A Deadly Vocation

By Andrew Pettegree |

The writings of Martin Luther transformed the German print industry. At one point in the early 1520s, the writings of Luther and his supporters accounted for half of the books published in the Holy Roman Empire. So it bears emphasis that Luther’s movement in fact did not export very well.

This was partly because Luther was often addressing German issues, and stirring German grievances; but it was also the case that government authorities in much of western Europe, in France, England, Italy and Spain took swift action to forbid the publication or ownership of Luther’s works. Persecution of evangelicals was particularly severe in the Netherlands, despite (or perhaps because of) the early enthusiasm for Luther’s message in the Low Countries. To spread Luther’s words, and avoid prosecution or even execution, printers had to adopt very different strategies to the bold marketing of Luther’s works in Wittenberg and other German towns.

USTC 424778. NB 19926
Een seer nuttelijke bedenckenisse onser salicheyts ([Leiden: Jan Seversz, 1522]), USTC 424778. NB 19926. Image courtesy of Koninklijke Bibliotheek, via ProQuest’s Early European Books.
This book, A Very Useful Meditation on the Suffering and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ (USTC 424778), has all the appearance of a pre-Reformation Catholic devotional text. In fact, it is a sermon of Martin Luther, first published in Wittenberg in 1519. At no point is Luther’s responsibility for the text acknowledged; the confident use of Luther’s name to market the German originals of these sermons and works of consolation is here entirely absent. Nor is the printer, Jan Seversz, keen to associate his name with the project. Seversz was a courageous man, risking his life for the cause. In the first years of the Reformation Seversz reprinted several of Luther’s Latin works, an offence for which he was banned from Holland in 1524. He moved to Utrecht but his reputation pursued him: here too he was banished, and when he moved to Antwerp, a larger city where concealment was more plausible, he was briefly imprisoned.

This modest work, with its comforting message of salvation, unlocks a tumultuous world of underground printing and clandestine distribution. In one respect this deception, the carefully non-confessional title and elegant woodcut, seems to have worked. This was only rediscovered as the work of Martin Luther comparatively recently. But the clampdown on dissident print was in other respects successful. This delicate pamphlet is the only surviving example of the original edition.


Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He is the author of over a dozen books in the fields of Reformation history and the history of communication including Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge University Press, 2005), The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010), The Invention of News (Yale University Press, 2014) and Brand Luther: 1517, Print and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin, 2015). His latest book, The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (Yale University Press), co-authored with Arthur der Weduwen, was published in March 2019, and in Dutch with Atlas Contact.  His next projects are a study of book advertising in the Dutch Golden Age and The Library: A Fragile History, contracted to Profile for 2021.

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