Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident

by Peter Stanford, Hodder, £20

On page 90 of Peter Stanford’s compelling new book we find Martin Luther in a gloomy mood. “What hell may be in that last day, I am not altogether sure,” Luther admits.

“I do not believe it is a special place where damned souls now exist like the place painters depict … Everyone carries his hell within him, wherever he is, as long as he feels and fears the last necessity of death and God’s wrath.” As Stanford comments, Luther is “making hell sound less like a place than an inner torment”, and Luther assuredly knew all about the pangs of depression and anxiety.

Mercifully, Stanford avoids lapsing into psychobabble, but he wisely sees shifting mental tides as one of the keys to Luther’s intellectual journey. There’s the famous story of why Luther became a monk, for example. In 1505, caught in a thunderstorm, Luther promised St Anne that he would head to the cloister if his life were spared. It is all, as Stanford puts it, “just so neat, like one of those perfectly rounded moral tales found in sugary hagiographies of saints”.

Perhaps he was just looking for an excuse to abandon his law studies, or perhaps Luther, already preoccupied with death, succumbed to one of those “erratic switches” that define the lives of people trapped by mental anguish. We can’t be sure, but time at the Augustinians’ establishment in Erfurt provided little respite and Luther continued to be blighted by what he called Anfechtung: a psychic struggle that felt like a “physical onslaught” and “as real as if Satan himself had been beating him with fists”.

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