Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper (Bodley Head, 2016)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper

In October 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. He was protesting against the practice of selling of indulgences, which were used to grant sinners exemption from purgatory. The catalyst for his action was the preaching of a Dominican Friar, Johannes Tetzel, who was making outrageous claims as to the power of his indulgencies. In contrast, Luther believed that people must feel real penitence for their sins and could not buy their way out of God’s punishment. Although others had previously argued against this practice, Luther’s actions heralded the start of a major attack on the Catholic Church.  With the anniversary of this event, which impacted on Martin Luther’s life profoundly as well as the entirety of Catholic Europe, the timing of this biography could hardly have been better. 

Lyndal Roper’s work follows Luther’s life chronologically, spending a significant amount of time on his earlier life, his relationship with his family and his early schooling. This gives the author the perfect opportunity to analyse what shaped and moulded his personality and opinions, which Roper states is the ‘overarching purpose of the book’. 

The many previous works on Luther tended to concentrate on his actions and the effects that these have had on the world, but Roper has chosen to follow a different path. In addition to considering both Luther’s actions and their ramifications, her main focus is his motivation and what lay behind it. What was Luther like personally? Why did he hold those views and what made him act as he did? Her concern is more with how his actions changed and affected him as a man, rather than their effects on the wider society.

Roper does not pull her punches, exposing the good, bad and strange in Luther’s personality. He was certainly not shy in discussing his medical issues and his letters in which he discusses his constipation and piles make particularly interesting reading.

From the very start, one can feel that this is a subject that Roper is especially passionate about. Her treatment of Luther is fair and compelling, inspiring an admiration for and understanding of his motivations, even for those who may not agree with this divisive figure.