James Reston, Jr., Luther's Fortress; Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 260pp.
Two years from this fall, on October 31, 2017, the town of Wittenberg will host the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church and thus kick-starting the Protestant Reformation. The town, which has a population of 50,000, is expecting 400,000 tourists. James Reston is ahead of the curve with his marvelous biography of Luther written for a popular audience.
Luther is a biographer's dream. He altered the course of a thousand years of Catholic history. He was a demagogue who was contemptuous of authority, a master of ridicule and insult, a jokester who reveled in scatological humor, a prodigious author, and a champion of the common man who enjoyed a beer at the pub. His faults were just as dramatic, especially his anti-Semitic diatribes.
Reston focuses on the one year from April 1521 to March 1522 when Luther was hidden from his enemies in the Wartburg Castle, and more broadly on the five years from when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses to when he published his German New Testament in September 1522. It was a dramatic time when Luther stood down sacred and secular powers, rightly feared that he would be burned at the stake, and juggled threats to his burgeoning movement from within and without.
One highlight deserves special mention. During a ten-week stretch at Wartburg, Luther translated the Greek New Testament into vernacular German. The initial edition of 3,000 copies that appeared in September 1522 included twenty-one woodcuts by Lucas Cranach. It sold for half a gulden, or the equivalent of a week's pay for a skilled carpenter. It quickly sold out. A second edition in December incorporated 574 corrections. In two years there were fourteen editions (and sixty-six pirated versions). It would be 1534 when the complete Bible with both testaments was published. When he died in 1546, there were 350 editions of Luther's Bible. "He had become, by far, the most published writer in the world." He had also permanently altered all of western history.