A new book, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper, has hit the shelves.
The book focusses on Luther’s inner life rather than a history of the Reformation. It might also cast light on little-known details of his life:
Luther — Luder — was born in Eisleben in northern Germany in 1483, and grew up under the shadow of the Counts of Mansfeld’s castles in the small mining town of the same name. In later life he would always insist on his impeccable peasant origins, but his father was a mining inspector and prominent smelting master and it was in a smoky, slagheap-filled town on the edge of the civilised world that the young Martin grew up.
Crane explains Roper’s perspective that a harsh environment affected Luther’s personality accordingly:
the ugly, precarious and divided world … helped shape Luther’s passionate, authoritarian, unforgiving, coarsely physical nature …
Even though Luther remained loyal to his childhood home, there can have been little about it that gave him a very elevated sense of man’s goodness …
It was a natural progression from this environment to the Augustinian religious order, noted then for a particularly austere theology and practice. Incidentally, Luther’s father was firmly opposed to his son entering the monastic life.
Luther was not a man to do things by halves and he made a forensic study of Augustine, Scripture and the corrupt practices of the Church, when, one day:
the idea of justification by faith alone ‘struck him like a thunderbolt’
if man could be saved by faith alone and all good works were intrinsically sinful, then the whole penitential edifice of the medieval church … w[as] all so much rubble.
Luther was a polemicist, passionately forming and forcefully arguing his positions against his fellow Reformers.
Roper also includes some anti-Semitic quotes from Luther. The one in the review is extremely foul and graphic.
Crane does not say if she explains why the first Reformer was anti-Semitic and if that perspective changed.
Speaking personally, Luther’s position against the Jewish people is something that is explored too little; even my own research has not uncovered any decent explanation. I read anecdotally (i.e. reader’s comment) somewhere a few years ago that Luther rather expected the Jews to follow him in railing against the social and political dominance of a corrupt Church. When they did not, he turned against them.
Crane says that Roper does a good job of showing the reader Luther’s contradictions without trying to make sense of them or tie them neatly together:
Not, as Lyndal Roper mildly notes, an easy hero.
Although Crane’s review does not mention this, readers should know that Roper is an Australian academic who was educated at Oxford, taught there and has written several ‘groundbreaking works’ on witchcraft.
She has a deep interest in Germany. Perhaps this is because her husband, Nicholas Stargardt, a Professor of History at Oxford University, is of German-Jewish descent on his father’s side and Australian on his mother’s. His books concern Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1989, Roper’s book, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg was published. Wikipedia provides this succinct and helpful summary:
Claims that the Reformation significantly worsened the situation of European women. review in History Today
It will be interesting to see what other reviews say. My Lutheran readers are particularly welcome to comment below.