Luther’s Lion-Hearted Historians

Luther expressed his appreciation for history and historians on numerous occasions

“Luther also had thoughts on how history should be done (i.e. historiography). He shared those thoughts in 1538 in the preface to a German translation of Galeatius Capella’s history of the reign of the Milanese Duke Francesco II Sforza. Given the attention Luther is receiving this year as an object of historical interest, it’s intriguing to note how Luther himself believed historians should proceed with their task.”

 

Luther expressed his appreciation for history and historians on numerous occasions. History, he believed, provides fodder for both fear and praise since God is sovereign over the course of human events. History records and reminds us how God “upholds, rules, obstructs, prospers, punishes, and honors the world, and especially men, each according to his just desert, evil or good.” History serves ethics by providing numerous examples of conduct to be emulated or avoided, and by providing a sense of national identity that is critical to the maintenance of public mores. Historians, therefore, “are the most useful people and the best teachers, so that one can never honor, praise, and thank them enough.”

Luther also had thoughts on how history should be done (i.e. historiography). He shared those thoughts in 1538 in the preface to a German translation of Galeatius Capella’s history of the reign of the Milanese Duke Francesco II Sforza. Given the attention Luther is receiving this year as an object of historical interest, it’s intriguing to note how Luther himself believed historians should proceed with their task. Hearing Luther ruminate on the practice of history gives some insight into how he himself might have wished his own story told.

The historian, Luther opines, must be “a first-rate man who has a lion’s heart, unafraid to write the truth.” The reformer found few historians living up to this standard. “The greater number write in such a way that they readily pass over or put the best construction on the vices and deficiencies of their own times in the interest of their lords or friends and in turn glorify all too highly some trifling or vain virtue. On the other hand, they embellish or besmirch histories to the advantage of their father land and disadvantage of the foreigners, according to whether they love or hate someone.”

Luther, it seems to me, understood well that history is a loaded enterprise because it traffics identities. The historian is never merely retelling things that have happened. Both in the selection of events depicted and in the manner of their depiction, the historian is constructing his subject’s identity, and ultimately either vindicating or vilifying his subject. “Love or hate” for one’s subject, as Luther puts it, heavily informs the identity ultimately constructed.

Luther’s judgment that most historians lack lions’ hearts and shy away from the truth may seem more pertinent to his day than ours. Early modern historians were generally more upfront than their present-day counterparts in acknowledging their “love or hate” for their subject(s), and in vindicating or vilifying accordingly. But I’m not personally convinced that all that much has changed between Luther’s day and our own.

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