What are we to make of the inner life of Martin Luther (1483-1546), the man who more than any made the Protestant Reformation happen? This inner life is the decided focus of Lyndal Roper’s learned, but humane, biography. Here was a man of such courage that he withstood the Emperor to his face at the Diet of Worms, risking imprisonment and death by insisting on his own heterodox teachings. Yet he was also a man so petrified by a storm in his early twenties that he vowed to become a monk if he was spared.
Fear and hatred seemed to struggle for dominance in Luther’s character, without extinguishing his humour (which has struck modern readers as coarse, a word also used of his facial features by contemporaries). The making of his post-monastic career was his hatred of the papacy, first for its corruption, later for existing at all as an institution. But he hated uppity peasants, too. Despite Luther’s claim that he came from peasant stock, his father was a master smelter from Mansfeld, a mining town in what is now Saxony-Anhalt, grimily brought to life in this biography – as dirty as Coketown in Hard Times, and nastier. In 1524, Luther took the princes’ side in the bloody Peasants’ War.
His “visceral” hatred of Jews is the hardest thing for a modern reader to take. It was no merely theological rejection of Judaism. He advocated the destruction of their schools and the burning of their houses. He brought his scatological fantasies to bear in describing them worshipping and devouring the Devil’s excrement.
Dr Roper, now the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, does not attempt to reconcile Luther’s contradictions. As a monk he suffered Anfechtungen, which can be translated as temptations, and they brought him terror. Later, he recalled one of his superiors remarking that these terrors seemed as necessary to Luther’s make-up as eating and drinking. He feared God and saw Jesus as a terrifying judge, but at the same time remembered having “thought Jesus a womanish name”.
Luther’s lifelong insistence on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, under the guise of bread, is an aspect of his belief emphasised by Roper. But it is striking that he suffered attacks of panic in the presence of the Sacrament. When he said his first Mass, he would have fled in terror at the point of the consecration, when bread and wine became Christ’s body and blood, had the prior not held him back. At a Corpus Christi procession, when the Sacrament in form of bread is honoured in public, he broke out in a sweat of fear, convinced that he would perish.
This means that there must have been something profoundly wrong with Luther’s life as a monk. Since it was the professed aim of this life to spend eternity with Jesus and his father God, it would hardly do to be terrified of them, day by day.
Roper calls Luther’s monastic life one of “extreme bodily and mental mortification”. It is true that he had chosen to join a reformed branch of Augustinians, which observed an unmitigated rule. Luther did fast, and thought it bad for his health, just as he took the view that sexual intercourse would have been good for his bodily health, following the prevailing scientific teaching of his day.
But while the other members of his monastery rose in the middle of the night to sing matins, Luther was excused this, from the age of 25, on the grounds that he had to teach university students the next day. He also skipped the recitation of the Psalms that marked each day’s monastic hours, saving them up all week to be said the following Saturday, which then left him no time even to eat. It was a recipe for a breakdown, or a breakout.
After his 95 theses were nailed on the castle church door at Wittenberg, in 1517, when he was just 34, events carried him on rapidly. Others had attacked papal corruption before, but this time scholars and princes took notice. Luther used the new craft of printing to issue a deluge of polemic. Soon he lost control of the Reformation, and feuded bitterly with other reformers.
Part of the subtitle of Roper’s impressively marshalled book is “Renegade”, and an undertaking on which he reneged was his vow of celibacy. But it was not in order to marry that he left the monastery. “They won’t force a wife on me,” he declared in 1521, when many other reformers were taking wives.
Four years later, he did marry. His bride was Katharina von Bora, an ex-nun. Roper finds it “rather chilling” that she always addressed him as “Mr Doctor”.