Martin Luther

Renegade and Prophet

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From “one of the best of the new [Martin Luther] biographers” (The New Yorker), a portrait of the complicated founding father of the Protestant Reformation, whose intellectual assault on Catholicism transformed Christianity and changed the course of world history.
“Magnificent.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Penetrating.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Smart, accessible, authoritative.”—Hilary Mantel

On October 31, 1517, so the story goes, a shy monk named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of the Castle Church in the university town of Wittenberg. The ideas contained in these Ninety-five Theses, which boldly challenged the Catholic Church, spread like wildfire. Within two months, they were known all over Germany. So powerful were Martin Luther’s broadsides against papal authority that they polarized a continent and tore apart the very foundation of Western Christendom. Luther’s ideas inspired upheavals whose consequences we live with today.

But who was the man behind the Ninety-five Theses? Lyndal Roper’s magisterial new biography goes beyond Luther’s theology to investigate the inner life of the religious reformer who has been called “the last medieval man and the first modern one.” Here is a full-blooded portrait of a revolutionary thinker who was, at his core, deeply flawed and full of contradictions. Luther was a brilliant writer whose biblical translations had a lasting impact on the German language. Yet he was also a strident fundamentalist whose scathing rhetorical attacks threatened to alienate those he might persuade. He had a colorful, even impish personality, and when he left the monastery to get married (“to spite the Devil,” he explained), he wooed and wed an ex-nun. But he had an ugly side too. When German peasants rose up against the nobility, Luther urged the aristocracy to slaughter them. He was a ferocious anti-Semite and a virulent misogynist, even as he argued for liberated human sexuality within marriage.

A distinguished historian of early modern Europe, Lyndal Roper looks deep inside the heart of this singularly complex figure. The force of Luther’s personality, she argues, had enormous historical effects—both good and ill. By bringing us closer than ever to the man himself, she opens up a new vision of the Reformation and the world it created and draws a fully three-dimensional portrait of its founder.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Martin Luther

1. Mansfeld and Mining

“I am the son of a peasant,” Luther averred, “my great-grandfather, grandfather and my father were all true peasants.”1 This was only half the truth. If he came from peasant stock, Luther grew up in a mining town, and his upbringing was to have a profound influence on him. Martin’s childhood was spent in Mansfeld, a small mining town in the territory of the same name, where wagonloads of charcoal would file along the muddy roads, and where the smell of the fires of the smelters hung on the air. He would remain loyal to Mansfeld throughout his life, referring to himself as “from Mansfeld,” enrolling at the University of Erfurt as “Martinus ludher ex mansfelt,” and corresponding with the counts of Mansfeld until he died.2 In 1546, he set out, ill, on what was to be his final journey to Eisleben, trying to settle yet another dispute between the counts. He knew that the trip could cost him his life, and it did: He died still trying to put matters right in Mansfeld. Yet this deep connection has been almost completely obliterated in the image of Luther we have today.3 Most biographies have little to say about Luther’s childhood. Unlike his birthplace Eisleben, and unlike Wittenberg, where he spent most of his life, Mansfeld never became a site of Lutheran pilgrimage. But to make sense of Luther, one has to understand the world from which he came.

There had been mining in the Mansfeld area since about 1200 but in the mid-fifteenth century a new process of refining allowed silver and pure copper to be separated after the initial process of smelting.4 Highly capital-intensive, this technological innovation led to the involvement of the big financiers of Leipzig and Nuremberg, and it brought an economic boom to the area. Mansfeld was soon among the biggest European producers of silver and it produced a quarter of the continent’s copper.5 Copper was used in combination with tin or zinc, as bronze or brass, in the hundreds of household items produced in towns like Nuremberg, and it played a large part in the lifestyle revolution in this period, as people began to acquire not only glass and crockery but also metal dishes, pans, and other implements for use at home. Luther’s father, Hans Luder, probably through connections of his mother’s family, heard of the new mining leases that were up for sale in the 1480s, and moved first to Eisleben, where Luther was born in 1483, and then to Mansfeld.

Luther himself later described his father as “a metal worker, a miner”; but the story told by his early biographers of Hans Luder’s rise from rags to riches is not true.6 Although his family were clearly not educated people, Hans was certainly never one of those hooded, squat men who toiled lying down in the low mine tunnels with their pickaxes.7 The Luder family had been peasants, yet even though he was the eldest son, Hans did not inherit: According to local custom at Möhra, where his parents lived, it was the youngest son who took over the farm. The value of the property was probably equally divided between the children, and this may have given the oldest son some capital. Recent research also suggests that the Luder family may have owned a rudimentary copper-smelting works near Möhra, where Hans might have gained some experience.8 He must have had serious prospects, however, for it is otherwise hard to explain why the Lindemanns, an established urban family in Eisenach—whose members included Anthonius Lindemann, the highest-ranking official in the county of Mansfeld and himself a smelter-master—should in 1479 have betrothed their daughter to a young man without a trade and with no promise of an inheritance.9 It turned out to be a wise decision. Within a short period of time Luder was not only running mines, but by 1491 at the latest had become one of the Vierer, an adjunct to the town council representing the four quarters of Mansfeld, and would eventually become a mining inspector (Schauherr), which made him one of the five most senior mining officials in the area.10 By the early sixteenth century, he was operating seven smelters in joint ventures with others, placing him among the bigger operators in Mansfeld.

In 1500 the town had a population of around 2,000–3,000 people, with five “hospitals” to care for the poor and houses for the sick; more unusually, it also boasted a Latin school for boys. Mansfeld nestled in a valley, with four gates and two portals allowing entry. Its “quarters” had mushroomed out from a much smaller initial settlement.11 One of its two main streets wound steeply up the hill to the church on the main square, and it was on this street that the smelter-masters and the officials of the counts had their houses. The church, dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of Mansfeld, had been erected in the thirteenth century but burned down when Luther was in his early teens (thanks to an absent-minded organist who forgot to put out the fire that heated the bellows). It was rebuilt between 1497 and 1502, with a choir finally finished in 1518–20.12 The sword-wielding knight St. George was locally believed to have been a count of Mansfeld, who had fought the dragon on the nearby Lindberg hill. The counts certainly made capital out of this fictional connection, and the saint was depicted on their coins and fountains and above doors; there were even St. George weathercocks.13

Hans Luder’s house was located opposite the Golden Ring tavern, one of two hostelries where travelers might stop. The town lay on the trade route from Hamburg to Nuremberg via Erfurt, but there were few reasons why travelers would have broken their journey in Mansfeld, unless they were going to visit the counts or were involved in mining.14 Luder’s house still stands, and it is now believed to have been twice as big as previously thought. (We do not know for certain when Hans Luder acquired the house; he certainly owned it in 1507.15) There is a wide entrance through which a horse and cart could pass, and a big barn and stables for horses.16 From the house the effects of mining would have been visible everywhere: Slag heaps pockmarked the landscape and the large pond below the town was polluted with the slag water from the two smelters outside the town walls. Farther up the street, toward the square in front of the Church of St. George, stood the large house of Luther’s best friend, Hans Reinicke, whose father was also a mine owner and one of the most prosperous men in Mansfeld. Next door, between Luther’s house and the school, lived another friend, Nickel Öhmler, who would later become related by marriage.

Above the town loomed the castles of the Mansfeld counts. It is hard to imagine a setup more likely to impress on a young lad like Luther the power of the town’s rulers. There was no primogeniture among the counts. Instead, all sons inherited, and when Luther was a boy there were three lines of Mansfeld counts; in 1501, when a formal pact was made dividing the territory, the ruling collective consisted of no fewer than five counts.17 Not surprisingly, they did not always get along, and one of the points of tension between them was the castle. In Luther’s childhood, two castles stood on the site along with two other dwellings, two bakeries, two breweries, stables, and a dividing wall with a shared path. It must have been an impressive set of structures, for in 1474 the counts had been able to host the king of Denmark and 150 of his knights for three nights.18 In 1501, when Count Albrecht decided to build a third castle on the site, he met with opposition from the other counts. The dispute was eventually settled, and Albrecht was allowed to realize his ambitions. With the wealth from the mines, three pocket-handkerchief-sized Renaissance castles—one painted red, one yellow, and one blue, with shared access to the chapel—were now rebuilt and restructured to form one of the best-fortified castle complexes in Germany. It was popularly believed that when one of the counts commissioned an altarpiece for the chapel depicting the Crucifixion, he had the thief on Christ’s right painted as his most hated co-ruler. True or not, the thief has the individualized features of a portrait and is unusually not naked but sports the outfit of an executioner, with garish parti-colored hose. Since executioners were shunned as dishonorable, this would have been a delicious insult.19

The Luder family lived well.20 They particularly relished the tender meat of suckling pigs, a comparatively expensive food at a time when beef imported from central Europe was starting to become more common. They also ate songbirds that they trapped. At least one member of the family was a passionate bird-catcher, because several of the goose-bone whistles used to attract birds have survived in the midden outside the house. There was a well-stocked kitchen, amply furnished with simple green and yellow plates and crockery; there were drinking glasses, too, still a luxury in this period.21 This was certainly a family who liked their food, enjoyed the pleasures of life, and did not have to watch the pennies.

In most sixteenth-century urban households, the master’s wife shared in the business of the workshop, bustling over the apprentices and journeymen, sometimes even doing the bookkeeping. But among the mine-owning class the realms of husband and wife were sharply distinct. The miners lived in their own cottages with their families and the smelter-master’s wife was not responsible for their food or upkeep. Hans Luder himself went out to work each day beyond the town walls, where he was immersed in that strange world of smoke, shafts, and tunnels, while Luther’s mother stayed at home with the servants and children. This was a separation of spheres much more like that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, and very different from what was then the norm in early-modern German towns and farmsteads where women raised the poultry, grew the herbs, undertook the dairy work, and trekked to market. Here women had to be able to take over the farm or business should they become widows. The strict demarcation between the sexes in the Luder household was therefore rather unusual, and it may help explain why Luther’s later ideas about gender roles exaggerate the differences between the sexes: “Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon.”23

Women were not entirely absent from mining lower down the social scale. In account books from the early sixteenth century, the miners’ wives are listed as well as their menfolk with the amounts they earned per week, testimony to their importance in the industry.24 Alongside the men, they turned the winding handles to haul weights in and out of the shafts, and with their children, they helped break up the ore according to quality. They did the backbreaking work of sieving the charcoal, to make the fine powder for the lime needed to line the smelters; they washed the miners’ clothes, heavy with dust; and they used the slag the men brought home as heating.

Luther’s father was one of the Hüttenmeister, the smelter-masters who oversaw the highly skilled operation of the copper-smelting process and who effectively ran the mines. Each shaft was allocated to a smelter or “fire,” and the Hütten (huts) were situated near streams, because water power drove the bellows that fanned the flames of the smelters. One hut might have several ovens, and in 1508 there were some ninety-five “fires” in Mansfeld, which were run by about forty smelter-masters.25 These contracted with gang masters who provided the miners, and who worked alongside them underground. Labor relations were therefore mediated, and when the miners rose up in protest against their conditions, as they did in 1507, they put their complaints to the counts in writing. The counts, for their part, knew not to try the patience of the miners too far: While they might have executed rebellious peasants, on this occasion they imposed whopping fines of a hundred guilders on the dozen or so ringleaders, but allowed them to pay by installment.26 The authorities had to exert their power, but the highly skilled labor force was too precious to waste. Proud men who were aware of their skills, the miners did not give up and in 1511 they formed a brotherhood to advance their interests.27

Court books from the period give some rare insight into what life was like in the world of mining. There were constant thefts of wood, ladders, and equipment from the shafts, and violence was never far away.28 A man killed a prostitute in a brothel in nearby Hettstedt and was executed for it. Another slew a man and threw the body down a mine shaft—he too paid with his life—while a third attacked his own father, damaging his fist so seriously that he was unable to work.29 Criminal law at the time mixed Roman law with older traditions that placed the emphasis on mediation. Thus murder could still be settled by paying the victim’s family compensation, though even so, between 1507 and 1509, at least three criminals were executed for murder.30

There were constant quarrels between different groups of miners. The Haspeler, who wound the winches, hated the Sinker, who sank the shafts. The Sinker were mostly from Silesia and, scorning marriage, lived with girlfriends in houses near the mines where they also kept chickens and other livestock.31 Mining was dangerous work. The tunnels that led off from the shafts were narrow, and miners had to work lying down on their bellies. There was little light. If the weather turned bad, the lamps would suddenly go out as sulfur gas accumulated in the mine shaft, poisoning any miners still below. It was believed that the gas was a product of the evil airs drawn from the brimstone and metals, rising in the tunnels and chilling men to death.32

Mining was thirsty work, and as water was not drinkable, brewing was the town’s other major industry. Alcohol fueled quarrels, and since just about all men carried knives, fights tended to become bloody. Most brawls took place in taverns or drinking shops.33 Luther’s own uncle, “Little Hans,” a wastrel who went from one pub brawl to another, would meet his death in a fracas at a drinking house in 1536.34 People used whatever was to hand, grabbing the tavern lamps to bash an opponent, or hoisting the beer jugs to buffet an opponent about the head. Representing comradeship, these jugs also had symbolic significance: One man would insult another as not worthy to share a jug with a respectable man.35 Drinking was surrounded with bonding rituals and there were competitive drinking games where a man had to stand his ground. One favorite required the use of the “pass glass,” ridged with bands separated by different widths, from which the drinker had to down his tipple exactly to the next ridge; the Luder family owned at least one of these.

- About the author -

Lyndal Roper is the first woman to hold the prestigious Regius Chair at Oxford University. She is one of the most respected scholars of early modern history on both sides of the Atlantic. She is the winner of the Gerda Henkel Prize (2016), and her previous books include Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany; Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Religion, and Sexuality in Early Modern EuropeThe Witch in the Western Imagination; and The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg.

More from Lyndal Roper

Martin Luther

Renegade and Prophet


Martin Luther

— Published by Random House —