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Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic, and Outlaw: The Reformation at 500

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(The following is a post by David B. Morris, German Area Specialist, European Division.)

Note: The items in this post are included in an exhibit of the same title in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Building of the Library of Congress, October 3, 2017–January 1, 2018.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against indulgences, or the atonement of sins through monetary payment, on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. Within four years, the Catholic Church would brand Luther a heretic, and the Holy Roman Empire — the powerful state that included Germany — would condemn him as an outlaw. These were the early years of the Reformation, a turning point in history that transformed not only the Christian faith, but the politics and society of all of Europe.

The clash between Luther and the Catholic Church in Rome was also history’s first “media event.” Johannes Gutenberg’s development of the moveable-type printing press about 75 years earlier had a profound impact on the spread of Luther’s thought. Thanks to the new technology, his theses soon reached a broad circulation that surprised even Luther. As the conflict with Rome intensified, Luther’s supporters in Germany’s vibrant print industry made many of his writings the first “bestsellers” in history.

The following Reformation-era works at the Library of Congress not only document the progress of Luther’s thought and the conflict with Rome, they also show how printing in Germany blossomed into a mass medium as public interest in the controversy grew.

I. Luther the Priest

Most depictions of Luther posting his theses show a defiant monk swinging his hammer against the church door, but the scene shown below is probably more accurate: an assistant posts the theses while Luther discusses them with a colleague. Luther composed his theses in Latin and intended them as the basis of a disputation, or scholarly debate, on indulgences. Posting a notice for such a debate on the doors of the church was a common practice at the time.

Wilhelm Baron von Löwenstern. “Anfang der Reformation Luther lässt 95 Sätze gegen den Ablass an die Schlosskirche zu Wittenberg anschlagen…1517” (Luther has 95 Theses against indulgences posted on the Castle Church at Wittenberg, 1517.) Stuttgart, 1830.

“When the Coin in the Coffer Rings…”

Luther’s critique of indulgences was not just academic. The Catholic Church had long granted indulgences to penitent Christians as a form of absolution, but by Luther’s time it was selling them outright as a source of revenue. The indulgence below includes a space to fill in the name of the “contributor.” Luther was especially angered by the flagrant hawking of indulgences in Germany by the papal agent Johannes Tetzel, who is credited with the phrase, “When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs.” For Luther, this monetization of faith was an abuse of church practice that he was duty-bound to report to his superiors. He did so on the same day he posted the theses, including a copy of them with a letter to his own archbishop.

The Holy See viewed Luther’s theses as a serious challenge to its authority because the power to grant indulgences ultimately rested with the pope. Rome’s resistance only strengthened Luther’s conviction that the church and Pope Leo X had grown corrupt and distant from the faithful. In this context, the 95 Theses were transformed from an academic agenda into a manifesto of church reform.

Catholic Church, Subcommissarius in Negotio Cruciatae. “Indulgentia” (Indulgence). Germany, 1482.

The Fronts Harden at Leipzig

The Roman Church’s initial response to Luther’s theses was to dispatch clergy and theologians to debate Luther in scholarly disputations and offer him the opportunity to retract his views. The disputation at Leipzig in July 1519 was a crucial event. Pitted against the formidable theologian Johannes Eck, Luther stood his ground in what was interpreted as a direct challenge to papal authority. Eck later urged Pope Leo to issue the papal bull, or edict, condemning Luther’s views as heresy and threatening him with excommunication.

Johann Eck. “Disputatio … eiusdem D. Iohannis Eccij & D. Martini Lutheri Augustiani q[uae] cepit IIII Iulij” (Disputation between Johannes Eck and Martin Luther). Erfurt: Matthes Maler, 1519.

II. Luther the Heretic

Between 1517 and 1520, Luther expanded his critique to practically all areas of church authority. Meanwhile the German presses could barely meet the demand for his works. The Catholic Church therefore faced not only a fundamental challenge to its institutions and practices, but one backed by the force of a new technology. Having failed in its efforts to move Luther to recant, the church branded Luther a heretic and rendered him up to the Holy Roman Empire for trial and punishment.

The Church as Babylon

Luther’s 1520 work “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” marks his shift from church reform to a revolutionary break with Rome. Abandoning the moderate tone of his earlier works and comparing the church to the infamous biblical city of Babylon, Luther argued that it had abused Christ’s sacraments in order to maintain its power as an intermediary between God and the faithful. The woodcut portrait by the late 15th century German artist Hans Baldung Grien demonstrates the importance of artists in the growing popular awareness of Luther.

Martin Luther. “Von der Babylonischen Gefengknuss der Kirchen” (“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”). Strassburg: Johann Schott, 1520.

“Arise, O Lord”

The papal bull accusing Luther of heresy was promulgated in June 1520; an official copy reached Luther in October. Commonly known by the Latin phrase in its opening lines, Exsurge, Domine (Arise, O Lord), the bull issues an ultimatum: recant the heretical statements in the 95 Theses and other writings within 60 days or face excommunication. Luther’s works were to be burned in public, and all who owned, read, or published them faced excommunication as well. Luther now had to fear for his life: the punishment for heresy was burning at the stake.

Catholic Church, Pope Leo X. “Bulla contra errores Martini Lutheri et sequacium” (Decree against the errors of Martin Luther and his followers). Rome, 1520.

The Freedom of a Christian

Luther drafted “On the Freedom of a Christian” with an accompanying letter to Pope Leo shortly after receiving the papal bull. In one of the most important documents in the establishment of a new, reformed church, Luther makes an impassioned plea for the individual liberty of the Christian in his relationship with God. Addressing Pope Leo, Luther describes him as “a sheep among wolves, like Daniel among the lions,” and harshly compares the papal court to Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah. Luther published his message to the pope as an open letter in German, intended for a national audience. By the time Pope Leo received it, in a language he could not read, it was already a bestseller.

Martin Luther. “Von der Fryheit eines Christen Menschen” and “Epistel zum Babst Leo” (“On the Freedom of a Christian” and “Letter to Pope Leo”). Zurich: Christoffel Froschouer, 1521.

A Public Burning

Thanks to the medium of print, Luther was arguably the first “media celebrity,” and his likeness was among the most well-known in Europe. Luther made shrewd use of his notoriety on December 10, the pope’s 60-day deadline to recant or be excommunicated: he burned the papal bull in public. In Luther’s time, burning a person’s works was a powerful act akin to burning the person himself. The split between Luther and Rome was now irrevocable. Less than four weeks later, on January 3, 1521, the pope formally declared Luther a heretic.

Wilhelm Baron von Löwenstern. “Luther verbrennt die päpstliche Bulle und das canonische Recht vor Wittenberg…1520” (Luther burns the papal bull and the canon law before Wittenberg, 1520). Stuttgart, 1830.

III. Luther the Outlaw

At the Diet of Worms, a deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire convened in April 1521, Luther refused to yield, and Emperor Charles V condemned him as an outlaw. Luther could now be apprehended or killed on sight. In a staged “kidnapping” Luther’s supporters spirited him away to Wartburg Castle, Germany, in disguise and under an assumed name. There he continued writing in defiance of church and state and would later write a German translation of the Bible that profoundly influenced the German language.

“Here I Stand”

Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms was a media sensation. The assembly hall was overflowing, Luther’s supporters and opponents clashed in the streets, and reports on the proceedings were rushed to the presses. Standing before the emperor and surrounded by the imperial elite, the monk from Wittenberg was confronted with stacks of his writings and ordered to retract them. Instead, Luther defended the themes of individual liberty and faith in his work: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is dangerous and a threat to salvation to act against one’s conscience.” Luther’s defiant words would become a declaration of independence for generations of Protestants the world over: “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.”

Wilhelm Baron von Löwenstern. “Luther auf dem Reichstag zu Worms 1521” (Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521). Stuttgart, 1830.

Christ and Antichrist

In this work, “Passional Christi und Antichristi” (“Passion of Christ and the Antichrist”), Luther has chosen quotations from the Gospels and canon law to contrast the life of Christ with the corruption and luxury of the “Antichrist” pope. This contrast is graphically depicted in woodcut prints by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a prominent artist and adherent of Luther. The pair displayed below shows Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple, while on the right the pope sells indulgences.

Lucas Cranach the Elder. “Passional Christi und Antichristi” (“Passion of Christ and the Antichrist”). Wittenberg: Johann Rhau Grunenberg, 1521.

The Wittenberg Nightingale

This poem’s title and its woodcut frontispiece depict Luther’s fame and the mass appeal of his reformism: “The Wittenberg Nightingale Now Heard Everywhere.” The Nuremberg shoemaker and printer Hans Sachs was one of the many artists who contributed to this phenomenon.

Hans Sachs. “Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall Die man yetz höret überall” (“The Wittenberg Nightingale Now Heard Everywhere”). Augsburg: Philipp Ulhart d.Ä., 1523.

Sachs’ poem also foreshadows how future generations would look back on Luther, especially on those early years of the Reformation between the posting of the 95 Theses and the Edict of Worms. By shaking the mighty Catholic Church, the priest from Wittenberg not only sparked the Reformation, he also hastened the end of Medieval Europe and heralded the Modern Age, in which individual rights, backed by the medium of print, would be heard everywhere as they challenged the ancient powers of church and state.

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