Transcript: 379. Lyndal Roper on Luther

How radical was Luther? We find out from Lyndal Roper, who also discusses Luther and the Peasants' War, sexuality, anti-semitism, and the visual arts.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Let's talk about Luther, obviously a very major figure in European history and he is thought to be in some sense a revolutionary figure. But I thought I could start by asking whether he was really a radical figure because although he is credited with launching the Reformation, he seems to have been relatively conservative compared to some other Reformation leaders and in fact he accused some of these other leaders of what he called Schwärmerei. So can you say something about how conservative you think he was, how radical and how radical he was trying to be? 

Well, of course it all depends on what you mean by radical. But you can certainly look at Luther and see the elements that are all about supporting existing authority, insisting on obedience, upholding the state, all of that is there. You can also see however things that really are very different and are very radical. I think to have done what he did, to attack papal power in the way that he did, and to be willing to defend that view in front of the emperor and all the assembled estates of the German Empire, that really takes enormous courage and sometimes I think that that example of resistance is almost as important as some of the things that he wrote. It is a quite extraordinary moment and you can see in his correspondence how he arrives at a position where he is willing to be a martyr, to be killed for his beliefs, while at the same time, because he's Luther, very cunningly planning how he's going to escape and how he's going to get protected. So he's radical in the challenge he makes to the church, he's really radical in his attack on papal power, although he's certainly not the first to attack papal power, and I think he's also interesting because some of his basic philosophical and theological positions are quite different from many of the other reformers and the thing that I find actually quite radical is the way he approaches the difference between flesh and spirit. Most Western Christian figures make quite a sharp distinction between flesh and spirit and they see flesh as basically bad and spirit as what you want. You want to get rid of the dross of flesh and you want to get yourself as close as you can to the divine and you also want to live a life that is about mortification of the flesh. And Luther does make a distinction between flesh and spirit but he does it much less than many other Christian thinkers do. And that is, I think, potentially extremely radical. It's not the line that the Calvinists take, it's not the line that the followers of Zwingli take, and Zwingli is a Swiss theologian who's active about the same time as Luther. 

What about the reflection of what he's doing in the political realm because he was actually, you might say, given an opportunity to be politically radical by supporting the Peasants War, which can in some sense be seen as a political enactment of his teaching, and of course he didn't, he opposed it. So does that give us a kind of window into his views about the political reflection of what he was doing in the theological and philosophical sphere? 

I think there are many ways in which one can answer that. One way is to think about his formation. You grew up in a mining area. The town of Mansfeld where he spent much of his childhood is down in the bottom of the valley and then high up is the castle of the Counts. And mining towns are quite rough places. They're not like most of the towns in this period, the towns that we associate with humanism and all of that. They're quite rough. There isn't much in the way of natural deference. But I think that Luther, whose father was a mine owner, he wasn't an ordinary miner, and so I think that that meant that his tendency was always going to be to ally with the authorities to support the existing rulers. And he takes over a lot of stuff from Augustine when he's thinking about secular authority and how you distinguish between secular authority and religious authority. So in a sense, it's not surprising that he takes the line that he does in the Peasants' War, although of course, he has just published a tract on Christian freedom. And the way that he uses the word free and freedom is really, well, it is incendiary. And he is stepping back from that element within his theology. And he steps back from a number of radical elements, like the idea that every congregation has the right to call their own preacher. And instead, he starts to say: well, yes, you can call your own preacher, but you've got to pay for it yourself. And then it's all right. And he starts thinking about the fact that various authorities can actually own a preachership so they can decide who gets appointed. So he moves away from a complete attack on the church as a propertied institution. 

Is there also just a sense in which he didn't want the Peasants' War to be blamed on him? So it was maybe a tactical consideration like: if I let people think that reformation will lead to this, then the Reformation is done for? 

I'm sure that's part of it. He sees the danger from the word go. And it's also been the taunt that's been flung at him by Catholics who've said consistently: if you go on like this, you'll cause a peasant uprising. But it's interesting because the stuff that I wrote on the Peasants' War is, I think, the least satisfactory part of the biography of Luther. And so I've gone back to it now. And now I'm working on the German Peasants' War. And looking at Luther from that point of view has been really interesting because it seems to me that what he's doing is not just articulating a position that everyone holds. I think he's actually trying to change policy because his own ruler, Frederick the Wise, does not want a military campaign against the peasants. Frederick dies during the Peasants' War, but up to the point of his death, he's saying: we should negotiate with the peasants. So when Luther is writing this kind of stuff and saying smite, kill and slay them like mad dogs, he isn't expressing a consensus view, he is trying to shift policy, I now think. So I think that there's something that's not just about supporting the existing order. There's something there about really wanting to put the peasants down. And what's interesting about how he sees the whole thing is that he sees it in theological terms, so that he sees it as all the work of his adversary, Thomas Müntzer, and Andreas Karlstadt. And that's also very interesting enmity because the enmity with Andreas Karlstadt goes right back. They were originally co-workers. Andreas Karlstadt is one of Luther's first, well, one of the first he convinces and Karlstadt rushes off, thinks that Luther's view of Augustine is correct and that his was wrong, and then becomes a passionate Luther supporter and tries to defend the Ninety-Five Theses. But then they gradually start to fall out because during the period when Luther is in hiding after the Diet of Worms in 1521 and he's in hiding in the castle in the Wartburg, he's not in Wittenberg. And the Reformation starts to happen. 

Without him. 

Without Luther! And eventually Karlstadt takes over that leadership. So when Luther comes back, the first thing he does is hold a series of sermons in which he tries to get rid of all the changes that Karlstadt had introduced. And from then on, the two are antagonists. And Luther basically tries to get all Karlstadt's writing banned so that he can't publish. He gets him moved out of Wittenberg so that Karlstadt ends up in a tiny little parish of Orlamünde out in the sticks where he then tries to implement his version of the Reformation. And that involves getting rid of images. And then gradually Karlstadt starts to take a different theological line on the Real Presence. I'm sure we'll come onto that in a moment. So when Luther is writing about the Peasants' War, he's wanting to attack Karlstadt's position and also to attack the position of Thomas Müntzer, who is a very radical theologian who has a lot of following amongst the miners. And of course, that is something that really gets under Luther's skin because he grew up in a mining area and it's quite unusual. The two theologians are actually very interestingly similar in their formation. They both come from families that are not quite in the super-elite but are just under it, highly dependent on secular rulers for their position and living in mining areas. It's very, very interesting. So Müntzer, for Luther, becomes the archdevil. He becomes the person that you need to attack in the Peasants' War. And so there's a way in which he completely misreads the Peasants' War. He thinks it's a theological dispute. He doesn't even bother reading the complaints of the peasants. He just says: I'm not going to comment on these articles. They're not worthy of it. So he presents the Peasants' War not as what it actually was, which is to do with all kinds of grievances around serfdom and around agricultural agrarian relations. He reads it as a dispute between two theologians. 

So almost like he thinks it's about theological politics instead of real politics. 

He thinks it's about him! And then at the end, he even goes so far as to get married because he wants to spite the devil who has incited Müntzer to attack him. 

Actually, that's something else I wanted to ask you about. Maybe it takes us back to what you were saying about the flesh and the spirit, because something else that he, of course, is known for is that he turns his back on the virtue of chastity, at least to the extent that having been a monk, he gets married. What does that tell us about his views towards sexuality, towards women?

I think that's one of the most interesting sides of Luther's legacy and also one which I found quite challenging and where I've learned a lot from Luther. I guess when I first started working on Luther, I thought of him as a misogynist. There are all kinds of quotations you can take from Luther that are deeply misogynist like “Cleverness is the garment that suits women least., or “Let them bear children to death. They were created for that.”,o“Men have narrow hips and broad shoulders. Women have big hips because they are designed to bear children, stay at home and keep house. So, they're the kinds of remark which is everything that a feminist wants to just decry. But then I thought more about the context in which he's saying things like that and of course, they're not for the most part in his published work, they're taken from his dinner table conversation. And then I began to think about that dinner table conversation. And this is really interesting because it's his place for doing philosophy in many ways, doing it in conversation with other people, with other Wittenberg theologians around the dinner table. And that's a context in which he's actually living in the monastery where he was a monk. I mean, it's just totally mind blowing to think about that he's got a family, his wife is there and yet it's the place where the monks all had their community and had their food and where they presumably would have had devotional readings. And Luther's having these conversations which are often quite crude. And if you think about what they're witnessing in that former monastery, Katharina von Bora, who is his wife, is pregnant every other year, and she's nursing the children. So they're seeing a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding while they're having these conversations. And so of course, the topic of conversation is sexual difference, and they're ribbing each other about it. And that's not to say that Luther is not a sexist because he clearly is. But I think it puts it in a different context. And in particular, what he's getting at when he says something that I think to us is probably the most shocking of all of that, where he's talking about: “Let them bear children to death, they were created for that. That's actually a surprisingly positive thing to say because what he means is that during the time when a woman gives birth and for the six weeks after, she's not under the sway of the devil, she's not impure, that’s her physical role in the way she's been created. So by working out sexual difference as a result of Creation, he can see it in positive terms because he sees physicality as something good and positive. And I think that goes along with his remarkably positive attitude towards sex. 

What should we think about these elements of his rhetoric that are more crude? So you just remarked that some of these dinner conversations were rather crude. And that's certainly a feature of his more formal writings, full of all kinds of invective and polemic and even scatological remarks and vulgar jokes and so on, which I think is maybe to a modern reader in some ways the most surprising thing about encountering his writing is just the tone of it. Can you say something to help explain why he does that? Is it just his personality ?

I love all that. Because what's remarkable about Luther is he doesn't have our 21st century prudery about physical functions. So he can say something like: if you want to get rid of the devil, the best way to get rid of him is to fart at him. He will talk in anal terms about all kinds of things to do with the devil. And whereas we think of excrement as something totally negative and dirty, if you've grown up in a culture where you're much closer to the land, you're much closer to peasant ways of life. And Luther does have peasant ancestry. He also has mining ancestry, but it's mining and peasant work that sort of go together in his family. And if you've come from a farm, you know that excrement is also the source of fertility, of everything that's good. And I think that enables him to just see it as being part of our bodies, part of God's Creation and not necessarily only as something dirty and disgusting. But there are other ways in which he uses all that scatological stuff and the analogy to attack his opponents in ways that are really very disturbing and that are not playful. And in particular, when he writes about the Jews or indeed a lot of the rhetoric about the Papacy, it's very dark stuff, it's very, how can one say, it's very aggressive, nasty mixtures of stuff which are about rejecting any kind of sexual ambiguity. So the way he gets at the Pope is to talk about his court of hermaphrodites. He talks about the pope as being Pope Paula, a female Pope, and he just goes on and on and on in riffs like that.

Yeah, it's ugly stuff. I guess there have been attempts to sort of relativize or contextualize the invective against the Jews in particular, because people don't really want to see Luther as a forerunner of the Nazis. Do you think that these are misguided, these attempts to kind of minimize the anti-Semitism?

Yes, I do. And that was the other thing that I guess I've been thinking about a lot since I wrote the biography. I didn't feel that I completely got the measure of Luther's anti-Semitism. If you go to Wittenberg, you'll see the church where Luther preached, and on the outside of it, there is the most disgusting Jewish Sow that I know. It's a medieval depiction of a sow, and the sow is suckling some Jews who are sucking at the sow's teets, and there's a rabbi who's looking into the anus of the pig. And that is a medieval sculpture, which is on the outside of that church where Luther regularly preached. And he not only preached there, but he wrote a long tract in praise of that sculpture. And that's the tract that he does in the same year that he does On the Jews and their Lives, in 1543. And that tract contains just absolutely disgusting anti-Semitic stuff, which is all about vomit, piss,it's just really gross stuff in which Luther's invective isn't... It's as if you see someone's unconscious suddenly off the leash, and they just splurge it all out. It's really revolting stuff. So not only does his anti-Semitism have a physical quality and an emotional level of disgust, which gets airbrushed out, but also the kinds of things in On the Jews and their Lives is more extreme than contemporary opinion. You can contextualize Luther by saying, well, other people were anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism was a standard view. That's all true. But it's when you compare the kind of anti-Semitism that it is that it becomes much more disturbing. And I think that one aspect of it is that Luther sees his own church as being the chosen people. And if his church is going to be the chosen people, then the Jews can't be the chosen people. 

Sounds like a contest for having God's favor. 

Yes. And so I think that means one has to think about not just about what were Luther's views, but one has to think, well, where does this sit in his theology? How does that affect his concept at the church? How does that affect his view of church history and who he thinks the Lutherans are? What I think is really interesting about Luther is, I think his formation is as a nominalist. So I think that that means he's never going to find the explanation of the Eucharist that is Catholic theology at that time, he's never going to find that convincing because he doesn't make the distinction between accidents and essences. That's foreign to him. And the thing that I think Luther is most wedded to is the Real Presence in the Eucharist, which is of course not the line that the other reformers take. And if he hadn't taken that line, they wouldn't have all separated and the Reformation would have been much stronger than it was. 

Yeah, I think that's plausible, right? Because if you think back to the Hussites and the Wycliffeites, they're coming out of the nominalist tradition as well. So the idea that there might be a sort of association between Protestant leanings and nominalism

No, I don't think it works that way. I think that Luther is unusual in having this nominalist formation in his time. It's a bit backward looking, his education. And so I think he takes the line on the sacrament that he does, of saying that it's at one and the same time, both bread and the body of Christ is because he's not making that split between accidents and essences, and because that means it goes with his much more positive attitude towards the flesh, because he's not splitting flesh and spirit. And I think that his Eucharistic theology is absolutely insistent on the Real Presence because the other reformers who are much more influenced by Aristotelianism and by Neoplatonism and Humanism and all that, they routinely make that distinction. And so they think that you cannot have something that is the body of Christ and is bread. 

I see. So the thought is that because he's a kind of nominalist who will only allow you to have ontological space for bodies. And so if you're going to have bread and Christ, it has to be both at the same time, in the same way. 

That's right. That's right. 

That's really interesting. And that, I guess, would be a really clear case of him being inspired by a scholastic tradition but coming to a novel position. 

Yeah. Yeah. And I think it's absolutely essential to Luther because what he spends most time on is the Real Presence in the sacrament. 

Actually, if I can go back a couple of minutes to something you were saying before, which is that his dinner conversations are the context in which he does philosophy. That's interesting to me because there was a way of doing philosophy that had been going on for centuries, namely a scholastic context. So what the schoolmen did at universities and other educational institutions. And clearly, Luther is not one of them, but he knows about them. What was his attitude towards the schoolmen, towards scholastic philosophy? Does he just think the whole thing is a waste of time or does he take something from them? 

I think he's deeply formed by his nominalism. And I think that's one of the other things that sets him apart from other reformers who tend to be formed more by humanism. So what makes it different is that there's a woman in the room, Katharina von Bora, is there, and so are Luther's daughters. So that makes it a very different context. And it's also quite difficult for the Lutheran church to know exactly what to do with it because what's interesting about the woodcuts that they provide with the editions of the Table Talk that are published nearly 20 years after his death, they don't quite know how to present the presence of women either. And in those woodcuts, you can make out a figure which may be Katharina von Bora or may not. And it's hard to tell whether they're in the first one, there are no daughters, there's just four male figures. 

But it's clearly a context that's very different from the traditional context of intellectual exchange running up to the 16th century. As long as we're on this topic of woodcuts, something else that you've emphasized a lot in your work on Luther is visual representations of him, so I wanted to ask what you think we can kind of learn about Luther, or at least about the way Luther was seen by his contemporaries, from looking at these images? 

Well, the thing about Luther is his relationship with the painter Lucas Cranach, who lived just around the corner. So we have an extraordinary partnership between these two men. Cranach is court painter to Frederick the Wise, Luther's ruler. And I think we kind of get Cranach wrong if we think about him just as an artist. What he's really interested in is the multiplication of images. And this was a new thing, because print suddenly opens up the possibility of multiplying images, multiplying texts, but also multiplying images. So Cranach even owns a printing press for a while, and he's fascinated by this. And he produces woodcuts, his workshop produces woodcuts for stuff that's printed. He's very interested in design, and he creates an image of Luther, which becomes absolutely iconic. And if you see one of these images of Luther, you know that it's Luther. And whereas with the saint, you know it's St. Catherine because you see the wheel. With Luther, you know it's Luther because of the face. It's because of the eyes, the little curl of hair in the middle of his forehead. 

The jowls. 

The jowls and the little dimple in the chin. That's how you know it's Luther. And so this face becomes universally recognized and produced in image after image after image. It's not just print. The workshop will produce 60 images of the Elector, all the same, but all painted, and sometimes even with painted print. And that's what they're doing with Luther as well. Producing likenesses of Luther, which are uniform and which go everywhere. They go all over the world. 

Do you think they had some sense that they could use Luther's celebrity as a way of promoting the Reformation, like as an instrument of reform? 

Absolutely. It's clear that that's what they're doing. They're creating Luther as a recognizable hero figure. And that starts to happen really very early. 

That's really interesting that you draw the parallel to print culture. And of course, it is part of print culture. I think especially historians of philosophy, we probably tend to forget this because we think of printing as, you know, it's about the Bible, it's about Luther's writings, it's actually about his translation of the Bible. So we have all of these written texts that suddenly become much more available. And I've talked about this on the podcast already. But, of course, in many cases, these books would have also contained images. And so Luther's words would be coming along with his face, right?

Exactly. So when you read The Freedom of the Christian, you might be doing that with a cover that shows Luther's face. And so the identification that you have with him as an individual is part of your reading experience. And of course, it's not just images, it's also music, it's very important, because music can also be printed and produced and shared,

And so this would have been a way for Lutherism to affect illiterate people, which of course would still have been the majority. 


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