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‘To his Most Learned and Dearest Friend’ 1 : Reading Luther's Letters *

‘To his Most Learned and Dearest Friend’ 1 : Reading Luther's Letters *

Abstract

This article explores how Luther used letters in the service of the Reformation. Letters were not ‘private’ in the sense we might now assume, but were forwarded to others, read aloud, and shared; Luther also used them tactically. In particular, the essay considers Luther's correspondence with Spalatin, the Saxon Elector's court chaplain and secretary, whose friendship brokered the key political support of the Elector Frederick the Wise and so secured Luther's safety. The omissions, emphases, linkages and emotional tone of the letters (which were carefully kept and annotated by Spalatin) reveal much about the friendship between the two very different men. When Luther was in hiding in the Wartburg, Spalatin was his chief contact with the outside world, and he was reliant on him for getting his manuscripts and for supplying the medicines he needed, a dependence he did not always find easy. Yet it is also in the dialogue with Spalatin that we can see Luther developing his own identity. From the first biographies of Luther, the letters (soon published) were regularly used to authenticate the standard heroic narrative of the Reformation; but if read as ‘ego documents’ and analysed as part of a complex exchange, they can reveal far more about Luther and the dynamics of his friendships—and thus of the forces at work in the Reformation.
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