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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

1517 by Peter Marshall

1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation - Peter Marshall

This book is not really about Martin Luther or even exclusively about the year 1517. It is more of a detailed study of the posting of the 95 Theses - whether or not it really happened and how the action (whether historical or legend) has been viewed and inspired others throughout the five centuries since.


While this was an interesting study, I couldn't help but wonder throughout my reading of it how much it really mattered. I will admit that, as one who has studied the era and even visited Wittenberg, I am not entirely convinced that Luther did boldly nail the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church on October 31, 1517. However, the spark of the Reformation was lit and Martin Luther's journey began on that day, even if he did just mail the discussion points to his archbishop rather than immediately publicize them.


The author includes a detailed study on how the beginning of the Reformation has been memorialized and celebrated through the ages. This is partially evidence to disprove the Theses posting, but it is an interesting look at how different people in different ages and circumstances viewed Luther's work. Different generations placed more significance on the Diet of Worms or the burning of the Papal Bull or simply Luther's birth or death anniversary. How did we come to focus on the Theses posting as the most significant event giving life to the Reformation? The author is not sure and seems disappointed in the choice.


I can relate. I have stood before the doors that are now bronze and embossed with the words of the 95 Theses, and was thrilled to be there. But wasn't Luther's 'On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church' more important? Wasn't the Diet of Worms when he truly stood up for reform? Maybe, but before those more compelling events, Luther had to go through the experiences that the 95 Theses brought about. Maybe the burning of his notice of excommunication is more defiant and bold, but it would not have happened without the 95 Theses.


Maybe the passing years have injected October 31, 1517 with more of the drama of the events that followed it because we like the movie-worthy moment of the mild and obedient monk angrily hammering his objections to the door of the very church he is protesting. Maybe the Theses really weren't posted until Luther had been ignored by the proper chain of command. Maybe he had a student glue them up, as would have been more proper than the professor of theology taking nails to the church door. Maybe people didn't gather in excitement the moment the notice went up. However, in retrospect, people of Luther's time and many more since have recognized October 31, 1517 as the day when Martin Luther began something that changed the world.


I received this book through NetGalley. Opinions are my own.