1517: The “Luther Affair”
By the early 16th century, the Renaissance papacy was more remark-able for its lavish patronage of leading artists than its moral rectitude or pastoral activities. Renaissance-era popes were major princes in their own right, who ruled the Papal States in central Italy as secular lords. For example, Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) was the father of the notorious warlord Cesare Borgia (1475–1507), ruthless hero of Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1469–1527) unﬂ inching political manual, The Prince, and Pope Julius II (1443–1513), one of Renaissance Italy’s most lavish artistic patrons, having commissioned the Sistine Chapel, and also known as the “warrior pope” for the wars he waged on the pen-insula during his pontiﬁ cate.
As popes such as Alexander and Julius focused on amassing worldly wealth and power, the ship of the church foundered on the rocks of scandal and abuse. The sexual incontinence of the clergy was scandalous, portrayed in the bawdy works of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75) and Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340–1400) for all of Christendom to ridicule.
While most Europeans recognized papal cor-ruption and clerical abuses, on the eve of the Reformation, the laity remained deeply religious and hungered for an authentic religious experience. This was a period of growing piety and devout lay religios-ity, raising the people’s expectations for clerical behavior and feeding anticlerical and antipapal sentiment in Germany.
The sale of indulgences, certiﬁ cates that could be earned or purchased from the church that spared the bearer temporal punishment, often a speciﬁ ed allotment of time in purgatory, for sins that had already been forgiven, was particularly controversial. Popular with the masses and an increasingly lucrative stream of revenue for the church, indulgences raised the ire of concerned Christian humanists such as Erasmus.
In his wildly popular work The Praise of Folly (1509), he not only poked fun at the laziness and greed of slovenly monks and worldly priests but also dared to criticize the cynicism of indulgence peddling:Or what should I say of them that hug themselves with their counterfeit pardons, have measured purgatory by an hourglass, and can without the least mistake demonstrate its ages, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, as it were in a math-ematical table?
. . . And now suppose some merchant, soldier, or judge, out of so many rapines, parts with some small piece of money. He straight away conceives that sink of his whole life quite cleansed; so many perjuries, so many lusts, so many debaucher-ies, so many contentions, so many murders, so many deceits, so many breaches of trusts, so many treacheries bought off, as it were by compact; and so bought off that they may begin upon a new score. (Erasmus in Allen 1913: 81–82)For pious intellectuals like Erasmus, and for observant clerics like Luther, the notion that purchasing an indulgence could erase sin with-out sincere contrition and the required penance was outrageous.
On the eve of the Reformation, Pope Leo X (r. 1513–21) ruled the church. He was a member of the powerful Medici family of Florence, son of Lorenzo the Magniﬁ cent (1449–92), and sought to distinguish himself and the papal court through lavish patronage of the arts, humanist scholarship, and above all through the costly rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To raise the enormous sums required for this project, in 1515 Leo authorized a plenary indulgence, a special papal indulgence that freed souls trapped in purgatory, even those of relatives who were already dead.
Indulgences were quite common in Germany, and this plenary indulgence was to be sold there by a Dominican friar named Johan Tetzel (1465–1519) on behalf of the powerful archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, Albert of Brandenburg (1490–1545). Like Leo, the archbishop needed money: He owed a massive debt to south German bankers who had ﬁ nanced his purchase of his election to this lucrative position within the church hierarchy and was set to receive half the proceeds from the indulgences sold in his territory.
Luther, lecturing at the University of Wittenberg and also serving as a parish priest in the town, was increasingly alarmed by the stories of his parishioners regarding the indulgences and Tetzel’s sales techniques. Apparently, Tetzel was drumming up sales by convincing his customers that buying one of these special certiﬁ cates was automatically efﬁ ca-cious, freeing them from earthly confession and penance required by the church for the absolution of sins.
It is reported that Tetzel, a very successful salesman, had even composed a jingle that gave this impres-sion, promising that: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” (Snyder 1958: 64). Hearing of the Dominican’s tactics, and fearing that they might lead ignorant Christians into error and damnation, Luther was outraged. In a 1517 letter to the archbishop of Mainz, Luther clearly stated his objections to the tactics of the archbishop’s indulgence sellers and the false impressions they created among the ignorant laity.
After his passionate appeal to the archbishop of Mainz fell on deaf ears, Luther penned a series of theological arguments against indul-gences in Latin, a typical way for churchmen to initiate an internal debate over controversies. Luther sent these so-called Ninety-ﬁ ve Theses to the archbishop of Mainz and posted them on the church door in Wittenberg, challenging the indulgence peddlers to debate him on his objections to their practices. In any case, the Ninety-ﬁ ve Theses soon tore Germany, and all of Christendom, asunder.
That the Ninety-ﬁ ve Theses set off a ﬁ restorm is surprising for several reasons. In the form of a series of rather dry scholarly arguments, they were composed in Latin for a learned, clerical audience. Furthermore, Luther was not the ﬁ rst theologian to question the validity of indul-gences, they had been criticized in a much more public way by Erasmus just a decade before. Finally, and most signiﬁ cantly, Luther was exceed-ingly careful not to attack indulgences per se. Nor did he dare to argue against the pope’s authority to dispense indulgences from the church’s treasury of merit. Rather, he merely criticized what he perceived as the deceptive way these spiritual instruments were being sold in Germany.
Accordingly, Luther argued, on the basis of church dogma, that indulgences only removed temporal punishments, including purgatory, and did not absolve guilt or replace penance. In other words, his con-tention was that forgiveness could not be bought. In the 15th thesis, for example, he argued that:Christians should be taught that if the Pope knew the greedy crookedness of indulgence preachers, he would prefer to let St. Peter’s Basilica be burned to ashes than have it erected with the skin, body, and bones of his flock. (Snyder 1958: 64–65)
While Luther did not explicitly attack the pope or the church, the power of the printing press would soon make him notorious through-out the empire and shake the mighty Catholic Church to its core.Soon after he composed the Ninety-ﬁ ve Theses, Luther circulated his theses among his associates, and someone translated them into German and printed them in Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Basel, apparently without Luther’s knowledge or permission.
Thus, the controversy quickly left the realm of controlled, scholarly debate between trained theologians and became a cause célèbre argued in the workshops and taverns of German cities and towns by humanists, minor clergy, and townsfolk fed up with the Roman church. Within a month, Martin Luther, an obscure Saxon monk, had become a household name throughout Germany. After the archbishop of Mainz sent a copy of his letter to Rome, he was a topic of discussion in the papal household as well.
Initially, the papacy’s response was measured, and Pope Leo attempted to use his authority to take care of the matter internally by ordering the Augustinian Order to silence the troublesome monk. When Luther gave a rousing defense of his views, however, at the Order’s Heidelberg convocation in April 1518, he dazzled his brothers with his insights and erudition, convincing many to take his side in the dispute.
Since the issue was not resolved, the Dominicans, eager inquisitors of suspected heretics and bitter rivals of the Augustinians, took up the defense of their brother, Tetzel. With the controversy escalating, in August 1518 Luther received an ofﬁ cial order to appear in Rome within 60 days to recant his statements or he would be charged with heresy.
Martin Luther was unwilling to go against his conscience and knew that if he appeared in Rome he faced excommunication and might even die at the stake like the heretic Jan Hus before him. Thus, he turned to his powerful patron, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, for protection. Frederick was a devoutly Catholic German ruler and even issued his own indulgences for pilgrims who venerated the collection of more than 19,000 relics he had amassed in Wittenberg.
Eager to promote his brand-new university, however, Frederick did not want to lose his star professor who had placed the ﬂ edgling institution’s name on everyone’s lips. More important, Frederick was also a shrewd and ambitious ruler, who had no intention of handing over Luther, a valu-able bargaining chip in political wrangling with pope and emperor.
In the early years of the Reformation, the political implications of the “Luther Affair” were just as important as the theological ones. The church had to tread lightly in dealing with this bothersome monk for several reasons. On the one hand, there was growing resentment of Rome within Germany, and Leo could not afford to be too heavy-handed in his initial response.
Proto-nationalist German writers, such as the imperial knight and humanist Ulrich von Hütten (1488–1523), complained bitterly about the money that ﬂ owed from Germany into Italy in the form of tithes and fees to the church, with little pastoral care in return. On the other hand, there was an important imperial election looming, and the pope was anxious to secure his own candidate’s elec-tion as Holy Roman Emperor.
By 1518, the ailing Emperor Maximilian was trying to ensure that his grandson Charles would be elected emperor after his death. The pope, fearing Habsburg power, sought to block this by persuading powerful German princes, and above all electors like Frederick who would cast votes in the imperial election, to elect his candidate, King Francis I (1494–1547) of France.
Given the importance of courting Frederick for the upcoming election, both pope and emperor had to indulge Frederick, and the wily elector was able to arrange a hearing for Luther on German soil. The confrontation was scheduled for October 1518 at the Diet of Augsburg.
The Imperial Diet at Augsburg was dominated by pressing politi-cal considerations, including the upcoming imperial election and a planned crusade against the Turks, but Luther also faced the papal legate, the Italian Dominican, Cardinal Cajetan, who was entrusted with examining the supposed heretic’s ideas. The stubborn Luther refused to recant, although commanded to do so by Cajetan, and the cardinal later helped write Luther’s bill of excommunication.
The confrontation prompted Luther to deny the sole authority of the pope to interpret Scripture, which he increasingly considered the ultimate authority in matters of religion. This assertion, sola scriptura, that the Bible is the font of all Christian truth, was to become the second major hallmark of Protestant theology, along with justiﬁ cation by faith alone (sola ﬁ de).
Martin Luther, under the protection of Frederick the Wise, returned to Saxony and spent 1520 writing a triad of seminal works that would lay out his new theological insights and help to launch the Protestant Reformation. These three treatises, printed and reprinted in thou-sands of copies in the vernacular, enunciated the three major aspects of Lutheran theology.
The ﬁ rst, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, served primarily as a political, rather than a theologi-cal, appeal to the German princes to oppose the will of the pope, an argument based upon Luther’s notion of the “priesthood of all believ-ers,” which attacked the primacy and privileges of the Catholic clergy.
Appealing to long-standing anticlerical feeling in Germany, the work was enormously popular, and an initial print run of 4,000 copies sold out in two weeks. The second 1520 treatise, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, was perhaps Luther’s most radical work, arguing that the church was being held captive by clerical domination of the sacra-ments.
Here Luther offered a thorough redeﬁ nition of the nature and signiﬁ cance of the sacraments. Thus, for the reformer, the Eucharist was not a “good work” that led to salvation but a means of examining and strengthening individual faith, which for Luther was the key to salvation. Finally, On the Freedom of a Christian was a powerful state-ment of the centrality of faith in salvation, as opposed to the ofﬁ cial sacraments and good works cited by Catholic dogma.
Together, these works laid out the three theological hallmarks of the German Reformation: the denigration of the Catholic clergy, known as the “priesthood of all believers;” the primacy of Scripture in reli-gious matters, an expression of Luther’s notion of sola scriptura; and ﬁ nally, his conception of sola ﬁ de, justiﬁ cation by faith alone. Given the theological and political implications of his writings, Luther’s message appealed not only to common people concerned with church abuses and their own salvation but also to princes and magistrates resentful of the prominent role the Catholic Church played in German cities and princely states.
These tracts, along with the Ninety-ﬁ ve Theses, were printed and reprinted in Latin and in German, using the exciting new communications technology of printing. There was a wide and enthusiastic audience for Luther’s powerful writings, as well as the scathing polemical literature and pro-Luther propaganda written by his followers, and these works sold briskly in Germany in the 1520s and 1530s.
Scholars estimate that around 10,000 pamphlet editions of Luther’s works were printed in the pivotal years between 1520 and 1530, as the fragile Protestant movement struggled to survive. Three-quarters of these editions appeared between 1520 and 1526, drowning out Catholic authors’ counterattacks.The papal response to the rising tide of Lutheran printed output was swift and unequivocal.
On June 15, 1520, Leo X issued the papal bull Exsurge Domine, named after its opening phrase, “Arise, O Lord.” This carefully crafted document commanded Luther to retract 41 speciﬁ c “errors” that he had expressed in writing or speech within 60 days of receiving it or else he faced excommunication from the church. Once this deadline expired, on December 10, 1520, Luther collected his followers in Wittenberg and burned his copy of the bull.
This dra-matic event signaled Martin Luther’s formal rejection of papal author-ity. Another papal bull soon followed: Decet Romanum Pontiﬁ cem, of January 3, 1521, excommunicated Luther from the Roman Catholic Church and ordered ecclesiastical and secular authorities to conﬁ s-cate and burn all of his printed works. As his followers rallied around him, it was clear that the Protestant Reformation had split the empire and the Catholic world.
Cast from the church, Luther was ordered to appear at the Diet of Worms that con-vened in late January 1521 by the newly elected, 19-year-old Emperor Charles V. The impe-rial election of June 1519 had made Charles, grandson of Maximilian and already ruler of Spain with its lucrative overseas colonies, as well as Burgundy, Luxembourg, and the Habsburg Crown Lands in the empire, the most powerful ruler in Europe. So powerful, in fact, that he aroused anxi-ety among the German princes, who feared he might subordinate them and rule the empire as a centralized monarchy.
Furthermore, he was not German but had been reared in the Low Countries. Finally, the empire was not his primary concern, since most of his revenue came from Spain and he was always distracted by endless campaigning against the French in the west and the Ottoman Turks in the east. Stern, haughty, and stubborn, this devout Catholic ruler would prove a dangerous adversary for the Protestants.
Luther traveled to the Diet under a safe conduct obtained by Elector Frederick the Wise from the young emperor, but as everyone knew, Jan Hus had been under such imperial protection when burnt at the stake at the Council of Constance a century earlier. When Luther appeared at the Diet, on April 16, he faced the emperor’s representative, Johann Eck, a Catholic theologian who had been a longtime enemy of the Saxon reformer. Confronted with a pile of his writings Luther was ordered to recant the things he had written. He replied deﬁ antly,
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason I do not believe in the authority of either popes or councils by themselves, for it is plain they have often erred and contra-dicted each other, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me, Amen. (Snyder 1958: 78)
The Habsburg emperor, Charles V, was a devout servant of the church. Determined to stamp out heresy and to enforce conformity within his troublesome realm, he condemned Luther.At the conclusion of the Diet, on May 25, 1521, Emperor Charles issued the Edict of Worms, crafted with the help of the papal nuncio, Girolamo Aleandro (1480–1542). In the edict, the emperor proclaimed that:
. . . we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be appre-hended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther.
Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work. (Hunter 2010: 300)Thus, the Edict of Worms made Luther an outlaw within the empire. Furthermore, the document made it illegal to publish or possess Lutheran works. Still, it did not halt Luther’s pen, much less the spread of the Reformation.
After the Diet, Luther left Worms, but given the strident language of the edict, it was feared that he could be arrested at any moment in spite of his safe conduct. To avoid this possibility, Frederick’s men seized him on his way home and hid him in Wartburg cas-tle, where he began his mas-sive German translation of the Bible.
Luther’s German Bible was crucial to the Reformation, since it gave the “priesthood of all believers” access to the “pure Gospel.” His New Testament, based upon Erasmus’s Greek edition, was ﬁ rst printed in 1522, and the entire Bible was printed in 1530.
By the time of the reformer’s death, in 1546, more than 500,000 copies of the Luther Bible had been printed and sold. This publishing sensation not only furthered the Reformation but also helped to standardize the German language. Expressed in the clear German of the Saxon court, Luther’s Bible gradually overcame the bewildering variety of dialects in the empire.
After Luther left the Wartburg and returned to Wittenberg, still under Frederick’s protection, the emperor was not able to have him arrested. In fact, owing to the opposition of powerful German princes such as the Saxon elector and the rapid spread of Lutheranism among the German populace, the Edict of Worms was never stringently enforced in the empire. However, it was a different story in the Habsburg crown lands such as the Low Countries, where Charles’s authority was more direct.
There, several of Luther’s supporters were tried for heresy. In December 1521, for example, Jacob Probst, an Augustinian prior, was prosecuted in Antwerp for violating the Edict of Worms and forced to publicly denounce Luther’s teachings. Others did not get off so easily, and in July 1523, a pair of deﬁ ant monks, Johannes van Esschen and Hendrik Voes, refused to recant and were burnt as heretics in Brussels.