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Book review: Living I Was Your Plague

There’s no doubt Martin Luther is a major historical figure in Christendom in the west but beyond the hagiographical books and Luther-themed merchandise, what do we really know about the complexities of Luther’s life and the darker aspects to his personality? Lyndal Roper’s latest book Living I Was Your Plague explores the man, the myth and the legacy. Nick Mattiske reviews. 

There were numerous biographies written for the 2017 anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses and starting the Reformation, Lyndal Roper’s among them. But Roper later became uneasy about her part in the anniversary, which she describes as underwhelming, because she felt that while Luther is undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon, the anniversary was too hagiographic.

Living I Was Your Plague is the result of her unease, and in it she looks at how images and words were used by Luther and Lutherans, all the while asking uncomfortable questions about their darker side. 

Luther was not an iconoclast like some of the Calvinists, so he and his colleagues had no reservations in exploiting the potential of images. As authors such as Andrew Pettegree have noted, this coincided with an explosion in printing technologies, not only widely disseminating Luther’s words, but also ensuring, as Roper notes, that Luther was the most recognised “non-ruler” in Christendom (saints were also widely pictured, but they, unlike Luther, were recognised not by their facial features but by the symbols that accompanied them). Although Luther attacked the cult of saints, ironically, he almost became one, through his portrayal on cheap prints and commemorative medals. Roper writes that the production of Luther kitsch started in Luther’s lifetime.

Roper suggests that one could write a history of the Reformation through the evolution of Luther’s facial hair. Part of the iconography of Luther was the portrayal, first, of the intense, radical monk, then the rotund family man. Roper notes how the importance of masculinity, in a time where it was tied to strong, truthful speaking, is also evident in the way Luther wrote. He even compared the size of his, ahem, “quill” to his opponents’ in his texts. And of course one of the most controversial aspects of the Reformation, from the Catholic perspective, was monks and nuns running away and marrying. Luther called runaway nuns the “spoils” of war. At the same time, he insulted the popes as effeminate or androgynous.

Luther could write humorously. He once compiled a spoof list of relics which included two feathers and an egg of the Holy Spirit and a “big heavy piece” of the shout that knocked down Jericho’s walls. He was a master at applying nicknames. Well, some of them were clever, some simply vulgar. It is shocking how scatological and sexual some of his language was. And this was matched by the imagery pouring off the printing presses. While Luther was a great expositor of Scripture, Roper sees him also as a great hater, though Luther thought he was fighting the Devil himself, and this was all part of the propaganda war. Anything, including personal insults, was fair.

Luther’s hateful language was particularly vicious and “raw” when it came to Jews. Roper is not content to put his anti-Semitism down to the context of his time, or to the grumpiness of old age, though she’s not quite sure how to characterise it. Luther had a particularly visceral response and Roper looks for Freudian explanations, but she also recognises that he didn’t go for some of the negative mythology about Jews circulating at the time, and also notes how his impatience with Jews was tied to his theology of grace replacing law. Luther’s anti-Semitism and its role in wider German history is complex and will probably be argued over for a long time. Just like the Reformation itself.

Nick Mattiske

Nick Mattiske is a bookseller and blogs at Coburg Review of Books.

Living I Was Your Plague
Author: Lyndal Roper
Publisher: Princeton University Press
To purchase visit New South Books

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