Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation

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Peter Marshall
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     278 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Although this book features the Protestant reformer Martin Luther on its cover and in its title, it is not a book about Luther’s career or theological development. Rather, it is a book about the impact of Luther on the subsequent history of Western Christianity: about the image of Luther standing at the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517, and posting his protest—his Ninety-Five Theses—on that door.

Marshall explores the available evidence for this event, gathering and evaluating the provenance of its happening, and concludes that it did not occur—at least not in the way traditionally portrayed in innumerable books and movies. So count Marshall as a skeptic; the question has never been definitively settled and never will be, however, this is not the end of his book but the beginning. Marshall explores the development of the social image of the posting of the theses (the thesenanschlag) through the centuries, tracing how an otherwise obscure event became a major part of Protestant history and folklore, and beyond this, a major symbol of protest in western culture.

It was an obscure event, at least in Luther’s theological career and in the early history of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Certainly, the theses themselves made an impact on 16th century Europe, but the image of their posting was not integral to their power. Luther’s subsequent actions: his disputation at Heidelberg, his burning of the papal bull, his appearance before the Imperial Diet at Worms, and his “disappearance” and enforced exile at the Wartburg castle, were of greater contemporary impact than was the “posting” of the theses. Theologically, Luther was beginning his road to reformation in the fall of 1517, and while his theses show glimpses of his later theological development, they are still tentative in many ways. So, how did a minor event grow to take on such legendary status?

Marshall demonstrates that the initial elements of the thesenschlag, as seen as a pivotal event, come from the period of time after Luther’s death. The 1540s to the 1560s was a time of tremendous military and political danger for the Evangelical movement in Germany. In the midst of the loss of Luther, and the traumas of the present, “a circumstantial detail of Luther’s quarrel with John Tetzel and his backers was coming to be seen as an act of courageous defiance, and of weighty symbolic significance” (80). Over the next decades the importance of 1517 would grow into a rallying point for the Protestant cause in Europe.

The balance of Marshall’s analysis focuses on the subsequent anniversaries of the thesenschlag, especially in 1617, 1817, and 1917. These were periods of great uncertainty for the German Protestant world, coming just before the Thirty-Years War, the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and the middle of the First World War. During each of these anniversary years, Protestant leaders found distinctive elements of Luther—and his break with Rome and the medieval church—which they could apply to their present, dangerous situations. Marshall believes that “the Reformation, as we know it today, was in a real sense discovered or invented in 1617” (91), and that the thesenschlag only grew after this anniversary. With the questions of German identity and nationalism that surrounded the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the figure of the heroic German Luther took on new significance in the 1817 observances. After the observances of Luther’s birthday in 1883, at the height of the new German state, the traumas of 1917 and the First World War meant a new and more somber meaning for the thesenschlag: “Luther was ... the embattled symbol of a uniquely German spirit and destiny” (166). Marshall also mentions other major reinterpretations of the Luther event, including the Enlightenment, Luther’s birth anniversary amid the rise of National Socialism in 1933, and the East German Marxist appropriation of Luther in 1983. Marshall ends with an epilogue “tip of the hat” to the events of 2017, which were too recent for him to analyze.

Marshall’s narrative skills and his probing analysis are equally enjoyable and insightful. His work is a reminder that histories and anniversaries are contextual, with one eye on the past and the other on the present. Also, he advises that, while pivotal events and their observance are a part of historical imagination, the meaning of these pivotal events can take on a significance far beyond their original importance. Occasionally, Marshall’s sweeping cultural narratives can seem a bit forced and contrived, as some of the elements must be stubbornly fit into a larger story. But these points are minor. Overall, 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation is an engaging and stimulating look not only at an historical event, but how such an event took on an oversized life of its own through anniversary celebrations over the centuries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark A. Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Marshall, a native of the Orkney Islands, has since 2006 been Professor of History at the University of Warwick, and is a leading expert in the history of the Reformation and its impact in the British Isles and beyond. He is a winner of the Harold J. Grimm Prize for Reformation History, and has been shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award. He is co-editor of the English Historical Review, a frequent reviewer for the TLS, Literary Review, Tablet and other periodicals, and a regular lecturer to school and community groups. He is married with three daughters, and lives in Leamington Spa.


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