January 28, 1521 A Scholarly Debate

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing his “95 theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting Church authorities. This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium” – grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer, but the boy wanted none of it.

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Hans & Margarethe Luder by Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  Martin Luther was cut out for different things.

Luther entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out, almost immediately.  His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up a surplus of good deeds, over a lifetime.  Sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t a medium to be exchanged, he believed.  Rather, such grace was attained through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “Commissioner for Indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. A saying attributed to the Dominican friar went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

0531f24949Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Martin Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Martin Luther.  In 1520, the Papal Bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded the Professor of Theology to recant under pain of excommunication.

Luther stood on dangerous ground. In 1415, the Czech priest Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy.  Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against his followers, the “Hussieten”, five years later.

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King Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Pope Leo X named Henry “Fidei Defensor”.  “Defender of the Faith”. Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin was forced to flee for his life, from a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians.

Anabaptists Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting were tortured in the public square for their heresies, with white-hot pliers.  Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, in Münster. The bones were removed some fifty years later, but those three cages remain there, to this day.

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The Papal edict had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions, and he publicly burned the document. Twenty-four days later, Martin Luther was excommunicated.

On this day in 1521, Emperor Charles V convened the Diet, the deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms.  Luther was summoned to defend himself in April.

With copies of his writings laid before him on a table, Luther was asked if the books were his, and if he stood by their contents.  He affirmed that yes, they were his, but asked time to consider his second answer.

The following day, Luther gave his response.  “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.

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Martin Luther testifies before the Diet of Worms, 1521

The “Edict of Worms” of the following month declared Luther an outlaw, ordering that he “be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”.  Anyone who wished to do so was now permitted to kill the monk, without legal consequence.

Five years earlier, Erasmus of Rotterdam had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”.  Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle.  It was there that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teachings far beyond his intentions, and Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding very much like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.

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The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

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October 9, 768 Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, the “Mayor of the Palace”.  This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King.  By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

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Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States.  In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs.  This was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

images (3)Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue.  For the third time in a half-century, a Pope reached out to the Frankish Kingdom for help.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what remained of the Roman Empire remained in Constantinople.  Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe.  German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire, ever since.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy.  The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor.  Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as its founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.HRE 1500

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of “the little corporal” directly resulted in a rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870.  The polity which emerged would humble the French state in two World Wars.