Alexander Weber, Department of Cultures and Languages, Birkbeck, University of London
What attracted me – to be honest, a reluctant blogger – to contribute to the British Museum’s blog, is the historical connection between Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, the British Museum and my own profession as an academic teacher of German in England. Long before the universities discovered my discipline, German grammars and textbooks had been produced by generations of curators and librarians at the British Museum. From the eighteenth century onwards, German protestant pastors preached to emerging German communities in London on Sundays and during the week catalogued the great treasures of ancient Biblical manuscripts (such as the Codex Alexandrinus) still in the British Library today. They were leading experts on the textual history of the Old and New Testament mainly because they followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther. Luther believed in the authority of scripture and not the dogma of the Roman church and to prove his point he immersed himself in careful critical study of the best original sources available to him in Greek and Hebrew. His formula of restoring the freshness of the original and then expressing it in the spoken language of ordinary Germans of his time brought the great stories of the Bible to life.
It was Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, however, which disseminated Luther’s writings to a mass audience. One of the best places in the world to study the link between the media revolution of the printing press and the Reformation is the British Library. The German pastors in London were also involved in building up the great collection of Luther editions. They had inherited the enthusiasm for studying and cultivating their own language from Luther and fostered it in Britain through private lessons. They taught German in the royal household.
Before Luther the German language was regarded as too crude and fragmented into provincial rough dialects to be used in any cultivated discourse. In learned circles, Latin was used – both in writing and speech. The Lutheran Bible changed all this, becoming the benchmark of modern German. An unprecedented number of authorized copies and countless pirated editions were circulated in Germany. It is estimated that a very large proportion of literate households possessed a copy, and in many cases it remained the only or at least the most treasured book in the house for several generations. Even the tide of polemics against Luther had to use his language in order to reach the huge readership which the new medium had created.
How did Luther overcome the strong regional differences which had emerged through waves of sound shifts during the long history of the German language? Since his childhood he had moved across these linguistic borders and managed to balance the extremes of dialect in his own speech. He also built on a common language of officialdom, the chancelleries which issued decrees which had to be understood across the whole of Germany. He looked towards areas where the population had mixed through migration and where a more common version of the German language was beginning to emerge. I am not persuaded, though, by the argument that these developments would have happened anyway. What intrigues me most about this story is that an individual can change something as universal as a whole language. In fact, we all leave linguistic traces behind through mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of our speech, our individual linguistic fingerprint, if you like. The historical circumstances may have been favourable, but Luther was a character of greatness and literary genius, possessing a truly exceptional power to coin phrases and expressions which have become the nuts and bolts of the modern German idiom. In my view, Luther was a giant, a figure of supreme confidence in the power of the thinking self to turn the tables against lazy dogma and sophistry.
The two cornerstones of Luther’s theology are two existential faculties of the self: the use of logos, i.e. language, and faith; logos and faith alone can redeem us. His emphasis on the individual was so strong that Protestantism became increasingly subjective, which resulted in modern relativism. History gained a lot through Luther, especially because he encouraged ordinary people to get involved in serious matters of public life. This defining shift also fostered the German idea of nationhood. The republicans who gave this movement its direction often referred to Luther as their ideological starting point. Historically there was a loss, too. The universality of the Latin world of education and the church was undermined. The supranational identity of European Christianity was diminished and replaced by German, English and other national concepts of God. Very little was left to mediate between these fronts. Luther was a German, not a cosmopolitan figure compared to the broad-minded humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example. He was also a master of polemics in a period which one could call the golden age of mud-slinging. He inspired noble democrats but also nasty nationalists.
Luther’s cult of the word benefited the growth of standard German, but it also encouraged the attacks on treasures of visual art and sacred objects during the Reformation. It should not be overlooked that ordinary, illiterate people before Luther had access to the Bible through the so-called biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), which was essentially a picture book. I find it fascinating to observe that the image is once again favoured in today’s digital media, just as the era of the printing press gave power to the word. Today the text no longer rules over the image. This exhibition, Germany: memories of a nation, focusing as it does on objects and making them speak, is a good example of the re-balancing of image and word. It would make Luther shudder, though, just as the relics and images of saints of his time did. In his youth he was a very stern Augustinian friar on the radical fringes of the Roman church, and he never lost his suspicion of the senses, especially the eyes as an inroad of sin into our souls. The word was abstract, an expression of the spirit, the same stuff that God was made of. Images and objects would pull us away from this, Luther thought. As a linguist I admire the greatness of Luther, the sheer might of his words, both pious and polemical, but many things which he dismissed have regained an unexpected importance again and probably for a good reason.
Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.
Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September. The episode Luther and a Language for all Germans is available to listen to on the BBC website.