- Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation by Andrew Pettegree
Martin Luther has been the subject of many publications over the past Quincentennial Reformation celebration. Andrew Pettegree, vice president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, offers a unique contribution to Luther biographies with this specialized look at Luther's life and legacy. He shows how Luther creatively and effectively employed early modern book publishing and revolutionized the whole sixteenth-century printing enterprise. Pettegree brings a wealth of background along with a gift for writing. His narrative is one of the most readable, engaging, and informative books on a unique aspect of the Reformation that I have ever read. His book title underscores the fact that Luther's distinctively diverse writings were more than merely theological essays for the elite, but became an economic brand, which sold throughout the European [End Page 201] populace. The price of the book (less than nine dollars on Amazon) should make this work accessible for every church and school library.
Utilizing one of the greatest inventions of the millennium, Gutenberg's printing press, Luther's ideas spread quickly and decisively throughout Europe. Pettegree, a historian of sixteenth-century books, analyzes and affirms Luther's unprecedented success through the publication of informative tracts and simple broadsheets for the masses. He notes, for example, that prior to the Reformation, five Wittenberg printers produced only 123 books between 1502 and 1516; but between 1517 and Luther's death,"… publishers turned out at least 2,721 works, an average of 91 per year. This represents around three million individual copies, and includes many of the milestone works of the era, not least multiple editions of Luther's German Bible. This vast blossoming of what was essentially a new industry was entirely due to Martin Luther" (23).
The success of the Reformation was not merely due to the publishing firms themselves, but was the result of Luther's outstanding skill at communicating clearly to common people. Beginning with his sermon against indulgences, published several months before October 31, 1517, Luther's ideas caught the imagination and concerns of the German people. Exemplary are Luther's Catechisms, which captured the essence of the Christian faith in a simple question-and-answer format and made it available in posters and handy booklets for the populace. Pettegree has included a sufficient number of illustrations (over fifty frontispieces, maps, and portraits) to underscore his narrative commentary on this "pyramid of multiple improbabilities" (4).
Historically, this book combines a very pragmatic account of early book publishing with an intriguing socio-cultural analysis of Luther's creative use of print, particularly as it relates to the Word of God for the extension of God's kingdom. Perhaps as innovative as Luther was his Wittenberg colleague, the aristocratic artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach produced a title-page format which was innovative, yet extremely practical: "illustrative features were blocked around a blank central panel into which the text of the title could be inserted" (158).
Ecclesiastical and social historians will recognize a thoroughly researched account. Media and marketing specialists will also [End Page 202] appreciate the unexpected narrative surrounding their mostly secular domains. Pettegree notes, for example, that "Luther's works outstrip those of any other author by a factor of ten; he outpublished the most successful of his Catholic opponents by a factor of thirty. Even this bald statistic understates the dominant role of Wittenberg in the printed works of the Reformation" (213).
Reformation scholars as well as individuals interested in a unique perspective on the culture and context of Luther's era will appreciate this carefully crafted and artistically articulated narrative of Luther's life and legacy. Pettegree provides many intriguing insights and profound perspectives, which are usually appreciated by only...