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Lyndal Roper: My Year with Martin Luther

This article was originally posted on the Taylor Reformation blog which has now become part of the Taylor Editions website with a dedicated Reformation Pamphlets series.

Photo of Lyndal Roper

In 2016 I published a biography of Martin Luther which had taken me twelve years to write. I had worked away pretty much on my own, and had not become involved in the 500th anniversary preparations. So when the book appeared, I was completely unprepared for the avalanche of invitations to speak that landed in my Inbox. Either you say ‘yes’, and take a year out of your life; or you don’t, I thought. But the chance to be part of a public engagement with history won’t come a second time. I decided to take the plunge, and I said YES to most of the requests that came my way.

I work in the UK at Oxford, and I grew up in Australia. I’m not German and have no German relatives, yet here I was writing about a German hero, at a time when Britain’s relationship with Europe was suddenly under assault with Brexit. This political background coloured the whole year. I had thought that I knew Germany, and understood its religious culture; I soon realised I didn’t. Nor did I understand Britain: when I spoke at predominantly Anglican events, I sensed polite interest, but no particular investment on the part of the audience; and when I asked one group of Anglican clergy whether they thought Luther was part of their history, less than half felt that he was. In the year of Brexit, Luther, it seemed, was a German, a foreigner. But when I spoke at Catholic events in Ireland and in the UK, I felt real animation; and in Dublin, I was even heckled by a woman who claimed to be a ‘Russian princess’. For English and Irish Catholics, Luther is their interlocutor; he is a live issue, and Belfast even has a Luther mural. Yet in Germany, events at universities in predominantly Catholic areas elicited courteous but academic discussion, while in Lutheran regions, which I had assumed to be religiously indifferent, I met with passionate engagement from people who knew all there is to know about their founder.

So what was at stake in the Luther year? Luther centenaries have long had political resonance, from 1617, when the centenary fell just before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, to 1917 when a militaristic Luther could appear alongside Bismarck in a Pickelhaube. For Germany in 2017, it meant presenting Martin Luther as a Good German, the inventor of the German language, the man who could symbolise the unification of East and West. At the very least, it was an opportunity to present Saxony and Thuringia as tourist destinations that might lure Germans from the former West – Luther tours, even Luther bike paths were inaugurated. For the Lutheran church, it promised spiritual renewal as Lutherans got to know their founder as a person; and the new edition of the Lutheran Bible included a 60-page supplement on Luther himself. The highlight of the year was to be a mass Lutheran camp-out on the meadows outside Wittenberg.

But at the end of the year, the mood was subdued. What had the Luther year achieved? Visitor figures in Wittenberg were not as high as expected; the hoped-for religious revival had not happened, and Luther had been revealed as an anti-Semite who could not be a unifying hero. Journalists agreed that the Luther year had been a flop. Yet I could not help feeling that its ‘failure’ was itself a sign of religious and political maturity. This time Luther had not been co-opted by the German state, and instead of hero-worship in the churches, there had been a thorough-going examination of Luther with all his flaws.

And for my part, I had one of the most amazing years of my life. There were so many unforgettable events. There were interviews on German TV and radio which put my German to the test, and which somewhat surreally often took place in the studio in North Oxford to which I had to cycle. I was asked to speak from Luther’s pulpit in Wittenberg, a deeply moving experience where I met Friedrich Schorlemmer, a courageous pastor who had resisted the East German authorities and a leading expert on Luther; and I came to know local people in Wittenberg, including the director of the Cranach Studios who had led the fight to restore the buildings where the sixteenth century artist Lucas Cranach worked, smashing the locks just before the Wende took place in 1989 to enter and conserve it for the future. I went to Israel for a conference in Jerusalem in Hebrew on Luther, and found myself walking at dusk through the Old Jerusalem market to a reception in a German crusader church, where a concert of clarinet and mobile keyboard was interrupted by the Moslem call to prayer.

In Amsterdam I got to meet the artist Neel Korteweg, whose magnificent, searing portrait of Luther the anti-Semite is the only image of Luther by a woman that I know; she could not find a Lutheran organisation willing to exhibit it. She and I would later show the portrait as part of a lecture on Images of Luther at the National Portrait Gallery London. [See the blog post “Portraying Luther” by Neel Korteweg.]

re-enactment of the posting of the 95 theses

In Denmark the Queen herself, dressed in pink, came to a conference at Aarhus, and she gave an impressive lecture – the event itself was a celebration of Danish Lutheran culture, with music, liturgy, poetry and a range of speakers who celebrated Luther as the founder of the Danish welfare state. In Saarbrücken, every church had an electric blue giant Luther head outside it, looking just like Beethoven – I asked to have one, and my hosts kindly arranged for it to be crated up and sent to Oxford. Unfortunately it broke en route, and we had great difficulty gluing it back together. But we finally managed to set him up on a window ledge in the History Faculty at Oxford, from where he could look down on our own Luther celebration in November, when we staged a posting of the 95 Theses on the suitably grand History Faculty door, alongside our own carnival of onlookers, indulgence-sellers and print-hawkers.

But the most amazing experience followed a lecture I gave in Ulm at the Volkshochschule. The local pastor took me up into the roof of the Ulm cathedral, where tourists cannot go. Its tower was finished in the nineteenth century, to become the then highest in the world. You climb to the top of the medieval roof, from where a medieval door opens and you can look out onto the fabulous vaulting, seeing it close up. Then you walk along the top of the medieval roof, and underneath the nineteenth-century iron structure, built like the Eifel Tower. There is a museum of medieval mason’s and carpenter’s tools, and there are portraits of pastors past stacked up in the attic rooms. Finally you come out under the tracery of the spires, and there is only delicate masonry between you and the sky.

Many Luther scholars devoted 2016-7 to speaking about Luther. In all I think I gave over a hundred talks and lectures; so did many colleagues. I lost my nervousness at speaking in public and I met truly remarkable people. In Germany, to my astonishment, my life of Luther became a best-seller; it was the only biography by an early modern scholar to appear that year. I was given at least a dozen Playmobil Luthers, and I created my own sizeable collection of Luther kitsch. I’m still not a Lutheran but I have great respect for the Lutheran church, which is not one church but a federation of local state churches, as energetic as it is anarchic. This Luther year was about de-monumentalizing Luther, about unpicking national myths, taking Luther off his pedestal and cutting him down to size. It brought a critical engagement with a character who has loomed so large in German history, and so the pocket-sized Playmobil Luther, which has sold more than any previous Playmobil figure, is its perfect memorial.

  1. 14 May 2016 Radio Interview, Luther, Moncrieff Show, Dublin
  2. 27 June 2016, Oxford, Biography Conference: Luther
  3. 9 September 2016, Kunsthistoriker Conference Augsburg, ‘Difficult Legacies: Luther, Images and Antagonism’, Universität Augsburg.
  4. 12 October 2016 University of Warwick, Luther
  5. 14 October 2016 Emden Lecture, St Edmund’s Hall Oxford, ‘Luther and Anti-Popery’
  6. 1 Nov. 2016 ‘Kulturzeit’, German TV
  7. 13 November, Kultursendung „Titel, Thesen, Temperamente“, German TV (Duesseldorf)
  8. 7 December, University of Mannheim: Public Lecture, Dreams
  9. 12 December, University of Durham, Seminar paper on Luther
  10. 15 January Herzog-August Library Wolfenbuettel: Living I was your plague, opening of Luthermania Exhibition (press coverage)
  11. 16 January 2017, University of Giessen, Public Lecture , Luther und die Träume’ (reported in local press)
  12. 22 January 2017 , Cambridge, Luther Day with Rowan Williams, Ulinka Rublack, and others
  13. 30 January 2017 University of Munich, Public Lecture. ‘Luther und die Träume’ (reported in Die Zeit)
  14. 31 January 2017 University of Tübingen, Public Lecture (Alte Aula) ‘Luther und die Träume’
  15. 8 Feb 2017 University of Leeds, Public Lecture: Living I was your plague
  16. Feb 16, 2017 Budapest: Central European University, Luther and Dreams
  17. 21 Feb Weinrebe Public Lecture, World Lives Series, Wolfson College, Oxford, Martin Luther
  18. March 4 2017 Aldeburgh Literary Festival, Martin Luther
  19. March 15, 2017 Baden Baden, Planet Wissen, TV programme
  20. 16 March 2017 Vienna, Radio Interview with Renate Schmidkunz
  21. 17 March 2017 Vienna, Lecture, University of Vienna
  22. 20 April 2017 Bloomington Indiana, USA, Lecture, Luther and Biography.
  23. 21 April 2017 Interview with Mark Roseman
  24. 24-30 April 2017 Princeton University, USA Stone Lecture Series, 3 lectures, ‘Martin Luther’
  25. May 1 to 5 2017, Radio 3, Luther Talk
  26. 2 May 2017 Oxford, Europaeum Lecture, Luther and German Culture
  27. 2 May 2017. Sion College, Talk on Luther to clergy, Savile Club
  28. 8 May 2017, Merton College Oxford, lecture to History Society
  29. 9 May 2017 Oxford, Historical Association, Marjorie Reeves Lecture, Luther
  30. 11 May 2017, University of Amsterdam, Public Lecture, Luther
  31. 21-2 May 2017, Aarhus, Matchpoint seminar, Public event attended by Queen Margaret
  32. 27 May 2017, QMUL London, Lisa Jardine Memorial Lecture, ‘Luther and Gender’
  33. 30 May 2017, Bulgaria, ‘Rethinking Religion’ conference, Keynote Lecture on Luther
  34. 6 June 2017, Brasenose College, Martin Luther
  35. 12 June 2017, Saarbrücken, Public Lecture, Town Hall, Luther und die Träume’
  36. 13 June Interview SWF Reingart Sauppe
  37. Sunday 18 June, Wittenberg Marienkirche, Kanzelrede. (sola scriptura)
  38. 20 June 2017, Tel Aviv University , Contextualising the Self: Luther and Manhood
  39. 21 June 2017, Tel Aviv University: Luther and Memory
  40. 30 June 2017, Magdeburg, Conference in Honour of Eva Labouvie, ‘Luther und Geschlechtergeschichte’
  41. 10 August 2017, Wittenberg, Conference Kulturelle Wirkungen, Keynote, ‘Luther und Männlichkeit’ (report of lecture on front page of culture section of local newspaper)
  42. 16 August 2017, Aalborg, Nordic Historians Conference, Lecture: Luther, Manhood and Pugilism
  43. 6 Sept 2017, St Georges Lutheran Church, London, Aldgate, Luther
  44. 14 September 2017 Spoke at Court of Benefactors, University of Oxford
  45. 21 September 2017, Lady Margaret Hall, ‘Commemorating Luther’ to Meissen Committee
  46. 22 September 2017, Ulm Volkshochschule, Orangensaal, Public Lecture, Luther und die Träume (reported in local newspaper)
  47. 25 September, Frankfurt, Public Lecture, University, Luther
  48. 28 September 2017, DUBLIN, Literary festival: ‘Luther and Kitsch’
  49. 2 October 2017, Glasgow, Goethe Institute, Public Lecture
  50. 4 October 2017, London, Temple Church, Luther
  51. 5 October 2017, London, Lambeth Palace, Luther and Biography
  52. 6 October 2017 British Museum London, Luther Study Day (open to public)
  53. 12 October 2017, University of Basel, ‘Luther’
  54. 13 October 2017, Univeristy of Basel, Master Class on Commemorating the Reformation: Luther, Asisi, Tuebke
  55. 16 October 2017, Late Night Live with Sasha Fagan, ABC
  56. 18 October 2017, Jerusalem, Lecture on Luther
  57. 22 October 2017, Haifa, Lecture
  58. 23 October 2017, Haifa, Lecture on Luther
  59. 28 October 2017, University of Sheffield, Luther
  60. 29 October, Radio, ‘When Greeks flew kites’: Luther
  61. 31 October, Radio, CBC (Canada) Interview (report)
  62. 31 October ABC Radio, Philip Adams, Radio National
  63. Interview, Andrew West, ABC Radio
  64. 31 October 2017, Radio 4, TODAY interview
  65. 31 October 2017, Oxford, History Faculty, Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, Re-enactment
  66. 31 October 2017, New College, Oxford, Vespers: ‘Luther’
  67. November BBC Witness – the Reformation- Martin Luther World Service
  68. 1 November 2017, London Gresham College, Lecture, Luther and Antipopery
  69. 9 November 2017, University of Aberdeen, Public Lecture, Luther and Pugilism
  70. 13 November 2017, Stuttgart, Luther und Männlichkeit, Stuttgart Town Hall
  71. 16 November 2017, Oxford University of Third Age, lecture in Rewley House
  72. 21 November 2017, German Embassy London, Discussion: Luther (also with Diarmaid Macculloch, Thomas Kaufmann, Ulinka Rublack)
  73. 29 November 2017, University of Sydney, opening speech of Conference (recorded and broadcast, ABC Radio)
  74. 30 November 2017, Morning Breakfast Show, Radio (Melbourne)
  75. 3 Dec 2017, St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne
  76. 3 Dec 2017, interview, Radio (Melbourne)
  77. 4 Dec 2017 Lecture, University of Melbourne, Luther
  78. 4 January 2018, National Portrait Gallery, Portraits of Luther, then and now
  79. 17 January 2018, Einstein Forum, Potsdam, Luther.
  80. 7 Feb 2018, Cambridge, Jesus College, ‘Celebrating Luther’
  81. 12 Feb. 2018 ABC Radio Interview, Luther (Helen Richardson)
  82. 13 Feb 2018, Ealing Historical Association, ‘Celebrating Luther’
  83. 27 Feb 2018, ‘Writing Historical Biography: Luther’, History Faculty, Oxford
  84. 28 Feb 2018, Oriel College Oxford, Student History Society, ‘Luther’
  85. 1 March 2018, Trinity Hall, Cambridge, ‘Luther and Anti-Popery’
  86. 14 March 2018, University of Birmingham, Centre of Reformation and Renaissance, ‘Luther and Anti-Popery’
  87. 6 April 2018, Lecture, University of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Luther and Antipopery
  88. 7 April 2018, University of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Colloquium, ‘Portraits of Luther’
  89. 9 April 2018, MacCaffrey Lecture, Reed College, Portland Oregon, Luther
  90. 11 April 2018, Brown University, Church Lecture, Luther and Manhood
  91. 12 April 2018, Columbia University, Luther and Anti-Popery
  92. 28 April 2018, Merton College, Oxford, Alumni Event, ‘Lutherkitsch’
  93. 29 April 2018, Goslar, Braunschweig Evangelische Kirche: Pastorinnen, ‘Luther und die Frauen’
  94. 30 April 2018, University of Leicester, Lecture on Luther
  95. 9 May 2018, Early Modern Workshop KCL London, ‘Luther and Anti-Semitism’
  96. 9 May 2018, IHR London, Victoria and Albert Museum Student Seminar, ‘Luther kitsch’
  97. 16 May 2018, University of London, Eric Hobsbawm Lecture ‘Living I was your plague’
  98. 31 May -2 June, Yale University, Reformation Conference reflecting on Luther Celebrations
  99. 4 July Renaissance Studies Conference, Sheffield, Keynote lecture, Portraits of Luther.
  100. 11 October 2018, Monash University, Melbourne, Lecture and Workshop
  101. 15 October 2018, University of Melbourne, ‘Luther and the Jews’, Public Lecture
  102. 18 October 2018, University of Liverpool, ‘Luther and the Jews’
  103. 23 October 2018, Rutgers, ‘Luther and the Hermaphrodite Pope’
  104. 26 October 2018 Lecture Luther –Tyndale Memorial Church Kentish Town
  105. 13 November 2018, University of Exeter
  106. 14 November 2018, School 21, Stratford Class (Luther documents)
  107. 29 November 2018, University of Wellington, GSAA Keynote lecture, ‘Images of Luther’.
  108. 18 January 2019, University of Sussex, ‘Subjectivity: Martin Luther’
  109. 29 January 2019, Munich, Siemensstiftung, Schloss Nymphenburg, Lutherporträts’
  110. 10 May, University of Münster, Lecture on Luther.

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