Living I Was Your Plague by Lyndal Roper

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Lutheranism retains more than respectably large congregations five hundred years after Martin Luther and his followers founded the movement. Yet the Luther name has always carried some sort of atmosphere, not as specific as a slur, but rather a feeling of grubbiness somehow.

This leaves Luther a man of great interest. A new book by Lyndal Roper has the fascinating title Living I Was Your Plague. The origin of the phrase is the much longer imprecation: “Living I was your plague, O Pope, dead I will be your death” (108). According to his personal doctor, Johannes Ratzenberger, Luther wrote these words in chalk on a wall the night before he died. Roper reports the story but expresses the view that it could be apocryphal.

Roper’s book is an unusual piece of work. It relies a great deal on the image-making of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther’s close friend and boozing companion. ‘Image-maker’ is Roper’s term. She argues that “seeing Cranach … as an artist in the great tradition of Western European art, is fundamentally misconceived” (12). This is no empty statement. It is accompanied by cogent argument.

I share the author’s view that Cranach’s portraits of Luther “are not artistically dazzling” (13) but have endured and “done much to shape the style of Lutheran piety itself” (13). A long history of likenesses has crystallised into an image whose features alone make Luther recognizable – “his deep-set eyes, strong jaw, dimpled chin, wide cheekbones, and deep neck” (17). Elegance neither ever visited nor abandoned early the physical form of Luther. His behaviour manifested in forcefulness, in shouting down his opponent, and his boorishness, is not usual in a man destined to lead as a follower of Christ. “This difficult hero, with his stodgy determination, his love of beer and pork, his relentless hatreds, his penchant for misogynist quips and his four-square masculinist stance, has always been a divisive figure” (2).

The Cranach workshop is responsible for the image we accept as late as today of a virile, potent man who rejected celibacy and mocked the Pope and his bishops as effeminate. Roper attempts to integrate his obstreperousness into a relatively positive assessment of his personality, to explain his inveterate aggressiveness, but fails, not least on the grounds of Luther’s anti-Semitism that cannot be explained away as a characteristic of sixteenth century living. The long and the short explanation is that Luther knew how to hate.

One might well ask why Lutheranism was so popular in the sixteenth century. Roper supplies an answer that she feels applies to Luther’s day and all centuries since.  She admires Lutheranism’s “profound anti-authoritarianism, its political engagement, and its insistence on argument, discussion, and critical appraisal of its own history” (10). With all due respect to Lyndal Roper, those views might be found in the pages of an academic journal but are unlikely to resonate with the average church-goer, nor is it likely that the average Anglican or Catholic believer will suggest anything of the sort as their explanation for regular church attendance. Roper’s answer is more a sop to Lutheran authorities whose leader may have been criticised adversely in her book.

The structure of the book, the laying out in order, shows careful thought. An introduction is followed in order by: ‘The Luther Cranach Made’, ‘Luther and Dreams’, ‘Manhood and Pugilism’, ‘Names’, ‘Living I Was Your Plague’, ‘Luther the Anti-Semite’ and ‘Luther Kitsch’. By stepping back and reflecting on those chapter headings, one could be forgiven for concluding that Roper’s Luther dwelt elsewhere than the hallowed halls that housed a nation’s intellectuality. What I see is a brand that promotes, as in any field of commercial endeavour, a particular, successful product viz a religion.

Roper has the ability to surprise me. Her statement that, “as historians, we need to interpret our subjects not just through understanding the rationales of their actions, but also by considering their unconscious dimensions, and as we strive to recreate not just individuals but their social networks and their cultural worlds, we need to pay attention to dreams” (63) has left me struggling with my own inadequacies. Historians must these days be smarter than I ever knew them.

Roper goes on to note that “an individual’s psyche can illuminate their intellectual life so that we can arrive at a fuller comprehension of their ideas and their limitations. Names were deeply significant to Luther, and he loved to play with them. His own names were carefully crafted to reveal central features of his identity, and his choice of names for his children reveals a stubborn preoccupation with himself” (106). Tosh!

Roper is on firmer ground when she claims that “any serious consideration of Luther’s anti-Semitism must confront its extreme irrationality, its use of bodily imagery and its mobilisation of revulsion…these very qualities…leached into different areas of his theology and into the legacies of his Church” (168).

Roper’s book is a serious, if apologetic, biography of a German reformer. Mention is made of Luther, the Cranach creation and actions of the man as his career developed. There is a brief aside relating to Luther’s sense of humour.  Roper may have tried to bring her readers a clear picture of one of the most influential reformers of the sixteenth century, but at book’s end he remains as he began, a plastic figure that fails to generate any human warmth. He remains kitsch to the end.

Living I Was Your Plague

(2021)

By Lyndal Roper

Hardback (B315) | Jul 2021 | Princeton University Press | 9780691205304 | 296pp | 215x139mm | GEN | AUD$49.99, NZD$59.99

NewSouth Books

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