The Book Shelf

January 4, 2018

by Mark Franke

1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation. Andrew Pettegree (Penguin House, 2015)

Having just passed the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, numerous new books on the period and Martin Luther have been published. One that takes a modern approach to the man and the movement is Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation by Andrew Pettegree (Penguin House, 2015). Pettegree, a Reformation scholar at the University of St. Andrews, recasts Luther as a marketing genius in the way he spread his teaching. First, Luther understood that he needed to write for the masses, which meant concise, lucid prose and most importantly use of the German language of the people rather than the Latin of the scholars. Second, he exhibited what Pettegree terms an intuitive understanding of the power of print and worked diligently with support of his prince, Frederick the Wise of Electoral Saxony, into turning provincial Wittenberg into a publishing powerhouse. Here, he was helped immeasurably by the shrewd marketing mind of capitalist sine pari Lucas Cranach. As Luther became more popular throughout Germany, he assumed the role of the favorite son of Wittenberg and its ruler and therefore benefitted from both their protection and their promotion.

There is a lesson, two actually, here for our modern idea of free enterprise. First, Luther’s works could be freely published throughout much of the Holy Roman Empire because there was no centralized governmental control of the economy. Printers were free in many of the 300 plus states of the empire to print what was popular and booksellers in even the non-Reformation states could import these pamphlets for sale. Second, the heavy-handed interference of Duke George in Ducal Saxony made publishing Luther’s work illegal, the result of which caused Leipzig’s thriving printing business to face bankruptcy. Even in the sixteenth century governmental control of the economy caused bad things to happen.

Sometimes it takes history in novel format to really get at the human struggles our forebears faced at critical and mundane times in history. Luther could not have midwifed a publishing empire if not for Johann Guttenberg’s invention of movable type and the modern printing industry. What Guttenberg went through is brought out nicely by Alix Christie’s Guttenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel (Harper, 2014). The novel focuses on Peter Schoeffer, apprenticed to Guttenberg during the production of the first printed Bible, and later a master printer in his own right. It is fascinating to learn how many times the Bible project was nearly abandoned due to lack of funding or mechanical failure. Several technological advances, attributed to Schoeffer, were slipstreamed into the production process to allow the project to be completed. We still benefit from these today: quick-drying inks, carefully crafted typefaces, multiple printing passes, and the use of a second color on the page.

Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536. James Reston (Penquin Press, 2009).

Back to Luther. How, then, did Luther manage to die peacefully (or probably grumpily) in his bed while Jan Hus was burned at the stake just a century earlier for trying to initiate the same reforms? Peddegree’s premise, that Luther marketed himself and his doctrine so effectively that his movement was too large and strong to destroy, is certainly part of the answer. But there is more to the story. Luther’s putative enemies, primarily the Emperor Charles V and a succession of popes, were too often distracted according to James Reston in his Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536 (Penquin Press, 2009). Power struggles between France and the Empire in Italy, with the current pope siding with one then other, took up much of Charles’ attention during the first two decades of the Reformation. When he wasn’t focused on France, Charles was looking over his shoulder at the advance of the Ottoman army through the Balkans and eventually right up to the gates of Vienna. Luther and the Reformation benefitted from not-so-benign neglect from Charles and the Papacy. When Charles finally was able to turn back to the Reformation and his rebellious Lutheran and Reformed princes, it was too late. The genie was out of the bottle.

Defenders focuses on two protagonists: Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and other Habsburg domains, and Sulyman the Magnificent, emperor of the Muslim world and most of the Balkans. Their affairs run separate but overlapping storylines. Each had his own internal or localized issues to deal with, but their inevitable confrontation is always percolating underneath. Eventually Sulyman was defeated outside Vienna and the Ottoman Empire would only sporadically mount European incursions afterward. Until perhaps today, with the mass migration of refugees and other immigrants from Muslim countries into nominally Christian Europe? Are we in fact cursed to repeat history?

Reston has authored four books focused on the clash between Christianity and Islam from the High Middle Ages to the Reformation. (The others are, in historical order: The Last Apocalypse, Warriors of God, and Dogs of God.) His hypothesis is that the history of Western civilization could have radically altered with only minor changes in the outcomes of certain key battles between armies of the two faiths.

I like counterfactuals as well as anyone but Reston’s books aren’t really that as he sticks to straight history. The what if is always in the background and Reston demonstrates how many of these battles and campaigns were close run things.

My only real complaint with Reston’s book is that he tends toward bias on behalf of Sulyman who seems to have so many advantages of character and intellect, while poor Charles is mired in prejudice and pettiness. Perhaps I overstate this and it certainly doesn’t prevent my recommending Defenders as well as Reston’s other books if you like medieval history.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World. Tim Marshall (Scribner, 2015).

It’s fine to talk about the confluence of great people at key times in history or of major technological advances at these critical points, but is there something more basic involved here? Yes, says Tim Marshall in his Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World (Scribner, 2015). Human history is advanced and constrained by our habitat. Marshall proposes two main geographic realities that determine what peoples and nations rise and prosper, or not: the natural boundaries set by mountain ranges and large bodies of water, and the presence of navigable rivers. The book’s subtitle is quite a claim, but Marshall does a reasonable job of defending it.

His stress on the importance of navigable rivers hits home. The United States, says Marshall, has the largest network of these rivers on the globe. Here where I live in Fort Wayne, the confluence of three rivers and a short portage over a sub-continental divide made its location the most strategic in the eastern continent. The Miami tribe’s largest village was located near what is now downtown Fort Wayne so that control of the portage could be maintained. Trade could move east to the Great Lakes or west and south to the Wabash/Ohio/Mississippi river network.

Marshall’s ten maps include large nations, continents, sub-continents, and the occasional geo-political grouping. Each of these still plays an important role in our foreign policy today, so maybe his list is as much political as geographical. The list includes Russia, China, the United States, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic.

And Marshall’s prospective eleventh map? Outer space.

Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West. Christopher Knowlton (Houghton Mifflen Harcourt, 2017)

Everyone loves a good western but much of what we know about the Old West comes from fictional stories by great writers such as Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey and others, or from movies going back to the classics like Shane and The Virginian. But how much of this is actually true rather than a romantic view tailor-made for Hollywood? Journalist Christopher Knowlton would have us believe very little.

In his recent history entitled Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West (Houghton Mifflen Harcourt, 2017), Knowlton disabuses us of such images as the six-shooter-packing, gun-fighting cowboy shooting up the town after coming in from a cattle drive. In actuality Knowlton instructs us that cowboys rarely carried pistols, and if they did they were packed away in saddlebags. Gunfights? Not really. In Dodge City’s bloodiest year, only five men died of gunshot wounds while there were 400 murders annually on average in New York City during this era. And cowboys really hated cattle drives, so much so that almost no one ever went on a second one.

Myth busting aside, Knowlton can’t seem to decide if the cattle era (roughly 1865-1895) was American entrepreneurship at its best or predatory capitalism run amuck. He credits the period with its giving birth to such American business foundations as joint-stock companies, creation of new product markets, vertical market integration, rationalization of production, and technological inventiveness. As he points out, the cattle business and its attendant meat-packing distribution network became America’s largest industry at the time until overtaken by the new automobile sector. Henry Ford got his idea for the moveable assembly line by watching slaughter houses at work.

Yet Knowlton just can’t help himself in decrying the lack of governmental regulation. There were no security laws to prevent the investment bubble and collapse. The cattle were treated inhumanely throughout the process. Meat packers gave no thought to cleanliness or sanitation either for workers or the end product.

Let’s not forget the environmental issues. He begins his book by recounting the slaughter of the huge buffalo herds and calling it America’s first great environmental disaster. In fairness he does allow as to how the herds had grown insupportably large and were headed for a natural die-off anyway, but still. Teddy Roosevelt is the hero the book because of his leadership of the conservation movement and his designation of national monuments throughout this area, with multiple reminders that he was a “progressive.”

Cattle Kingdom does address, albeit obliquely, the issue of property rights. The great western plains began as government land that anyone could use. The large cattle herds were free to graze and water at very little cost to their owners. At the same time the government was selling off farm plots of 160 or 640 acres, which soon become physically set apart by the massive use of newly invented barbwire fencing. Although Knowlton doesn’t, and probably wouldn’t, explain the controversy in these terms, conservatives today can see this as an early example of crony capitalists with government subsidies trampling the rights of small property owners who get in their way.

The book is worth reading as its pace is just right for a history with a healthy sampling of business case studies included. Just beware of the lectures on the essential goodness of overarching regulation by government and the enduring evil of the “cowboy image” myth that in Knowlton’s mind directs U.S. foreign policy to this day. Think of Johnson, Reagan and Bush 43 (ranch owners all) as modern day cowboys who saw the world as the wild west waiting to be tamed by force.


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