31 October 1517

Etching of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The same day when little ghosts and goblins haunt the neighborhoods, the Protestant world commemorates Reformation Day. The rest of the world may not celebrate, but it should take note of an event that started a process that shaped the Western world. On 31 October 1517 in the tiny German university town of Wittenberg, population about 2,000, the university beadle attached a printed announcement to a church door. In accordance with university conventions, the announcement, in Latin, the language used by all European universities at the time, proposed to discuss 95 statements on theological issues with academic colleagues and students. Its author was the Reverend Father Martin Luder, a 34-year-old professor of Bible studies, and mendicant Augustinian monk. He changed his name several years later to Luther. As an obedient Augustinian brother, Luder had sent a copy of the theses to the bishop of the diocese and to the archbishop.

The disputation never took place, but within weeks the 95 theses were read throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Quickly translated into German and thus accessible beyond the academic world, they ignited a debate that thrust the obscure professor at a university on the eastern fringes of the empire into the limelight. On the surface, the disputation was to focus on hotly debated issues, among them penance, forgiveness of sins, and—crucially—the authority of the Church, that is of the Pope, to grant “indulgences” in return for the payment of money. These certificates of indulgence promised to shorten or ameliorate punishment in the afterlife.

What began as an academic exercise escalated into a fundamental challenge of the authority of the Church.

Dubious practices and excesses by indulgence preachers were a public controversy throughout Christendom as Europe was then called. The Archduke of the Electorate of Saxony, who had founded the University of Wittenberg in 1502, simply forbade the indulgence sellers to enter his territory. On the other hand, the Church establishment needed to raise funds for various projects, from buildings in Rome to amortizing huge debts that some church officials had incurred. A challenge to one of the churches major fund-raising strategies was not to be taken lightly.

The speed with which the theses spread was aided by improvements in European printing technology that had been developed by Mr. Gutenberg in the previous century. Printing shops had sprung up throughout Germany, and eager printers reprinted and sold the theses throughout the realm.What had begun as an academic exercise escalated within several weeks into a fundamental challenge of the authority of the Church.


Painting of Charles V by an unknown Flemish artist

This was not what the Reverend Father Luder had intended. His wish was to reform, not to destroy the church he had grown up in. But in the meantime Professor Martin (now) Luther published some of his most important books, key among them in 1520: On the Freedom of a Christian. Soon the papacy threatened Luther with excommunication. But by now a defiant Luther, with the support of the students and at least some of the faculty at the university, publicly burnt the papal document in December 1520. Excommunication followed in January of 1521. This normally had lethal consequences.

But the church underestimated the support Luther had gained, most importantly from the leader of the Electorate of Saxony, Archduke Frederick the Wise. Frederick was the ruler of a wealthy realm, whose economic strength was based on silver and copper mining and production of natural dyes. He was also a favorite of the papacy, owner of an impressive collection of relics, a devout and lifelong Catholic. And he shielded the faculty at the university he had founded, even shielding the uppity reverend father professor.

Both emperor and reformer failed in their basic goals.

Eventually the case of Luther rose to the top of the agenda of pope and emperor. But by now Luther had become a sort of media star. In April 1521 at an Imperial Assembly, the 34-year-old professor faced the newly elected 21-year-old Emperor Charles V, emissaries of the papacy, and other secular authorities. Charles V did not want to be distracted by what he saw as a squabble among some monks in the hinterlands. His goal was to consolidate the vast empire he had inherited, which by now included parts of the New World. Luther, who had expected a theological debate, was curtly asked to repudiate what he had published. He refused.

With historical perspective we can say that both emperor and reformer failed in their basic goals. Luther did not reform the Church, but caused its break-up, and Charles V did not consolidate and stabilize the Holy Roman Empire. In the following decades it tore itself apart, culminating he next century in the disastrous Thirty Years War. For better or for worse, Europe, and ultimately much of the rest of the world, was profoundly altered by forces Luther and his adversaries unwittingly unleashed.

— Michael Bachem, Zeteo Contributor

Michael Bachem has been, inter alia, Chair of the Department of Germanic & Slavic Languages at Temple University; Professor of German & Chair of the Department of German, Russian & East Asian Languages at Miami Univeristy (Ohio); and Director of a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar on the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. He now lives in Portland, Maine.

Images are of an etching of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder and a painting of Charles V by an unknown Flemish artist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: