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1517: Martin Luther and the invention of the Reformation by Peter Marshall

28 September 2017

John Arnold considers one legendary moment’s legacy

WE ARE rapidly approaching 31 October 2017. That is the 500th anniversary of the iconic moment when Martin Luther, in an act of heroic defiance, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and inaugurated the Protestant Reformation with a resounding Thesenanschlag (the German word both sounds and is more forceful than its English equivalent, the ambiguous “post­ing”; and its root meaning is to hit or strike) — except that it is very unlikely that he did so, at least in the form in which the story has come down to us, complete with hammer and nails and an immediate enthusiastic popular response.

There is no eyewitness account, only an accidentally misleading memoir by Melanch­thon much later. What is more likely to have happened is the subject of a brilliantly foren­sic chapter in this admirable work of detec­tion, demythologisation, and histori­ography, lead­ing to the conclusion that, as late as 1518, “Luther was still placing himself firmly within the parameters of acceptable Catholic opinion and debate,” and that “it was [his] opponents who pushed him down a road of radicalization.”

Luther’s own views developed; and they obtained a wider hearing with his three great treatises of 1520, as the focus of debate shifted from indulgences to papal authority. His first public act of defiance, far more dramatic than anything that happened (or didn’t happen) in 1517, was his burning of the papal Bull Exsurge Domine on 20 December 1520; and the really iconic moment was his brave and lonely stand before the Emperor at Worms on 18 April 1521.

Still, 1517 is the date that sticks in the memory; and Marshall devotes most of his “cultural history of an imagined event” to tracing and analysing imaginative reconstructions, misinterpretations, celebrations, depictions, uses, and misuses of this magic number.

In a tragic shift of emphasis, the Thesenan­schlag was misappropriated, artistically by German Romanticism and politically by German nationalism at and after the centen­ary celebrations of 1817. The violent nature of the event (the nails evoking the Passion of Christ, and the hammer Thor and Wieland the Smith) was heightened, and so were the elements of revolt, popular support, and Germanness. Understandable in the after­math of the war of liberation against Napoleon, this tendency took a more sinister turn in 1917.

Recent scholarship, not least by sym­pa­th­etic Roman Catholics such as Iserloh, has freed Luther’s story from later accretions and made it not only more credible, but also more Christian, and more suited to the ecumenical perspectives of 2017. We may with a good conscience enjoy this year’s commemoration, and not only as an alternative to a re-invented and Americanised Hallowe’en.

Marshall carries lightly his mastery of the German sources and wide-ranging cultural references. He writes fluently and entertain­ingly, and concludes: “At its best, a Thesenan­schlag is a pageant of the nobility of the human spirit” — after quoting from the web­site of the German National Tourist Board: “Although there is no historical proof of this happening, it was an event that changed the world.”

He comments, “In response . . . there is really nothing a historian can say, other than simply: quite so.”


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.


1517: Martin Luther and the invention of the Reformation

Peter Marshall

OUP £16.99 (978-0-19-968201-0)

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