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Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation

During the summer the Institute is posting in this space each month a review of a recent book that we commend as a good resource for reading about the Reformations of the 16th century. This second review is by Ann White, a former member of the Company of Teachers and retired chairwoman of the history department at Edmund Burke School, Washington, D.C.

The first review can be found here.

Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation.

By Andrew Pettegree, 2015, Penguin Press

We all know that Martin Luther understood theology. We do not all know that Martin Luther understood printing and the economics of the early 16th century printing industry.

Andrew Pettegree, author of Brand Luther, shows how Luther’s short, straightforward essays transformed German printing, which before the Reformation was used only for scholarly writings, mostly by dead authors, because printing a book required a big initial investment with no guarantee of future sales. Luther’s writings made printing a profitable communications technology.

In 1517 he wrote his ninety-five theses in Latin, the language of scholarship. In March 1518, he published the Sermon on Indulgence and Grace in German — twenty short German paragraphs of short, direct sentences, totaling 1500 words. This essay could be read aloud in ten minutes; it fit in an eight-page pamphlet, printed on a single sheet and folded in quarto.

Luther, a pastor who cared for his flock, wrote in this format so that all of his people could understand the theological ideas he wanted to teach them. The fact that printers loved these pamphlets and were quick to print them (and Luther understood why they loved them) helped get Luther’s ideas into people’s minds and hearts. Printers loved the pamphlets because they could be cheaply printed and reprinted; they required little initial investment. People snapped them up. In Wittenberg the Sermon on Indulgence and Grace quickly went through two editions, which were followed by editions published in Leipzig, Nuremberg, Augsburg and Basel. Almost overnight, this essay by an obscure German monk became a publishing sensation.

Wittenberg’s one printer, who previously had printed only announcements and the theses of university students, worked slowly and found himself overtaxed by the work Luther brought him. So Luther went to Leipzig to look for a second printer. He found one whose typefaces he admired and who worked skillfully in both Latin and German. Luther persuaded him to open a branch office in Wittenberg.

Historian Andrew Pettegree knows both Reformation history and the early history of printing. He tells us that Martin Luther understood profit and loss, money and credit, because he had watched his father earn a living in the copper-mining industry.

Pettegree also tells us that Luther’s refined aesthetic sensibility went beyond his search for attractive typefaces. Luther teamed up with Lucas Cranach, portrait painter and designer of elegant woodcuts. Cranach designed a woodcut for the title pages of Luther’s pamphlets, featuring decoration around a blank central panel. On this central panel appeared, in bold typeface, the pamphlet’s title and Luther’s name. Usually an address was set in small type at the bottom of the page, but not on Luther’s title pages. “Wittenberg” in bold type appeared prominently on Luther’s pamphlets. These gorgeous, eye-catching title pages grabbed the attention of customers browsing in bookstalls. Thus was born Luther’s “brand.”

Above all, Andrew Pettegree tells us that none of this would have mattered apart from the quality of Luther’s writing. “Luther could not have been a force within the German church without his instinctive, towering talent as a writer.” Luther communicated fresh theological ideas in short, pithy sentences. His succinctness was revolutionary. Other writers of his era did not value brevity, but Luther became the most-published man in Europe by presenting fresh, compelling insights in short, crisp sentences.

If you read only one book to celebrate this Reformation anniversary year, why should that book be Brand Luther? Because for a thoughtful reader, Brand Luther may prompt a comparison between Luther’s use of his era’s new technology, printing, with our use of the internet.

Luther did not expect his new technology to carry his burden of teaching people about biblical truth. The burden remained his: to write masterfully, to understand fully the new technology, to adapt excellent writing to the advantages that printing offered.

By contrast, for the last decade or so, American church people have acted as though our new technology is a magical gift that will make it easier to proclaim biblical truth in a skeptical age. In his own day, Luther knew better. Clear, imaginative writing was necessary in the 16th century, and clear, imaginative writing is necessary today. Platitudes and sluggish sentences attract no more readers on a computer screen than they do on paper. Has the internet become as successful at conveying serious Christian thought as printing became for Luther?

Martin Luther was in and out of print shops all his life. He understood printing technology, and he understood how to write skillfully for it. He became the most published author in Europe – ever – within five years of writing the ninety-five theses. The printing press did not “make” Martin Luther. Martin Luther brilliantly used this brand new technology to make the Reformation.

Ann White

29 May 2017

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