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  • 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation by Peter Marshall
  • Sherry Jordon
1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. By Peter Marshall. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 243 pp.

The author uses 1517 and Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses as a fascinating case study in how history, memory, and imagination intersect in the creation of an iconic event. He describes the book as a "cultural history of an imagined event" (13), an exploration of how the significance of the 95 Theses has shifted over time. In the process, he analyzes an impressive array of cultural artifacts over the past five [End Page 218] hundred years, from paintings and sermons to memorial coins and medallions, from tour guides and textbooks to poetry and film. This exhaustive analysis of one event in 1517 becomes a lens for not only examining the Reformation as a whole but also the complex interaction between the past and present.

In the prologue, Marshall discusses the enduring and iconic nature of 1517 and the posting of the 95 Theses. More than any other single event, it has been identified with the Reformation itself and the transition from the medieval to the modern world. It has acquired a symbolic significance that has been claimed by modern figures as disparate as Martin Luther King Jr., Matthew Fox, and the "Mormon Reformation" (6-9). And yet the question remains: Did it actually happen?

The 95 Theses were "posted" in that Luther included them in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz dated October 31, 1517. But were they nailed to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg? That question was raised over fifty years ago by Edwin Iserloh and after a careful analysis of the evidence, Marshall arrives at a similar conclusion: the nailing of the 95 Theses is most likely a later invention by Melanchthon in his biography of Luther. Rather than dismissing its historical significance, however, Marshall explores how this myth shaped later interpretations of the Reformation and its significance.

In the first chapter Marshall describes the historical and theological context for the 95 Theses. His explanation of indulgences, the sacrament of penance, and Luther's response is clear and compelling. In the following chapter Marshall describes the events following the posting of the Theses and offers an extensive discussion of the evidence for and against the "nailing." The greatest contribution of this book, however, is his analysis of the shifting meaning of this event throughout the centuries. Each of the following chapters focuses on a different century (1617, 1817, and 1917) and puts the commemoration of the Reformation in its political, religious, and intellectual context. For example, he notes that 1617 was "the first major centenary of a specific historical event" (92) and he places it in the context of political struggles between Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire. It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that the posting of the 95 Theses became an iconic event [End Page 219] and with it, "the modern invention of the Reformation" (111). This century also saw the emergence of Luther as a symbol of German nationalism, freedom, and enlightenment. In the next century, this view of Luther became increasingly problematic given Germany's role in two World Wars. Marshall describes the rehabilitation of Luther following the defeat of Germany and the continuing significance of the 95 Theses even as the historical veracity of the posting was challenged.

For undergraduate religion courses, the opening chapters offer an engaging discussion of the roots of the Reformation and the later chapters provide a fascinating case study in the shifting meaning of historical events. Scholars will be primarily interested in the latter and Marshall's use of cultural artifacts to make his case. 2017, celebrated as the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, produced a wealth of books and articles analyzing its nature and significance. This book offers a unique and valuable contribution to that discussion.

Sherry Jordon
University of Saint Thomas Saint Paul, Minnesota


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