A revolutionary look at Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the birth of publishing, on the eve of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary
When Martin Luther posted his “theses” on the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517, protesting corrupt practices, he was virtually unknown. Within months, his ideas spread across Germany, then all of Europe; within years, their author was not just famous, but infamous, responsible for catalyzing the violent wave of religious reform that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation and engulfing Europe in decades of bloody war.
Luther came of age with the printing press, and the path to glory of neither one was obvious to the casual observer of the time. Printing was, and is, a risky business—the questions were how to know how much to print and how to get there before the competition. Pettegree illustrates Luther's great gifts not simply as a theologian, but as a communicator, indeed, as the world's first mass-media figure, its first brand. He recognized in printing the power of pamphlets, written in the colloquial German of everyday people, to win the battle of ideas.
But that wasn't enough—not just words, but the medium itself was the message. Fatefully, Luther had a partner in the form of artist and businessman Lucas Cranach, who together with Wittenberg’s printers created the distinctive look of Luther's pamphlets. Together, Luther and Cranach created a product that spread like wildfire—it was both incredibly successful and widely imitated. Soon Germany was overwhelmed by a blizzard of pamphlets, with Wittenberg at its heart; the Reformation itself would blaze on for more than a hundred years.
Publishing in advance of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Brand Luther fuses the history of religion, of printing, and of capitalism—the literal marketplace of ideas—into one enthralling story, revolutionizing our understanding of one of the pivotal figures and eras in human history.
About the Author
Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, where he was the founding director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. He is the author of a number of books on the Reformation and the history of communication, including Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion, The Book in the Renaissance, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010, and The Invention of News. In 2015 The Invention of News won the Goldsmith Prize of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He lives in Fife, Scotland.
“A perceptive study of Luther’s ideas and the rise of a new print culture in Europe…. some regard [Luther] as the man who opened the floodgates of modernity, as a very modern man…. Mr. Pettegree does not attempt an explicit comparison, but the name that comes to mind is Steve Jobs, a person who transformed an industry and created his own brand in doing so.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Insightful and fresh….an important story told with careful scholarship and elegant writing.”— National Catholic Reporter
“There is very little serious academic work that explicitly explores the role of printing in the rise of Protestantism. Brand Luther fills that gap. It is an insightful and highly scholarly book but it’s very readable at the same time. It is a well-researched book that provides deep analysis of the rise of Protestantism. It should be on university curriculums for history. It is a must-read for everyone interested in the history of Europe and religion. Pettegree’s scholarship is unmatched in its insight, scholarly value, and authority.”—The Washington Book Review
“A remarkable story, thoroughly researched and clearly told, and one sure to change the way we think about the early Reformation.”—Washington Post
“Pettegree expertly guides us through Luther's years and achievements…. Most of all, though, Pettegree deserves credit for his fresh slant on the Reformation and his dynamic storytelling….And as this absorbing and illuminating book capably shows, after Luther, print and public communication—and indeed, religion—would never be the same again.”—Weekly Standard
“Pettegree…shines light on an overlooked talent of [the Reformation’s] main progenitor…Brand Luther shows how Wittenberg’s most famous son took keen interest not only in the content of his books, but also in how they were manufactured, designed, and marketed.”—Christianity Today
“Pettegree admirably presents Luther, warts and all. But in the final analysis, he asks whether printing created Luther and the Protestant Reformation or Luther created mass media through his shrewd manipulation and adaptation of the printing industry to his specific needs. This book argues both—it’s hard to separate one from the other since the rising success of printing as well as Protestantism seemed to go hand in hand. Well researched and well written, this essential book is for anyone remotely interested in Luther or early modern technology.” –Library Journal
"Well researched and well written, this essential book is for anyone remotely interested in Luther or early modern technology."—Sandra Collins, Byzantine Catholic Seminary Lib., Pittsburgh
“A cogent and authoritative overview of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and of the burgeoning printing industry that disseminated his ideas….An informative history of a man of ‘adamantine strengths and…very human weaknesses’ who incited a theological revolution.”- Kirkus
“Authoritative and beautifully written, Pettegree’s book provides a radical take on a revolutionary figure.”- Bruce Gordon, Yale Divinity School, author of Calvin
“Andrew Pettegree draws on a lifetime’s scholarly engagement with the history of the book to offer us a fresh way of looking at Luther and his times. Of all the many new books which will commemorate the momentous events of 1517, this will be one of the most original: not just a biography of Martin Luther, but a study which uses the printing industry as a lens through which to view his extraordinary achievement as writer and inspiration of the movement which reshaped European religion.”-Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of The Reformation: A History and Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
“This perceptive and engaging analysis of the German Reformation highlights the fruitful interweaving of Martin Luther’s skills as a preacher, writer, and publicist and the burgeoning printing industry. Pettegree’s lucid and persuasive account offers unparalleled insight into this outstanding early modern example of effective use of communication techniques that allowed Luther’s message to take hold.”-Karin Maag, Professor of History and Director, H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, Calvin College and English editor and translator of The Reformation and the Book
“Andrew Pettegree brings his expert knowledge of the sixteenth-century book business to bear on the old crux of ‘printing and the Reformation.’ Many images of Luther will appear in the next few years, and this one is particularly intriguing. Pettegree’s Luther understood the importance of the new medium and the new format in which his message was expressed. He was not an artless voice declaiming against the whirlwind, as he sometimes portrayed himself. Rather he was an astute publicist for a message that he firmly believed was much greater than himself.”-Euan Cameron, Union Theological Seminary; author of The European Reformation
“Brand Luther is an important recasting of the history of Martin Luther and the rise of the German Reformation. Without reducing the role of religious ideas or the power of personal faith, Andrew Pettegree demonstrates how Luther was able to harness and exploit the emerging power of print in order to broadcast his message of religious reform and ultimately bring about a transformation of European Christianity. Pettegree tells both sides of the story with equal vigour and understanding, moving between Luther the reformer, the relentless weaver of words, and the emerging forms of early modern media. The result is a book that does not just commemorate the Reformation but helps us to view its history in a completely different way.”-C. Scott Dixon, author of Protestants: A History from Wittenberg to Pennsylvania
“Brand Luther tells two tales. The first is an engaging biography of the German reformer Martin Luther. The second is a stimulating account of the first time the printing press helped shape a mass movement. Andrew Pettegree deftly combines these two stories to show how an abstract academic dispute grew into the Reformation that divided western Christendom. This is history-writing at its best!”-Dr. Amy Nelson Burnett, Paula and D.B. Varner Professor of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
“Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther brings new excitement and insight to the persistent question of why Martin Luther’s calls for reform revolutionized western Christianity when earlier critiques had not. Drawing on his deep knowledge of the Protestant Reformation and the early modern printing industry, Pettegree has crafted a compelling narrative that conveys the excitement, chaos, and uncertainty of the first decades of the Protestant Reformation. In Pettegree’s incisive telling, the Reformation is just as crucially a “commercial revolution” as a theological one. He presents Luther as an innovative, forward-thinking mover of the print industry whose mastery of the new medium of print transformed both Christianity and the business of printing. Pettegree places the interactions among Luther, the emerging print industry, and the economic development of the city of Wittenberg at the center of the Reformation drama, returning a sense of suspense to a well-known story and emphasizing the fact that Luther’s success and long-lasting influence was never a foregone conclusion.”-Karen E. Spierling, editor, Calvin and the Book: The Evolution of the Printed Word in Reformed Protestantism