Dolnstein, Luther, Workshopping a Novel. "The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World"

Things To Keep In Mind While Working On The Next Novel

  • If it is not central to the plot, do not include it.
  • If you must include it, change the plot.
  • Every chapter is its own story.
  • Tight, clean book. (There will be foul language as it is about Luther, peasants, and mercenaries. Clean here means clutter free.)
  • Keep the goals of the book ever in mind.
  • Do not explain. Rather, let the characters live the story. If you must explain, let the characters do it for you.
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Dolnstein, Luther, Workshopping a Novel. "The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World"

Workshopping Chapter 1

Luther's Parents, Hans and Margarethe (called Hannah)
Luther’s Parents, Hans and Margarethe (called Hannah)

The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World

As noted when I posted the Preface, I am putting provisional chapters of my novel out there as I work toward finishing this book. There are numerous problems I’ll need to overcome with these working drafts. Feedback on drafts of my non-fiction has been useful; I expect similar results from feedback on fiction drafts. Two writers’ groups are workshopping drafts. Through Scribd, the public will also have access to the work as it happens. I appreciate any and all feedback. It probably goes without saying, but please be polite.

Two Notes:

  1. This chapter and Chapter 2 may be switched in order in the final manuscript.
  2. Working covers are only visual aids at this point, but feedback on those is welcome as well.

Purposes of a Public Approach to Drafting a Work of Fiction:

  • To generate feedback on drafts.
  • To allow those with an interest in the book to watch it unfold.
  • To open Luther’s world for the curious.
  • To motivate me to finish a project that has driven my academic research for a number of years.
Dolnstein, Luther, Workshopping a Novel. "The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World"

Workshopping a Novel: Preface.

The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World

I have been working on two Luther novels for more years than I care to admit now. A full initial draft of the second novel is done, and I am presently adding to a draft of the first novel. I have decided to put chapter drafts out there on the interwebs, as they say, as I get to them. By “out there” I mean that two writers’ groups will workshop this with me. Through Scribd, the public will also have access to the work as it happens, and will have the opportunity to provide feedback. The cover is more a visual aid than anything else, but input on cover design is welcome too.
This public approach has several purposes:
  • To generate feedback on drafts. 
  • To allow those with an interest in the book to watch it unfold. 
  • To open Luther’s world for the curious.
  • To motivate me to finish a project that has driven my academic research for a number of years. 
Dolnstein, Workshopping a Novel. "The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World"

Getting A Novel Done

National Historic Research and Preservation Award Winner, Daughters of Colonial Wars
National Historic Research and Preservation Award Winner, Daughters of Colonial Wars

After several requests and 9 years, I have finally created an ebook version of my first novel. The ebook came about while I was working on a model for finishing my second novel, The Hundred, which is about the world of Martin Luther’s youth. It is the first of two novels about Luther and his world, both of which are fairly well drafted.

A few considerations weigh on my production of the Luther novels:

  • fulfilling a promise to people who are waiting for them.
  • exploring the idea of the novel as a medium for public history.
  • getting them done.

I am toying seriously (Can one do that?) with the idea of publishing polished but not final drafts of chapters on Scribd, which houses a few of my older academic papers. These chapter drafts would allow readers to be part of the process as I write, offering feedback and observing the work’s progress. They would provide the public with immediate access to the late medieval world in short snapshots. Publicly available chapters might also stimulate interest in the project before it comes out as a bound book. These drafts would also break down the colossus that is the project at present. Feedback, even if only in page hits, would provide immediate incentive to get through this first book in the next year or two. This sort of motivation and encouragement will become increasingly important given that I will be teaching 3 courses this summer and 4 in the fall.

I welcome comments on this idea.

Luther, Workshopping a Novel. "The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World"

Darkness

I am often struck by how very black and alive the darkness used to be. Lately I have been waking in the middle of the night. Nightmares, which so rarely visit me, have been a constant in recent days. Waking to a house that is never entirely without light because of nearby streetlights, I am reminded how very dark a moonless night must have been five hundred years ago.

In a world as full of demons as of people, fraught with “quotidien violence” as Julius Ruff describes it, and constant threats of war and deadly illness, the dark was very frightening indeed. One always had to be on one’s guard, even in the moment of death, as here demons tempt the dying.

Johan Huizinga described the late medieval world beautifully:

“The contrast between silence and sound, darkness and light, like that between summer and winter, was more strongly marked than it is in our lives. The modern town hardly knows silence or darkness in their purity, nor the effect of a solitary light or a single distant cry.

“All things presenting themselves to the mind in violent contrasts and impressive forms, lent a tone of excitement and of passion to everyday life and tended to produce that perpetual oscillation between despair and distracted joy, between cruelty and pious tenderness which characterize life in the Middle Ages.”

How different this is from the homely coziness of modern lamplit rooms late in the evening. It is almost impossible to imagine living with such unlovely companions as the demons above. How bizarre this seems to us, but people found ways to deal with darkness.

My favorite medieval response to night and the fears that haunted it comes from Martin Luther:

“Almost every night when I wake up, the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When the argument that the Christian is without the law and above the law doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

Luther, Workshopping a Novel. "The Hundred: A Novel of Young Luther and His World"

Luther the Challenge

This is why I like him, of course. It is why I have always liked him. Luther’s story is an exquisite challenge to write. It is all too easy to see him as a villain or traitor in the Peasants’ War of 1525. This is precisely how my fictional characters see him. Telling their side of the story is easy.

Telling Luther’s side is not so simple. Martin Luther is not duplicitous. He is not a traitor. But he is dangerously unclear in the years and months before the revolt of 1525, leading the peasants to believe that he will support their cause. Tragically, he makes himself indisputably clear only when he calls for the peasants’ annihilation.

Albrecht Dürer’s 1525 Monument to the Peasants
A sword in his back, the peasant is the top portion of Dürer’s proposed monument. This bronze in Nußdorf is Peter Brauchle’s 2004 rendition.
Here is a drafted monument that was never built. The draft expresses Dürer’s view that the peasants had been stabbed in the back.
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Many of Luther’s contemporaries condemned the overwhelmingly violent response to this uprising. In particular, they condemned Luther for his vicious language. For instance, he urged, “Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.”
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Even his brother-in-law and close friends condemned him for not calling for restraint when the lords and their mercenaries took Luther at his word and killed as many as 100,000 peasants.
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Luther, however, felt betrayed by the peasants. They had defied their lords in showing themselves unfaithful and disobedient, contrary to their Biblical obligation to “be subject to the governing authorities.” They also plundered monasteries and castles, drinking themselves into a stupor on the wine they found. Further, they had misappropriated the word ‘Christian’. Through their rebellion and plundering, they had, “become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”
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There is no difficulty in determining where Luther stands in the above quotes taken from Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes.
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The challenge arises in his open sympathy with the peasants’ plight, frequently blaming the lords for peasant agitation. Mere weeks before the above was written, he criticized lords: “We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion, except you princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks….as temporal rulers you do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer…. You must become different men and yield to God’s word. If you do not do this amicably and willingly, then you will be compelled to do it by force and destruction. If these peasants do not compel you, others will. Even though you were to defeat them all, they would still not be defeated, for God will raise up others.”
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In this same document, Luther had argued that the peasants were wrong in their demands for freedom from serfdom. He asserted, “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse disorder and rebellion, for the punishing of wickedness is not the responsibility of everyone, but of the worldly rulers who bear the sword.” These rulers were set in their places by God. Hence, to rebel against them was to rebel against God.
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These are just a few representative examples. There are so many among Luther’s writings. So, to the peasant who is struggling to feed a family or for the right to marry without seeking the lord’s permission, it would be quite easy to overlook Luther’s call to obedience.
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Rather, one could easily focus on this line, “If these peasants do not compel you, others will. Even though you were to defeat them all, they would still not be defeated, for God will raise up others.” Here the peasants are God’s instruments, righteously punishing the lords.
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Perhaps most important to the rebels was Luther’s personal example of rebellion against the Pope, the emperor, and in his mocking exchange with the King of England. Though Luther was not violent in his rebellion, he was depicted this way by his allies and enemies.
Hans Holbein, German Hercules, 1523
Here the hanged Pope dangles from a rope clenched in Luther’s teeth as Luther slays the enemies of the Gospel. What could be more rebellious in this era than defying the Pope?
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It is crucial to note that Luther did not cultivate the image of a rebel. But he was seen this way, nonetheless. This is one of the challenges of the novel, and it is why fictional characters are so important. They allow the reader to see Luther as at least some of his followers saw him.
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Luther never intended the peasants to see him as a champion of their rebellion. He did not believe in physical rebellion, and he certainly did not believe in leveling society in the name of the Gospel. Certainly the world was not ready in 1525 for a society based on the communities in Acts.
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His employment of inexcusably vicious language in urging the lords to action was driven by valid fears. The rebellion had to be stopped.
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The rebellion gave credibility to the lords’ fears that the Bible in the common man’s hands was a bad idea. This endangered the Reformation where it already existed and it limited the hope of its expansion. Further, chaos is dangerous. Luther feared for the order of his world, an order that provided a reasonable expectation of safety for its inhabitants. Finally, he truly believed that it was rebellion against God to rebel against one’s temporal lord. His role as a pastor was to speak out against it.
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It is easy enough to see his point of view from his own writings, particularly when one starts with Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes. But this is not where the peasants started. They had been following Luther all along, through his years of speaking up for them and through his years of carrying, however unintentionally, the image of rebel.
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These are the challenges then:
  • to keep Luther clear for my reader even while he befuddles his own audience.
  • to ensure that he comes across as who he is, for he was not a traitor.