Luther's Wittenberg World

The Reformer's Family, Friends, Followers, and Foes

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Robert Kolb
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , May
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The year 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. It also saw a large number of new biographies of Luther that stretched from the critical to patently hagiographical. This volume, Luther’s Wittenberg World: The Reformer’s Family, Friends, Followers, and Foes by Robert Kolb, is a combination of a handbook and biography, and is a most welcome addition to the world of Luther studies—of which Kolb is the dean, both nationally and internationally. He is also the current president of the International Congress for Luther.

If L.P. Hartley was in part correct when he noted that history is a foreign country, then we might be forgiven for thinking of Kolb as an émigré who is now introducing visitors to the home he has made in Wittenberg for the last fifty years. There are few people who have spent as much metaphorical time in Wittenberg as Kolb. And the time spent there flows onto these pages. In the introduction, Kolb notes that Luther “was not an island” (3). Parents and teachers, colleagues and friends, foes and adversaries influenced him, and he influenced them. Kolb wants to introduce us to these people. He opens with a chapter on Luther’s family of origin, his education as a bright boy sent off at great expense, and the fateful transition to the monastery in Erfurt. Here we meet his parents Hans and Margarethe Luder (Martin changed the spelling of his name in 1517), as well as his brother and sisters. Along the way, dipping into the biography part of this work, Kolb hands on some of the interesting little biographical tidbits that are sure to enliven lectures and talks in the future. Kolb has spent a career collecting these anecdotes and they are one of the volume’s great treasures.

The second chapter moves us from the university and friary in Erfurt to those in Wittenberg. Earlier, Luther did a short stint as a one-year replacement hire in philosophy, but Kolb focuses on the permanent move there in 1511. It was a small, newly established university with a faculty largely unknown to any outside the village. But it became Luther’s home for the rest of his life, and he made it famous. Kolb opens by delving briefly into the intellectual streams that influenced Luther’s scholarship and theology. At times, Kolb’s familiarity with Luther bleeds into his view of those around Luther. For example, I am not entirely sure that it is fair to say Desiderius Erasmus grew jealous of Luther, as Kolb argues. My impression is Luther became more exasperated by him. But those are the small quibbles one jots into margins. In a way that makes the people discussed here more approachable, Kolb has numerous illustrations of people, cities, and buildings.

The next chapter moves to the next chapter in Luther’s life: marriage, family, and friendships. Luther married Katharina von Bora in 1525 and together they had six children, two of whom they buried. He also had many close friends, and some friends who became estranged to the point of becoming permanent enemies. Here we see some of the largely hidden Luther—one who, as with so many travelling parents today, promised a gift to a child if he behaved well for his mother or who could become both frustrated and amused with the self-same child who was told to stop singing loudly, so the boy just continued to sing in his father’s office but quietly rather than going outside to play. Again, these anecdotes enrich this volume immensely.

The longest chapter by far—nearly twice the length of the others—deals with Luther’s supporters in the German-speaking lands. Here we meet the knight-turned-humanist-turned polemicist Ulrich von Hutten, printers, painters (such as Albrecht Dürer), theologians, pastors, former priests, and various civil authorities that all helped to advance and solidify Luther’s reformation across Germany. There are names in this chapter that most students (and many non-specialists) will have never seen before. The final two chapters look at the great nobles who supported Luther and then the men who criticized and opposed him. Here, one might quibble with the chapter’s title, Luther’s Foes (chosen, obviously to keep the book’s subtitle alliterative) of lumping them all as enemies. There were the true foes—people like the inquisitor Jacob von Hoogstraaten—and then the critics who disagreed with Luther on things like the Eucharist but who would not have seen him burned at the stake.
Kolb made the conscious decision not to include bibliographies for each chapter. I partly understand this, since they would have taken up a lot of space. He does encourage people to consult Hans Hillerbrand’s Encyclopedia of the Reformation (Oxford, 1999) and the Neue Deutsche Biographie (Dunker & Humbolt, 1953). A student interested in the people introduced by Kolb will need to go to resources like Hillerbrand’s because the sketches here are too brief to be of use for papers or presentations. But that is not the purpose of this book. Kolb does not mean to duplicate Hillerbrand or even my book Luther In Context (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Instead, he has written an entirely entertaining “travel guide” to Luther’s world. If you have a student interested in some aspect of the Lutheran Reformation, hand them this first. Let them get excited. Then send them to the encyclopedias and handbooks.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David M. Whitford is Professor of Reformation Studies at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
January 28, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Kolb is International Research Emeritus Professor for the Institute of Mission Studies at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Among his many publications, he is the author of Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (2009) and coeditor of The Book of Concord (2001). 


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