Q tells the story of a radical religious dissenter as he traverses the ideological and political minefields of the Reformation. The unnamed (many named) protagonist (aka Gert from the Well) was present at the critical moments of the Anabaptist revolt in Germany and the Low Countries during the 1520’s and 30’s. He is first seen as a young scholar in Wittenburg shortly after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Cathedral in 1517. Thanks to the dissemination of his ideas by the new technology of the printing press Luther soon attracted both younger followers able to act as missionaries on behalf of the new faith and powerful older patrons, also known as German Princes, able to offer protection from the wrath of “Holy Mother Church”.
While our protagonist is gradually becoming disenchanted with Luther’s temporising and acquiescence to the power of the princes his bete noir is entering the service of the hard line Catholic cleric Carafa as a spy in the Lutheran domain. The spy Qolet, or simply Q, is charged with running a long term black operation against the enemies of Catholic power, generally in opposition to the Lutherans, but sometimes in alliance with them against more radical rebellion. And so the stage is set for a 40 year battle for the soul of Europe as exemplified by the free thinking radical and the shadowy reactionary bureaucrat. (Plot spoiler: There was a Counter Reformation which led to the atrophy of intellectual enquiry and arguably independent economic development in Catholic Europe for several hundred years.)
Thomas Muntzer was the most radical of Luther’s Protestant opponents and he supported the German Peasant’s War of 1524/5, the greatest European revolt between the Black Death and the French Revolution. Muntzer died leading a troop into battle against forces supporting the Nobles, Catholic and Lutheran, at Frankenhausen where he entrusted Gert to escape the battle with messages for the brethren and documents indicating that he had been misled into attacking the Nobles by information provided by an anonymous well placed mole.
After hiding out for several years to avoid the nobles’ crackdown Gert resurfaces in Amsterdam proselytising on behalf of Jan of Leyden, the pimp and Holy Fool, who becomes the prophet of Munster, a well fortified North German city where the local Anabaptists have taken control. Munster soon attracts religious dissenters from a wide area and shines in their eyes as the new Jerusalem – a beacon of hope. The hyperbolic millenarian Anabaptist regime isolated inside Munster worked through the cycle from democratic revolution to paranoid theocratic autocracy within a year and a half under the pressure of siege and sanctions without and dissension within. Gert was for a time in charge of the defence of Munster but fled prior to the final debacle in revulsion from the dictatorship of the elect and the absurdist purity of 9 year old judges.
Munster was recaptured by its’ lord the Catholic Archbishop and the Anabaptist leaders were executed and their bodies displayed in cages which may still be seen on the side of the Cathedral. Gert was once again on the run from the reprisals of the powerful.
His next incarnation occurs some years later in Antwerp where he takes up with smaller scale free thinking prophet known as Eloi who introduces him to the mercantile capitalism of the low Countries and describes to him the world of high finance. Eloi sees the shape shifting survivor Gert as an ideal front man for a sting operation against the Fuggers, bankers to Emperor Charles V and to the Catholic church, and introduces him to a “dead” ex Fugger banker able to provide counterfeit documents for the five year sting. Eloi is captured by the Catholic church and martyred shortly before the conclusion of the sting on the basis of information provided by the Fuggers, but Gert gets out in time with a stolen fortune and heads for – where else – Switzerland. The ex Fugger operative had also described to Gert the nature of various transactions managed by the Fuggers for Bishop Carafa and the Catholic Church at the times of both the Peasant War and Munster.
The second half of the book describes how Gert is drawn into the world of publishing and book distribution, specifically of anti Catholic propaganda. He gradually formulates a plan designed to both discredit the forces of the Counter Reformation in the run up to a papal election and to smoke out the mysterious Q by engaging in the distribution of what is regarded as subtle pro Lutheran propaganda with an Anabaptist tinge directed at moderate Italian Catholics in favour of rapprochement with the Lutherans. His business partners in this venture include Marrano Jewish new Christians who are also keen to work against the dogs of the Inquisition, now headed by Carafa.
This book is a wonderful ripping yarn which races around 16th century Europe highlighting the major ideas of the religious battles of the time and the rise of mercantile capitalism in northern Europe. Luther Blissett is a pseudonym for a collective group of Italian authors who had links with the Red Brigades in the 70s and 80s and people have tried to read their biographies into aspects of the book. They have subsequently written other books under the pen name of Wu Ming, all of which can be obtained from their website.
A random reading list of C16 C17 fiction and history
Luther Blissett 1520 -60 Q – and another novel in same timeline
Hilary Mantel Henry VIII Wolf Hall and sequel – not read
Bill Bryson 1564 – 1616 Shakespeare
Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie 1580 Carnival in Romans – tax revolt, Huguenots
Giles Milton 1580 – 1620 Big Chief Elizabeth – colonisation of Virginia
Anthony Burgess 1590 Dead man in Deptford – novel about Christopher Marlowe
Cervantes 1600 Don Quixote
Peter Robb 1600 M, Street Fight in Naples – both about Caravaggio
Geoffrey Robertson 1646 Putney debates – Cromwell and radicals
Geoffrey Robertson 1649 Tyrannicide Brief – not read
David Liss 1650s The Coffee Trader – Amsterdam markets (so so fiction)
Iain Pears 1660s Instance of the Fingerpost
Neal Stephenson 1660 – 1720 Baroque Cycle – Epic fiction
Aphra Behn 1670s Oroonoko – slavery in South America, not read
Peter Linebaugh 1670s – 1800 London Hanged – work, crime and justice
Lawrence Sterne 1690s – Tristram Shandy – partly read
Thomas Levenson 1690 – 1720 Newton & the Counterfeiter – Newton as cop & banker