(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 3, 2004)
"A great religious war is about to be unleashed. The seeds that Luther has sown, wrested from the impetus of conviction, are about to bear fruit. Disciples keen to move to action are preparing, with intrepid logic, to take his ideas to their conclusion… Luther's protectors have already achieved their objective of transforming the monk into a battering ram against the Holy See, organizing a large popular following around him."
The early years of the Reformation were among the most turbulent years in the history of western thought, and author Luther Blissett* has chosen to focus this novel of ideas on that vibrant period. Martin Luther had set the Reformation in motion when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the prince bishop's church in 1517, questioning the sale of indulgences and the venality of the Holy See. The recently invented printing press made the Bible available to laymen, so they could read it on their own, and was printing pamphlets containing new ideas of religious reform. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who supported the Pope's Inquisitions against these "heretical" ideas, was also engaged in a power struggle of his own on two political fronts—in the west with France and in the east with the Ottoman Empire. The German prince bishops soon found it to their advantage to ally themselves with the rapidly growing Protestant movement, thereby protecting their own positions and power from the peasants, at the expense of Charles and the Roman church.
Q tells the story of a mysterious German known by many names in the course of the novel, an Anabaptist follower of Thomas Muntzer, who believes that Luther has lost his connection with the people by becoming too close to the princes, from whom he accepts protection. Explaining the ideas of the Reformation and how they spread, the speaker, known as Gustav Metzger at the outset of the book, follows Muntzer during the trauma of the Peasant's Revolt (1524 – 26), which Luther opposes. When the peasants from a neighboring town are suddenly hired to fight for the town council, rather than for reform, the revolts in Thuringia fail, and villages are leveled, people are put to the sword, and many of the leaders of the revolt are arrested, tortured, and then beheaded. Tens of thousands of peasants throughout Germany die.
Part of the responsibility for the failure of the local revolt can be laid at the doorstep of a spy named Qoelet (Q), whose diaries and letters to Cardinal Gianpietro Carafa, reveal his duplicitous actions. As the Anabaptist speaker escapes from one bloody crisis after another, changing his name as often as he changes locations, Q tries to track him down and to counteract the increasingly dangerous effects of Protestantism, while promoting the interests of the Catholic church. Each of the speaker's failures is related to Q's countermoves.
Always traveling, the speaker moves throughout Germany to Switzerland and the Low Countries, as the ideas of the Reformation spread. In Munster, on the border of Holland and Germany, the reformers finally succeed in winning the city, only to have Jan Matthys of Haarlem, a sympathetic reformer, arrive, ironically, as a conquering hero. Surrounded by his own bodyguards, he declares himself king and, interpreting the Bible in the most fundamental terms, makes up his own rules, betraying the goals of the Reformation by becoming a tyrant—just like the Pope, the speaker thinks, as he escapes to Antwerp. There, he and the reader learn how the Pope and the princes finance their wars, discovering, in the process, how the speaker might finance his own war against the papacy.
Finally, twenty-five years after surviving the Peasants' Revolt, the disaster in Munster, and vicious reprisals against the Reformation everywhere he travels, the speaker, known by now as Tiziano Rinato (Titian), arrives in Venice with the financing he needs to distribute "heretical" pamphlets from a hidden printing press. With the church arresting and torturing people they think may lead them to the source of the pamphlets, attacking the Jewish merchants, and trying to protect itself against the Ottoman Turks, Titian and Q finally meet for the ultimate showdown.
The events of the early Reformation are extremely complex, affecting as they do both the intellectual and historical destinies of western civilization, and the novel reflects this complexity. With the narrative switching from 1555 to 1517 and from 1538 to 1527 and back, the reader must work to create his/her own timeline, though the events within each time period are clear. At several points in this long narrative, the authors summarize the speaker's thinking, putting events into perspective to avoid confusion for the reader.
Filled with exciting, hair's-breadth escapes from disaster, fascinating and memorable depictions of (real) historical characters, insightfully presented intellectual conflicts, and new events in new places coming fast and furiously for over seven hundred pages, the novel is a rewarding adventure for the reader with a serious interest in the Reformation. The authors have avoided the stodginess of some historical novels by adopting a breezy, slangy style, filled with profanities, which conveys the frustration and trauma of these four-hundred-year old events in a language with which the contemporary reader can easily identify. This style may not appeal to some scholars, as such a casual approach to these seminal events in world history demeans them, to some extent, by reducing them to issues akin to our own.
As the speaker moves throughout Europe, the novel becomes a series of interconnected episodes, rather than one unified plot. The unity is a result of the subject matter—the beliefs of the Reformation and how they spread—rather than from any real suspense. Though the speaker and Q work at cross-purposes throughout the novel, the sense of competition between them is not strong, since they do not know each other and the reader does not really see how Q has maneuvered to thwart the speaker until after the fact. Still, this is a huge novel of huge ideas, presented in a way that is accessible to anyone with an interest in the period, and the patient reader will come away with a new appreciation and understanding of one of the most remarkable periods in the history of our civilization.
*Reviewer's note: Luther Blissett is not a single author. Though this is a name of a real Milanese soccer player, it was chosen as a pseudonym by a group of four young people from Bologna, Italy, who are the authors of this novel.