Oxford Today talks to Oxford’s Regius Professor of History about the legacy of Martin Luther, 500 years after he triggered schism in the church

Wittenberg Ottmar Hoerl 2010

Martin Luther: Here I Stand (2010): 800 plastic Luthers placed in Wittenberg market place by Ottmar Hoerl

Wittenberg, the town 32 minutes’ train ride south west of Berlin where the Reformation began, is heavily populated with religious shops selling what can only be described as Martin Luther kitsch. 

Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford and the recent author of a magisterial biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, shows me dozens of images on her laptop from a recent visit. 

There is, for example, a huge billboard advertising a Luther burger served up with Kathy nuggets (Katharina von Bora his wife, whom he called Käthe). There are Luther chocolates and Luther-headed noodles. There are Luther socks that proclaim, ‘Here I stand.’ 

Lyndal Roper in her office in Oxford, accompanied one of Ottmar Hoerl's LuthersMeanwhile, the large, burgundy, plastic Luther standing here in the window of Roper’s tall-ceilinged office in Oxford’s Faculty of History is one of 800 from a remarkable art installation in Wittenberg by artist Ottmar Hoerl. Although it took place in 2010, you can still buy plastic Luthers in five colours from his website, €500 unsigned and €850 signed. 

Roper is interested in the kitsch, to the extent that I’m worried that I’m not going to have time left to lob her the big questions, such as whether the Reformation would have happened anyway had Luther never been born. Plus, it seems an oddly indecorous conversation for a Regius Professor of History –or at least my preconception of the post (‘Regius’ refers to the fact that this Chair is a Crown appointment, one of a tiny handful in the UK and accordingly prestigious).

‘I’m sure that Hoerl’s installation was intended to subvert the monumental 19th century Luther – his plastic figure resembles 19th century depictions of him, not early modern ones,’ Roper notes. 

 She says that the nineteenth century turned Luther into a vast, towering figure of authority matched by enormous sculptures of him wrought in stone, to stand for eternity. Compare this to Luther-head noodles, masticated and then swallowed in a few seconds. 


The nineteenth century Luther became a monumental authority figure

Roper admits that she is fascinated by the degree to which the Luther paraphernalia available for sale around Wittenberg is edible, as if the point is to gorge on Luther, or absorb him through the gut, or chew him to bits, or perhaps all those things at once. 


Lucas Cranach's famous diptych from 1529, depicting Martin Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora

Yet it is strangely appropriate as well. Luther was an emphatically corporeal man, a fleshly mile away from the anaemic depiction of most Saints. His sense of humour was unusually vulgar in a vulgar age. In a fit of depression once, he said at the dinner table, “I am like a ripe shit and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.” 

Roper says, ‘I cannot imagine there being nudels of St Theresa.’ In other words there is a broader issue here, that Protestantism can’t turn Luther into a saint even when it wants to, because that was the point of the Reformation – or one of them. How do you venerate an iconoclastic, anti-relic, super-anti-Saint?

I move to ask my big question, but it turns out that our discussion of the kitsch has barely begun. 

Beyond the tension between Protestant and Catholic, says Roper, is a more subtle one about Germany and German identity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. ‘The Lutheran Church was allowed in the GDR,’ Roper explains. ‘But it was a source of tension that helps to inform the kitsch’. 

She asks me what proportion of inhabitants of Wittenberg I imagine to be Lutheran. At least half, I venture, even if some of them never attend church. I am wildly wrong. According to surveys, just 12% of Wittenberg’s inhabitants identify as Lutheran. 3% identify as Catholic. The rest identify as having no religion or as atheists. 

This unexpected fact informs the gewgaws, the trinkets and the merchandise, just as it bears the imprint of former East Germany, which of course enveloped Wittenberg. 

Luther might have put Wittenberg on the map, but his legacy is a messy combination of post-Communist capitalism and tourism-inspired commerce, quite apart from any religion. 

For the GDR generation, Luther was not exactly a ‘hero’ even if his church was tolerated. The hero of the GDR authorities was actually one of Luther’s opponents, Thomas Müntzer, who championed the German Peasants’ War of 1525 and was executed for his efforts – a sort of proto-Proletarian, anti-feudal, secular martyr.

Lyndal Roper in her office in Oxford

Lyndal Roper with her recently published book on Luther, the product of twelve years of research

Roper says that the sprawling festival-slash-celebration of Luther held in Wittenberg earlier this year was ‘creatively crazy and anarchic,’ with no one owning it and vast numbers of different congregations and churches camping around the edge of the town on what were its original, fortified boundaries. 

Her favourite pop-up ‘monument’ to Luther was a massive pile of manure out of which sprouted loads of different flowers. Once again an emphasis on the magnificently earthy rather than out-of-reach spirituality. We forget: Luther grew up, —this is a theme of Roper’s biography— in a mining town. He rebelled against his father to become a celibate monk, but later rebelled against the Pope to marry a nun. He proclaimed the body and he re-accommodated sex, noting that nowhere in the Bible could he find it proscribed. 

Still we’re not done with the kitsch, although I’m beginning to see now that it is of major importance in decoding Luther’s legacy in the here and now, in 2017.Roper flicks through some more images on her laptop screen, until she reaches the Playmobil figure of Martin Luther, Playmobil being Germany’s homegrown answer to lego. The Playmobil figure can be taken to bits by a child, and then reassembled. 

 Luther Playmobil crop.pngWhether eating Luther-head nudels or de-constructing the Playmobil figure, or sweating into a Luther sock, the interaction is essentially private or domestic, and requires an individual engagement. It is not public and it certainly isn’t monumental. In that sense the kitsch is quintessentially a product of the Reformation, which turned interpretation of the Bible into a giant squabble (sola scriptura) and rendered belief as a private affair of faith alone – sola fide. 

This would make a brilliant seminar, I exclaim! But I’m still determined to place my killer question, namely whether if Luther hadn’t been born, wouldn’t the Reformation have unfolded anyway? You see, the Roman church was so steeped in indulgence abuse and greedy taxation scams by then, that the atmosphere was more than ripe for change (obviously that’s putting the matter very baldly, but still…). 

With only minor qualification, her answer is ‘no’. 

‘He was a man of remarkable stubbornness and courage, and he knew how to stage something. He had a strong sense of how to make something happen.’ Furthermore, ‘he developed theologically and intellectually very rapidly between 1517-20.’

So his was a rapier intellect? ‘I’ve been led to consider different types of intelligence. He wasn’t a pure philosopher. But he was able to hold two opposed ideas in tension, such as insisting that Christ really was in the bread and the wine, while the bread and wine remained bread and wine. But then you get this breath-taking rhetorical clarity, such as insisting that the Pope was the anti-Christ.’

Traditionally, the intellectual leader of the Reformation is considered to have been Philip Melanchthon, whose house can also be seen in Wittenberg. But no one was as disputatious, as outrageously combatant and as over-active a writer as Luther. 

In terms of driving a movement he was the central figure. While it probably didn’t exactly happen —his nailing of 95 theses to the church door on October 31st, 1517— the fact that it is the occasion for marking the quincentenary of the start of the Reformation in a sense settles the debate. If you had to choose one act (even if it was sending the paperwork to Albrecht, Bishop of Mainz, thereby guaranteeing a Papal reaction) – it was authored by Luther, and Luther alone. 

In terms of historical approaches to Luther, Roper’s is unusually rich because most biographies of the man have come from the pens of church historians or theologians. Freed from this perspective, she approaches him as a social and cultural historian originally steeped in witchcraft trials – one of very few early modern subjects affording a glimpse into what ordinary people were actually like, what they did and how they lived their lives. 

‘My approach to Luther is very humble: I’m simply asking, ‘who was he?’’ 

One of the reasons Roper was drawn to her subject twelve years ago, was the richness of the resources. ‘We know what he discussed at supper. We have 120 volumes of writings. We have his account and the account of others, of the same conversations. We can re-imagine him looking up, literally, towards the castles from which power emanated in a coalition of Counts, in his hometown. That sort of detail is amazing…’

Appropriated very successfully by Hitler, Luther’s notoriety as an anti-Semite is something I am bound to ask about. For example, he praised the relief attached to his own church in Witttenberg, still there today although the object of never-ending protest, that shows Jews sucking from the teats of a Sow and a Rabbi looking up its anus. 

‘In 2017, the Germans have dealt with it head-on. There has been absolutely no shrinking from the facts that I have observed. There used to be a tendency to brush over it, or to insist that it was normal for the time he lived in. But that’s not true. He wasn’t eliminationist but he was incredibly, violently anti-Semitic in ways that were extreme by the measure of his own day.’

Roper also notes that Luther favoured the publication of the Koran. He wanted people to debate and to dispute. It leads Roper to note that Germany’s confusion right now is less to do with Judaism and more to do with Islam.

The day I meet Roper it’s a drizzly, northern European weather system in Oxford, which seems appropriate. But for much of the past year Roper has been in nearly constant demand from the media, circumnavigating the globe, encountering sunny climes, and giving an average of two talks a week, the most recent in Israel. 

Needless to say, her book is not the only one to have been planned and published to coincide with the 500th anniversary, but it is magisterial, comprehensive and entirely approachable to a lay audience, and crucially shorn of the tedious sound of theological axes grinding. 

When the anniversary has passed and calm returns, what then? Roper’s next project is already underway and will focus on the German Peasants’ War. She says that the archival sources are wonderfully rich, and yet there hasn’t been a history of the Peasants’ War for over a generation.

It leads her to make a final comment, that Luther and his Reformation is a peculiarly German event, or at least a rather non-British event. While there are 12 million Lutherans in Germany, and 74 million worldwide scattered across the US, Africa and Asia (notably South Korea), with Scandinavia the European stronghold, it doesn’t register very strongly in the Anglican Communion. If anything, the Reformed wing of the Anglican church tends to sip at the cup of Calvin rather than Luther. Be that as it may, the broader ‘event,’ despite tortuous disagreement and endemic rivalry and sub-factions, was straightforward in rejecting Papal authority. 

Cardinal John Henry Newman.pngOnly Oxford was capable of disputing even that, via the Vicar of the University Church, a certain John Henry Newman, who whipped up his own Tractarian frenzy three hundred years later and is now on his way to sainthood…but that may say rather more about Oxford than it does about the Reformation. 

(Left) Oxford's home-grown anti-Reformation came 300 years after the event and was always peculiar to Oriel College. Most Germans have never heard of John Henry Newman (Trinity, 1817, subsequently a fellow at Oriel). The religious conversion he admitted to in 1816 was to Calvinist evangelicalism. In that sense he was exactly a product of the Reformation, even though converting eventually to Roman Catholicism. Although an exceptional theologian, he was also judged during his own lifetime to have been one of Oxford's 'lost causes'. 

Pictures by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse (Portraits); Double portrait of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora by Lucas Cranach, Hessisches Landesmuseum Wikimedia Commons; Plastic Luthers in Wittenberg courtesy of Ottmar Hoerl (www.ottmar-hoerl.de); photo of Luther sculpture courtesy of Lyndal Roper.

Lyndal Roper was born in Melbourne, Australia and did her undergraduate degree there, travelling to Tuebingen and then London where she did her doctorate. She taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and then was Fellow and Tutor at Balliol, before becoming the first woman Regius Professor of History, at Oriel. Her book Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, is published by The Bodley Head (2017) and is available both as a hardback and a paperback.


By Paul Shrimpton

I have one minor quibble with your article, towards the end where you refer to John Henry Newman and state that ‘most Germans’ have never heard of him. While this may be so, it is also the case that his ‘reception’ in Germany has probably been greater than anywhere else. There was an informative lecture given at Oriel in 2011 by Prof Claus Arnold on this very matter, and in it he referred to Newman’s influence on, among others, the future Pope Benedict and Sophie Scholl and White Rose resistance in Nazi Germany.

By Hugh Dolan

So Lyndal is an Australian, clearly a remarkable achievement given our entrenched laziness, and no surprise she had to leave our sun drenched shores to pursue her passions. History is ignored here: we would rather follow the speed of play at football than read about the past. Congratulations to her and yes, I am heading into Melbourne (past the MCG) to buy her book.