Martin Luther, 500 Years on

lutherI 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.


8 thoughts on “Martin Luther, 500 Years on

  • en passant says:

    None of this distraction will matter when Sharia rules the world.

    • whitelaughter says:

      Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox have all at different times seen off Islamic invaders: so it matters a great deal. Hope won’t come from the fuzzy soulless idiots who think that Christmas is Santa and Easter about chocolate though.

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    My apologies for going off the topic of this very enjoyable and informative article, but I can’t ignore the parallel it conjured up in my mind. The issuing and trading of “carbon credits” is the modern day equivalent of the medieval “indulgences”, i.e. having sinner by releasing CO2, redemption may be bought with money from the Church of CAGW.

    • ianl says:

      That’s true enough, Bill. The major point to green criticism of the use of hydrocarbons as an energy source is that it’s sinful. And when the use is recreational (F1, motoGP, Porsche Cup, Harley Davidson etc), the sin is absolute. So the indulgence needs to be absolutely huge to match this depth of sin.

      As other contributors here may be aware, I am not of the religious persuasion. So for most of my life I puzzled as to how such inherently insane beliefs could become so widespread. Then Gaia turned up – and I could watch this process in great detail and slow motion. Bluntly, there are times I feel quite lucky to have had this puzzle laid out for me so comprehensively.

    • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

      Well said Bill. I remember reading years ago about some of the central and south American civilisations who sacrificed the odd warrior or maiden to appease their ‘climate gods’ and thinking of how primitive, uninformed and barbarian they were. Now I witness the Gaia worshipers prepared to virtually sacrifice mechanisation and modern civilisation to appease their ‘climate god’. Their anti-industrialisation agenda has already probably killed more people than were killed by the Mayans and Aztecs.

  • Jody says:

    Luther = Johann Sebastian Bach. All hail Luther!!!!!

  • johnhenry says:

    Very informative and amusing. You wear your learning lightly, Mr Dawson. I thought you died 46 years ago?

  • ken.harris@exemail.com.au says:

    I once went to a Buddhist retreat where we were invited to rouse ourselves from our meditative state and dance for world peace. I chose world war and watched. I can imagine Mr Dawson’s alarm when confronted with interpretative dance and The Little Donkey during a Christmas eve service in a Catholic church. What Luther would have made of it is an interesting question indeed.

    Could I suggest a more serious question, though: What would Luther have made of modern Germany? Would Germany’s post-Bismarck history have pleased him?

    I hope the Editor will permit me to quote at length from ‘The Course of German History’ by A J P Taylor. I could paraphrase him but who could write better than Taylor himself?

    Taylor’s book was published in 1945 and it’s still in print. It’s worth a squizz, or a resquizz if you read it years ago, like me.

    The first part of the first chapter entitled ‘The Legacy of the Holy Roman Empire’ gives some prominence to Luther’s role in creating the German ‘national character’. In Taylor’s thesis, the German national character was a major part of the explanation of Germany’s behaviour, at least up until 1945. If Taylor is right then a study of Luther as a statesman, albeit an unconscious one, is at least as interesting as his role as a religious reformer.

    The first two sentences of Taylor’s book are:
    ‘The history of the Germans is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality.’

    Taylor argues that the decisive moment in German history came when the emperor, Charles V, failed to put himself at the head of German Protestantism. Luther was a resolute and irresistible popular leader and, had the emperor adopted his movement, a united Germany might have come about. Disunity led Germany to make disastrous choices over the following 500 years, according to Taylor.

    Taylor says that Luther became a timid mystic as a result of his ill-judged support of the princes during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525.

    More from Taylor:
    ‘(Luther) turned with repugnance from all the values of Western civilisation. He owed his breach with Catholicism to a visit to Rome, when he had seen, and rejected, the greatest glories of the Renaissance. He hated art, culture, intellect, and sought an escape into an imagined Germany of the past, romantic, irrational, non-European. In Luther was implicit the emotionalism of the Romantic movement, the German nationalist sense of being different, above all the elevation of feeling over thinking, which is characteristic of modern Germany…In the rest of Europe, religious reform implied going forward: with Luther it meant going back, repudiating everything which was carrying civilised life beyond barbarism. As once the German conquerors of Rome had prided themselves on being simpler, purer, than the heirs of Cicero and Virgil, so now Luther set himself up against Michelangelo and Raphael. Even the technical occasion of his breach with Rome was symbolic; he objected to the sale of indulgences in order to raise money for the building of St Peter’s—if it had been for the purpose of massacring German peasants, Luther might never have become a Protestant.’

    Taylor was a socialist and, for a time, a communist. This, no doubt, influenced his harsh comment about Luther and the peasants but does not invalidate it.

    Jody mentioned Bach. Taylor describes a Protestant and a Catholic Germany, divided by religion and geography. He says:
    ‘Not only in its devotion to the authorities did Lutheranism increase German disunity. It failed to become the national religion of all Germans; in fact, it carried with it little more than half the German people…The backward impoverished princes of the north-east and the trading cities of the North Sea and Baltic, devastated by economic catastrophe, became Lutheran; the wealthier, more civilised princes of the south-west and even to some extent the inland cities of the Rhine…remained Roman Catholic. Both developments were a retreat from the flourishing days of the Renaissance, which had embraced all Germany…Roman Catholic Germany produced the great works of Baroque art and developed the musical tradition which culminated in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; Lutheran Germany, barren all else, had also its musical tradition, the quietist withdrawal from the world, which came to a dead-end with Bach—after Bach Lutheran Germany had no cultural existence.’

    And finally:
    ‘Such was the strange work of Luther. He made Germany a nation but a nation divided against itself. He gave the Germans a spiritual individualism and destroyed for centuries their political independence. He broke with the medieval dream of universalism, only to lead Germany into the nightmare of particularism. He taught the Germans to believe in liberty, but he taught them that liberty is to be found only in the service of the prince. He created the German language, and he used his creation for attacking reason, for expressing hysteria. Like the Germans of a thousand years before and of four hundred after, Luther was the barbarian who looks over the Rhine, at once the most profound expression and most decisive creator of German dualism.’

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