BOOK REVIEW: BRAND LUTHER : 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation

Andrew Pettegree, New York: Penguin Press, 2015, 383 pp.
by Robert J. Christman

The importance of printing for the spread and success of the Protestant Reformation, a trope in Reformation Studies, is often expressed in simplistic phrases like as “No printing press, no Reformation.” And indeed investigations into the role of print in the Reformation abound. In recent years, historian Andrew Pettegree, a leading expert on Europe in the time of the Reformation and founding director of the St. Andrews (Scotland) Reformation Studies Institute, has turned his attention to the topic. Much of his interest stems from his role as director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue Project (USTC), a collective database of all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century. His study of the topic, the results of which are presented in Brand Luther brings together his vast knowledge of early modern print, the life of Martin Luther, and the history of the German Reformation. It recounts, he suggests, the story of three transformations: “of Luther, the intense monk, into best-selling author; of the book industry, shaken from its roots in a scholarly, Latinate book world by the emergence of a mass market; and of Wittenberg (Pettegree 24).” Put another way, Pettegree weaves together the story of the rise of printing in Europe with a more focused narrative of the printing industry in Wittenberg during the time of the Reformation and a biography of Luther, particularly as his life related to printing activities.

As to the purpose of the book, Pettegree indicates that his goal is to tell how “. . . in the very different communication environment of five hundred years ago, a theological spat could become a great public event, embracing churchmen and laypeople over a wide span of the European landmass (Pettegree x).” “Print,” claims Pettegree, “propelled Martin Luther, a man who had published nothing in the first thirty years of his life, to instant celebrity. It was his genius to grasp an opportunity that had scarcely existed before he invented a new way to converse through books. In the process he changed western religion and European society forever (12).” But the narrative also moves in the opposite direction, for in investigating how Luther, the Reformation, and the world of sixteenth century printing interrelated and impacted one another, Pettegree also sheds new light on Martin Luther, both as an individual and as the leader of a mass movement, the crucial work of the cohort of individuals in Wittenberg surrounding Luther, and the atmosphere and transformation of Wittenberg as a result of these things.

For those unfamiliar with Luther’s life, Pettegree devotes long sections of the book to the biographical narrative, interweaving the story of print only where relevant. In the interests of focusing on what is new and groundbreaking here, the following summary will limit itself to the interaction between Europe-wide printing, the development of printing in Wittenberg, and Luther’s and the Reformation’s connections to them.

The Printing Industry: Pre Reformation 

For anyone unfamiliar with the rise of moveable print in Europe, it seems logical to assume that from its invention in the mid-fifteenth century, the story of its spread followed a generally upward and steady trend of expansion, beginning first in the major cities, then multiplying ever outward to the smaller towns. But this scenario, claims Pettegree, was not the case at all, due to the economic realities of the time. When first invented by Johannes Guttenberg, the revolutionary nature of moveable print quickly became apparent, and it did not take long for princes, bishops, and city councils to establish presses in their own territories. As a result, the number of printers throughout Europe initially expanded rapidly, but these men were often what we might call amateurs, scholars and other enthusiasts with little experience in the world of business. Despite the fact that books became more accessible than previously, they were still luxury items that very few could aspire to possess, in large part because although it was fairly easy to print 300, 500, or even 1,000 copies of a text, no clear means existed by which to link a text with one purchaser. Put another way, it was difficult and costly to distribute such quantities of a rather specialized item to marketplaces of Europe. This made printing, especially of larger books, a risky enterprise. A Latin tome of five hundred pages required capital to purchase paper, significant transport costs to customers spread widely, and it might take a year to get to market. If its appeal was underestimated, a reprint took a very long time. If it was overestimated, printers were left with stocks of unsellable merchandise. As a result, for many who embraced the new medium, it quickly became clear that it was remarkably difficult to make money producing printed books. Most of the first printers, claims Pettegree, lost money and many went bankrupt (Pettegree xi).

As a result, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, printing quickly settled down into a rather sedate and conservative industry. Wealthy merchants who dominated Europe’s transnational luxury trades displaced the amateur entrepreneurs. Such men could raise capital, knew how to transport books to major markets, how to arrange storage of paper, to handle loans, and the like (Pettegree 10). By the end of the fifteenth century, despite the fact that books were being produced in over two hundred different locations in Europe, two thirds of them were printed in just twelve cities, all strategically located in Europe’s major trading centers. Six could be found in Germany, four in Italy, and two in France. None of these centers had a population smaller than 30,000 (10). Wittenberg, had no press at all. The printing craze had passed it by entirely.

What got printed is also an important component of this story. Having observed the failures of the initial efforts to make printing viable, the second generation of printers “took refuge in conservative subjects,” as Pettegree puts it, by which he means that they discovered that the most reliable sources of income were servicing the needs of traditional religion and academics (Pettegree xi). This meant printing Latin religious texts, generally in small numbers and for a clearly defined educated elite. Or printing classical texts desired by humanists. As a result, most published authors of the age were historical figures such as Cicero, Aristotle, medieval churchmen, and early church fathers. Certainly books became more plentiful, but a personal collection of more than 30 was still very unusual. Thus the printed book industry quickly settled into the contours of the book market prior to the invention of printing producing mostly long, expensive, Latin volumes, with the church among the main consumers of print.

In addition to the long Latin texts, however, the church also required shorter works that for printers were very lucrative. In particular, indulgences campaigns brought in significant business because in addition to the indulgence themselves, they required brochures, handbooks, copies of sermons, and other materials, profitable contracts for printers. It is therefore not surprising that both Gutenberg and William Caxton, England’s first printer, produced indulgences. To provide some sense of the type of production necessary in an indulgence campaign, Pettegree provides statistics from the Swabian town of Urach, where a rather modest campaign required two dozen documents over a six year period, employing the services of six printing houses to handle the workload. The certificates themselves would have been the most precious contracts, some indulgence campaigns calling for only few thousand, but others reaching numbers as high as 130,000 or even 200,000, orders so large that they would have been divided among various print shops. But what made them so appealing to printers was their length, requiring only one sheet of paper, and the fact that there was one buyer, the church, and no distribution costs. Of the printed works identified in the fifteenth century, about 10% of them are single page prints. Of these, one third is indulgences (Pettegree 54).

Although the printing industry was not really equipped to handle the needs of the coming Reformation, as it stood in Germany, it was best poised to give Luther and the Reformation certain advantages unavailable elsewhere. As opposed to France where the vast majority of printing occurred in Paris, or Italy, where printing was centered in Venice, the German industry was far more dispersed. Leipzig, not far from Wittenberg, led the way as Germany’s largest printing center, but was only slightly ahead of Nuremberg, Augsburg, Basel, Strasbourg, and Cologne. Thus the majority of the book trade was spread throughout the south and along the Rhine River. With this configuration, works printed in Wittenberg could easily make their way to Leipzig were they were reprinted, then distributed south to other German printing centers. And because Germany was a land of territories, each holding a significant degree of autonomy, it was difficult for any would-be censors to stop the production of works deemed unorthodox. Unlike the situation in France, England, or the Low Countries, those who printed Luther’s works faced little danger of retribution. In fact, the only major printing center in Germany to remain closed to Reformation texts was Cologne, although for the period from about 1520 until 1539, censorship in Leipzig prevailed as well. All of these factors came together to ensure that in Germany, and uniquely in Germany, the printing industry developed a strong, if pragmatic, affinity with the evangelical cause. Luther, writes Pettegree, was sufficiently popular to put bread on the table for publishers throughout Germany.

If we now change our perspective from the broader printing industry to the story of Wittenberg, the fact that over the course of the sixteenth century it would become Germany’s largest printing center was something no one could have foreseen. Upon his arrival there Luther referred to the little town on the Elbe River as situated in termino civilitatis (at the end of civilization) and had it stood a little further east, he suggested, it would have been in mediam barbariam (in the midst of the barbarians). Indeed Wittenberg was a small, inconsequential market town on Europe’s eastern periphery with a population of perhaps 2,000 in 384 dwellings when Luther first arrived. Prior to 1502, it had no printing press at all. Whatever books were needed could be purchased in nearby Leipzig or Erfurt. But because most university towns had their own presses, in 1502, the year in which he established the University of Wittenberg, Frederick the Wise had one set up. Essentially used to produce the necessities of a university, the press’s output was limited mostly to announcements, statements of theses to be defended, celebratory orations, and other short works. Anything more substantial would still be imported from elsewhere. It was by no means a flourishing enterprise, despite the fact that Frederick appears to have attempted to prop it up by having a catalog of his relics printed there along with a few other longer works (Pettegree 11). What is more, early printed materials from Wittenberg demonstrate its amateur status, a limited range of types, and not much in the way of aesthetics. In short, no truly professional commercial printer would have thought to make his home in Wittenberg.

In fact, three printers would come and go before 1508, when the press finally passed into the hands of Johan Rhau-Grunenberg, who would establish a reasonably successful business. Lured to Wittenberg by Johann von Staupitz, the Vicar General of the Reformed Augustinians and a professor at the University, Rhau-Grunenberg was a man of some education who had come from Erfurt where he had worked for another printer. The University did its best to accommodate him, offering a workshop close to the Augustinian cloister. Rhau-Grunenberg proved up to the task, but just barely. He was notoriously slow, his work was functional and unimaginative, and he showed no signs of wanting to improve or keep up with the trends in printing. Some of Luther’s colleagues at the university quickly became disenchanted with Rhau-Grunenberg and began to look elsewhere for more professional printers for their work, especially toward Leipzig. With examples of the best works from Europe’s major presses being collected by the Elector and university library, the difference in the quality of printing in Wittenberg was abundantly clear to all.

Luther’s Interaction in the Wittenberg Printing Industry 

Such was the state of printing in Europe, Germany, and Wittenberg when Martin Luther arrived on the scene. From very early on, claims Pettegree, Luther’s success was closely bound up with the printing industry and he intervened directly and forcefully in the publication of his writings. In fact, Luther spent his life in and out of print shops, observing, directing, even convincing a new printer to come to Wittenberg when the situation demanded it, and then in ensuring that its print shops remained viable (Pettegree xiii).

Due to Rhau-Grunenberg’s deficiencies, Luther’s relationship with him was frequently strained. Although Pettegree argues compellingly that Rhau-Grunenberg printed an edition of the ninety-five theses, already by 1518, the relationship had become troubled. Luther had contracted with him to print the Resolutiones, a fuller statement on indulgences, but in the fast-paced world of polemical debates, Rhau-Grunenberg was so slow that other writings against Luther continued to pile up long before the Resolutiones were published. And when they finally appeared Luther considered their quality deficient. As a result, he sent a number of writings to be printed in Leipzig, but soon found that the trip there took significant time, and having works printed in Leipzig reduced his ability to check the proofs for accuracy—something Pettegree claims Luther would eventually do on an almost daily basis. The logical solution was to persuade another printer to come to Wittenberg and Luther decided Michael Lotter was the appropriate candidate. “What seems to have attracted Luther,” remarks Pettegree, “was Lotter’s reputation as a publisher of serious works of Latin scholarship (Pettegree 112).” Lotter had been publishing in Leipzig since 1495 and by 1517 had almost 500 titles to his name. But although some of faculty at the University of Wittenberg had published with him, Lotter had also printed many materials for the church, including indulgence manuals and Johann Tetzel’s attack on Luther. None of this stopped him from agreeing to print Luther’s works, and in 1518 Luther turned to Lotter to publish a reply to the response of the papal theologian Sylvester Prierias to the Ninety-Five Theses. In May of 1519, Lotter visited Wittenberg, a sign that he was considering opening a branch, displaying to Luther some sample typefaces that he would employ that closely resembled those used by the best printers in Germany. Luther was clearly impressed, suggesting to his friend, George Spalatin, secretary to Frederick the Wise, that it would be a great boon to Wittenberg to have a printer with types of such quality, not to mention the ability to print in Greek and Hebrew.

When Luther traveled to Leipzig for the famous Leipzig Disputation of 1519, he lodged in Lotter’s workshop residence. At the time, Lotter was printing Luther’s Galatians Commentary, which he would have seen coming off the presses. Pettegree speculates that it was probably at that point that the deal was sealed for Lotter to open a branch in Wittenberg. In fact, Lotter would send his son Melchior to Wittenberg armed with a mass of his own types and others obtained from the leading printing center of Basel. Lucas Cranach, the court painter of Frederick the Wise, provided the new printing endeavor with space in his workshop and by early 1520 it was fully operational. Nonetheless, Luther continued to send work to Rhau-Grunenberg, despite the fact that that printer’s efforts continued to disappoint him.

Luther’s dissatisfaction with Rhau-Grunenberg, as well as his interest in the quality and aesthetics of his work, is on full display in an incident that occurred in 1521 when he was hidden away in the Wartburg. Luther had given Rhau-Grunenberg the contract for printing his famous Postil, a collection of his sermons. But when the proofs of his treatise “On Confession” arrived at the Wartburg, a work also being printed by Rhau-Grunenberg, Luther was furious complaining to Spalatin:

I cannot say how unhappy and disgusted I am with the printing. . . . It is printed so poorly, so carelessly, so confusedly, to say nothing of the bad typefaces and paper. John [Rhau-Grunenberg] the printer is always the same old John and does not improve. For goodness sake, under no circumstances let him print any of the German postils. What I have sent of them should be stored away, or rather returned to me so that I may send it somewhere else. What good does it do to work hard if such sloppiness and confusion causes other printers [presumably those who may reprint from this first edition] to make more mistakes that are worse. I do not want the Gospels and Epistles to be sinned against in this way; it is better to hide them than to bring them out in such a form. Therefore I am sending you nothing now, although I have finished almost ten large manuscript sheets of the [postil] (Pettegree 140).

In fact, Luther had some very specific thoughts regarding how the Postils should look and the manner in which each volume should be ordered. They were to be printed on folio paper with Lotter’s typefaces, since they would be a large book. And at one point Luther decided to shift materials from one volume to the next, commenting “I am doing this so that not too big a book frightens readers and buyers (Pettegree 141).”

What we are seeing here, argues Pettegree, is the beginning of the development of what he refers to as “Brand Luther.” For Pettegree, Brand Luther appears to be a combination of genre, writing style, and aesthetic presentation developed in the early stages of the Reformation in Wittenberg by the combination of Luther, and the printers, artists, and theologians working with him there. Its style became a distinctive hallmark not only of Wittenberg, but eventually of much of the Reformation, and would in the meantime revolutionize the printing industry.

Clearly Luther cared deeply about the quality and aesthetics of his publications. But Pettegree also notes that already from the time of the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther had developed an “extraordinary power and fluency” and was “a natural stylist,” despite the fact that he was writing in a genre that to that point had not valued those skills. “In the process,” states Pettegree, “Luther created what was essentially a new form of theological writing: lucid, accessible, and above all, short (Pettegree xii).” Pettegree sees signs of a new populist style already in Luther’s ninety-five theses, particularly in a series of ten theses in which Luther articulates what he calls “the shrewd questions of the laity.” For example, writes Luther in one of these ten theses that the laity will ask: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” Here Pettegree observes that “the shift in voice, the mix of carefully considered general propositions and blisteringly direct utterances placed in the mouth of the laity was very unusual for what purported to be a formal academic exercise (73).”

As a result of their broad appeal, the Ninety-Five Theses were reprinted in three different cities, something that Pettegree claims never before occurred with academic theses, generally ephemeral products designed for a highly specialized audience. Something new was happening. But it was really Luther’s “Sermon on Indulgence and Grace” that demonstrated a bold new style and a break from the past. Luther’s decision to speak beyond an informed audience of trained theologians to the wider public in their own language was deeply controversial, but it also put his opponents at a disadvantage from which they would never fully recover. But by “taking the debate out of the academic theater and the formal process of the dissertation,” writes Pettegree, “[Luther] abandoned the protection of his status as a professor (Pettegree 18).” It was a huge publishing success. Printed two (or perhaps three times) by Rhau-Grunenberg, it was quickly reprinted four times in Leipzig, and twice each in Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Basel. In fact, it was the vehicle by which most people came into contact with the content of the ninety-five theses. As Luther’s first serious foray into vernacular writing, it also introduced a new genre that replaced academic propositions with twenty short paragraphs, each developing a single aspect of the question. No paragraph was more than three or four sentences long and the sentences are short and direct. The whole text was a mere 1500 words and fit in an eight-sheet pamphlet. It was a revolution in theological writing, claims Pettegree. And although Luther called it a sermon, it bore little resemblance to the theatrical oration commonly understood as such. Rather it was something that could be read in ten minutes and went straight to the heart of the matter.

This genre and style of writing Luther would employ over and over again. By 1522, he had published about 160 different writings, only one third of which were in Latin (designed to persuade clerical colleagues to follow his lead), while the other two thirds were in German. What made Luther truly exceptional, claims Pettegree, was his willingness to step outside his clerical cast and reach out to the Christian people of Germany. They responded with interest and enthusiasm.

But as indicated, Luther was not only interested in audience, genre, and literary style, he also “appreciated that the quality and design of the printed artifact that presented his message was itself a visual totem to its respectability and truth (Pettegree xiii).” Help with this aspect of Brand Luther came from Wittenberg’s printers and artists. Like the development of Luther’s vernacular writings style, the look of Wittenberg’s printings developed rather quickly. Early products by Rhau-Grunenberg were essentially the same as everything that had gone before. But in Leipzig, printers took Luther’s works and transformed them, demonstrating how different kinds of types could be used to differentiate text and supporting matter. Prior to sending his son to Wittenberg, Lotter senior had first used decorative blocks to create a border surrounding the text of the title page, which was a useful way to draw the customer’s eye to the particular item in a bookseller’s stall. Luther would have seen the superiority of such copies of his works from elsewhere, as other printers and friends sometimes sent him copies. It did not take a genius to figure out that Rhau-Grunenberg’s offerings were very weak aesthetically.

When Melchior Lotter came to Wittenberg, things improved immensely. In addition to the various types he brought with him, he appropriated the pamphlet style that was being used in Leipzig, Augsburg, Strasbourg, and Basel, the quarto format, which was one piece of paper folded into four. Usually such pamphlets were short, either eight or sixteen pages. They had a neat, orderly title page articulating the subject, and very soon in Luther’s case, the author as well.

But it was really Lucas Cranach who gave Wittenberg’s works a distinctive style. As court painter, he had been asked to do everything—paint hunting scenes on walls, decorate furniture, produce banners, create anything the Elector wanted. Roughly the same age as Luther, the two men quickly became friends. When Lotter set up residence in his workshop in late 1519, Cranach became involved in printing. At this early stage, some of the works produced there were published under the names of Cranach and his partner (a goldsmith named Christian Döring) and sometimes Lotter published under his own name. But Cranach’s great contribution to the look of Wittenberg’s pamphlets was his addition of illustrative and decorative woodcuts, which improved their aesthetic appearance tremendously. These were blocks around a central panel that allowed for artistic expression, while highlighting the panel in which the title, author, and place of publication were placed. Until that point, only very expensive books would have had such borders, but now Cranach’s exquisite art could be bought for a few pence. “A statement was being made,” argues Pettegree, namely “that the message of the Reformation, Luther’s message, deserved to be arrayed in magnificence. In the process, and thanks to Cranach’s decisive intervention, the Wittenberg book was catapulted from the back to the front of the pack in terms of aesthetic appeal (Pettegree 158–159).”

Truly revolutionary was the way in which Cranach was able to illustrate narratives that until then had been expressed in a horizontal form in an upright and vertical format and in a design that could be fitted around blank panel. Sometimes he used simple foliage, animals, and other such items to decorate the title page, borders that made no allusion to the pamphlet’s contents, and were frequently reused. But there were some notable exceptions in which Cranach designed biblical scenes for title page decorations. He created a work on the blinding of Saul for an edition of Epistles and Gospels and one on Samson and the Lion and David and Goliath for an edition of Psalms. But his true masterpiece was a representation of Law and Gospel and Old Law and New Covenant in Christ, separated by a tree, blasted on one side, green and flourishing on the other. “Complex and intricate in its original manifestation as a panel, to reconfigure this as a title page, with blank central space for the title, was,” claims Pettegree, “one of the great design achievements of the age (Pettegree 160).”

Accumulating such ornate title-page woodcuts for the next two decades, Cranach would completely change the appearance of Reformation pamphlets, not just in Wittenberg, but across Germany. Printers elsewhere quickly began to copy his most successful designs. In addition to such borders, they did not take long to include Luther’s name boldly on the title page, often on a line of its own separated from the main body of the title and even larger than it. Moreover, soon the place of publication, Wittenberg, received its own line on the title page, the final element of a brand identity. “At last,” claim’s Pettegree, “Wittenberg books could face the world in a livery that expressed the dynamism, sophistication, and optimism of the new movement (Pettegree 161).” And he goes on to state: “Now Luther’s city could offer finished products worthy of their contents: pamphlets that in their design and appearance confidently proclaimed the unbreakable connection between the movement’s progenitor, Martin Luther, and the place with which his church was now indelibly associated, Wittenberg (163).” This was Brand Luther and, claims Pettegree, “It lies at the heart of Luther’s success, and of the transforming impact of the Reformation (xiv).”

And it was not just Luther’s own works that benefited from this branding. Luther himself was keen to let others in his cohort respond to attacks by their enemies when he had no time or when someone else knew more about the issue at hand. Often he would provide his imprimatur to such works in the form of a preface or introduction, composing over ninety in his lifetime. Some were dashed off. Others appear to have been the products of considerable work. But, claims Pettegree, Luther seemed to know that the main thing was his endorsement of work. One of the key points Pettegree makes throughout the book is that “Luther was deeply obliged to the radiating circle of clergy and laypeople who committed themselves to his cause; he realized that their wholehearted commitment, their theological expertise and literary virtuosity, was vital to his survival. These prefaces show how he nurtured and tended this community to ensure that the Reformation would not stand or fall ‘by Luther alone (Pettegree 185).’” But although he was generally happy to provide such imprimaturs for writings he considered beneficial, he also feared becoming the movement’s de facto chief censor, once remarking to a friend, “One of your [Erfurt] preachers, Herr Justus Menius, has sent me a little book that he composed against the Franciscan monastery in your city, so that I should judge whether it might be sufficiently deserving of publication. Now, I have no intention—and may God guard me against it—of taking upon myself to be judge or ruler over other preachers, lest I start my own papacy (275–276).”

The Expansion of Printing in Wittenberg and Broader Impact 

After the Wittenberg brand was developed in the early phases of the Reformation, the increasing demand for printed materials led to a period of rapid expansion in Wittenberg’s printing industry. As the Reformation became entrenched, added to polemical and devotional works was an expanding demand for catechisms, prayer books, Bibles and hymnals, sermons, church orders, and commentaries, a huge volume of printing. To give some sense for this expansion the following statistics are informative. Martin Luther published his first work in 1516 and by the end of 1520 he was the most prolific living author since the dawn of printing seventy years earlier, a position he would hold until the end of the sixteenth century. As a result, between 1520 and 1525, Hans Lufft, Georg Rhau, Nickel Schirlentz, Joseph Klug and Hans Weiss all set up print shops in Wittenberg, guiding the industry there into a new phase of expansion. Informative for our understanding of Luther is how he treated these men and their undertakings. Rather than pitting them against one another, he made sure each of them had the chance to build a viable business.

We get a sense for this when, during the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Luther spent several months outside of Wittenberg in the Coburg Castle, during which time he completed eleven works which he distributed among the five Wittenberg printers. Lufft received four, Schirlentz three, Rhau two, and one each for Klug and Hans Weiss. Over time, these printers seem to have specialized in different genres and titles. Lufft would take responsibility for reprints of the Bible, prayer books, and postils; Klug for German songbooks and the works of the university scholars (he was Melanchthon’s favorite); Schirlentz held a monopoly on Wittenberg reprints of the Small Catechism; and Rhau was allocated the Large Catechism, Augsburg Confession, and Melanchthon’s Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

But while solicitous of his friends in the printing industry, Luther could also be hard on them. Pettegree suspects that while in the Coburg, Luther missed the daily interaction with the printers and seems to have become paranoid about what they were doing in his absence. Lufft attracted Luther’s ire for delaying the printing of a text, presumably so that its publication would coincide with the autumn book fair in Frankfurt. Schirlentz planned to shelve Luther’s Sermon on Keeping Children in School until winter in order to hit the spring fair, a move that so angered Luther that he ordered his wife, Katharina, to march into Schirlentz’s print shop, retrieve the sermon, and have it reassigned to Rhau. Weiss then refused to publish Exposition on Psalm 117 because Luther had allowed it to be published in Coburg, and therefore it would not be a first edition and could potentially lose money. Luther had it reassigned to Rhau. But apparently none of these hitches led to hard feelings upon his return as all of Wittenberg’s printers continued to publish Luther’s works.

In fact, Luther worked hard to ensure that Wittenberg would retain a vibrant printing industry. He desired that the canonical texts of the movement were published accurately and without error or amendment and due to his massive importance to the industry, his influence on what was printed when and where was immense. When Albertine Saxony finally accepted the Reformation in 1540, the printers in Leipzig who had to that point been prohibited from publishing Luther’s works began preparing some of the Wittenberg standards, including Luther’s Bible. Only a short distance from Wittenberg, such a move could have crippled the printing industry there. Luther successfully intervened, appealing to Elector John Frederick on behalf of the Wittenberg printers and their right to retain their income from these works.

Luther was so powerful and essential to the printing industry that not only in Wittenberg, but throughout the Protestant lands no printer who wanted to work again would think to challenge this authority. In this way, Luther exercised near total control over the flow of texts that publishers needed to obtain and to sustain their businesses. Yet printers were happy to work within these constraints, since the profits were great and the work reliable. They knew, as did Luther, how much his works were worth in the German marketplace. A preface by Luther, claims Pettegree, could justify a new edition of any work already published elsewhere in Germany. The presence of Luther’s name could add value to the first edition of a sermon or catechism by an otherwise obscure author.

But it is also worth noting that Luther never took any money for his writings, as demonstrated by an interesting anecdote from 1539. In June of that year, just as ducal Saxony was finally joining the Reformation and Leipzig’s printers were preparing to publish Reformation texts, the printers of Wittenberg approached Luther. Knowing the potential for financial disaster at having powerful competitors so close by, they made Luther an offer: four hundred gulden a year to a man whose salary was never more the two hundred if he would give them first rights to all new materials. He refused, states Pettegree, preferring “to make no money from his books, written always in God’s cause, and to give no further ammunition to his enemies by profiteering from God’s work (Pettegree 278).”

Pettegree ends his discussion of Luther’s impact on the printing industry in Wittenberg with the observation: “From the first days when his writings revolutionized production in Wittenberg, to the end of his life and beyond, Luther was the true patron saint of the Wittenberg printing industry. By the last decade of his life the industry was sustaining several hundred employed directly in the business of books and others in ancillary trades (Pettegree 280).”

But what of Luther’s impact on the printing trade more generally? It was as profound throughout Germany, suggests Pettegree, as it was in Wittenberg. To give some sense for this, Pettegree supplies a series of statistics. Already in the years 1518-1519, Luther became Europe’s most published author. His forty-five original compositions during that period, (twenty-five in Latin and twenty in German), were reprinted 291 times by German printers, who were especially fond of his short pamphlets that could be rapidly printed without an investment of much capital. A well-organized print shop could print 500 copies of an eight-page pamphlet in a day, a fact Luther seemed to realize early on. So of these forty-five writings in this two-year period, twenty-one were eight pages or less and sold out quickly, providing an immediate return on investment to Germany’s printers.

Printing in the city of Augsburg during the early Reformation provides more proof of Luther’s broad impact. A sophisticated and populous city, without a university but with a significant printing industry, Augsburg was an early supporter of the Reformation. In 1517, thirty seven titles were printed there; in 1518, that number rose to eighty nine; in 1519, to one hundred and seventeen. And in 1520, Augsburg’s printers published ninety editions of Luther’s works alone.

And if one pans out more broadly to Germany’s major cities the trend observed in Augsburg reflects the broader response in Germany’s major cities to the Reformation. During the period 1520-1525, writes Pettegree, “the presses of Germany turned out over seven thousand editions, more than doubling the output since the previous decade (Pettegree 207).” All told during these years, Germany absorbed close to 4 million copies of various works of controversy and instruction generated by the Reformation. The massive output was much helped by the fact that of Germany’s major pre-Reformation publishing centers, only Cologne was wholly closed to the evangelical cause. The other five (Augsburg, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, Leipzig, and Basel) together with Wittenberg and Erfurt, accounted for over 85 percent of the editions of the writings of Luther and his colleagues. And between 1521 and 1525 when the pamphlet war was at its height, Luther and supporters out-published their opponents 9 to 1. Such an abundance of Luther’s works everywhere caused the papal legate, Jerome Aleander, to remark during his attendance of the Diet of Worms: “A shower of Lutheran writings in German and Latin comes out daily. There is even a press maintained here, where hitherto this art [printing] has been unknown. Nothing else is bought here except Luther’s books, even in the imperial court… (211).” In fact, Luther’s works outstripped those of any other author by a factor of ten and he out-published the most successful of his Catholic opponents by a factor of thirty. And it is also important to note that after Luther, the next four most published authors of the period were Philipp Melanchthon, Johannes Bugenhangen, and Justus Jonas, all members of Luther’s Wittenberg circle. The only author to break into this “cartel” was Urbanus Rhegius of Augsburg, a leader of the Reformation there. What Luther and the Reformation did, states Pettegree, was to establish a new pool of customers, putting books into the hands purchasers from outside the traditional groups of book owners. As the printers soon found out, engaging this new population was hugely lucrative.

Finally, asks Pettegree, why was it so difficult for the forces opposed to Luther to fight fire with fire? Why was their counterattack to ineffective? He rejects the conventional wisdom that the main reason was the reluctance of men like Tetzel, Eck, Cochlaeus, and Emser to write in the vernacular. The larger problem, claims Pettegree, was that their writings simply found little resonance. Almost none of them went through more than one or two editions. Oftentimes these authors maligned the printing industry for its reluctance to print their works and it is true that sometimes they had trouble finding publishers, who often forced the authors themselves to pay publishing costs. But, argues Pettegree, for the most part it was simply a question of the market. Luther’s works sold; those of his opponents did not (Pettegree 217). Pettegree concludes, “Those who wrote against Luther plowed a lonely furrow, with little help from the printing industry. Printers would often only take on their work if paid, or obliged to do so, and with good reason, for these works simply could not match the sales of the evangelical authors (220).”

Historiography and Critique 

For those familiar with the general contours of Luther’s life, Pettegree’s book breaks little new ground. Rather its strength and its value lie in combining Luther’s biography with the parallel story of the printing industry particularly in Wittenberg. The result is new and deeper understandings of both Luther and the Reformation. In particular, Pettegree uses the evidence from the UTSC to tremendous effect. This unique source allows him to cast a bird’s eye view over printing in Germany and to place Luther and his works within it. As such it is a great boon to our understanding of the relationship between the two, providing a series of important new insights and extending and deepening others. Put another way, the phrase “No Printing Press, No Reformation” is given some clear figures and distinctive contours.

First, Pettegree provides a greater awareness, not of the content of the Reformation ideas, but one format by which they appealed to a broad audience and therefore how the Reformation worked as a mass movement. By revealing Luther’s development of his own style, his use of new genres, and how these advancements were married with the most up-to-date printing practices, and then beautified by Cranach’s woodcuts, Pettegree provides insight into who Luther was writing for, and his special facility in appealing to them. It also lays bare the symbiotic relationship that developed between Luther in the printing industry. Luther desired to reach the German people and his skills in doing so happened to coincide with the economic interests of the printing industry. As a result, the printers were happy to do their best to distribute his ideas across Germany and Europe. And in doing so, Luther also helped transform the printing industry, broadening its appeal to include a larger segment of the society. This confluence of historical factors helps to illustrate in part, at least, just how the Reformation was initially so successful. And Pettegree’s broad understanding of the printing industry in Europe and particularly in Germany help account for how a brand developed in Wittenberg could appeal to a wide audience across large parts of Germany.

Pettegree’s book underscores and elucidates a second theme that has recently become increasingly pronounced in the study of the Reformation, namely that despite the fact that Luther was foundational and central to the movement, the Reformation is not synonymous with Luther, nor is Luther synonymous with the Reformation. Luther had a cast of highly capable, dependable, and committed supporters and collaborators, more than a few of whom brought their own genius to the Reformation. Their strengths ran the gamut, from intellectual to artistic to organizational to artisan, and it was the combined power of these abilities, feeding and working off one another, that truly allowed the Reformation to thrive.

And finally, a careful investigation of Luther and his interaction with the printing industry reveal heretofore unknown or under-acknowledged aspects of his personality. Luther’s practical side is exposed, his interest in the means and methods employed to disseminate his message, his focus on the presentation of his ideas, his appreciation of and support for the printing industry, its internal workings, and its business side, and his development of a brand, to us the jargon of modernity, all suggest a man deeply engaged with the realities and practicalities of his times. Pettegree states: “Luther was no distracted intellectual, but a man of great practical skill. He understood the practicalities of turning words and ideas into a printed artifact (Pettegree xiii).” And again, “Luther realized very early that…Wittenberg had to develop a book industry capable of sustaining the vast demand for his works, one that would also do justice to the potency of his call for fundamental Christian reform (xii).” Luther was in almost daily contact with printers. He understood their importance for the Reformation, he supported their desire to earn money, and he interceded for them when such interests were threatened. Ultimately, the reader is left with a portrait of the Reformer as a forceful and capable planner, someone bent on proclaiming the Reformation message via the most effective media and means of his times.

Not only is Luther’s practicality displayed, but the reader is given deeper insight into his everyday humanity. On the one hand, his anger at the printers when they disappointed him and his willingness to express it suggest a fiery individual who demanded perfection. He was clearly an exacting client. On the other hand his evenhandedness in distributing his writings among them, even including someone like Rhau-Gruenberg who had disappointed him so frequently, his willingness to intercede on their economic behalf, and his absolute aversion to take any compensation for his writings all reveal a man of warmth, loyalty, and high ethical standards. It is no wonder, suggests Pettegree, that the printers of Wittenberg came to love him. And we might finally note that his letter to his wife Katherina in which he requested that she retrieve one of his writings from one printer and give it to another suggests reliance on and trust of her considerable abilities to manage day-to-day life and business dealings.

But the book is not without its flaws. It is no easy task to combine the narratives of Luther’s biography and the early Reformation with the history of printing in Europe, Germany, and Wittenberg, all in a format accessible to a popular audience, and Pettegree sometimes struggles to create a coherent story. Occasionally the book feels repetitive and its central point fractured and diffuse. What is more, much of Luther’s interaction with the various printers survives only when he was away from Wittenberg and had to correspond with them or with others who would represent him to the printers. Thus Pettegree really only has hard evidence for Luther’s interactions with Wittenberg’s printers for the few periods he was away from Wittenberg, such as his time in the Wartburg in 1521 and again in the Coburg Castle in 1530. His assumption that while at home Luther would have had similar conversations with printers on almost a daily basis, while plausible and even probable, remains a supposition.

Perhaps not necessarily a weakness but rather more of a note of caution is the fact that by focusing on the issue of print and its centrality to the success of the spread of the Reformation, other key means of disseminating Reformation ideas are overlooked. It would not take much to imagine a similar book devoted to the crucial role played by preaching in the Reformation or by music and song. The point here is not to discredit Pettegree’s work, as in many ways printing was crucial to both preaching and the spread of hymns, but to suggest that these things interacted with and built upon one another and that they were all important vehicles by which the ideas of the Reformation spread.

But perhaps more problematic is Pettegree’s use of the term “brand”, a rather anachronistic application. While catchy and in many ways relevant in so far as Pettegree does convincingly argue that a recognizable Wittenberg brand came into being, it cannot help up conjure up notions like “branding”, “brand recognition”, “brand marketing”, and “brand loyalty”. In the twenty-first century, everyone knows that such things are the results of market studies, customer polls, marketing campaigns, and psychologically coercive advertising. In short, “brand” is a word laden with capitalistic and consumeristic connotations, all of which point toward a materialistic and often dishonest attempt to promote a human product or cause. Certainly Pettegree never suggests this of Luther and his circle (although he moves more in this direction with regard to the printers) but the very use of the word conjures up images of Luther and his colleagues sitting around the boardroom table discussing expansion strategies and the like. What Pettegree describes in the book is a far more natural and autochthonic occurrence, a response by individuals so convinced of and enraptured by their spiritual discoveries and convictions, and so persuaded of their relevance and import to all people, that to spread them by the most effective means possible naturally generated new forms, styles, and artistic creations.

If what Pettegree himself describes as “brand” contradicts many of the contemporary connotations rightly or wrongly associated with the word, his portrayal of Luther is that of a man with a clear reform agenda, and from rather early on a desire to carry it out, a will to determine ways to do so, and then the aspiration to make his changes permanent. Pettegree’s Luther is a man with a plan. He is dubbed the leader of a movement, invested in making his ideas broadly known, spreading his reputation, and executing his motives. Pettegree’s Luther is a motivator, initiator, and the architect of a movement. If the Luther “brand” is something that comes together through the gradual work of many individuals inspired by spiritual matters, Luther himself, although likewise inspired by spiritual matters, is a strategist and tactician.

Such a man is far more earthbound than his portrayal by someone like Heiko Oberman. Oberman’s Luther lives his life in the shadow of eternity; sees this world and himself as the battleground for the cosmic and eternal forces of God and the devil. He is a man swept along by a task given him by God, harried by his foes, forced to respond again and again to the attacks of his enemies, a man who did not see himself as a reformer, or the leader of a movement. Rather he considered himself to be living in the endtimes with the apocalypse close at hand, working in the service of God’s agenda, on a cause that was not his own, and would never be successful in any human terms.

How are we to understand these two very different but equally substantiated portraits? Certainly Luther had no teleological plan for the Reformation. His theological convictions demanded that he believe that God was in control and that humankind, due to its flawed and sinful nature, not to mention the efforts of the devil and the world, could never initiate a movement that pushed humankind in the direction of earthly perfection. As Oberman once put it, the Gospel, brought to light, would only serve to unleash the rage of the devil against God’s chosen people. If a true Reformation were to take place, it would have to be commenced by God and guided by him (Oberman 267). But this did not mean that Luther did not understand himself as a tool of God, duty-bound to use those internal resources and insights he had been given, as well as his academic learning, but also the material, financial, media, and human resources at his disposal in the purpose of God’s cause. All of these things were gifts of God. For centuries the following statement has been attributed to Luther, despite the fact that no one has ever been able to tie it to him directly: “Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” Such a sentiment, it seems, embraces both sides of the man: a cognizance and recognition of eternity, and a determination to fulfill the task at hand, to think about the here and now in concrete terms. Luther, it seems, embodied both.


Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, trans. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989

Pettegree, Andrew. Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation. New York: Penguin, 2015