On 31 October 1517, as every child once knew, an obscure German monk nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s castle church and so began the Reformation. It would seem that there is no firm evidence that this ever actually happened as myth would have it, but whether Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door or glued them or merely posted them to Germany’s leading churchmen, the Christian world would never be the same again.
Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet is an exploration of a man’s interior life and development and not, as Lyndal Roper insists, either a general history of the Reformation or even of the Lutheran revolution in Wittenberg. She is only too aware of the reductive dangers of shrinking great historical events and theological arguments to the emotional and psychological struggles of an individual. And yet if any man, as her compelling and above all deeply honest biography shows, can shoulder this kind of emphasis — any man, moreover, whose theology seems so direct an emanation of character — it is the charismatic, bruising, paradoxical and appalling Augustinian monk turned renegade, Martin Luther.
Luther — Luder — was born in Eisleben in northern Germany in 1483, and grew up under the shadow of the Counts of Mansfeld’s castles in the small mining town of the same name. In later life he would always insist on his impeccable peasant origins, but his father was a mining inspector and prominent smelting master and it was in a smoky, slagheap-filled town on the edge of the civilised world that the young Martin grew up.
The wider context of the adult Luther’s rebellion — the growing anti-clericalism of the late 14th century, the extravagance and exactions of the Renaissance papacy, absenteeism, the shameful ignorance of so many clergy, the scandal of indulgences, the simmering hostility between Rome and Germany — is familiar enough territory, but for Roper it is impossible to understand Luther without understanding this Mansfeld world from which he came.