Goodale on Reston, 'Luther's Fortress: Martin Luther and his Reformation under Siege'

James Reston
Jay Goodale

James Reston. Luther's Fortress: Martin Luther and his Reformation under Siege. New York: Basic Books, 2015. 272 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-06393-2.

Reviewed by Jay Goodale (Bucknell University) Published on H-German (September, 2016) Commissioned by Nathan N. Orgill

The German Hercules in Battle and in Exile

James Reston Jr. is a prolific, best-selling, and, based solely upon this work, highly skilled writer who has published seventeen books on subjects as diverse as General Sherman's march, the disgraced baseball legend Pete Rose, Galileo, Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade, the Reverend Jim Jones (of Jonestown infamy), the Frost/Nixon interviews, and the assassination of President Kennedy. He is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a self-administered institution established as part of the Smithsonian and based in Washington DC. In a short but inspirational seven-page, post-epilogue "Author's Note," he informs us that his desire to write a book on Luther emerged as he encountered him while researching and writing his acclaimed work Defenders of the Faith: Christianity and Islam Battle for the Soul of Europe, 1520-1536 (2009).

In Luther's Fortress, Reston seeks to illuminate Luther's stay at Wartburg Castle between May 1521 and March 1522, and the development of and threats to the nascent Reformation during his time there. The period between Luther's birth (1483) and the Diet of Worms (1521) is covered in just over twenty-two pages of fairly large print. Important themes and relevant events in both European history and Luther's personal and intellectual life, including Leo X's pontificate, the election of Charles V, the relationship between this pope and emperor, the Knights' Revolt, Luther's experience as a monk in Erfurt, the Leipzig Disputation, Luther's relationship with Johann von Staupitz, Luther's theological breakthroughs, and the controversy over indulgences are mentioned and dispatched fairly quickly. Despite the book's stated narrow focus, I would have appreciated a little more attention to these aspects of the broader context, as they are absolutely fundamental to a fuller understanding of both how Luther came to arrive at the Imperial Diet at Worms, and why he acted as he did there. Moreover, a lengthier discussion of some of these complex subjects might better serve the nonspecialist, for whom this work is presumably intended. 

Reston's ability to convey the atmosphere so palpably, and to bring the various personae to life so vividly, is certainly the book's major strength and advantage. After bringing us to 1521, Reston recounts Luther's entry into Worms and his actions at the diet in a detailed, lively, and gripping "you are there" style that captures the tension and the suspense of this historical event far better than the typical academic book. Here, in a passage typical of his prose, Reston describes the scene immediately after Luther has refused to recant: "Pandemonium broke out. The emperor was confused. What had happened?...  [Amid shouting] Luther was sweating profusely ... the emperor rose to his feet in fury.... [Spanish soldiers] fell in behind [Luther], hissing and shouting out, 'Into the fire with him!' Luther turned on them with a gloat and raised his hands high in the air, in the manner of a victorious Teutonic swordsman.... But this show of bravado did not comport with Luther's true feelings of terror" (pp. 39-40).

Such lively writing will surely make this book appealing to many readers. I must confess I was initially curious to encounter a book of popular history, of this length, focused on Luther's time at the Wartburg. Despite this engagingly descriptive style, however, there is, for the academic reader, not much engagement with the historical literature, nor much original analysis. For example, in the same section, Reston explicitly notes the oddity of Luther's immediate request for more time to consider his official reply, given that Luther had had weeks to prepare an answer, and knew his whole reason even for being there was to answer that specific question. Yet he offers no suggestions to explain Luther's hesitation, even if it does provide him with a compelling twist in the unfolding drama, of which he takes full literary advantage. 

Another great strength of this book--and an enviable skill of Reston's--is his knack for wonderfully interweaving themes, topics, biographical sketches, and relevant asides into his overarching narrative. A discussion of Luther's correspondence with Melanchthon provides a fresh and enjoyably folksy mini-biography of Melanchthon and an appraisal of Luther's relationship with him. Another chapter provides a riveting focus on Henry VIII's and Thomas More's views on Luther, as well as Luther's responses to Henry. Reston synthesizes well: while I offer separate courses at my university on religion and politics in Tudor England, focusing largely on Henry VIII and More, and on the Reformation, focusing largely on Luther, I had never, until reading this chapter, considered the fact that their heated debates and various condemnatory publications arose during Luther's exile at the Wartburg. Two chapters in particular ("Unclean Thoughts, Devouring Fires" and "Wrestling the Devil") cover the physical, emotional, and psychological trauma that Luther experienced--and so graphically wrote about. While this material is standard fare in biographies of Luther, Reston's great skill as a writer brings Luther's suffering and torment to the fore in a more visceral way than one usually encounters. There are also large sections devoted to what Luther wrote while at the Wartburg, what happened in Wittenberg during Luther's absence, what Luther did to save his movement upon his ultimate return to Wittenberg, and, more atypically, what happened in Rome following the Diet of Worms. In an especially poignant section, Reston conjectures upon the manner by which Luther and the captain of the Wartburg would have celebrated the Christmas of 1521 together. Over the last thirty years I have read much of, and about, Luther, and have visited the Wartburg three times. Yet I had never reflected upon this subject, and it is to Reston's credit that he highlights such subtle but important aspects of Luther's exile.

Although Reston summarizes and explains Luther's major theological publications up to the Peasants' War of 1524-25 clearly and succinctly, he does so without much attention to the intellectual context of these writings; there is no discussion of the influence of Nominalism or of Augustine or of late medieval German mysticism on Luther's theological development. Likewise, there is no discussion of the crucial role Staupitz's religious positions played in Luther's evolving theology.[1] 

And, especially at the beginning of the book, Reston reprises the old, whiggish view that overstresses--in regard to Luther's theological breakthroughs--the moral depravity of Rome, the hypocrisy of the popes, and the decadence of Renaissance-era Catholicism. Thus we read how the excesses of Leo X "would, in time, shape Luther's opposition to the church.... Leo brought to Rome the Medici focus on art, science, and literature.... His gluttony was well known, and [in Raphael's portrait his] corpulence was on display.... Many [poets] busied themselves in writing paeans to their papal benefactor. Leo responded by showering gifts on these writers, as well as his relatives and artists. Nepotism also flourished under Leo" (pp. 4-5).

Further on we learn of Leo's "pleasure in profane amusements" and his "extravagant eccentricities," including a discussion of his pet white elephant (p. 6). We are informed of "Leo's luxurious lifestyle," of how "the Vatican's savings were squandered," and of how Leo fought war, gave "lavish banquets," and praised the "fable of Jesus Christ" for its ability to earn him revenue (p. 7). All of this is certainly true, but one wonders how ultimately significant it was for Luther's ideas on justification or his sacramental theology. 

At one point, Reston describes what appears to have been a fairly typical carnivalesque performance in Rome in 1521. Ignoring the rich, multivalent symbolism inherent to such enactments, he labels it "a shocking pagan pageant" and a "tawdry papal entertainment."[2] He asks, rhetorically, "What, one wonders, would Luther have thought of such a vulgar, profane, and vaguely erotic spectacle for the amusement of the vicar of Christ?" (pp. 30-31).  

Presumably to heighten the drama, Reston crafts, in this same vein, a stylistic duality between Luther and Leo. Compared to the gluttonous and corpulent Leo, he of lavish spending and avarice, we are presented with "a thin, athletic Martin Luther [who] climbed up on his simple, two-wheeled wagon" to start his journey to Worms (p. 25). Almost always, when I inform people that I am an historian of the Reformation, they reply with a wry smile and an immediate recounting of various sixteenth-century Catholic depravities, debaucheries, and scandals; this view is superficial and uninformed, and though it certainly enhances the conflict and passion embedded in this book, it does not reflect the most nuanced of understandings.

There are also numerous slight factual errors, none of which falsifies the overall narrative, but which serve, on occasion, to misrepresent a character's motive or position. For instance, the pope did not attempt to bribe Frederick the Wise into arresting an excommunicated Luther with the Golden Rose (p. 43). It was awarded to Frederick in 1518 because the pope needed his support, both against the Turkish threat and in the coming Imperial election, and it had nothing to do with Luther's case. Also, the head ecclesiastic from Trèves (normally given in its German form as Trier) was an archbishop and an elector, not a mere bishop (p. 47). Melanchthon's father did not give his young son this Greek form of the family's last name Schwarzerde because of the boy's "extraordinary proficiency in Greek" (p. 54). Rather, it was Johann Reuchlin who, in keeping with the trend among German humanists of that era, such as Trithemius or Oecolampadius, to Hellenize their surnames, bestowed this name on the young Philip to recognize his work on Latin verse.[3] Mary Tudor was not, in 1521, the only surviving child of King Henry VIII (p. 74). Though illegitimate, Henry FitzRoy (b. 1519) was publicly and proudly acknowledged by his father, the king (hence his revealing last name). He was made the 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, and, given his father's preoccupation with dynastic continuation, was never explicitly removed from politics of state until his death, probably from consumption, in 1536. Likewise, Wittenberg was not, at this time, the capital city of the Prussian duchy of Saxe-Wittenberg (p. 131). It had been once, during the first half of the fourteenth century; but in the 1520s it was a town in the territory of Electoral Saxony. And I would not label Thomas Müntzer an Anabaptist (p. 222). Whatever Müntzer's thoughts on the efficacy and validity of child baptism, he clearly believed baptism was an experience of spirit, not of water, as the Anabaptists argued.[4] Finally, Reston chooses not to regard Luther's rejection of the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation, as most scholars do, within the context of Luther's intense dislike for Aristotelian metaphysics. Instead, he speculates that Luther's views on the Eucharist developed from a sort of "sour grapes" attitude following his excommunication. Alone, such an opinion is hardly a factual error. But Reston goes a bit too far in his speculating: "At Wartburg, he was barred from this holiest and most precious of all priestly duties. And so, arguably, for personal reasons, he had set out to undermine the significance of the Eucharist, to downplay and demystify its magic. If he could not officiate at the mystical transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, let him doubt that this real presence existed at all" (p. 78).

That last line is quite problematic, as Luther certainly never denied the Real Presence, but believed most strongly in it. He famously fought Huldrych Zwingli, among other Protestant theologians, on this issue at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529). Luther's view on the matter is normally described as consubstantiation as opposed to transubstantiation. It was not Christ's presence which Luther ever doubted; he rejected, rather, a system of reasoning that maintained that, despite all outward appearance, the consecrated bread had become, actually and fully, human flesh. Indeed, a crucial aspect of what has been referred to as "the Second Reformation" in late sixteenth-century Brandenburg and Electoral Saxony was precisely the series of conflicts within the institutional Lutheran Church regarding the desire of some political rulers and ecclesiastical elites to abrogate Luther's position on ubiquity.[5]  

The book contains numerous and diverse illustrations, and a helpful map. It is extremely well written, in an engaged and passionate style, and it will undoubtedly serve as a useful and captivating introduction for many to Luther and the early years of the Reformation, and as an inspiration to others.


[1]. The important influence of Staupitz's religious understanding on Luther's theological development is discussed, for example, in Volker Leppin, Martin Luther. Vom Mönch zum Feind des Papstes (Darmstadt: Lambert Schneider, 2013).

[2]. For extremely sophisticated, anthropological, and symbolic readings of carnivalesque performances held in Rome, and the ways by which various components of the institutional church might have benefited from them, see Alain Boureau, The Myth of Pope Joan, trans., Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[3]. This event is described in detail by Heinz Scheible in his classic study, Melanchthon. Eine Biographie  (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1997), 15-16.

[4]. For a thorough and analytical description of Müntzer's views on baptism, see Abraham Friesen, Thomas Muentzer, A Destroyer of the Godless: The Making of a Sixteenth-Century Religious Revolutionary (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 171-174.

[5]. The literature on this subject is vast. See, among others, Thomas Klein, Der Kampf um die zweite Reformation in Kursachsen 1586-91 (Cologne: Böhlau, 1962); Bodo Nischan, Prince, People and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), and Nischan, Lutherans and Calvinists in the Age of Confessionalism (New York: Routledge, 1999); and the essay by Jay Goodale, "Intimidation, Intolerance, and Injury: Religious Violence and the 'Second Reformation' in Saxony, 1587-91" in Religion und Gewalt. Konflickte, Rituale, Deutungen (1500-1800), ed. Kaspar von Greyerz and Kim Siebenhuener (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2006), 193-219.

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