional peers but to the wider Christian people. This revelation of style, purpose, and form was at the heart of the Reformation, as it will be at the heart of this book. And Luther achieved all this from a thoroughly incongruous place, a small, inconsequential market town on Europe’s eastern periphery, a place that to this point had scarcely figured in the annals of European history: Wittenberg. This was in many ways the greatest of all the improbabilities of the Reformation, for which Renaissance Europe had no precedent. Europe in the sixteenth century was a society of rising nation- states, full of intellectual vitality. Its cities, with their churches, universities, and the new printed books, were one of the greatest adornments of this culture. But little of this cultural and economic Renaissance had reached the sandy, underpopulated plains of northeastern Germany. When Martin Luther first made his way to Wittenberg in 1508, he was not impressed, a sentiment shared by most of the small number of people who recorded their recollections of this tiny border settlement.


Yet this is how it turned out. From the time that Luther settled permanently in Wittenberg in 1511, his fate and that of his new home would be permanently intertwined. Wittenberg would become Luther-town (Lutherstadt), a title it formally adopted in the twentieth century. Wittenberg was the heart of the Reformation, and it shared and mirrored Luther’s own transformation.


When Luther first walked through the gates of Wittenberg, he would have found a modest settlement of some two thousand souls.[3] The great cities of Germany were up to thirty times this size; even in the locality, Wittenberg was dwarfed by Leipzig, the local trading hub, and Erfurt, the lively university city where Luther would spend his formative years. Wittenberg had first emerged as a settled place in the twelfth century, after a brutal struggle to eradicate the local Slavic population. To the settlers from the flatlands of Flanders called to repopulate the region, the gentle hills close to the Elbe seemed formidable enough. So they called their new home White Mountain, the Wittenberg, after the white sand of the hill and on the banks of the river, sufficiently shallow at this point for a ford. Over the next two hundred years this became a walled city, strong enough to defy a Hussite army during the Bohemian Revolt. But it never quite threw off the feeling of a frontier settlement, standing sentinel against the alien hordes. Significantly the largest cities in this part of Germany, Erfurt and Leipzig, were to the south and west, angled toward the cultured southern heart of the German Empire. It was from Erfurt that Luther had been dispatched to join the Augustinian cloister at Wittenberg, and he never quite forgot these daunting first impressions. He had found Wittenberg, he reflected some years later, on the edge of civilization, “in termino civilitatis.” Had it been only a little further east it would have been “in mediam barbariam,” in the middle of the barbarians.[4] Other visitors were equally unflattering. According to one traveler who experienced Wittenberg at about the time of Luther’s arrival, it was a poor, unattractive town, with old, small, ugly wooden houses, more like a village than a town.[5] Not surprisingly, when Luther’s views had stirred notoriety, these were sentiments his enemies were eager to echo. According to Johannes Cochlaeus, an early and dogged critic, Wittenberg was:

A miserable, poor, dirty village, in comparison to Prague, hardly worth three farthings: yes, in fact, it is not worthy to be called a town of Germany. It has an unhealthy, disagreeable climate; it is without vineyards, orchards or fruit bearing trees of any kind. . . dirty homes, unclean alleys; all roads, paths and streets are full of filth. It has a barbarous people who make their living from breweries and saloons, and a body of merchants not worth three cents.[6]

George, Duke of Albertine Saxony, enemy and rival to Luther’s own patron, Frederick the Wise, put it more succinctly. “That a single monk, out of such a hole, could undertake a Reformation, is not to be tolerated.”[7] Indeed, one of the reasons opponents so underestimated Luther at first was because they simply could not conceive anything of importance emerging from such a place.


The comparative backwardness of Wittenberg in this era was all the more glaring because the German cities were regarded, with some justice, as among the greatest jewels of European civilization. In the fifteenth century Germany had become one of the powerhouses of the European economy. While the emerging nation-states of Spain, France, and England expended their gold in dynastic conflict, Germany enjoyed comparative peace. Germany had its emperor, a member of the Habsburg family, who certainly aspired to expand his authority; but the Habsburg lands were too dispersed, and crucially, the emperor’s own position depended not on heredity succession, but on election by a college comprised of the rulers of seven of Germany’s larger states. These were the elite among the three hundred rulers of Germany’s patchwork of small and tiny territories. Their borders were in constant flux. Saxony, where Wittenberg lay, could have been one of the largest but for a family tradition of partible inheritance that led to frequent divisions. Some of the grandest territories were held by bishops, true princes of the church such as the archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht of Brandenburg, a man who would play a large part in Luther’s story.


By the fifteenth century many of the largest cities had successfully repudiated the authority of any neighboring prince: these were the imperial free cities. Nuremberg, the greatest of them all, had a considerable territory of its own; in southern Germany it coexisted in friendly rivalry with Augsburg, center of the German banking industry. Augsburg was also southern Germany’s major news hub, a crucial staging post on the imperial post road linking Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries.[8] To the north lay Hamburg and Lübeck, leaders of the venerable Hanseatic League of Baltic trading towns; to the west Cologne, Strasbourg, and Basel were strategically located on the Rhine, the great communication and transport artery that linked the rich trading towns of Flanders with Italy to the south. It was the connection with Italy across the perilous Alpine passes that was the lifeblood of Germany, for Italy was the gateway to Asia and its precious cargoes of spice and silks. The greatest benefits of this international trade were confined to the great imperial towns of the south and west; at the turn of the sixteenth century very little of this luxury trade would have found its way to the chilly northern plains of Thuringia and Saxony, where fish and grain dominated the local markets.

In the second half of the fifteenth century the sophisticated markets of Flanders, Italy, and southern Germany began to deal in a new branch of trade: the commerce in printed books. When in the mid-1440s a dogged Mainz entrepreneur called Johannes Gutenberg began to experiment with new ways to mass-produce books, it was by no means clear that this was an invention the world really needed. Europe already had a highly developed book trade, volumes lovingly hand-copied from manuscript to manuscript. Consumers and collectors would seek out their manuscripts from the best and most famous copy shops, or take their texts to the local scribe: this was a very flexible market. The trade in manuscripts would continue to flourish for many years after Gutenberg first exhibited pages of his printed Bible at the Frankfurt Fair in 1454.[9] Gutenberg’s Bible certainly attracted a great deal of attention and quickly sold out. But it also bankrupted him. It was the last major project in which he would be involved.

Gutenberg’s story, one of technological fascination and financial failure, would be disturbingly characteristic of the first seventy years of printing.[10] As news of his great achievement spread, princes, bishops, or town councils all wanted to have a press in their territory. Printing spread quickly through Germany, Italy, and France, and thence more haltingly to Europe’s periphery: Spain, England, and Scandinavia. But most of these ventures, unsuitably located in small cities away from the major centers of population, closed after publishing only a handful of titles. It took some time for the fatal flaw in the business model to become apparent. It was comparatively simple to print some three hundred, five hundred, or even a thousand copies of a printed text. But the manuscript book trade, essentially a retail business linking one text with one purchaser, gave no hint of how such quantities could be sold in a marketplace spread all over Europe.

The answer, painfully derived after thirty years of expenditure and failure, was to be guided by those who had this sort of experience: the wealthy merchants who dominated Europe’s transnational luxury trades. These were the men who knew what was necessary to make the new trade work: raising capital for the necessary investment and transporting books in bulk to major markets, where they could be traded, often by exchange, for other consignments of books. They knew how to arrange storage for many hundredweight of paper until an edition could be disposed of, and how to handle the complicated loans and exchange transactions necessary in any capital-intensive industry.

So the book trade contracted. Although books were at some point in the fifteenth century printed in more than two hundred places around Europe, two thirds of them were produced in only twelve cities. All of them were large commercial centers, strategically situated in Europe’s major trading places: six in Germany, four in Italy, and two in France.[11] This iron geography of book production would prove remarkably enduring. Of the twelve great printing towns of fifteenth century Europe, none were smaller than thirty thousand inhabitants. This was true also of the two sixteenth-century latecomers to the printing elite, London and Antwerp.

It was a world that should have had no place for little Wittenberg. And initially this was exactly how it turned out. The experimental age of printing, the fifteenth century or incunabula age, passed Wittenberg by altogether. Such books as the inhabitants of the small city required, and this was not many, could have been purchased in nearby Erfurt and Leipzig, both of which had a lively early printing industry. The first printing press was not established in Wittenberg until 1502, as a service to the new university. Most university towns had a press of their own, but this was hardly a flourishing venture. It was probably only the determination of Wittenberg’s ruler, Frederick the Wise, that his capital should have the appropriate accoutrements of cultural sophistication that allowed it to stagger on.

Yet within the next fifty years Wittenberg would defy all the rules of the new print economics and become a center of the book world. This was almost entirely due to Martin Luther: his notoriety, his passionate following, and his uncommon talent as a writer.

This book tells the story of how a new revolutionary movement was incubated in a tiny, remote city and quickly took Germany by storm. It is not just a story about books. Luther and his friends used every instrument of communication known to medieval and Renaissance Europe: correspondence, song, word of mouth, painted and printed images.[12] Many people adhered to the new movement when they first heard Luther speak; others were led to the evangelical message by those who emerged as leaders in the hundred or more German cities that adopted the Reformation. The Reformation took wing largely because its advocates grasped that the pulpit could be one of the most powerful organs of public information and persuasion available in sixteenth-century society. All that said, the Reformation could not have occurred as it did without print. Print propelled Martin Luther, a man who had published nothing in the first thirty years of his life, to instant celebrity. It was his genius to grasp an opportunity that had scarcely existed before he invented a new way to converse through books. In the process he changed Western religion and European society forever.

He also changed Wittenberg. Wittenberg, a town that had no printing at all before 1500, would become a powerhouse of the new industry, trading exclusively on the fame of its celebrity professor. And Wittenberg was not an isolated case. In many medium-sized and small German towns, the Reformation galvanized an industry that had withered after the first flush of overexuberant experimentation.[13]

All this Germany owed to Luther, and in this respect Wittenberg was a microcosm of a larger transformation. But it was in Wittenberg that it began, and began rather slowly, for at first the sleepy little settlement found it difficult to grasp the enormity of what was unfolding in its church and university. Luther, whose intuitive understanding of the power of print was one of the most remarkable aspects of his extraordinary personality, would have to intervene personally to ensure that Wittenberg developed a print industry that could match the huge demand for his work.

But that is for the future. Let us first take a little time to become acquainted with the city that Luther made, and that made Martin Luther. The best way to do this is in Luther’s company, for he was a congenial soul, though perhaps more so as the paterfamilias of mature years than as the intense young professor we first find hurrying through the streets of Wittenberg in 1513.


In 1513 Luther had been definitively settled in Wittenberg for two years. Our walk with him will take the same path of a more famous walk that occurred four years later, as Luther strode through the town to pin up on the castle church his ninety-five theses: the event that would ignite the Reformation.


Or so tradition would have it. Fifty years ago a mischievous Catholic theologian suggested that the posting of the ninety-five theses was, in fact, a myth, a fable that grew up only when Luther became famous.[14] There were indeed no contemporary witnesses, or at least none that thought the event important enough to record.[15] This unwelcome intervention, not surprisingly, set off a storm of controversy. In one recent poll of the German public, the posting of the theses was voted the third most important event in Germany history, so it would be disconcerting indeed to think it did not take place. Personally I am inclined to believe the posting of the theses did take place, and to settle the question I will introduce evidence that emerged some years after Erwin Iserloh lobbed his hand grenade into the calm waters of Luther studies.[16] We will come to that in due course. In 1513 indulgences were far from Luther’s mind, and certainly he had no wish to challenge the church in which he was making a promising career.


Luther was just approaching his thirtieth birthday. The first contemporary images show a lean, earnest young man, dressed in the habit of the Augustinian order that he had joined eight years before. He lived in modest quarters on the third floor of the Augustinian monastery, at the very eastern end of the city. The community housed some thirty monks, many of who studied or had teaching duties in the university.[17] It was an intense, intellectual atmosphere, which no doubt suited Luther well, for he, too, was notably cerebral. In 1512 he had been promoted to professor, a distinction that earned him the important privilege of a heated room.


Luther’s destination this morning was the university, situated in the castle church at the furthest western end of Wittenberg. It is a walk of about half a mile from one end of Wittenberg to the other. This walk took in Wittenberg’s two main streets, which run parallel to the Elbe River on its northern shore and which then, as now, shaped the topography of the city. As he hurried to his duties, there would have been little to detain him. Luther was not at this point well-known to Wittenberg’s citizens; it was only in the following year, 1514, that he would begin regularly to preach to the townsfolk in the parish church. Wittenberg’s one parish church lay a few yards behind the main street, where the city broadened out to the north. This was the dwelling place of Wittenberg’s artisans and craftsmen, modest enough men who nevertheless dominated the city’s town government. For unlike the great imperial cities of Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Strasbourg, Wittenberg had no patrician elite of international merchants. This was a small community serving a modest agricultural commerce. Its beating heart was the marketplace, through which Luther would now quickly pass. Here, as elsewhere, this was a crowded place of market stalls, a hubbub of bawling tradesmen, live animals, and impatient customers.


Opposite the marketplace, on a corner of the road leading to the castle, was a building site. Here, on a huge corner plot, stretching back to the gate to the River Elbe, the artist Lucas Cranach was building a residence fit for Wittenberg’s most distinguished inhabitant. Cranach was one of a number of major figures drawn to Wittenberg by commissions to decorate the city’s most striking new building projects: the castle and castle church. But unlike Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgmair, and others, Cranach had remained in Wittenberg as the elector’s court painter. This was only one of a number of ventures pursued by this enterprising and driven man, who in 1513 was well on the way to being Wittenberg’s major employer. At this point, he and the young professor striding past his new building would have had little connection. In the years to come, their partnership, built on a profound mutual respect and friendship, would shape the Reformation.

Luther was now five minutes from his destination, the castle church, where much of the formal instruction of the university was held. Or perhaps he was heading for the university library, recently settled in the castle itself. The castle was another new building, only completed in 1509, a monument to the determination of Wittenberg’s ruler, Frederick, to build a residence appropriate to his status as a prince of the Empire.

Frederick’s passion for building can be traced back to a crisis in the ruling dynasty at the end of the fifteenth century. In 1485 the lands of the Wettin Saxon dukes had been divided between two brothers, Ernest (Frederick’s father) and Albert. According to the strange Saxon custom, the elder brother, Ernest, decided how to divide the territories, and the younger, Albert, then chose which portion to take. Not surprisingly Albert chose the richest territories around Meissen, which also encompassed Saxony’s largest city, Leipzig. The inheritance of Ernest was more awkward, a long thin strip of territory with no natural center, and with Wittenberg the only town of any size. But it was Ernest who received the real prize: the electoral title that made him one of the seven hereditary electors whose privilege it was to select the Holy Roman Emperor. When his son, Frederick, inherited these Ernestine lands in 1486, he determined to make something of this. Frederick was scrupulous in his attendance at every major meeting of the German assembly, the Diet. And he decided to make of Wittenberg a place fit for an electoral capital.

In 1486 the old residence was razed to the ground, and a new castle and church built in its place. This was a monumentally expensive project that would take twenty years to complete, for Frederick wanted a statement: a princely home built in the best Renaissance fashion, and a church to house his enormous and fast-growing collection of relics.

The church in which Luther now found himself would have been a cluttered place, home not only to the university but to a teeming array of altars and religious offices. Even before Frederick’s rebuilding, the All Saints foundation of the castle church possessed a precious distinction, a very rare indulgence that offered general remission from sins for all those who made an act of worship there on All Saints’ Day.[18] Such indulgences, which offered the prospect of forgiveness in the hereafter for sins that might otherwise impede the progress of a soul to paradise, would in due course attract Luther’s ire, but in the centuries before, they were wildly popular, both as a means of raising funds for local churches and among those who bought them. When the new castle church was dedicated in 1503 by Cardinal Raymond Peraudi, the pope’s roving emissary, he graciously bestowed new indulgences on the church and its visitors. The pope obligingly played his part, urging Germany’s cathedrals and churches to offer some of their relics for Frederick’s increasingly impressive collection. Relics—fragments of the bones of saints and other holy memorabilia—were another pivotal aspect of medieval piety, and the pious pilgrim earned further indulgence by gazing upon them. It is one of the real curiosities of the Reformation that Frederick the Wise, at the same time that he stubbornly protected Luther from the consequences of his criticisms of medieval spirituality, also continued to add to his collection of relics. By 1520, when the latest inventory would be taken, it had reached 18,970 individual objects and was one of the largest in Germany. The most precious, rare items, such as a vial of the breast milk of the Virgin Mary and a twig from the Burning Bush, would be preserved in beautiful gold or silver cases.[19] When laid out for the benefit of pilgrims, the collection crammed eight aisles of the castle church. There would have been little teaching on All Saints’ Day, as pilgrims flocked to avail themselves of the 1.9 million days of indulgence that the assiduous visitor would gain from seeing them all. From 1509 there was a catalog, with 124 woodcut illustrations by Lucas Cranach, to guide them through the treasures.[20]

Even when the relics were not on display, this would have been a busy place. In 1517, as the accounts show, nine thousand masses were said at the various altars; forty thousand candles were lit in honor of the dead.[21] This was big business, and if Luther had stopped off in the town church on his way home, he would have found things much the same. For the citizens of Wittenberg, however modest their houses and despite the sneering disregard of passing intellectuals, were not prepared to let the electors have everything their own way. Over the course of many years the town council had doggedly asserted its rights over the local countryside. Wittenberg had bargained and wheedled, taking advantage of the ebb and flow of ducal power to purchase important privileges: the right to mint coins, the power to exercise justice. Its trade guilds had poured money into their own institutions, not least the sacred societies that sponsored masses for the souls of dead members. So Wittenberg’s parish church was also full of altars and side chapels, employing a small horde of priests praying continuously for departed souls.

This, in 1513, was Luther’s world: a town of 384 dwellings, far away from the main centers of culture and sophisticated urban life in Germany, Flanders, and Italy. Its new university, founded in 1502, was scarcely one the brightest lights in Europe’s intellectual firmament, like the venerable medieval institutions at Paris and Bologna, Louvain and Cologne. This was actually the smallest place in which Luther had ever lived, and he never quite shed a sense of its essential provincialism. But both the town and the university, profiting from the patriotic pride of the elector, had a fierce sense of identity. This was not a city torn apart by the sort of tensions between patricians and urban craftsmen that would so complicate the urban Reformation in much of Germany. Though Luther might sometimes yearn for the greater sophistication of larger cities, Wittenberg, in fact, provided an extremely sympathetic environment for his years of intellectual inquiry. When his cause became notorious, both the town and its rulers would cleave to him with a dogged loyalty.


Luther could not have made a Reformation—indeed he could not have survived—without the support he received in Wittenberg: from his fiercely protective elector, Frederick the Wise; from his colleagues in the university; from the citizens who from 1514 were the first to appreciate the extraordinary power of his preaching. Over the course of Luther’s life this loyalty would be richly rewarded. As Luther became the most famous man in Germany, so Wittenberg became a magnet for those throughout Germany and beyond who saw Luther as their spiritual leader and protector. Millions bought his published writings. By the time of Luther’s death in 1546, Wittenberg was transformed.

We will appreciate the scale of this transformation if we accompany Luther on a second walk through the town that he had now, perhaps reluctantly, come to see as home. The year is 1543, and Luther still lives at the Augustinian house. But there are now no monks: they were cleared out within a few years of Luther’s repudiation of the pope, victims of a new theology that denied the existence of purgatory and thus cut the spiritual roots of the monastic life of prayer. The rulers of Germany’s cities and princely states laid greedy hands on the monastic property that had previously dominated the landscapes and townscapes of Europe; in Wittenberg, a grateful elector passed the entire Augustinian house over to its most famous inhabitant. Today it is still the Lutherhalle, home to the magnificent museum devoted to Luther’s life and movement.


For some years Luther lived there alone, but by 1543 the house was once again teeming with life. In 1525 Luther, no longer bound by his monastic vows, had taken a wife. This event, the marriage of a former monk to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, had scandalized Christendom, and confirmed all the worst fears of Luther’s growing band of critics. Had the unity of the Western Church been sacrificed to the lusts of one man? But this scandalous union brought Luther enormous personal happiness. Children followed, and Luther found contentment as well as new spiritual insights in his role as paterfamilias. Katharina also proved an astute manager, presiding over a household now filled with students and lodgers, the more privileged of whom would join Luther at table, drinking in his conversation.


Luther’s progress through the town on this occasion is unlikely to have been as rapid. The lean, purposeful monk of 1513 is a distant memory; Luther’s figure is a testament to years of sedentary occupation and hearty food (Katharina ran a very successful market garden as well as her brewery). Besides, Wittenberg is now a crowded place, crammed with students and the professors who instruct them. It is unlikely Luther could have traveled far without someone stopping to greet him. A few yards along College Street is the home of his friend, Philip Melanchthon. Luther ranked it among his greatest achievements to have lured Melanchthon to Wittenberg. For years he fretted that another university might tempt him away, and in the years after the storm first erupted over indulgences he reproached himself bitterly that his impetuosity might have allowed Leipzig, the despised local rival, to induce the temperamentally conflict-averse Melanchthon to move on. But Melanchthon was a loyal friend as well as a brilliant scholar. This partnership of opposite temperaments was the foundation stone on which the churches of the Reformation would be built.

At the end of College Street Luther would find himself once again back in the marketplace. Here the transformation wrought in Wittenberg is most visibly apparent. As Luther enters the square, on the southeastern corner, he would pass the Eagle, a substantial inn established in 1524 to house and refresh the host of merchants and distinguished visitors for whom Wittenberg was an essential part of their itinerary.[22] At the southwest corner Lucas Cranach’s large factory dwelling was now complete, an immense complex of eighty-four rooms. Between, at Markt 4, lay another Cranach residence, the present day Cranach House, a magnificent structure on four floors in the new Renaissance style.

The Cranach House looked down on a scene of busy commerce. On the other side of the square lay the new town hall, the Rathaus. The old, rather modest building familiar from Luther’s first years had been demolished in 1521, and a new larger civic center constructed, as the town reinvested the first fruits of its new prosperity. In some respects the town elders acted too hastily, before the full extent of Wittenberg’s commercial renaissance had become clear. This new town hall lasted less than fifty years, and was replaced in 1573 by the more confident and monumental structure that dominates Wittenberg’s central square today. Now this is an impressively open space; in 1543 it would have been filled with market stalls, including a row of semipermanent booths erected between the town hall and the parish church.

For by 1543 Wittenberg was packed; in fact, it was seriously overcrowded. The influx of tradesmen, merchants, and especially students was almost more than the city could bear; in some years students made up a third or even half the population.[23] The result was a significant increase in the prices of food, clothing, and accommodation. Property owners remodeled their houses and built extra stories to meet the demand for additional rooms. The open spaces within the city walls were now largely built over, and wooden houses had been rebuilt in stone. Like most communities, Wittenberg was happy to flaunt its new wealth.


Most likely Luther would have been happy to slip away from the hubbub of the market and take refuge in the nearby parish church. This, rather than the castle church at the other end of town, was now his spiritual home. It was here, in 1514, that he had first begun to assert his extraordinary influence over Wittenberg’s citizens, in sermons of mesmerizing power and passion. In 1543 he now shared these preaching duties with his great friend, Johannes Bugenhagen.


To Wittenberg’s older residents the church would have been virtually unrecognizable from thirty years before. Particularly in its interior architecture, the impact of Luther’s Reformation was quite unmissable. Gone were the numerous side altars, with their priests celebrating Mass and the constant mumbling of propitiatory prayer. Instead all spiritual energy was concentrated on the central worship service. The church’s furnishing was remodeled to reflect the new shape of congregational worship, built around prayer, Bible reading, the singing of hymns, and preaching. Since Wittenberg, rather unusually for a town of this size, had only one parish church, the Sunday worship service would in effect have been a gathering of the whole community. Here they would have heard Luther preach as many as four thousand times in his thirty years as their minister. A privilege for which admirers would journey many miles was part of the everyday experience of Wittenberg’s citizens. It helps explain the remarkable influence Luther exercised in his own community.


Luther’s role as city preacher to some extent eclipsed the importance of the castle church, particularly when the elector was not in residence. Frederick the Wise had passed away in 1525, still stubbornly clinging to both his traditional Catholic faith and his celebrity professor. But under Luther’s influence his wondrous collection of relics was quietly packed away; from 1522 they were no longer exhibited, and pilgrims were forced to go elsewhere for the promise of salvation. Frederick’s successors, his brother John (who ruled from 1525 to 1532), and nephew John Frederick (from 1532 to 1547), were if anything even firmer in their support for Luther; in this he had been fortunate indeed. By 1543 Luther’s trips outside Wittenberg were usually concerned with service to the electoral family or with preaching to them in their other residences.

So leaving the parish church Luther would have been unlikely to have bent his steps to the castle; he might instead have turned right, away from the river and into the residential area to the north. This was where most of Wittenberg’s printers had established their premises. Luther took a keen interest in the publication of his books, and nowhere was the transformation of Wittenberg more dramatically demonstrated than in the teeming mass of printers, booksellers, and bookbinders that filled the workshops of this busy quarter.

In 1513, when we first followed Luther through Wittenberg, he would not have had to go far to visit Wittenberg’s printers, since the university print shop was situated in the immediate vicinity of the Augustinian monastery. This was the only printing press in operation at that time. That year, it published just ten works, all in Latin, and all for the students and professors of the university: copies of orations, textbooks, and the like.[24] Even though the printer, Johann Rhau-Grunenberg, was notoriously slow, the surviving books would not have kept his press busy for more than a small portion of the year.[25] In 1543, in contrast, Wittenberg sustained six busy shops, between them responsible for some eighty-three editions. Of these, half were in German and half in Latin; most of the copies would have been destined for export. With the swarm of ancillary workers involved in the trade, wholesalers, bookbinders, carters, and merchants responsible for the complex monetary transactions of long-distance commerce, publishing was undoubtedly one of the largest industries in this thriving city. Its most successful figures, such as the publisher Moritz Goltz, were among the richest inhabitants of the town.[26]

The bare statistics capture only a part of this transformation, but they are nevertheless striking. Between 1502 and 1516, five successive printers published a total of 123 books, an average of 8 a year.[27] All were in Latin and most very small. None of the printers seem to have made much of a living out of this. This was an industry teetering on the brink of viability, probably sustained only by direct subsidy from the elector and the university.[28] Between 1517 and 1546, on the other hand, Wittenberg publishers turned out at least 2,721 works, an average of 90 per year.[29] This represents around three million individual copies, and includes many of the milestone works of the era, not least multiple editions of Luther’s German Bible.


This vast blossoming of what was essentially a new industry was entirely due to Martin Luther. One in three of all the books published during these three decades were Luther’s own works and another 20 percent were those of his Wittenberg colleagues and followers.[30] Even in 1543, when the passions of the first years were a distant memory, half the books published were written either by Luther or Philip Melanchthon. And the Luther effect proved enduring. Even after his death, the industry continued to grow, reaching 165 new editions in 1563 and over 200 annually in the last decade of the century. Wittenberg was now Germany’s largest publishing center, eclipsing established centers of the book trade like Strasbourg and Cologne, overtaking even mighty Augsburg and Nuremberg.[31]


Thanks to its favorite son, Wittenberg had subverted the iron economics of publishing, the apparent requirement that major production centers could only be located in Europe’s principal commercial cities. This was a transformation that seemed to many contemporaries quite miraculous, among them Luther himself, who could never quite fathom his own extraordinary popularity as an author. Naturally he gave the credit to the direct intervention of a beneficent deity: printing, he believed, was technology heaven-sent to spread God’s word and banish error. In fact, as we shall see, the emergence of Wittenberg as a publishing giant was far from straightforward. For several years after Luther’s bold challenge first sent shock waves through Germany, most of his works were published elsewhere. Wittenberg’s printers—in the first instance, Wittenberg’s sole printer, Rhau-Grunenberg—were seemingly overwhelmed by the astonishing appetite for their local prophet. It took several years, and Luther’s direct intervention, before an industry could be constructed to ensure that the publication of Luther’s works could be marshaled within his own city. In the process these newcomers helped develop the distinctive look that forever shaped the image of Luther in the wider world and radically changed the readership of the book industry.

This transformation, essentially the story of this book, is in reality three transformations: of Luther, the intense monk, into a best-selling author; of the book industry, shaken from its roots in a scholarly, Latinate book world by the emergence of a mass market; and of Wittenberg. For this was the town that Luther made, and the electric bolt to the local economy would be replicated by a rippling echo of smaller transformations as other of Germany’s cities shared in the booming demand for a new type of literature.

Martin Luther was a theologian of great insight, a charismatic leader and preacher, a writer of great passion and skill. But he was also, without any doubt, the chief motor of the Wittenberg economy. Nothing else could have made this small, peripheral city into the print capital of Gutenberg’s homeland; but this, for around eighty years after 1517, was Wittenberg’s unlikely fate. It is these two stories, the spiritual and theological, and the economic and commercial, that need to be woven together to understand the extraordinary impact of the Reformation. In this way, Wittenberg, the small border town perched on the edge of civilization, would share with Luther responsibility for igniting one of the great transforming movements of the last millennium.


[1] For an evocative selection, see Martin Luther, Table Talk, ed. Theodore G. Tappert, LW 54. Over the years, twelve different men were involved in recording the Luther’s dinnertime utterances, which accounts for the record’s somewhat uneven quality.

[2] For a speculation as to what might have happened had Charles V followed this advice, see Andrew Pettegree, “The Execution of Martin Luther,” History Review (March 1996), 20–25, now available online at http://www.historytoday.com/andrew-pettegree/execution-martin-luther.

[3] This section draws heavily on Helmar Junghans, Wittenberg als Lutherstadt (Berlin: Union Verlag, 1979) and E. G. Schwiebert, Ph.D., Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950).

[4] WATR II, n. 2800b, III, n. 3433. Quoted in Maria Grossmann, Humanism in Wittenberg, 1485–1517 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1975), 36.

[5] Friedrich Myconius, quoted in C. Scott Dixon, Protestants (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 10.

[6] Ernest G. Schwiebert, “The Electoral Town of Wittenberg,” Medievalia et Humanistica (1945), 99–116, here 108. Cochlaeus was writing in 1524. The sentiment that this was more of a village than a town, and emphasizing the poor state of the local houses, was something of a commonplace, and remarked by friends as well as enemies. See Schwiebert, Luther (citing Myconius and Melanchthon).

[7] Schwiebert, “Wittenberg,” 108–9.

[8] Wolfgang Behringer, Im Zeichen des Merkur: Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der Frühen Neuzeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003).

[9] The production of manuscripts seems to have peaked around 1480, thirty years after the invention of printing. Uwe Neddermeyer, Von der Handschrift zum gedruckten Buch: Schriftlichkeit und Leseinteresse im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit: quantitative und qualitative Aspekte (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998). On Gutenberg see Albert Kapr, Johann Gutenberg: The Man and His Invention (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996).

[10] Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[11] Augsburg, Nuremberg, Cologne, Strasbourg, Basel, and Leipzig; Rome, Venice, Florence, and Milan; Paris and Lyon. Figures and analysis drawn from the USTC.

[12] For this variety of means of conversion, see especially Andrew Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[13] Below, chapter 12. Christoph Reske, Die Buchdrucker des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts im deutschen Sprachgebiet: auf der Grundlage des gleichnamigen Werkes von Josef Benzing (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007).

[14] Erwin Iserloh, Luthers Thesenanschlag: Tatsache oder Legende? (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1962). For an English introduction see Iserloh, The Theses Were Not Posted: Luther Between Reform and Reformation, trans. Jared Wicks (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

[15] Joachim Ott and Martin Treu, eds., Luthers Thesenanschlag—Faktum oder Fiktion (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2008).

[16] Below, chapter 3.

[17] In 1516 Luther enumerated the residents of the house as twenty-two priests and twelve novices: including servants, forty-one persons in all. WABr I, 72–73. Letters I, 28.

[18] Known as a Portiuncula indulgence after the church near Assisi first granted such a valuable privilege.

[19] Paul Kirn, Friedrich der Weise und die Kirche (Leipzig: Teubner, 1926; repr., Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1972).

[20] Dye Zaigung des Hochlobwirdigen Hailigthums der Stifftkirchen aller Hailigen zu Wittenburg (Wittenberg: Symphorian Reinhart, 1509). USTC 641851. For a list of the woodcuts see F.W.H. Hollstein, German Engravings: Etchings and Woodcuts, ca. 1400–1700 (Amsterdam: Hertzberger, 1954–), VI, 72–76.

[21] Junghans, Wittenberg als Lutherstadt, 51.

[22] Since 1720, the Golden Eagle, and still a splendid and atmospheric hotel. See http://www.goldeneradler-wittenberg.de/index.php?link=Hotel.

[23] Junghans, Wittenberg als Lutherstadt, 107–9.

[24] USTC. See also Maria Grossmann, Wittenberger Drucke 1502–1517: Ein bibliographischer Beitrag zur Geschichte des Humanismus in Deutschland (Vienna: Krieg, 1971).

[25] The surviving books account for only seventy days work; even allowing for the numerous saints’ days this implies that it was working at around one-third capacity.

[26] Vicky Rothe, “Wittenberger Buchgewerbe und –handel im 16. Jahrhundert,” in Heiner Lück et al, eds., Das ernestinische Wittenberg: Stadt und Bewohner. Wittenberg-Forschungen, 2.1 (Petersberg: Michael Imhof, 2013), 77–90

[27] Grossmann, Wittenberger Drucke.

[28] The largest books published certainly benefited from the elector’s financial support. Below, chapter 2.

[29] USTC.

[30] USTC. See also, for a survey based on more rudimentary statistical data, Martin Edwards, Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[31] The figures are computed from the USTC.

Bestsellers in History

Australian Author
Judging the Macquaries: Injustice and Mercy in Colonial Australia Hardback
in stock
2,000 Years of Christ's Power #03: Renaissance and Reformation Hardback
in stock
The Lost Book of Enoch Paperback
in stock
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (B Format) Paperback
in stock
The History of the Church (Penguin Black Classics Series) Paperback
in stock
A Quest For Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life Paperback
in stock
The Rise of Christianity Paperback
The Rise of Christianity
(1)Rated 4 stars out of 5
in stock