Stanford places Luther in the context of a broken and corrupt church, in a "very specific time and in a very specific set of circumstances". Like many other of Luther's biographers Stanford argues that the formative aspects to Luther's character came from his youth - in particular his father and specific experiences. These created someone with an "inflexible, troubled personality". But Stanford is not so reductionist as to simply believe that relations between parent and child led directly to the Reformation. Indeed Stanford argues that Luther was driven by, "his insights into God's justice that challenged the orthodoxy of the day, but also an array of external factors around politics, dynasties and the exercise of power in the Catholic Church."
So it is the political situation that forms the context for Luther's growing discontent with the Church and his (alleged) posting of the 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. For those fascinated with these things, and those visitors to the church itself, Stanford tends to suggest that the "nailing" of the theses on the door did not actually happen. Though, as he points out, this is hardly the point. The publication of these theses set in train a process that did lead to the Reformation and the break in the Church. Though as the author explains, in part this was due to mistakes by the Church hierarchy itself.
Standford shows how Luther closely linked his critique of the church with the political and economic context. For instance, Luther writes in the theses: "Before long, all the churches, palaces, walls and bridges of Rome will be built of our money. First of all we should rear living temples, next local churches and only last of all Saint Peter's." This link between religious reform and economic conditions creates the context for the mass rebellion of the Peasants War in 1525, eight years after Luther's publishes his theses.
Stanford's book opens with his own experiences in the town and this travelogue aspect to the book shapes much of the narrative. Reading the book in Wittenberg I was struck several times by the way the official marking of key Reformation events in the city, removes the mass context. For instance Stanford describes the mass invasion of the Schlosskirche by angry townspeople who break images and protest. Something that Luther was enormously fearful of, yet which isn't recorded in the official histories on the site. Nor are similar mass participations in the attacks on monasteries. Instead there is a tendency to portray the Reformation as a passive event were ordinary people took part by attending church and reading books. Stanford, instead, describes a mass Reformation, driven by discontent theologically and economically. We see this in the fears of the ruling class when the Church orders the burning of Luther's works:
Albrecht summoned up his courage and ordered a public bonfire of Luther's books in Mainz, only to see it halted by just the sort of popular insurrection he had feared. The official charged with lighting the flames was so worried about the reaction of the crowd that had gathered in protest that he sought their consent before starting the fire. They refused, he reported back to the archbishop, on the grounds that Luther's works had not been lawfully condemned. He did not proceed.
This is most notable with his account of the Peasants' War. Stanford rightly argues that the "Church did not exist in a vacuum from the society around it. There was... no dividing line between religion and what might be broadly be called politics, economics or society". And for one group of Germans, the peasantry, this lead to outright rebellion. James M. Stayer has written that the Peasants' War was the "expression of the Reformation in the countryside", and Stanford's book supports this. Stanford writes
By the language of the street that he used, the ecclesiastical corruption and incompetence that he highlighted, and even his own relatively humble beginnings, Luther had a strong appeal for the lower orders... As he took his stand against the two great powers of the age - the Pope and the emperor - he excited an anticipation of more to come as his reform programme easily... became conflated with the prospect of better circumstances in daily lives, where economic woes would be addressed and that widespread sense of being excluded finally tackled. In the minds of his hearers , the religious and the political were one.
This made it even more shocking to the Peasants when Luther sided with the authorities and called for the rebels to be murdered. In explaining this aspect Stanford tends to argue that Luther's ideas of transformation focused on the ideological and this meant that he could not countenance the idea of radical change. But I don't think this is enough, and I think there is a deeper explanation. The problem I think is that Stanford locates Luther's Reformation in the context of the politics of the era, without trying too look deeper at the economic changes taking place. Beyond the conflicts between powers and the sense of a changing urban economy, I don't think that Stanford adequately shows how these political conflicts arose out of the gradual birth of a new capitalist order. Luther, as I think many left historians have shown, aligned his interests with the new urban merchant petty-bourgeois class. This meant he sided with the authorities against the masses. Herein lies the answer to the conundrum of Luther's behaviour during (and after) the Peasants' War, not just because he needed to "find a way of working with, rather than against, the secular authorities" to construct a new church. Though it would be similarly wrong to ignore completely this aspect.
When I first opened Peter Stanford's book on the way to Wittenberg I was expecting to be frustrated by the framing of the work through the authors' own beliefs. Instead I found myself presently surprised by a nuanced explanation of this turning point in European history. While Lyndal Roper's book is probably a better (and more detailed) biography of Luther, Stanford's is the more accessible read and it is certainly the book to read if you are in Wittenberg for four days!