Review: Andrew Pettegree, “Brand Luther” (Penguin, 2016)

No doubt this year will see ever more books on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Most of these tend to concentrate on Martin Luther the man and especially on his theology. This new book is about Luther and covers his life and especially his main writings. But the main topic, which I haven’t seen covered elsewhere in such a detailed and comprehensive way, is a different one – how did Luther’s ideas and influence actually spread? The book is therefore in my view very important and very original and has many lessons for us today. 

Andrew Pettegree begins by pointing out, as others have done, the sheer implausibility and improbability of what happened from 1517-1520. Just in terms of books, Luther wrote his first book in 1516 when he was a completely unknown professor in a totally obscure new university, far from the main trade routes and intellectual thinking centers of Germany, let alone Europe. So obscure was he that when someone wrote shortly before the Reformation about the top 100 professors in three very obscure universities in Germany (one of which was Wittenberg), Luther did not even get a mention. 

Yet by 1520 he was by far the world’s best selling author, with no fewer than 45 highly original works, roughly half in Latin and half in German. Luther effectively completely redefined and massively expanded not only the market for theology but the entire printing industry. While printing was invented in the previous century, around 1440, it had limped along as an industry and it had proved to be a financial disaster. Both of the leading printing pioneers, Gutenberg and Caxton, had gone bankrupt and the market was very small and specialised.  Luther changed the whole industry for ever. Over his lifetime, something like 2 million copies of over 2000 editions of his work were published. Most were purchased by people who previously owned no, or very few, books. As the market mushroomed, so prices crashed, fuelling demand. Luther was the best-selling author over the first few years of the Reformation by a ratio to the next best selling authors of around 10:1 — pre-Luther, there was almost no market for living authors. Luther and his disciples outpublished their Catholic opponents by an estimated 9:1. We sometimes read that printing created the Reformation; it would be more accurate to say the reverse. 

Where the book excels is in its analysis of how Luther actually spread his ideas. Firstly he was obviously a brilliant and prolific author. In one year alone, 1520, he produced three of the greatest theological books of all time – “To the Christian nobility”, “The Babylonian Captivity” and “The Freedom of a Christian Man”. As well as transfoming printing, Luther also pretty much reinvented and popularised the German language. He wrote in a way that was attractive and readable for everybody, not just fellow theologians. He also wrote mainly in short readable bite-sized chunks. While he also wrote some long books, and translated the entire New Testament into German, most of his publications were very short and to the point. A printer could turn round an order and sell out in two days — good business. Luther was particularly good at quickly dashing off short and pithy replies to written attacks on him from his foes, who in contrast tended to write slowly and often in Latin. The very act of public debate was viewed with suspicion by his opponents, who saw theology as something to be discussed in private in Latin by the learned. 

Now, some of the circumstances of the Reformation were luck (or providence, depending on how you look at things). In particular the dogged support of Luther by his protector, Frederick the Wise, who as the owner of the largest collection of relics in Germany, had every reason for handing him over to his enemies. But the way Luther’s ideas spread had everything to do with a side of Luther we rarely if ever hear about — not Luther the theologian but Luther the hands-on businessman. Remember that his father was a successful mining entrepreneur and that Luther was raised in an environment where risk-taking and making money were a major preoccupation.

Obviously this rubbed off on young Martin. Pettegree brings out the extent to which Luther was intimately involved in all aspects of the printing and publishing of his work. The poor and one-and-only Wittenberg printer was soon overwhelmed by Luther’s output, so Luther attracted new entrants, partly by dividing his outputs across various printers and over time systematically building up the printers both in Wittenberg and elsewhere. Unlike other printing centres such as Paris for France, Germany had a multiplicity of printing powerhouses, none of which was capable of being controlled by the state. Most printers incidentally were not Lutheran, in fact a number were strongly Catholic, but they could see a good commercial deal when they saw it. 

Furthermore, there was a recognisable “brand Luther”. Pettegree brings out most clearly of all how Luther and his great friend and artist Cranach did this. Luther was obsessive about presentation and, working together with Cranach, developed an instantly recognisable and very modern style, completely different in look and feel to what Luther’s opponents could produce from their outgunned presses. Nor was it just words — a flood of woodcuts (some of which are quite scatalogical) supported and illustrated the books. Cranach built a very large artistic factory in Wittenberg which encouraged many artisans and artists to produce a wealth of visual material in support of the Reformation. 

All this in turn produced money which fuelled the Reformation. Interestingly, Pettegree brings out that although Luther was a good designer and publisher he was little interested in the financial side and in fact it was eventually his wife, Katerina von Bora, who took control of the Lutheran financial set up. Under her direction, they started to generate substantial profits which could be reinvested elsewhere. 

In general, Pettegree notes that Luther and his followers had a much higher view of women’s roles than their opponents (and indeed than historians have given them credit for). This is particularly noticeable in the field of education, where Luther in particular was very prominent in establishing girls as well as boys schools. According to one estimate, the split of girls vs boys in school was almost 50/50 in Protestant Germany but only around 0.2/99.8 in the Venetian Republic. Education was seen for both sexes as vital to the advance of the Reformation.

Perhaps the only area where Luther did not spread his ideas so effectively was outside Germany. Luther’s correspondence was overwhelmingly German focused, and his books were relatively slow to be translated. This contrasts very much with Calvin – who for example had intense interaction with English reformers. I would have been interested to know more about why this was the case. 

In summary, this is an excellent and highly original contribution to the “Reformation” industry. Pettegree brings out brilliantly how Luther was intimately involved in all aspects of the Reformation: in particular he was a brilliant entrepreneur and together with Cranach an excellent designer. This all contributed to build “brand Luther”, which was so effective in spreading Luther’s ideas. The Reformation did not (humanly speaking) “just happen”. It took a lot of hard work, business flair, design and branding and money.