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Albert of Mainz: 1517

Germany provides a context in which materialism within the Roman Catholic church is offensively evident. Some of the principalities, which together make up the Holy Roman empire, are ruled by unscrupulous prelates living in the style of Renaissance princes. Foremost among them is Albert, archbishop of Mainz and one of the seven imperial electors.

By the age of twenty-four Albert holds a bishopric and a second archbishopric in addition to Mainz. Such plurality is against canon law. But the pope, Leo X, agrees to overlook the irregularity in return for a large donation to the building costs of the new St Peter's.

Both pope and archbishop are men of the world (the pope is a Medici). Leo makes it possible for Albert to recover his costs by granting him the concession for the sale of indulgences towards the building of St Peter's. Half the money for each indulgence is go to Rome; the other half will help to pay off Albert's debts (he has borrowed the money for the original donation from the Fuggers of Augsburg).

This secret arrangement might distress the faithful if they knew of it. But more immediately shocking to some is the behaviour of the friar Johann Tetzel, whom Albert employs to sell the indulgences.

Tetzel is a showman. When preaching to gullible crowds in German towns he goes far beyond the official doctrine of indulgences. He promises the immediate release of loved ones from the pain of Purgatory as soon as a purchase is made. He even has a catchy jingle to make the point: 'As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs.'

In October 1517 some parishioners return to Wittenberg with indulgences which they have bought from Tetzel - indulgences so powerful, some have been led to believe, that they could pardon a man who had raped the Virgin Mary. News of this travesty reaches the ears of a professor at the university of Wittenberg.

Luther's ninety-five theses: 1517

Martin Luther, a man both solemn and passionate, is an Augustinian friar teaching theology at the university recently founded in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony. Obsessed by his own unworthiness, he comes to the conclusion that no amount of virtue or good behaviour can be the basis of salvation (as proposed in the doctrine known as justification by works). If the Christian life is not to be meaningless, he argues, a sinner's faith must be the only merit for which God's grace might be granted.

Luther therefore becomes a passionate believer in an alternative doctrine, justification by faith, for which he finds evidence in the writings of St Paul.

Nothing could be further from the concept of justification by faith than Tetzel's impudent selling of God's grace. Luther has often argued against the sale of indulgences in his sermons. Now he takes a more public stand. He writes out ninety-five propositions about the nature of faith and contemporary church practice.

The tone of these 'theses', as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying gist, apart from overt criticism of indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints' in Wittenberg, as Luther does on 31 October 1517, he is merely proposing them as subjects for debate.

Instead of launching a debate in Wittenberg, the ninety-five theses spark off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The Reformation ravages western Christendom for more than a century, bringing violent intolerance and hatred which lasts in some Christian communities down to the present day. No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force, the brutality and the bitterness which begins in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther is as surprised as anyone else by the eruption which now engulfs him - slowly at first but with accelerating pace after a year or two. Its violence derives from several unusual elements.

The papacy is determined to suppress this impertinence. Luther's writings are burnt in Rome in 1520; his excommunication follows in 1521. This is the predictable part. The unexpected elements are the groundswell of support in Germany, nourished by a deep resentment of papal interference; and the effect of the relatively new craft of printing.

Before Gutenberg, news of Luther's heresy would have circulated only slowly. But now copies of the ninety-five theses are all over Europe within weeks. A fierce debate develops, with pamphlets pouring from the presses - many of them from Luther's pen. Within six years, by 1523, Europe's printers produce 1300 different editions of his tracts.

In these circumstances it is impossible for the issue to be swept under the carpet. Any action taken against Luther in person is certain to provoke a crisis - though in the early years his safety depends heavily on the protection of Frederick the Wise, proud of his university and reluctant to hand over to Rome its famous theologian, however controversial.

Support for the excommunicated monk is so strong among German knights that the young emperor, Charles V, is prevailed upon to hear his case at a diet held in 1521 in Worms. Luther is given a safe conduct for his journey to and from the diet. He is no doubt aware of the value of an imperial safe conduct to John Huss a century earlier, but he accepts the challenge.

The Diet of Worms: 1521

Where Huss had slipped into Constance in 1414 almost alone, Luther arrives at the diet at Worms supported by a large number of enthusiastic German knights. Nevertheless the purpose of the confrontation, from the emperor's point of view, is a demand that he should recant.

In a lengthy speech Luther explains that he will recant any of his views if they can be proved wrong by scripture or reason. Otherwise he must remain true to his conscience and to his understanding of God's word. The presses soon reduce this to the pithy statement which has been remembered ever since: Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders., 'Here I stand. I can not do otherwise.'

The emperor and the diet declare Luther an outlaw in the Edict of Worms (using the violently Intemperate language of the time). Luther leaves Worms with his safe conduct guaranteed for a few days. Once it has expired, it becomes the duty of any of the emperor's loyal subjects to seize the heretic.

Precisely that disaster seems to happen. Luther is bumping along in his wagon when armed men gallop up and drag him off. He is not seen in public for almost a year, causing many to assume that he is dead. But the armed men belong to Frederick the Wise. They take Luther to safety in one of Frederick's castles, the Wartburg, where he is given new clothes and a new identity - as Junker Georg, or plain Squire George.

Wartburg: 1521-1522

A prisoner for his own good in the rocky fortress of the Wartburg, Luther the priest dresses as Junker Georg the minor nobleman. He grows a beard, he becomes fat and restless, he suffers from constipation and piles (which he blames on lack of exercise and an unfamiliar diet), and he plunges into a turmoil of mental activity.

He prepares sermons and expositions of holy texts. He writes pamphlets. Above all he completes a task which profoundly influences the development of both Lutheranism and German literature. He translates the New Testament from the Greek into pithy colloquial German. He completes his finished version in less than three months, but it is based on preparatory work in Wittenberg.

Luther's interest in translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German has been stimulated, in 1518, by the arrival in Wittenberg of a new young professor, Philip Melanchthon. His lectures on Homer inspire Luther to study Greek. Melanchthon - soon to become Luther's lieutenant in the Reformation - gives advice on Luther's first efforts at translation.

Luther revives the task in the Wartburg. His New Testament is ready for publication in September 1522 (it becomes known as the September Bible). Luther's complete Bible, with the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew, is published in 1534.

During Luther's absence from Wittenberg, Melanchthon has been unable to control a radical group calling for more rapid reform. The leader is Andreas von Karlstadt, a lecturer and priest in the university, who announces his intention to marry a 16-year-old girl and holds communion services in his everyday clothes, giving the sacrament in both forms - the wine as well as the bread - to the congregation. He follows this with a call for the smashing of holy images.

Such radical measures are entirely contrary to Luther's character. He is by nature conservative and cautious, except where the point at issue concerns scripture and faith.

Luther returns to Wittenberg in March 1522 to cope with the crisis, risking his own safety. Back now in the habit of an Augustinian friar, he preaches a series of powerful sermons which calm the situation. But the radical vanguard of the Reformation moves elsewhere.

In 1524-5 religious and social turmoil combine in precisely the kind of violence predicted by Charles V and others at the Diet of Worms. In 1524 peasants rampage through the Black Forest, affronted at the erosion of various ancient rights. More significant, in terms of the Reformation, is a similar uprising in Thuringia in 1525. On this occasion the peasants are led by Thomas Müntzer, previously a follower of Luther.

Müntzer and the Peasant War: 1525

Thomas Müntzer, something of a firebrand as a preacher, makes several attempts - in various German towns and in Prague - to lead his congregation in a cruade against the godless. He finally succeeds at Mühlhausen, in 1525. In the anarchic excitement of the Peasant War, begun in the previous year in the Black Forest region, Müntzer marches at the head of the faithful against any who will oppose them.

Although claimed by Marxist historians as a political revolutionary, Müntzer's writings suggest that he is inspired mainly by religious indignation. Any established church is his enemy. He yearns, like the Anabaptists, for a religion of the people.

Luther is well aware of the potential for anarchy in such a movement. As the violence escalates, he takes steps to dissociate himself. Accustomed now to this age of polemical pamphlets, he pens an onslaught which is violently intemperate in its language.

Entitled Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants, the tract urges: 'Let everyone who can smite, slay and stab, remembering that nothing can be more devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog.'

Unfortunately for Luther, by the time the pamphlet is in circulation Müntzer and the peasants have been defeated, in May, by the local nobility in a battle at Frankenhausen. Aristocratic reprisals are predictably ferocious - on some estimates as many as 100,000 peasants are rounded up and butchered. Müntzer is captured, tortured until he recants and then executed. Luther's words have been quoted against him ever since.

The experience confirms Luther in his distrust of politics. Instead, in this same year, he pioneers a new domestic version of the Christian pastor in the community.

Luther and Catherine: 1525-1546

Twelve nuns, inspired by the Lutheran theme of liberty of conscience, want to leave their convent. Luther helps them to do so. When they arrive in Wittenberg, an onlooker comments: 'A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.'

Luther finds husbands for all but one, Catherine von Bora. So he marries her himself (he is not the first of the Reformation leaders to marry, for Zwingli has done so in the previous year). Soon Luther is able to write to friends: 'My Catherine is fulfilling Genesis 1:28. There is about to be born a child of a monk and a nun'.

In the end the couple have six children of their own and adopt four others. Their house in Wittenberg - a thriving family scene, with students dropping in for meals - is western Christendom's first parsonage, introducing a central theme of all Protestant communities.

Meanwhile Luther himself is still an outlaw. When the imperial diet next meets to discuss the challenges of reform, at Augsburg in 1530, Melanchthon has to attend in his place. And reform itself is now raising its own internal challenges. In the year of his wedding, 1525, Luther receives two Latin tracts on the Eucharist with which he profoundly disagrees. Their author is Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss reformers.

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