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Hilary Mantel: “I do think the level of public debate is debased”

The double Man Booker-winning novelist Hilary Mantel on writing for the stage, finishing her Tudor trilogy – and the perils of being a woman in the public eye.

Hilary Mantel, photographed by Leonie Hampton for the New Statesman in 2012 at her home in Budleigh Salterton, Devon

The scene is an early supper at the Arden Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon. The time is just between the penultimate all-day Saturday performances of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the RSC’s adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker-winning novels; the shows will close here in a week’s time before reopening at the Aldwych, in London, in May. The cast round the table is composed of Hilary, her husband Gerald McEwen, her younger brother Brian, Mike Poulton – who crafted these plays in close collaboration with Mantel – and me. We are discussing how familiar most of the audience are with the books. Mantel remarks on the opening of the first play, which finds Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey in conference; at the edge of the stage is a young man playing a lute. A few moments in to the scene Wolsey sends him off with an abrupt, “Enough now, Mark.”

“A woman just near me leaned over and whispered to her companion, ‘That’s Mark Smeaton!’ – she was very excited,” Mantel says. It is Smeaton who will, in Bring Up the Bodies, play a crucial role in the fall of Anne Boleyn. And indeed, on the Saturday I was there, although I didn’t hear a whisper, a distinct frisson of recognition ran through the sold-out Swan. And that is the genius of both Mantel’s novels and now their stage adaptations: yes, you know where this story is going – but you are no less glad to be along for the ride.

That said, it’s not necessary to be closely acquainted with the books – or indeed with the history of Thomas Cromwell’s rise at the court of Henry VIII – to be enraptured by these plays, which opened to near-universal praise in January. The adaptations, wrote Susannah Clapp in the Observer, “go to the heart of Mantel’s fictions and give them a different life”. That is thanks not only to the elegant and energetic direction of Jeremy Herrin, but in a very large degree to the remarkable writing partnership that Mantel and Poulton have built. The three hours between the two plays allows plenty of time for dinner and a quiet conversation with Hilary in the hotel room that has come to seem much like home to her and to Gerald. They travel here at least once a week from Devon, driving up the M5 to Stratford and the Swan where, in the foyer, I watch Hilary greet a succession of adoring fans with both gravity and grace. She signs books and programmes and playscripts. I say to Gerald that she doesn’t look like she minds the attention at all. “Oh, no, she’s shameless,” he beams. Married for four decades – with a small hiatus in the middle in which they were divorced and then remarried to each other – they are now a working partnership too, with Gerald, formerly a geologist, driving the juggernaut that is Hilary Mantel, Inc.

And that is quite an enterprise these days. Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, she was for decades an enormously respected and successful author whose books were an established and admired fixture of the British literary landscape. Her first novel was her bracing account of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety – though it would be published as her fifth book. When she tried to sell the manuscript, she was told that no one was interested in historical fiction – so, practical woman that she is, she sat down and produced Every Day Is Mother’s Day, her first published book, released in 1985. She has proved adept at moving between the present and the past in her fiction. The Giant, O’Brien is a fictionalised account of the damaged and damaging relationship between the 18th-century Irish “giant” Charles Byrne and the Scottish surgeon John Hunter; Beyond Black builds a darkly funny bridge between the living and the dead in the size-22 form of Alison, a modern medium.

But her Tudor novels took her on to a different plane. Drawn to the enigmatic yet enormously powerful figure of Thomas Cromwell, the brewer’s boy from Putney who rose to be Henry VIII’s chief minister, she knew she’d have to publish Wolf Hall in 2009, the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession; again, practical as ever, so she did. As to what drew her to Cromwell, not so long ago she and I discussed the so-called romance of her late-blooming success. She didn’t see her own story as romantic at all. “I think it’s the story of a hard-boiled careerist, like Thomas Cromwell,” she told me.

But now Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies –  two densely woven novels that make no concessions to the reader – have become part of the national conversation: this year Mantel became the first Booker winner to make the top ten most borrowed since PLR records began (Bring Up the Bodies was the eighth most borrowed – poor old J K Rowling was bringing up the rear at tenth). Both books, on publication, received the kind of praise likely to go to any author’s head, though there were a few dissenting voices. (Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at Warwick, called Wolf Hall “dreadfully badly written” in the Times Higher Education Supplement; Andrew Holgate, in the Sunday Times, said that Bring Up the Bodies was “curiously flat and leaden”.) She is the only living author with a portrait in the British Library.

That means that these days anything she says is liable to be pounced on by the press. This was most evident in February last year, when a sophisticated lecture she gave at the British Museum (and which was then published in the London Review of Books) was interpreted, mainly by those who hadn’t even bothered to read it, as slagging off the Duchess of Cambridge – or “Princess Kate”, as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, called her in an inept remark in her defence. A remark which made it perfectly clear that he hadn’t read the piece either. What does she think this whole fiasco said about the level of public debate in Britain?

She settles herself in her chair and folds her hands in her lap. “I think . . .” she smiles, coolly, “I think many things. I do think the level of public debate is debased. To know how far it is debased – well, you have to be on the receiving end of a hate campaign like that to know how bad it is. To be honest, it didn’t get to me or upset me as much as people might have assumed. It was very funny to have press camped out across the road in our quiet seaside town, and if the pressmen saw any fat woman of a certain age walking along the street, they ran after her shouting, ‘Are you Hilary?’ Pathetic! But it did furnish us all with a great deal of entertainment.

“Also, it taught me what I’ve long suspected: that public opinion is not something that features very highly in my life. Nobody should go into a trade like writing expecting applause, or universal approval, or even popularity. What appals me is that people mistake this constant storm of trivial abuse for some kind of freedom. ‘Me, speaking my mind!’ ” Her tone is boldly dismissive. “It’s not. It’s actually a huge distraction of the bread and circuses variety. To a large extent proper civic engagement, community engagement, proper political debate and activism, has been replaced by this. By illogic. By platitudes. And actually a lot of it is just abuse and bullying. There’s a nasty, narrow little conformism. And people are afraid, quite understandably, to differ from the norm. I think it’s a very sad state of affairs.”

There was a personal and unpleasant aspect to the response to her perceived criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge’s appearance – plenty of people felt free to criticise hers. “Mary Beard has pointed out that if you are a woman who ventures an opinion in public, ‘You are fat and ugly’ is thought to be an adequate response. This is what I got all the time after the Kate business. And, you know, I’m 61. Do people think my self-esteem is invested in my personal appearance? If it was, I’d be an idiot!” She laughs.

Mantel’s recent ascent to the stratosphere of writerly fame has not given her any illusions of grandeur. When Playful Productions, the company behind these theatrical adaptations, first got her together with Poulton, she saw herself as very much the “junior partner” in the process. “I didn’t know how it would be,” Mantel says of their first encounter. “And on Mike’s part there was a certain wariness, because he didn’t know how protective I would be. But we got a lot of that out of the way at the first meeting, and I don’t think he would have agreed to do it if he hadn’t believed me when I said that I was very flexible in my thinking, and that I didn’t really see it as an adaptation, but as a new work. So Mike’s first job was to demolish the structure, really.” She says this so easily, so lightly, that it’s only later I reflect on what creative confidence this remark reveals. Mantel knows what she is capable of; she trusts others to be as capable, too.

Poulton confirms that he was indeed wary on first meeting Mantel. Acclaimed as an adapter of literary works for the stage – his plays include a version of Schiller’s Don Carlos, starring Derek Jacobi, in 2004, as well as adaptations of Dickens and of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – he is used to working with authors who, by virtue of being long in the grave, can’t answer back. Asked by Playful’s Matthew Byam Shaw whether he thought Mantel’s books could be adapted for the stage, “I said, ‘Of course it can be done, if you get the right person – but please don’t ask me!’ ”

He was, however, persuaded to meet Hilary and Gerald – all the while thinking, “If she’s too protective, it will be impossible.” But she was not. “We got on straight away. It was only because of Hilary’s generosity in saying that while she had created these characters, they were waiting to leap off the page. We’ve fired each other up. Theatre is her great love: she just has that instinct, the eye for detail that a production needs.”

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall. Photo: Rex Features

Theatre is indeed Mantel’s great love. One could argue that she was writing for the theatre long before this collaboration began. A year and a half ago – at the end of 2012, when Mantel had been named Waterstones UK Author of the Year – she and I had an opportunity to discuss the method by which she constructed these vast, intricate historical novels. “What I try to do before I write a big scene is go over all the ground again,” she told me. “Get all my notes, and all the historical information, and have a last thrash through them to see where the contradictions are. At that stage, things jump out at you. If you can come to it with that sense almost of mental emergency – a feeling that everything is prepared – it will then go down on the page very quickly.” I said at the time that it sounded to me almost like rehearsing for a performance. “Exactly,” she said. “So each scene is preceded by stage fright. And usually a day of misery! And wondering if you’re up to it. So I suppose going through the historians, and my own notes, is like a technical rehearsal –  and then it should be 95 per cent there.”

Her love of theatre began right here, in Stratford, when she was just a girl. The summer after she had taken her O-levels she came, with two schoolfriends, to see four plays: As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida, King Lear and Faustus. She is still very close to one of the two girls. “The other I’d lost touch with – but I ran into her in the foyer at Wolf Hall in December!” she says. “We were very lucky; John Barton’s Troilus and Cressida was a groundbreaking production. But it was only then that I realised that there were people who did nothing but study Shakespeare, because there was the Shakespeare Institute here. But I had to sort of sheer away from it – it seemed too good. And I couldn’t . . .” she hesitates. “My stepfather” – Jack Mantel, whose name she took after her own father left the family when she was a girl, a story she recounts in her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost – “was a very angry philistine. And one of the things he was angry about was Shakespeare. And this was deeply unfortunate, because I managed to get hold of the complete works when I was ten, and absolutely adored it. Nobody had told me it was supposed to be difficult, so I didn’t find it difficult. I took it in through my pores. And so we made a very unfortunate combination. But imagine the faces if I’d said, ‘I want to go to university and read English and I intend to be a Shakespeare scholar’!” Instead she took a more practical route – no surprise there – studying law at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University. But the writing life she has built brought her back here at last. “With that turning not taken, it’s especially lovely for me to find myself working, virtually living, in Stratford and working with the RSC. It’s more than I hoped for. This has actually been the best part of my writing life, this last six months.”

Better than two Man Booker prizes? “They’re for what you know you can do,” she says. “The interesting thing is what you can do that you don’t know yet.” As the nine separate drafts of Mike Poulton’s scripts were crafted, she was deeply involved in the process, the two of them often emailing each other through the small hours. (One of the reasons they get on so well, I’m sure, is that when Mantel describes Poulton as “a perfectionist, and very hard-working, and whatever hours are required, he’ll put them in” she might as well be describing herself.)

Now she is working with Poulton on the changes that will be needed for the London transfer. They want to shave some minutes from the six-hour running time (“You don’t want people worrying about the last bus,” Poulton says) and, crucially, the configuration of the Aldwych is very different from that of the Swan. With the Swan’s thrust stage, the audience surrounds the players, who move on and off stage through the stalls; the Aldwych has a more conventional proscenium arch.

The adaptation isn’t a straightforward job. One of the chief things Mantel has learned, she says, is “the business of tailoring your storytelling to the fact that you’ve got a cast of 21 people, some of whom are playing two parts, some of whom are playing three. You can’t just have them walk on and off when you like. This makes you clever. Constraints are good for a writer. There are 159 characters in the books, and they all have their little parts to play; with a much reduced cast, trying to tell the same story, it’s a question of who can stand in for someone else.”

And so it was her deep understanding of character and history that was very useful to Poulton, she says. “I could say, ‘Well, actually, Thomas More cannot plausibly say this line, but Stephen Gardiner can.’ So you sort people out into blocks, according to their factions, friendships, known attitudes, all the cross-currents of friendship and enmity.” And this was possible because she realised very soon on that Poulton “would take the history as seriously as I do and not compromise. We won’t decide that Anne Boleyn can die six months before she really did – to take a crude example. We live with the shape of history.” And that in itself is a great constraint. As Poulton says: “The whole thing is like an arch, where every stone is a keystone: if you pull it out, you’ve got to restructure the whole thing. Sometimes the director and the actors can’t understand why if we make the slightest change it affects everything. But it’s like taking a little cog out of a watch and then wondering why the watch doesn’t work.”

Mantel, clearly, will do whatever it takes. She adores “the unnerving exhilaration of writing scenes in the middle of the night and handing them to actors at ten o’clock the following morning. The buzz of that is like nothing else. It’s the pressure, and the fact that you are thinking on your feet.” Her face is lit with pleasure. “I’m not dissing the Booker prizes! It’s just that this is something so unexpected. We all hope that if we work and work and work we might win the Man Booker one day. So that was within . . .” she chooses her words carefully, as she always does, “not expectation, but it was reasonable to hope for. This was not reasonable to hope for!”

Now she really is laughing with delight. “There have been extraordinary times late in rehearsals where Ben” – Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, the production’s riveting focal point – “would say, ‘I don’t think that line’s right. Give me a new one, Hilary’ – and there’s your line. There’s something very bracing about that atmosphere.”

Bracing – and perhaps just a little bit eerie. For it becomes apparent during the course of our conversation that it is not just Mike Poulton she’s been working with. In Ben Miles she has, it seems, a living, breathing personification of her complex and chilling protagonist, dead these past five centuries or so. Miles, who is almost never offstage for the plays’ six-hour running time, has created his Cromwell not only from the scripts but also from a total immersion in the books that are their source. He is, Mantel remarks to me at one point, “the only one who really understands the structure of Wolf Hall”; perhaps in part because he made himself a timeline of the novel, and of Cromwell’s life, which he kept pinned up on the walls of an office he had in the rehearsal rooms of the RSC. “It was like that scene in A Beautiful Mind,” he tells me, “when Russell Crowe’s office is discovered and there are just these scribblings everywhere.”

The experience of working with Mantel, Miles says, is “unique”. “I feel I can get as close as I can without actually sitting down with the guy. With Cromwell,” he says. “When you are rehearsing classic plays, particularly Shakespeare, there’s often a moment when the director says, ‘If only we could call him on the phone and ask him what he meant by that line or this scene.’ With Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, you can. You can email the author and she will give you a fabulous three-page essay on a look; or she’ll send one killer line which will explain half an hour of dialogue. Early on I realised that we had, running alongside the rehearsals and the staging, a seam of gold in Hilary. And she does it in the most humble, enthusiastic way – it’s as if she wrote these books last month!”

She is, of course, still writing them – at least, the final volume of Cromwell’s life, The Mirror and the Light – and this is where things start to get spooky. “There is a scene in Bring Up the Bodies when Henry says to Cromwell: We ought to go on a trip down to Kent, we ought to go to the Weald,” Mantel says. “And the trip never happens. It’s just a Henry fantasy. But talking to Ben about that scene the other week I said to him, ‘I think that if you give it three or four years Henry will think that trip did happen.’ And he responded so positively that I went away and thought about it – and two days ago I saw exactly how that scene should be placed [in The Mirror and the Light]. And so I wrote it.

“That kind of thing, well – it’s not usual! That scene wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t had the conversation with Ben. So plays don’t normally work like this, and novels don’t normally work like this. But this is different, and the two things are feeding each other.”

In the hours I spend with Mantel in Stratford her enjoyment of the relationships she has formed here is palpable, as is her gratitude for the circumstances that have brought her here, not the least of which is the fact that her health is much better than it has been in a long time. “A year ago I knew this was going to happen, but I didn’t know what a difference it would make in my life. I’ve had huge health problems over the years, but the last year has been better, and the best year, really, since I was a girl, in terms of not having chronic pain.” She suffers from endometriosis, which causes not only chronic pain but many other problems, too. She has said to me in the past that her life has been “needlessly hard” because of it; she dismisses the idea that there is any stoic self-improvement to be gained by suffering. She is very, very glad not to suffer. “Not to sound pathetic, but it was just such a presence in my life,” she says now. “I’m not out of the woods, but at an earlier time in my life if this [the stage adaptations] had come along I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of it. By which I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to be always on the M5, or working really strange hours. So it’s really very special the way this has worked out.”

So it is not just hard work, but luck that has its part to play, too. Everything has changed for her, she knows, because of those two Man Booker prizes; but the books “could well not have won either”, she says. She recalls the time she was a Booker judge, 1990, the year that A S Byatt’s Possession (rightly regarded as a modern classic) took the prize. But: “That year Chatto & Windus [the publisher of Possession] had about five titles that could have been put in for the prize. There was a wonderful David Malouf novel from Chatto, The Great World, which I still think about.” That novel doesn’t even appear on the shortlist of that year’s prize. “And whether it had been a different publisher, in a different year . . . ?”

So she is slightly hesitant about recent changes that have been made to the prize – of which I am a judge this year. It’s not the fact of Americans being eligible that bothers her; but that imprints which have had greater success in past years of the prize will be able to submit more titles than imprints which have not. Previously, every imprint could submit two titles, full stop. “Unfortunately, this means that not all authors have a level playing field any more. Because your success as an author is tied to the success of another author – one who you may not even know, who happens to be published by your publishing house. That to me seems the most undesirable aspect of it.”

But now there can be no talk of prizes; she is hard at work on The Mirror and the Light, and there will be a book of contemporary short stories published in the autumn, provocatively titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Although she is no longer the ardent socialist she was in her youth, it’s clear from our talk about the Kate Middleton fiasco that she still has plenty to say about the present day. And there will, of course, be television versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, to be screened – most likely – some time next year, adapted by Peter Straughan. She has been much less involved in these than in the plays. Straughan, she says, “has a very sure touch, and a lot of the problems you have on stage you simply don’t have. One of them is that he can have a much bigger cast.” There will be no feature film. Thomas Cromwell’s story, and the story of his king, could never be squeezed into Hollywood’s standard couple of hours.

Last summer I chaired an event with Mantel at her home-town literary festival in Budleigh Salterton (she is its president) where she read a scene from the new novel, something she had not done before and would not do anywhere else. That scene, from the book’s opening – the morning after Jane Seymour’s bridal night with the king – was hilarious, and dialogue-heavy, and I wondered now, having seen Mike Poulton’s plays, whether just the fact of working so closely with scripts had influenced her style. She dismissed that idea. “That particular scene was written long before this started. I’ve got all sorts of material that goes right to the end of the book. But it does affect it in a very strange way. It isn’t that I will change my style. There would be a temptation perhaps to make a bare novelisation of a play that you are already shaping in your head; but it won’t be like that at all. I think that would be cheating my reader. They want the complexity, they want the detail. And we want to get back all the characters we haven’t had in the plays.”

But the past months have been a transformative experience, that is clear. It may well change her future as a writer, once The Mirror and the Light is finished.

“It’s just extending the frontiers of what you can do, and seeing things opening up for the future. Now, if Mike and I want to work on something, we can do it. If I want to write a play, by myself, I can get a commission. It’s not that I intend to do these things – my first commitment is to the third Cromwell book, everything revolves around that –  but it’s great to have the options.”

And here is the mark of Mantel the artist. Just because you work hard at your trade doesn’t mean you ever master it. “The inner process, the writing life, it doesn’t change at all. Every day is like the first day, it’s like being a beginner. There’s no time for complacency. You need to be extending your range all the time.”

“Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” are at the Aldwych Theatre, London WC2, from 1 May


Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:


You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.


It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue