Martin Luther and the first best sellers

If you are asked to put together a list of a best-selling authors you’d probably think of Stephen King, John Grisham, Agatha Christie or even Charles Dickens. Martin Luther, German priest, monk, author of the 95 Theses and iconic instigator of the Protestant reformation, is not normally thought of as a best-selling writer. But, even more than being remembered as a writer, should Luther also be remembered as the world’s first bestselling author?

Luther had forcefully denounced the excesses of the Roman Catholic church – its elaborate and ornate hierarchies, complex and financially lucrative doctrines of purgatory and limbo and the accompanying, widespread sale of indulgences and absolutions. Across Europe, saintly relics and remains were bought and sold with particularly prized objects becoming the devotional hearts of shrines and magnets to pilgrims.

In hammering his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg  (either literally or metaphorically – there is considerable debate over how or even whether this key historical event actually happened), Luther struck a spark that would erupt throughout Germany and across Europe. It also coincided with the development of the printing industry, and the two enjoyed a symbiotic and profitable relationship.

Europeans were desperate to read the written works of Luther, and printers were only too glad to fulfil this demand by churning out thousands of copies of his most popular tracts. It is estimated that fully one-third of all books published in German in this early period of printing were written by Martin Luther.

This was an idea whose time had come, fuelled by a technological innovation that stoked the kindled fire into a blazing storm. It is a useful and telling lesson for those regimes facing destabilisation by modern communication technologies – no matter how comprehensive the attempts at censorship there will always be ways of getting round the bans and barriers.