I once attended a Christmas eve service at a Roman Catholic church in North Sydney. It had many happy and boisterous worshippers. The holiest carol we sang — hardly a carol — was Little Donkey. This was followed by liturgical dancing round the altar. Finally I turned on my unfortunate mother-in-law and pompously said: “Thank God for Martin Luther. Thank God for the Reformation.”
Next year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Luther’s 95 Latin theses against Papal indulgences to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. This possibly apocryphal episode is often credited with precipitating a long lasting schism within Christendom. As I was taught in school, the Reformation was pivotal in the history of Europe, England and the world. The map of Europe is still shaped by it.
According to Alexandra Walsham, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, together with other competing impulses for ecclesiastical, doctrinal and moral reform it convulsed the continent, provoking conflict, violence, and war and leaving a lasting mark on the physical environment in which people lived, died, fought and prayed. “Within the British Isles, as elsewhere, this process was entangled with political and social development that determined its character and path and left an enduring and powerful, but also a highly divisive legacy,” Professor Walsham said.
Luther was born in November, 1483, in Eisleben. His father was a copper miner. Luther studied at the University of Erfurt and in 1503 decided to join a monastic order, becoming an Augustinian Friar. He was ordained in 1507, began teaching at the University of Wittenberg and in 1512 was made a doctor of theology. In 1510 Luther visited Rome on behalf of a number of Augustinian monasteries and was appalled by the corruption he found. He came increasingly angry about the clergy selling indulgences — promised remission of punishment for sin, either for someone still living or for those whose souls were believed to be residing in Purgatory. His 95 Theses of October 31, 1517, attacked all abuses and the sale of indulgences.
He turned against many of the major teachings of the Catholic church and, in the years that followed, wrote a series of pamphlets devaluing those ideas: ‘On Christian liberty’, ‘Of the freedom for a Christian Man’, ‘To the Christian Nobility’ and ‘On the Babylonians Captivity of the Church’. Because of the newly invented printing presses, Luther’s 95 Theses and his other writings sped through Europe.
In January, 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated him. He was then summoned to appear at the Diet of Worms (every school child’s favourite), and assembly of the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy nor an empire). He refused to recant and Emperor Charles V declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
Luther went into hiding in Warburg Castle. In 1522 he returned to Wittenberg and in 1525 married Katherine von Bora, a former nun, with whom he had six children. Luther then became involved in the controversy surrounding the Peasants’ War (1524 to 1526). The leaders of the revolt had used Luther’s arguments to justify their revolt. He rejected their demands and upheld the rights of the authorities to suppress the revolt, which lost him many supporters.
In 1534 Luther published a complete translation of the bible into German, underlining his belief that people should be able to read its in their own language. His translation contributed to the spread and development of the German language. Luther’s influence spread across northern and eastern Europe. His fame made Wittenberg an intellectual centre, rather as Erasmus did in Cambridge. In his later years he wrote polemics against the Jews, the papacy and the Anabaptists, a radical wing of the reforming movement. He died on February 18, 1546, in Eisleben.
According to Professor Walsham, though the Reformation was deeply imbedded in scholarly and popular consciousness as a critical turning point, the manner in which the Reformation came to be re rembered as a chronological landmark has never been the subject of detailed investigation. This is going to be the subject of a new interdisciplinary project based jointly in the Faculty of History at Cambridge and in the Department of English and Related Literature at York University, funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council. It will be led by Professor Walsham and Professor Brian Cummings of York University. It will run for three years from this year and explores how a highly complex, protracted and unpredictable process came to be considered as a transformative event and probes the nature and ramifications of the memories it engendered. It examines the creative mixture of remembering and forgetting through which the Reformation entered into the historical and literary imaginations and evaluates the significance of its diverse cultural alternatives in print, manuscript object, rite and image.
The project has a duel focus, Walsham explains. First, it uses the British Isles as a laboratory to explore the manner in which memory of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This was an era in which a generation of eyewitnesses to, and participants in, the Reformation gave way to generations whose “memory” of them was not formed by personal experiences but by texts, pictures, artefacts, rituals and oral traditions. The second objective is to set these developments within a wider European and extra-European perspective. The project seeks to contribute to a greater understanding of an international movement that crossed frontiers and united believers divided by physical borders, fostering multiple confessional cultures and senses of identity.
It explores the memory of Luther’s protest in tandem with the memory of the multiple other initiatives for ‘reformation’ with which it coincided and intertwined, including those emanating from the Church of Rome and global religious missionary orders such as the Jesuits, as well as the utopian visions and experiments of radical Protestant sects condemned by the magisterial reformers as anarchic and heretical. She said the project will compare triumphant, contested and failed Reformation, considering processes involving the denial and destruction, suppression and invention of memory alongside those that entailed celebration and commemoration.
‘Remembering the Reformation’ was launched at York’s Humanities Research Centre in January this year. Next September there will be an international conference at Cambridge. There will be public lectures by Professor James Simpson (Harvard) and Diarmaid MacCulloch (Oxford); as well as a postgraduate colloquium and workshops for schools. At the centre of all this is a digital exhibition which will be hosted by Cambridge University Library, working together with York Minster Library and Lambeth Palace Library.
Those 95 Theses started a fundamental change in history, yet it is likely Luther died still considering himself a Roman Catholic even if the Pope did not. His was a pivotal moment in history. It changed a whole way of thinking. For many who do not comprehend the significance of religion in a nation’s thinking, it was determined 500 years ago. Cuius relgio, eius religio — ‘Whose realm, his religion’ — meant that the ruler could impose the religion of his choice on his kingdom. At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which ended the first period of armed conflict between Roman Catholic and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire, the rulers of the German-speaking states and Charles V, the Emperor, agreed to accept this principle.
But the principle of cuius regio gave legitimacy to only two forms of religion within the Empire, Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, leaving out other reformed forms of Christianity, such as Calvinism and radical systems such as Anabaptism. The Peace of Augsburg generally, and the principle of cuius regio, eius religio specifically, marked the end of the first wave of organised military conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Of course, England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland had a separate Reformation history, and the Cambridge studies will once again examine this convulsion.
What is often forgotten is how Henry VIII earned his title, Defender of the Faith, which Charles, the present Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, has expressed a preference to change to “defender of faith”, not “the” faith.
‘Defender of the Faith’ was conferred on Henry by Pope Leo X. The monarch’s then-wife, Catherine of Aragon, was also Defender of the Faith in her own right. Henry gained the title in recognition of his book, Assentio Septem Sacramentorum, the Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which extolled the sacramental nature of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope and was seen as an important opposition to the early stages of the Protestant Reformation, especially the ideas of Martin Luther. When Henry decided to break with Rome in 1530 and make himself head of the Church of England, the title was revoked by Pope Paul 111. Henry’s act was seen as an attack of The Faith and Henry was excommunicated.
In 1544 the English Parliament granted the title Defender of the Faith on Henry and his successors, now the defenders of the Anglican faith. But for Mary 1 and Elizabeth 1, the monarch remains Supreme Governor – above the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate. The original Latin phrase – Fidei Defensor is referred to on all current British coins by the abbreviation FD or Fid DEF. This was first added to British coins in 1714, in the reign of George 1. In 1849 the decision of the Royal Mint to leave out reference to the phrase and other parts of the monarch’s style led to the ‘Godless Florin’. It caused such a scandal the coin was replaced.
Five centuries is quite the period of time, enough for tempers to cool more than somewhat. But over the months to come, Luther’s legacy will be thoroughly picked over. Alas, just what he thought of ‘My Little Donkey’ and the place of interpretative dance in the liturgy can never be known.