Review – Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper


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Here he stands. She cannot do otherwise … Mangling the words and the exchanging of sexes in Martin Luther’s most famous statement, might be an indulgence that is unforgivable, but its contrived nature does testify sincerely to a glorious achievement.

First, Luther not only strides though the pages of this biography but ultimately stands tall, defiant and wonderfully vibrant. This is Luther in all his worldly glory, his spiritual turbulence and his personal failing.

Second, the biography seems the realisation of Roper’s professional and personal experience. It is marked with the sort of learning one would routinely associate with a regius professor of history at Oxford University but is also imbued with an individual stance honed by the author being the daughter of a cleric to whom the book is dedicated. The conviction of her efforts suggests this was a book she had to write.

The birth of the Reformation, an event that placed the Western world in turmoil, is dated to Luther nailing his theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Roper points out that these may have been glued to the door or even not attached at all. Luther never made any mention of such a dramatic event, instead he said he had sent letters to the archbishop of Mainz and the bishop of Brandenburg. She is, of course, aware that the physical form of his protest is the least interesting aspect of Luther but mentions it to underline that nothing about the great man can be taken on faith.

He was also a man of God who retained a vicious, visceral hatred for Jews. Roper is perfectly and characteristically judicious in this awful failing. Luther detested the Slavs – “the worst nation of all” – but deployed the full force of his invective towards the Jews. Luther lived in a world that presaged a dreadful future Germany. The Slavs were derided, the Jews forced to wear the identifying tags of yellow circles. But Roper properly points out that Luther’s anti-Semitism was beyond even the desperate norms of his time.

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