The Church Times [the World's leading Anglican weekly newspaper], 15 August 2003:

Luther Blissett
William Heinemann

IF YOU relish tales of schism, ecclesiastical politics and theological battles-to-the-death, then the 650 pages of this sprawling, compelling historical novel will keep you happy for hours. But if you delight in brotherly love and coexistence, then its view of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation will be depressing.

The narrative ranges back and forward in time (sometimes confusingly), from Luther nailing his theses on the door of Wittenberg church, through the proliferation of radical sects across the German states and the Netherlands, up to the Council of Trent. It is a tale of intrigue, university debate, bloody fighting and brutal suppression — and the language is often that of the battlefield.

Its fictional narrator is a young theological student, at first fired by Luther’s attack on indulgences and the excesses of papal authority, but increasingly bitter at his support of the German merchant princes.

So our storyteller becomes in turn an Anabaptist and a mercenary, in a world where both icons and heretics are flung on the fires that raged throughout Europe. Interspersed within this story are letters from its eponymous villain. “Q” is a papal spy who infiltrates the Anabaptists and reports to his “controller”, a cardinal in Rome.

Some readers of the Church Times will identify the author’s name as that of a black English football player who has been on the coaching staff of York City, and who played for AC Milan. But, as the publisher helpfully points out, “he had nothing to do with the writing of this book”. The name is simply a surreal pseudonym for four anonymous Italian writers with strong socialist, if not Marxist, sympathies.

One of the many themes of their book is the growth of capitalism and the rise of the banking system, the “Beast” that provides “rivers of money lent in exchange for a percentage of the profits” — profits from religious wars and from the sweat of the labouring classes oppressed by the German nobles and their “puppet”, Luther.

That this is just one theme out of so many makes it a difficult book: one must frequently reread an earlier section to clarify a name or a date. But it is compulsive in its portrayal of the realities and brutalities of reforming zeal and religious power.

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