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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Five   Leave a comment

Part Five – The Peasants’ War of 1525: A Puritan Revolution?

The causes of the German Peasants’ War have been a subject of controversy among historians for a considerable time. They generally agree that the background of the rising of 1525 resembled that of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rather than the Puritan revolts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which men and women of lower orders in society were also involved. Neither did the Peasants’ War in Germany resemble previous local revolts among the Jacquerie of France which were usually of a purely local nature, related to abuses of feudal rights by particular lords. For one thing, the German peasant class was not uniformly impoverished; the initiative for the redress of grievances came not from the downtrodden, but rather from the more prosperous and enterprising, possessed themselves of both lands and a respectable competence in farming them. In fact, the well-being of the German peasantry throughout the territories was better than it had ever been, and those who took the initiative in the insurrection, far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically and who, for that very reason, were impatient for the obstacles which stood in the way of their further advance to be removed.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles for themselves, the peasants showed that they were not at all eschatologically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government. The first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. This was achieved, not through bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

Underlying the rising there was, however, a deeper conflict. With the progressive collapse of the royal power, the German state had disintegrated into a welter of discordant and often warring feudal authorities. But by 1525 this condition of near anarchy was approaching its end, for the great territorial princes were busily creating their absolutist principalities. The peasantry saw its traditional way of life disrupted and its inherited rights threatened by the development of new types of states. It resented the additional taxes, the substitution of Roman Law for ‘custom’, the interference of centralised administration in local affairs, and it fought back. The law was being unified by displacing the local codes in favour of Roman Law whereby the peasant again suffered since that Law knew only private property and therefore imperilled the commons – the woods, streams and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman Law also only had three categories of peasant – free men, freedmen and slaves. It had no category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

The princes, for their part, realized clearly enough that the peasantry stood in their way of their plans for state-building and that the peasant insurrection offered them a chance to assert and consolidate their authority. It was they, or rather a particular group of them, who saw to it that the rising ended catastrophically, in a series of battles or massacres, in which perhaps as many as a hundred thousand peasants were killed. It was also those princely dynasties which gained most from the reduction alike of the peasantry, the lower nobility and the ecclesiastical foundations to a condition of hopeless dependence which was to last for centuries.

Another change, associated with the revival of commerce in cities after the crusades, was the substitution of exchange in coin for exchange in kind. The increased demand in precious metals enhanced their value; the peasants, who had at first benefited from the payment of a fixed sum of money rather than a percentage in kind, found themselves hurt by deflation. Those who could not meet the imposts sank from freeholders to renters, and from renters to serfs. The solution which at first presented itself to the peasants was simply to resist the changes as they operated in their society and return to ‘the good old ways’. They did not, to begin with, demand the abolition of serfdom but only the prevention of any further extension of peonage. They demanded a return to the free use of the woods, waters and meadows; the reduction of imposts and the reinstatement of ancient Germanic law and local custom. The methods used in the attainment of these ends were at first conservative. On the occasion of a special grievance, the peasants would assemble in thousands in quite spontaneous fashion and would present their petitions to the rulers with a request for arbitration. Not infrequently the petition was received in a patriarchal manner and the burdens were in some measure eased, yet never to the extent of forestalling a future recurrence.

Somewhat inevitably, therefore, the peasants’ demands began to go beyond economic amelioration to political programmes designed to ensure an influence commensurate with and even exceeding their economic importance. The demands also changed as the movement worked north to the region around the big bend of the Rhine where peasants were also townsmen, since artisans were farmers. In this area, urban aspirations were added to agrarian concerns. Further down the Rhine, the struggle became almost wholly urban, and the characteristic programme called for a more democratic complexion in the town councils, a less restrictive membership in the guilds, the subjection of the clergy to civil burdens and uncurtailed rights for citizens to engage in brewing.

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Many of these demands had coalesced in a movement in Alsace which had taken place just prior to the Reformation. This movement had used the symbol which became characteristic of the Peasants’ War of 1525. This was the Bundschuh, deriving its name from the traditional leather shoe of the peasant. The word had a double meaning because Bund was also the word for an ‘association’ or ‘covenant’. Müntzer had already used for his ‘covenant of the elect’ and before that, the peasants had adopted the term for a ‘compact’ of revolution. The aims of this Bundschuh had centred not so much on economics as on politics. Its adherents believed that ‘the axe should be laid to the root of the tree’ and all government abolished save that of the pope and the emperor. These were the two traditional ‘swords of Christendom’, the joint rulers of a universal society. To them, the little men had always turned for protection against overlords, bishops, metropolitans, knights and princes. The Bundschuh proposed to complete the process by wiping out all the intermediate grades and leaving only the two great lords, Caesar and the Apostle.

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Prior to the Peasants’ War of 1525, therefore, this movement was often anticlerical, but not anti-Catholic. Bishops and Abbots were resented as great landowners and exploiters, but “Down with the bishop” did not mean “Down with the Church.” The banners of the Bundschuh often carried, besides the shoe, some religious symbol, such as a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, or a papal tiara. The woodcut shown below shows the crucifix resting on a black shoe. On the right, a group of peasants are tilling the soil, and Abraham is sacrificing Isaac, a sign of the potential cost of being a member of the Bund. A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ did not mean for him egalitarianism, but it did for Carlstadt. Luther had certainly blasted usury and in 1524 had come out with another tract on the subject, in which he also attacked the subterfuge of annuities, a device whereby capital was loaned in perpetuity for an annual return. His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants, with good reason, felt strongly drawn to Luther. 

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The part played by Thomas Müntzer in the Peasants’ War as a whole has often been exaggerated. The main theatres of the struggle were the areas where the development of the new states had gone the furthest. These all lay in southern and western Germany, which had already seen many peasant risings in the years before 1525; there, Müntzer seems to have had no influence at all. In Thuringia however, the situation was a peculiar one, for there had been no previous peasant revolts and there was little sign of an impending revolt even in 1525. The insurrection came very late and took a curiously anarchic form. Whereas in the south and west the peasants had conducted themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, in Thuringia they formed small, unorganised bands which scoured the countryside, looting and burning monasteries and convents. It may well be that these outbreaks were encouraged, if not caused, by the agitation which Müntzer had been conducting.

The hardcore of Müntzer’s following still consisted of the League of the Elect. Some of his congregation from Allstedt joined him at Mühlhausen and no doubt helped him in building up a new organisation. Above all, he continued to rely on the workers from the copper-mines at Mansfeld, who had joined the League in their hundreds. These workers, often recruited from abroad, often migrants, often exposed to unemployment and every kind of insecurity, were notoriously prone to revolutionary excitement, just as were the weavers, and they were correspondingly dreaded by the authorities. That he was able to command such a following naturally gave Müntzer a great reputation as a revolutionary leader; so that, if in Mühlhausen itself he never rivalled Pfeiffer in influence, in the context of the peasant insurrection he loomed far larger. Although, as their written demands clearly show, the Thuringian peasants did not share Müntzer’s millenarian fantasies, they certainly looked up to him as the one famous, learned and pious man who had unreservedly thrown in his lot with theirs. They certainly had no other leader.

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When the ‘great upheaval’ came in 1525, the polemical papalist cartoonists lost no time in portraying Luther as the leader of the Bundschuh, and the Catholic princes never ceased to hold him responsible for the uprising. Some historians have also tried to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so vehemently repudiated. Such an explanation fails to take account of more than a century of agrarian unrest which preceded the Reformation.

One contributory factor as to why the revolts were so widespread in 1525, which had nothing to do with Luther or his Reformation, was astrology, which had remained an important feature of medieval life alongside the Church. Medicine, in particular, was largely determined by the theory of the four humours, relating the bodily fluids to the movements of the planets and stars. Since ancient times, heavenly signs were taken to be harbingers and forebodings of great events.

Astrological speculation may well explain why so many uprisings were in the constellation of the occurred in 1524-25, as it was in 1524 that all planets were in the constellation of the Fish. This had been foreseen twenty years earlier and a great disturbance had been predicted for that year. As the time approached, the foreboding was so intense that in 1523 no fewer than fifty-one tracts were published on the subject. Woodcuts like the one below displayed the fish in the heavens and upheavals upon earth. The peasants with their banners and flails watch on one side, while on the other the emperor, the pope and the ecclesiastics all gather. Some peasant leaders held back from taking action before 1524 in the hope that the emperor would call an imperial diet to redress their grievances in 1524. The Diet of Nürnberg had taken place in March 1523 and had deferred action on reform until a second diet could be called to issue an Edict on 18 April 1524. This did nothing to deal with peasant grievances, however, and another diet was not due until the summer of 1526. In the meantime, the ‘great fish’ unloosed the waters upon the peasants, princes, prelates and papacy.

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All this was foreign superstition to Luther, if not entirely to Melanchthon, but at the same time, he could not claim a complete dissociation with the outbreak of the Peasants’ War. The attempts to enforce the imperial edicts through the arrest of Lutheran pastors were often the immediate cause of assemblies of peasant bands to demand their release. Luther was regarded as a friend by these peasants, and when some of them were asked to name persons whom they would accept as their arbiters, the first name on the list was Martin Luther. No formal court was ever established to try the peasants for rebellion, and no legal judgement was ever given. But Luther himself did pronounce a verdict on their demands as couched in the most popular of their manifestoes, The Twelve Articles, first distributed in March 1525. These opened with conciliatory phrases reminiscent of those used by Luther himself in his Address to the German Nobility and On the Freedom of the Christian Man of 1520:

To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ… The gospel is not a cause of rebellion and disturbance… If it be the will of God to hear the peasants, who will resist his Majesty? Did he not hear the children of Israel and deliver them out of the hand of Pharaoh? 

The first articles have to do with the Church. The congregation should have the right to appoint and remove the minister, who is to preach the Holy Gospel without human addition, a phrase which sounds as if Luther could have written it. Ministers were to be supported on a modest stipend by congregations out of the so-called great tithe on produce. The surplus should go to relieve the poor and to obviate emergency taxation in war. The so-called little tithe on cattle should be abolished, for the Lord God created cattle for the free use of man. The main articles embodied the old agrarian programme of common fields, forests and waters. The farmer should be free to hunt, to fish, and to protect his lands against game. Under supervision, he might take wood for fuel and building. Death dues, which impoverish the widow and orphan by requisitioning the best cloak or the best cow, were to be abolished. Rents should be revised in accord with the productivity of the land. New laws should not displace the old, and the community meadows should not pass into private hands.

The only article which exceeded the old demands was the one calling for the total abolition of serfdom. Land should be held on lease with stipulated conditions. If any labour in excess of the agreement was exacted by the lord, he should pay for it on a wage basis. The Twelve Articles conceded that any demand not consonant with the Word of God should be null. The whole programme was a conservative one, in line with the traditional feudal economy. Notably, there was no attack on legitimate government. The evangelical tone of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands. As to the right of the congregation to choose its own pastor, it would depend on whether they would pay his stipend. The abolition of tithes would be highway robbery and the abrogation of serfdom would be turning Christian liberty into a thing of the flesh.

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Having thus criticised their programme, Luther then turned to the means envisaged for its realisation. Under no circumstances, Luther declared, must the common man seize the sword on his own behalf. If each man were to take justice into his own hands, there would be neither authority, government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed. But all this was not intended to justify the unspeakable wrongs perpetrated by the rulers. To the princes, Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them. He told them that the will of the congregation should be respected in the choice of a minister, just as he had told the peasants that they should not rebel against the opinion of the prince. The demands of the peasants for redress of their grievances were fair and just and the princes had no-one but themselves to blame for these disorders. They had done nothing but disport themselves in grandeur while robbing and flaying their subjects. The true solution was by the traditional means of arbitration.

But neither side was disposed to take that course and Luther’s prediction was all too abundantly fulfilled, that nothing would ensue but murder and bloodshed. Luther had long since declared that he would not support the private citizen taking up arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent. He could not envisage an orderly revolution, much less a nonviolent one. Indeed, it is difficult for historians to envisage how there could have been one in the early sixteenth century, or even in the following century, given the amount of bloodshed in wars and rebellions throughout Europe. The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan Revolution because there was no clear-cut programme and no coherent leadership. Some groups wanted a peasant dictatorship, some a classless society, some a return to feudalism, some the abolition of all rulers except the pope and the emperor.

The separate bands were not coordinated; their chiefs were sometimes peasants, sometimes sectaries, like Müntzer, and sometimes even knights. There was not even unity in religion since there were ‘Papalists’ and ‘Lutherans’ on both sides, though the distinction was not yet a clear one. In Alsace, where the programme called for the elimination of the pope, the struggle took on the complexion of a religious war. The Duke and his brother, the Cardinal, hunted the peasants as unbelieving, divisive, undisciplined Lutherans, ravaging like Huns and Vandals. There can be no question that the hordes were undisciplined, interested mainly in pillaging castles and cloisters, raiding game, and depleting fish ponds. The drawing below of the plundering of a cloister is typical of the Peasants’ War. Observe the group in the upper left with a net in the fish pond. Some are carrying off provisions. The bloodshed does not appear to be considerable, though one man has lost a hand. At various points peasants are guzzling and vomiting, justifying the stricture that the struggle was not so much a peasants’ war as a ‘wine fest’.

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A further glimpse of the peasants’ behaviour is revealed in a letter from an abbess who says that her cloister was raided until not an egg nor a pat of butter was left. Through their windows, the nuns could see the populace being abused and the smoke rising from burning castles. When the war ended, seventy cloisters had been demolished in Thuringia, in Franconia 270 castles and 52 cloisters. When the Palatinate succumbed to the peasants, the disorder was so great that their own leaders had to invite the former authorities to return to assist in the restoration of order. But the authorities preferred to wait until the peasants had first been beaten.

There was no one individual, not even the emperor, who could have carried through an alternative, constructive plan for bringing the peasants into the new economic and political order of the sixteenth century. The only other man who was sufficiently well-known and trusted throughout Germany was Martin Luther, but he refused, not out of cowardice but because he believed that it was the role of the magistrate to keep the peace. The magistrate must also, if necessary, wield the sword. It was certainly not for him to forsake his ministry for the sword and, by leading the peasants, to establish a new theocracy of the saints to replace the papal one he had not yet fully demolished. That would be a betrayal of his territorial Reformation.

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Yet Luther would never have condemned the peasants quite so savagely had it not been that there was someone else who aspired to the role he himself rejected. In Saxony there would have been no Peasants’ War  without Thomas Müntzer. After all his wanderings across Germany to Bohemia and the Swiss borders, he had now, at last, found in the peasants the Bund of the Elect who would slaughter the ungodly and erect the kingdom of the saints. The point was not the redress of economic grievance, which in Saxony was not as acute as elsewhere, since serfdom had long since been abolished there. Müntzer was interested in economic amelioration only for the sake of religion, and he did have the insight to see what no one else in his generation observed, that faith itself does not thrive on physical exhaustion. He renewed his attack on Luther on this point, in familiar terms:

Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn’t he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn’t he realise that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird of the air, and the grass of the field, and Dr Liar says  “Amen!” What courage has he, Dr Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr Easychair, the basking sycophant? He says there should be no rebellion because the sword has been committed by God to the ruler, but the power of the sword belongs to the whole community. In the good old days the people stood by when the judgement was rendered  lest the ruler pervert justice, and the rulers have perverted justice. They shall be cast down from their seats. The fowls of the heavens are gathering to devour their carcasses.

It was in this sort of temper that Thomas Müntzer came to Mülhausen and began fomenting a local peasants’ war. In April 1525, Müntzer set up, in the church he had been called to in Mühlhausen, a long, white silk banner bearing a rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant and the motto, The Word of the Lord Abideth Forever. Under this, he began to preach:

Now is the time, if you be only three wholly committed unto God , you need not fear one hundred thousand. On! On! On! Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry! Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! On! On!

He announced that he would shortly be marching out under this standard at the head of two thousand ‘strangers’ (real or imaginary members of his league). At the end of the month, he and Pfeiffer did take part in a marauding expedition in the course of which a number of monasteries and convents were destroyed; but this was not yet, by any means, the apocalyptic struggle of which he dreamed. In a letter which he sent to his followers at Allstedt can be recognised the same tone that was once used by John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt of a century and a half previously:

I tell you, if you will not suffer for God’s sake, then you must be the Devil’s martyrs. So take care! Don’t be so disheartened, supine, don’t fawn upon the perverse visionaries, the godless scoundrels! Start and fight the Lord’s fight! It’s high time. Keep all your brethren to it, so that they don’t mock the divine testimony, otherwise they must all be destroyed. All Germany, France and Italy are on the alert. The master wants to have sport, so the scoundrels must go through it. The peasants in Klettgau and Hegau and in the Black Forest have risen, three thousand strong, and the crowd is getting bigger all the time. My only fear is that the foolish fellows will let themselves be taken in by some treacherous agreement, simply because they haven’t yet seen the harm of it…

Stir up the people in villages and towns, and most of all the miners and other good fellows who will be good at the job. We must sleep no more! … Get this letter to the miners! … 

At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame! Hammer cling, clang, on Nimrod’s anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as you are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. One can’t speak to you about God so long as they are reigning over you. At them, at them, while you still have daylight! God goes ahead of you, so follow, follow!

This letter shows in what fantasies Müntzer was living, for Nimrod was supposed to have built the Tower of Babel, which in turn was identified with Babylon; and he was popularly regarded not only as the first builder of cities but as the originator of private property and class distinctions, as the destroyer of the primal, egalitarian State of Nature.And to his summons to cast down Nimrod and his tower Müntzer adds a whole series of references to apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible: the prophecy of the messianic kingdom (Ezekiel xxxiv), Christ’s prophecy of his Second Coming (Matthew xxiv), the prophecy of ‘the Day of Wrath’ (Revelation vi), and, of course, ‘Daniel’s dream’. All this shows how completely, even at this late stage in Müntzer’s mission, the assumptions on which he worked and the terms in which he thought were still prescribed by the eschatological tradition. He was assuming the role of the messianic saviour.

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At the same time as Müntzer and Storch, the latter recently expelled from Zwickau were preparing their followers for the Millennium, Luther was composing his ferocious pamphlet, Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants. This work did much to arouse the princes of central Germany, who had so far shown far less resolution than those in the south and west. Frederick the Wise was weary, unwilling to act against the peasants, and on the point of death when he wrote to his brother John:

Perhaps the peasants have been given just occasion for their uprising through the impeding of the Word of God. In many ways the poor folk have been wronged by the rulers, and now God is visiting his wrath upon us. If it be his will, the common man will come to rule; and if it be not his will, the end will soon be otherwise. Let us then pray to God to forgive our sins, and commit the case to him. He will work it out according to his good pleasure and glory.

Brother John, for his part, yielded to the peasants in his territory the right of the government to collect tithes. He wrote back to Frederick, declaring,… as princes we are ruined. The old Elector died on 4 May and brother John succeeded him. Luther had tried to dyke the deluge by going down into the midst of the peasants to remonstrate with them, but he was met with derision and violence. It was then that he decided to write his tract in which he claimed that all hell had been let loose and all the devils had gone into the peasants, and the archdevil was in Thomas Müntzer, who does nothing else but stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed. A Christian ruler like Frederick the Wise should, indeed, search his heart and humbly pray for help against the Devil, since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual wickedness. The prince should, indeed, exceed his duty in offering terms to the mad peasants, as John had done. If they declined, he must quickly grasp the sword. He had no use for Frederick’s plan to sit still and leave the outcome to the Lord, preferring the more pro-active approach of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who claimed if I hadn’t been quick on my toes, the whole movement in my district would have been out of hand in four days. In his tract, Luther wasted no words in setting out how the princes should deal with those peasants who rejected their terms:

If the peasant is in open rebellion , then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down like a great disaster. 

Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab , secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Some of the princes were only too ready to smite, stab and slay; and Thomas Müntzer was only too ready to provoke them. Duke George, the new Elector John and other princes called for help from the Landgrave Philip, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, but already with a considerable reputation as a military commander, who had just put down the uprising in his own territories. He marched at once to Thuringia and headed for Mühlhausen, which the princes agreed as being the centre of the whole Thuringian insurrection. Müntzer and the peasants, eight thousand strong, had formed themselves into an army at nearby Frankenhausen. They sent word to the princes that they sought nothing but the righteousness of God and desired to avoid bloodshed. The princes replied that if they delivered up Thomas Müntzer, the rest of them would be spared. But they had already turned to Müntzer as their saviour, who seems to have chosen Frankhausen as a rallying point because it was close to the castle of his old arch-enemy, Ernest of Mansfeld. They now called him to take his place among them, and Müntzer was quick to answer their call. He set out from Mühlhausen with some three hundred of his most fanatical followers. The number was significant because it was with the exact same number that Gideon overthrew the Midianites. He arrived at the peasants’ camp on 11th May. On his arrival he spoke out: Fear not, Gideon with a handful discomfited the Midianites and David slew Goliath.

He then ordered the peasants from the surrounding villages to join the army, threatening that they would otherwise be brought in by force. He also sent an urgent appeal to the town of Erfurt for reinforcements and threatening letters to the enemy. Clearly, he was not going to give himself up. He wrote to Count Ernest of Mansfeld in particularly vitriolic terms:

Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood?… By God’s almighty power you are delivered up to destruction. If you do not humble yourself before the lowly, you will be saddled with everlasting infamy in the eyes of all Christendom and will become the devil’s martyr.

But neither of his missives had much effect. Erfurt either could not or would not respond, and the princes took advantage of the delay to surround the peasant army. By the 15th May, Philip of Hesse’s troops had been joined by those of all the other regional princes and had occupied a strong position on a nearby hill overlooking the peasant army. Although somewhat outnumbered, the princes also had ample artillery, whereas the peasants had very little. They also had about two thousand cavalry, whereas the peasants had none. A battle fought under such circumstances could have only one possible result, but the princes again offered terms, requiring the handing over of Müntzer and his immediate following. The offer was made in good faith, as the princes had already avoided unnecessary bloodshed elsewhere, following Luther’s advice. The offer would probably have been accepted, had it not been for Müntzer’s intervention.

The propheta made a passionate speech in which he declared that God had spoken to him directly and promised him victory; that he himself would catch the enemy’s cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak; that in the end God would transform heaven and earth rather than allow his people to perish. Just at that moment, a rainbow appeared in the sky, the very symbol on Müntzer’s banner, as if to prove that God would keep his covenant. Müntzer’s fanatical followers were convinced that some tremendous miracle was about to transpire and were somehow able to convince the confused, amorphous and relatively leaderless mass of peasantry of this.

Having received no reply to their terms, the princes grew impatient and the order was given to the artillery to fire the cannon in an opening salvo. The peasants had made no preparations to use their cannon, nor to escape the field. Seemingly in a mass trance and still singing, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, they seemed to be expecting the Second Coming at that very moment. The effect of the salvo was devastating, with the peasants breaking ranks and fleeing in panic while the princes’ cavalry ran them down and slaughtered them. Losing just half a dozen men, the army of the princes dispersed the peasants and captured Frankenhausen, killing some five thousand peasants in the process. Only six hundred were taken prisoner, so perhaps another two thousand somehow escaped. A few days later, Mühlhausen surrendered without a struggle and was made to pay heavily for its part in the general insurrection, also losing its status as a free imperial city. Müntzer himself escaped from the battle-field but was soon found hiding in a cellar in Frankenhausen. He was handed over to Ernest of Mansfeld, tortured, made to sign a confession, after which he was beheaded in the princes’ camp, along with Pfeiffer, on 27 May. Storch died as a fugitive later in the same year. The princes continued to ‘clean up’ the countryside.

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Other bands of peasants were also savagely put down. The forces of the Swabian League were led by a general who, when outnumbered, would have recourse to diplomacy, duplicity, strategy and, when necessary, combat. He managed to isolate the bands and destroy them one at a time. The peasants were tricked and finally outnumbered themselves. It was claimed that over a hundred thousand were massacred altogether. Although they were not exterminated as a class, the hopes of the peasants for a share in the political life of Germany were at an end, at least for the following three centuries.

Luther’s savage pamphlet was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered. But the tract was noticed by them, and the set of phrases, smite… stab… slay… were never forgotten by them. He tried to counter the effect by another pamphlet in which, though he held to his original conviction over the consequences of rebellion, he criticised the princes for their failure to show mercy to captives and their venting of vengeance on the countryside, in which the bishops also took part. Despite Luther’s stance, hundreds of ‘Lutheran’ ministers throughout Germany took part in the war on the peasants’ side. The rulers of Catholic lands thereafter used this participation as a reason to exclude evangelical preachers from their lands. Luther himself became less tolerant of radical preachers, lest some of them might turn out to be little Müntzers in disguise.  Nevertheless, his support for the princes in the peasants’ war led to others becoming Lutheran and to the repeal of the edicts against him at the Diet of Speyer in 1526.

Though there were elements of a puritan movement on the side of the peasants, a clear divide had opened up among Lutherans whose goal was to establish a territorial church, and the few who were prepared to sign up to a more radical congregationalism more biased towards the poor. The battle lines in both church and society, in both material and spiritual life, had been clearly drawn. The Peasants’ War had been a war in the sense of a series of battles and stand-offs in which the peasants in some areas won some concessions from the princes. Apart from the Twelve Articles, some of which were connected with church reform, there was no agreed manifesto which could be referred to as a revolutionary platform or programme. That was something that some later historians, looking for a legacy, gave to the uprisings. Millenarian movements grew up in parallel and took advantage of the general mood of unrest, rather than directing or leading it in any coordinated way.

(to be continued…)

 

 

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Three   Leave a comment

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Part Three – From Zwickau to Worms: Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer:

Thomas Müntzer was born into modest comfort in Thuringia in 1488 or 1489. When he first came clearly into public view, in his early thirties, Müntzer appears neither as a victim nor as an enemy of social injustice but rather as an ‘eternal student’, extraordinary learned and intensely intellectual. After graduating from university he became a priest and led a restless, wandering life, always choosing places where he could hope to further his studies. Profoundly versed in the Scriptures, he learned Greek and Hebrew, read patristic and scholastic theology and philosophy, also immersing himself in the writings of the German mystics. Yet he was never a pure scholar; his voracious reading was carried on in a desperate attempt to solve a personal problem. For Müntzer was at that time a troubled soul, full of doubts about the truth of Christianity and even about the existence of God but obstinately struggling after certainty, in fact in that labile condition which so often ends in a conversion.

Müntzer came from Zwickau and revived some of the ideas of the earlier ‘prophets’ from that town, but with much greater allure because of his learning, ability and intense enthusiasm. Müntzer held, with the Catholic Church, that the Bible is inadequate without a divinely inspired interpreter, but that interpreter is not the Church nor the pope but the prophet, the new Elijah, the new Daniel, to whom is given the key of David to open the book sealed with seven seals.

Martin Luther, who was some five or six years older than Müntzer, was just then emerging as the most formidable opponent that the Church of Rome had ever known and also, if only incidentally and transiently, as the effective leader of the German nation. In 1519 he had questioned the supremacy of the Pope in public disputation with John Eck in Leipzig and in 1520 he published, and was excommunicated for publishing, the three treatises which formed the manifestos of the German Reformation. During the summer of 1520, he delivered to the printer a sheaf of tracts which are still referred to as his primary works: The Sermon on Good works in May, The Papacy at Rome in June, and The Address to the German Nobility in August. The Babylonian Captivity followed in September and The Freedom of the Christian Man in November. The latter three were more immediately pertinent to the controversy with the Papal Curia.

The most radical of these three in the eyes of contemporaries was the one dealing with the sacraments, entitled  The Babylonian Captivity, with reference to the enslavement of the sacraments of the Church. This assault on Catholic teaching was more devastating than anything that had preceded it: and when Erasmus read the tract, he exclaimed, “the breach is irreparable.” The reason was that the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church rested so completely on the sacraments as the exclusive channels of grace and upon the prerogatives of the clergy, by whom the sacraments were administered. Luther with one stroke reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two. Confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction were eliminated. The Lord’s Supper and baptism alone remained. According to Luther, a sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and must be distinctively Christian. He did not utterly abolish penance, recognising the need for contrition and regarding confession as useful, provided it was not institutionalised. The key point of divergence was with regard to absolution, which he said was only a declaration by a man of what God had decreed in heaven and not a ratification by God of what that man had ruled on earth.

In Luther’s eyes, the Church had made the sacrament of the mass mechanical and magical. He, too, would not subject it to human frailty and would not concede that he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith was a gift from God, but given when, where and to whom he will and efficacious without the sacrament, whereas the sacrament was not efficacious without faith. On this belief, Luther affirmed:

I may be wrong on indulgencies, but as to the need for faith in the sacraments I will die before I will recant. 

This insistence upon faith diminished the role of the priests who may place a wafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart. Neither is Christ sacrificed in the mass because his sacrifice was made once and for all upon the cross, but God is present in the elements because Christ, being God, declared, “This is my body.” The ‘official’ view called transubstantiation was that the elements retained their accidents of shape, taste, colour and so on, but lose their substance, for which is substituted the substance of God. Luther rejected this position on rational rather than biblical grounds. The sacrament for him was not a chunk of God fallen like a meteorite from heaven. God does not need to fall from heaven because he is everywhere present throughout his creation as a sustaining and animating force, and Christ as God is likewise universal, but his presence is hidden from human eyes. For that reason, God has chosen to declare himself to mankind at three loci of revelation. The first is Christ, in whom the word was made flesh. The second is Scripture, where the word uttered is recorded. The third is the sacrament, in which the Word is manifest in food and drink. The sacrament does not conjure up God as the witch of Endor but reveals him where he is.

Nonetheless, Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper pointed the Church in one direction and his view of baptism pointed it to another. That is why he could be at once to a degree the father of the Congregationalism of the Anabaptists and of the territorial church of the later Evangelicals. This was the product of Luther’s individualism, not that of the Renaissance Humanists, but the fulfilment of the individual’s capacities; it is not the individualism of the late scholastic, who on metaphysical grounds declared that reality consists only of individuals and that aggregates like Church and State are not entities but simply the sum of their components. Luther was not concerned to philosophise about the structures of the Church and State; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism.

Baptism rather than the Lord’s Supper was, for Luther, the sacrament which linked the Church to society. For the medieval Christian community, every child outside the ghetto was by birth a citizen and by baptism a Christian. Regardless of personal conviction, the same persons constituted the State and the Church. An alliance of the two institutions was thus natural. Here was a basis for Christian society. The greatness and the tragedy of Luther were that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporatism of the baptismal font. This doctrinal duality would have made him a troubled spirit in a tranquil age, but his age was not tranquil. Rome had not forgotten him. The lifting of the pressure on him was merely opportunistic, with the papacy waiting for the arrival of the Most Catholic Emperor in Germany,  from Spain,  before resuming its persecution of Luther. On 10 October, Luther received the Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine, excommunicating him.

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The Bull was sparse in its reproof. Luther’s views on the mass were condemned only at the point of the cup to the laity. None other of the seven sacraments received notice, except for penance. There was nothing about monastic vows, only a disavowal of Luther’s desire that princes and prelates might suppress the sacks of the mendicants. There was nothing about the priesthood of all believers. The articles centred on Luther’s disparagement of human capacity even after baptism, on his derogation from the power of the pope to bind and loose penalties and sins, from the power of the pope and councils to declare doctrine, from the primacy of the pope and of the Roman Church. The charge of Bohemianism had plainly lodged, because he was condemned on the score of introducing certain of the articles of John Hus. Luther’s articles were not pronounced uniformly heretical but condemned as heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth, respectively. The entire formula was stereotyped and had been used in the condemnation of Hus. Despite his initial blasts against the Bull, Luther’s prevailing mood was expressed in a pastoral letter to a minister who was prompted to leave his post, written in October:

Our warfare is not with flesh or blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, against the world rulers of this darkness. Let us then stand firm and heed the trumpet of the Lord. Satan is fighting, not against us, but against Christ in us. We fight the battles of the Lord. Be strong therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us?…

If you have the spirit, do not leave your post, lest another receive your crown. It is but a little thing that we should die with the Lord, who in our flesh laid down his life for us. We shall rise with him and abide with him in eternity. See then that you do not despise your holy calling. He will come, he will not tarry, who will deliver us from every ill. 

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Meanwhile, Luther had already published another mighty manifesto of Reformation in his Address to the German Nobility. The term ‘nobility’ was used, in a broad sense, to cover the ruling classes in Germany from the emperor down. Some contend that in this tract Luther broke with his earlier view of the Church as a persecuted remnant and instead laid the basis for a church allied with and dependent on the State.  Luther adduced three grounds for his appeal. The first was simply that the magistrate was the magistrate, ordained by God to punish evildoers. All that Luther demanded of him was that he should hold the clergy to account before the civil courts, that he should protect citizens against ecclesiastical extortion and that he should vindicate the state in the exercise of its civil functions, free from clerical interference. The theocratic pretentiousness of the Church was to be rejected.

Yet Luther was far more concerned for the purification of the Church than for the emancipation of the state. The second ground was that the Church’s temporal power and inordinate wealth must be stripped away in order to emancipate it from worldly concerns and enable it to better perform its spiritual functions. He used the language of the Christian society in asserting that the temporal authorities are baptised with the same baptism as we, building upon the sociological sacrament administered to every babe born into the community. In such a society, Church and State are mutually responsible for the support and correction of each other. His third ground for the appeal was that magistrates were fellow Christians sharing in the priesthood of all believers, which was made to rest on the lower grade of faith implicit in the baptised infant. Luther’s whole attitude to the reformatory role of the magistrate was essentially medieval, but it was deeply religious in tone. The complaints of Germany were combined with the reform of the Church, and the civil power itself was directed to rely less on the arm of the flesh than upon the hand of the Lord.

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Underlying his ‘appeal to Caesar’ was a deep indignation against the corruption of the Church, however, as again and again the pope was shamed by a comparison with Christ (seen in the cartoon by Cranach above). This theme went back through Hus to Wyclif. In contrast to the pope’s view that promises to heretics are not binding, Luther argues that heretics should be vanquished with books, not with burnings. He ended his Address to the German Nobility with an uncompromising appeal to heaven:

O Christ, my lord, look down. Let the day of thy judgment break and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome!

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In the meantime, the papal bull was being executed in Rome and Luther’s books were being burned in the Piazza Navona. The bull was printed and sealed for wider dissemination. The two men charged with this task as papal nuncios were John Eck and Jerome Aleander, a distinguished Humanist and former rector of the University of Paris. But in the Rhineland, the emperor ruled only by virtue of his election. When at Cologne on 12 November Aleander tried to have a bonfire, having gained the consent of archbishop, the executioner refused to proceed without an express imperial mandate. The archbishop asserted his authority, and the books were burned. At Mainz, at the end of the month, the opposition was more violent. Before applying the torch, the executioner asked the assembled crowd whether the books had been legally condemned. When they, with one voice, cried “No!”, he stepped down and refused to act. Aleander again appealed to Albert, the archbishop, and secured his authorisation to destroy a few books the following day. The order was carried out by a gravedigger with no witnesses apart from Aleander and a few women who had brought their geese to market. Aleander was pelted with stones and had to be rescued by the abbot. Ulrich von Hutten came out in verse with an invective both in Latin and German:

 O God, Luther’s books they burn.

Thy godly truth is slain in turn.

Pardon in advance is sold,

And heaven marketed for gold

The German people is bled white

And is not asked to be contrite.

 

To Martin Luther wrong is done –

O God, be thou our champion.

My goods for him I will not spare,

My life, my blood for him I dare.

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Luther’s ‘private’ response to receiving the papal bull, given in his letter to Spalatin, to which he appended a copy of his reply in Latin, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, was apocalyptic in tone and content:

When since the beginning of the world did Satan ever so rage against God? I am overcome by the magnitude of the horrible blasphemies of this bull. I am almost persuaded by many and weighty arguments that the last day is on the threshold. The Kingdom of Antichrist begins to fall. I see an unsuppressible insurrection coming out of this bull, which the Roman ‘curia’ deserves.

His public pronouncements were also, now, almost equally uncompromising in their millenarianist, direct condemnation of the ‘curia’:

You then, Leo X, you cardinals and the rest of you at Rome, I tell you to your faces: “If this bull has come out in your name then… I call upon you to renounce your diabolical blasphemy and audacious impiety, and, if you will not, we shall all hold your seat as possessed and oppressed by Satan, the damned seat of Antichrist, in the name of Jesus Christ, whom you persecute.”

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He added the caveat, however, that he was still not persuaded that the bull was the work of the pope, but rather that of that apostle of impiety, John Eck. Nevertheless, as to the content of his reply, he left his readers in no doubt of his determination to hold to the beliefs he had expressed in it and his previous articles:

It is better that I should die a thousand times than that I should retract one syllable of the condemned articles. And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.

Two weeks after the appearance of this tract another came out so amazingly different as to make historians wonder if it was written by the same man. It was entitled Freedom of the Christian Man and commenced with a deferential address to Leo X. In it, he issued a disclaimer of personal abusiveness and a statement of faith. He was not fighting a man, but a system. Then followed Luther’s canticle of freedom, but if he supposed that this would mollify the pope, he was naïve. The deferential letter itself denied the primacy of the pope over councils, and the treatise asserted the priesthood of all believers. The pretence that the attack was directed, not against the pope, but against the curia is the device commonly employed by constitutionally minded revolutionaries who do not like to admit that they are rebelling against a head of a  government or church.

Although it was to be many years before Evangelical churches appeared on a territorial basis, there now existed a recognisable Lutheran party among the German ‘nobles’ to whom Luther had appealed. Many of the clergy also joined it, though they clung firmly to ‘the old religion’. It was as a follower of Luther that Thomas Müntzer first broke away from Catholic orthodoxy; all the deeds which have made him famous were done in the midst of the great religious earthquake which first cracked and at length destroyed the massive structure of the medieval Church. Yet he himself abandoned Luther almost as soon as he had found him; it was in ever fiercer opposition to Luther that he worked out and proclaimed his own doctrine.

What Müntzer needed if he was to become a new man, sure of himself and of his aim in life, was not to be found in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It was to be found, rather, in the militant and bloodthirsty millenarianism that was unfolded to him when in 1520 he took up a ministry in the town of Zwickau and came into contact with a weaver called Nikla Storch. Zwickau lies close to the Bohemian border, where Storch himself had been born. It was essentially the old Táborite doctrines which were being revived in his teaching. He proclaimed that now, as in the days of the Apostles, God was communicating directly with his Elect; the reason for this was that the Last Days were at hand. First, the Turks must conquer the world and Antichrist must rule over it; but then, and it would be very soon, the Elect would rise up and annihilate all the godless so that the Second Coming could take place and the millennium begin. What most appealed to Müntzer in this programme was the war of extermination which the righteous were to wage against the unrighteous. Abandoning Luther, who had the previous year refused to lead a knights’ crusade with Hutten, he now talked and thought only of the Book of Revelation and of such incidents from the Old Testament of as Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal, Jehu’s slaying of the sons of Ahab and Jael’s assassination of the sleeping Sisera. Contemporaries noted and lamented the change that had come over him, the lust for blood which at times expressed itself in sheer raving. By contrast, for all his use of apocalyptic tropes to attack the papacy, Luther wrote to Spalatin in January 1521:

I am not willing to fight for the gospel with bloodshed… The world is conquered by the Word, and by the Word the Church is served and rebuilt. As Antichrist rose without the hand of man, so without the hand of man will he fall. 

For Müntzer, the Elect must prepare the way for the Millennium. Like Luther, however, he believed that he who would be saved must be prepared to suffer as the historical Christ had done, must be purged of all self-will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and to created beings. ‘The Cross’ may include sickness and poverty and persecution, all of which must be borne in patience, but above all, they will include intense mental agonies, weariness with the world and with oneself, loss of hope, despair, terror. According to Müntzer, but also in traditional doctrine, only when this point has been reached, when the soul has been stripped utterly naked, can direct communication with God take place. Such beliefs had been held by many Medieval Catholic mystics, but when Müntzer came to speak of the outcome of this suffering, he followed an altogether less orthodox tradition. For him, once ‘the living Christ’ enters the soul it is for evermore; the man so favoured becomes a vessel of the Holy Spirit. Müntzer even speaks of his ‘becoming God’; endowed with perfect insight into the divine will and living in perfect conformity with it, such a man is incontestably qualified to discharge the divinely appointed eschatological mission. That is precisely what Müntzer claimed for himself.

As soon as Storch had enabled him to find himself Müntzer changed his way of life, abandoning reading and the pursuit of learning, condemning the Humanists who abounded among Luther’s followers, ceaselessly propagating his eschatological faith among the poor. In the middle of the fifteenth-century silver-mines had been opened up at Zwickau, turning the town into an important industrial centre, three times the size of Dresden. From all over southern and central Germany labourers streamed to the mines, with the result that there was a chronic surplus of manpower. Moreover, the uncontrolled exploitation of the silver ore resulted in an inflation which reduced all the skilled workers, including those in the traditional weaving industry, to near-penury. A few months after he arrived at Zwickau, Müntzer became a preacher at the church where the weavers had their special altar, and he used the pulpit to denounce the local preacher, a friend of Luther’s, who enjoyed the favour of the well-to-do burghers. Before long the whole town was divided into two hostile camps and the antagonism between them was becoming so sharp that violent disorders seemed imminent.

Müntzer was readily able to find support for his view of the spirit in the Scripture itself, where it is said that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (II Cor. 3:6). Luther replied that of course the letter without the spirit is dead, but the two are no more to be divorced than the soul is to be separated from the body. The real menace of Müntzer in Luther’s eyes was that he destroyed the uniqueness of Christian revelation in the past by his elevation of revelation in the present. In his own experience, Luther had no great contemporary revelation of his own. On the contrary, in times of despondency, the advice to rely upon the spirit was for him a counsel of despair, since within he could find only utter blackness. In such times, only the assurance he received from the written Word of God of the stupendous act of God in Christ would suffice. Luther freely avowed his weakness and his need for historic revelation. Had Müntzer drawn no practical consequences from his view, Luther would have been less outraged, but Müntzer proceeded to use the gift of the Spirit as a basis for the formation of a church. He is the progenitor of sectarian Protestant theocracies, based not as in Judaism primarily on blood and soil, nor as in Catholicism on sacramentalism, but rather on inner experience and the infusion of the Spirit. Those who are thus reborn can recognise each other and can join a covenant of the Elect, whose mission is to erect God’s kingdom.

Müntzer did not expect the elect to enter into their inheritance without a struggle. They would have to slaughter the ungodly. At this point, Luther was horrified because the sword is given to the magistrate, not the minister, let alone to the saints. In the struggle, Müntzer recognised that many of the godly would fall, and he was constantly preaching on suffering and cross-bearing as a mark of the elect. Luther was often taunted as “Dr Easychair and Dr Pussyfoot,” basking in the favour of the princes. His reply was that the outward cross is neither to be sought nor evaded. The constant cross is suffering within. So, who was really the champion of the inner spiritual life?

Meanwhile, Luther was himself facing a divided public opinion. Those who were for him were numerous, powerful and vocal. Aleander, the papal nuncio in Germany, reported that nine-tenths of the Germans cried “Luther” and the other one-tenth, “Death to the pope.” This was undoubtedly an exaggeration as far as the Germans were concerned, but even if it were true, there was by now a middle party, both within the German states and more broadly in Europe, headed personally by Erasmus, who, despite his statement that the breach was irreparable, did not desist from efforts at mediation and even penned a memorandum proposing the appointment by the emperor and the kings of England and Hungary of an impartial tribunal. The Erasmians as a party sensed less than their leader the depth of the cleavage between Luther and the Church and between Luther and themselves.

Curiously, however, some of the greatest obstructionists were in the Vatican, because the pope had seen his worst fears realized in the election of Charles as emperor, and was trying to curb his power by supporting France. But Charles, for all his Spanish orthodoxy, knew how to use Luther as a weapon in this power struggle. At the same time, Aleander was intimidated by Hutten’s fulminating, and when the pope sent his bull of excommunication against both Luther and Hutten, Aleander withheld the publication and sent it back to Rome to have Hutten’s name removed. Such communications took months, which explains why Luther was actually outlawed by the empire before he was formally excommunicated by the Church.

Where, how and by whom his case should be handled was, therefore, the dilemma which was faced by Charles V. A decision was reached upon the point on 4 November 1520, after his coronation at Aachen, when he went to confer with ‘Uncle Frederick’ the Wise, who was marooned by gout in Cologne. Frederick secured an agreement from Charles that Luther would not be condemned without a hearing. The University of Wittenberg promptly pointed to the possibility of a hearing before the forthcoming Diet of Worms, before the assembled German nation. Frederick transmitted the proposal to the emperor’s counsellors and received a reply from His Majesty a reply dated 28 November addressed to his “beloved Uncle Frederick” in which he invited Luther to defend his views at Worms. The appeal to Caesar had been heard, the invitation marking an amazing reversal of policy. The Defender of the Faith, who had been burning Luther’s books, now invited their author to a hearing. Had the emperor been won over by Erasmus’ policy? Had some disquieting political news disposed him to bait the pope and cultivate the Germans? His motives elude historians. The invitation was issued at the end of November, but Luther did not actually appear at the diet until the April of 1521.

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As the princes and nobles began to arrive in Worms at Epiphany, Charles gave Frederick the Wise an assurance that he would take personal responsibility for Luther’s case. When Luther received this news, he replied to Frederick that he was heartily glad that His Majesty will take to himself this affair, which is not mine but that of the whole German nation. While Luther’s coming was awaited, a lampoon was published in Worms, entitled the Litany of the Germans:

Christ hear the Germans; Christ hear the Germans. From evil counselors deliver Charles, O Lord. From poison on the way to Worms deliver Martin Luther, preserve Ulrich von Hutten, O Lord. Suffer not thyself to be crucified afresh. Purge Aleander, O Lord. The nuncios working against Luther at Worms, smite from heaven. O Lord Christ, hear the Germans.

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Had Luther been prepared to abandon the attack on the sacraments he had made in The Babylonian Captivity, he might indeed have rallied a united German nation for the reduction of papal power and extortion. The diet might have wrung from the pope the sort of concessions already granted to the strong nation-states of France, Spain and England. Schism might have been avoided, and religious war could have been averted. To a man like Frederick, this compromise proposed by the Erasmians must have seemed most appealing, but he was also resolved to make no overtures which would give the emperor an opportunity to evade his newly accepted responsibility. So it was that on the sixteenth of April, Luther entered Worms in a Saxon two-wheeled cart with a few companions. He was examined by an official of the Archbishop of Trier, who confronted him with a pile of his books and asked whether he had written them and whether he wanted to defend or retract all or part of them. 

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He asked for time to consider his response and was recalled at six the following evening, when the same question was put to him. He answered:

Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

The earliest printed version added, before ‘God help me’, the words:

Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

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These words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been moved to write them down. The emperor then called in the electors and a number of the princes to ask their opinions. They requested time to reflect before responding. “Very well,” he said, “I will give you my opinion,” and he read a statement from a paper that he himself had composed in French:

A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul. Not only I, but you of this noble German nation, would be forever disgraced if by our negligence not only heresy but the very suspicion of heresy were to survive… I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me.

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On the following day the electors declared themselves fully in accord with the emperor, but out of six, only four signed the declaration. The dissenters were Ludwig of the Palatinate and Frederick of Saxony. On the sixth of May, the Emperor presented to a diminishing diet the final draft of the Edict of Worms, prepared by Aleander. Luther was charged with attacking the seven sacraments after the manner of ‘the damned Bohemians’. The Edict of Worms, passed by a secular tribunal entrusted with a case of heresy at the instance of Lutherans and against the opposition of the papists, was at once repudiated by the Lutherans as having been passed by only a rump, and was sponsored by the papists because it was a confirmation of the Catholic faith. The Church of Rome, which had so strenuously sought to prevent turning the Diet of Worms into an ecclesiastical council, became in the light of the outcome the great vindicator of the pronouncement of a secular tribunal on heresy. Now an outlaw, on his way home to Wittenberg he was taken into refuge in the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. There he devoted his energies to translating the New Testament from Greek into German, in the tradition of Wyclif, so that all Germans might be able to read it for themselves.

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Above: Luther’s room at the Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament.

Meanwhile, that same month, the Town Council of Zwickau had intervened to dismiss the troublesome newcomer, Thomas Münzer; whereupon a large section of the populace, under Storch’s leadership, rose in revolt. The rising was put down, and many arrests were made, including more than fifty weavers. Müntzer himself went into exile in Bohemia, apparently in the hope of finding some Táborite groups there. In Prague he preached with the help of an interpreter; he also published in German, Czech and Latin a manifesto announcing the founding of a new church in Bohemia which was to consist entirely of the Elect and which would, therefore, be directly inspired by God. His own role he now defined in terms of the same eschatological parable of the wheat and the tares which had been invoked during the English Peasants’ Revolt:

Harvest-time is here, so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair,soul, body, life curse the unbelievers.

Müntzer’s appeal to the Bohemians was a failure and he was expelled from Prague. For the next couple of years, he wandered from place to place in central Germany, in great poverty but sustained by an unshakable confidence in his prophetic mission. He no longer used his academic titles but signed himself Christ’s messenger. His very hardships assumed in his eyes a messianic value:

Let my sufferings be a model for you. Let the tares all puff themselves up as much as ever they like, they will still have to go under the flail along with the pure wheat. The living God is sharpening his scythe in me, so that later I can cut down the red poppies and the blue cornflowers.

His wanderings came to an end when, in 1523, he was invited to take up a ministry at the small Thuringian town of Alstedt. There he married, created the first liturgy in the German language, translated Latin hymns into the vernacular and established a reputation as a preacher which extended throughout central Germany. Peasants from the surrounding countryside, above all some hundreds of miners from the Mansfeld copper-mines, came regularly to hear him. As many as two thousand outsiders flocked to his preaching. Together with the residents of Alstedt, these people provided him with a following which he set about turning into a revolutionary organisation, the League of the Elect. This league, consisting in the main of uneducated, was Müntzer’s answer to the university which had always been the centre of Luther’s influence. Now spiritual illumination was to oust the learning of the scribes; Alstedt was to replace Wittenberg and become the centre of a new Reformation which was to be both total and final and which was to usher in the Millennium. He was able to report thirty units ready to slaughter the ungodly…

(…to be continued).

Appendix: From R. Stupperich’s article (1977) in The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing. 

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Two.   Leave a comment

Below: Conflict in the sixteenth century, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

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Part Two – Martin Luther, Humanism and Nationalism:

The late fifteenth century saw a consolidation of many European states and a coalescence of Europe into the political contours which were to shape it for almost four hundred years, until the crisis of nationalism in the nineteenth century. In the southwest, the Spanish state emerged with the final conquest of Granada from the Muslim Moors in 1492 and the Union of the crowns of Aragon and Castille. The French kings continued the process of expanding the royal domain, until by 1483 only the Duchy of Brittany remained more or less independent, and even this was absorbed in the early sixteenth century. England had lost all its lands in France, except for Calais, and was racked by a bitter civil war from 1453 to 1487, from which it began to emerge under the Welsh Tudor dynasty from 1485 onwards as a maritime power, whose interests in terms of territorial expansion lay outside Europe.

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Above: King Matthias Hunting at Vajdahunyád. This most impressive Transylvanian castle was the residence of the Hunyádi dynasty and seat of their immense estates.

In the East, Hungary’s power and influence grew in the reign of Matthias Corvinus from 1458 until 1490. Corvinus was a renaissance ruler who promoted learning, but he also had to resist the Turkish advance. He maintained a largely defensive attitude, seeking to preserve his kingdom without trying to push back the Ottomans to any great extent. His main attention was directed westwards. With the standing army he had developed, he hoped to become the crown of Bohemia and become Holy Roman Emperor. Bohemia remained divided as a result of the Hussite Wars and in 1468 Corvinus obtained Papal support to conduct a crusade against its Hussite ruler, George Podebrady. This led to the partition of the Bohemian kingdom. Corvinus gained Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia as well as the title ‘King of Bohemia’, though not Bohemia itself. Corvinus was opposed by the Emperor Frederick III (1440-93) who had been elected ruler of Hungary in 1439 by a group of nobles. Nevertheless, Corvinus was successful, in gaining Lower Austria and Styria from Austria, and transferring his capital to Vienna. The Hungarian state developed considerably under Matthias Corvinus, although he continued to face opposition from nobles concerned about their privileges.

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Portrait of Matthias Corvinus from the Philostratus Codex, c. 1487-1490

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The beginnings of the primacy of the nation-state are conventionally traced to the early sixteenth century. A new type of king arose across, like Matthias Corvinus, called the Renaissance Prince. These monarchs attacked the powers of the nobles and tried to unite their countries. In England, this process was accelerated by the eventual victory of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, but on the continent, it was much slower. The mercantile classes were generally hostile to the warlike feudal nobles, who interfered with and interrupted their trade, so they tended to support the king against the nobles. A new sense of unity arose, where local languages and dialects merged into national languages and, through the advent of the printing press, national literatures developed.

For a while, however, the most successful states appeared to be multi-national ones, such as the Ottoman Empire in the east, or the universal monarchy built up by Charles V, encompassing Spain, the Netherlands and the Austrian dominions of the Habsburgs. The small states of the Holy Roman Empire, the patchwork of cities and territories, also contained some of the most affluent parts of Europe. Charles of Habsburg inherited, by quirks of marriage and early deaths, the Burgundian Netherlands (1506), the united Spanish crowns (1516), and the lands of his grandfather Maximilian of Austria (1519), after which he succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. The Imperial title, the secular equivalent of the Papacy, still carried immense prestige, giving its holder pre-eminence over lesser monarchs.

The Empire was a waning but still imposing legacy of the Middle Ages. Since the office of emperor was elective, any European prince was eligible, but the electors were predominantly German and therefore preferred a German. Yet they were realistic enough to recognise that no German had sufficient strength in his own right to sustain the office. They were, therefore, ready to accept the head of one of the great powers, and the choice lay between Francis of France and Charles of Spain. Francis I tried in vain to secure election, seeing the danger of his country being encircled by a ring of hostile territories. The Pope objected to either, however, because an accretion of power on one side or the other would destroy that balance of power on which papal security depended. When the Germans despaired of a German, the pope threw his support to Frederick the Wise, but Frederick himself, sensible of his inadequacies, defeated himself by voting for the Habsburg.

For centuries the seven Electors had chosen the Habsburg heir, but previously he had been German, or at least German-speaking; At the age of just twenty, Charles I of Spain became Emperor Charles V on 28 June 1519. Francis pursued his legacy of French claims to Milan and Naples, and sought to extend his eastern frontier towards the Rhine. He was an ambitious man, but also frivolous, whereas Charles was regarded as harder-working. The rivalry between the two men was to dominate European politics from 1519 to 1547. While Charles emerged as the more powerful of the two, he had many more problems to distract him. Winning the election was only the beginning of his trials, as Charles now faced an immense task of keeping his domains united.  The main source of his power and wealth continued to lie in the Netherlands, in the seventeen separate provinces that he had inherited from his father, Philip the Handsome, in 1506. The great commercial wealth of these provinces made their taxes particularly valuable, even if their independent-mindedness meant that Charles had to treat them with extreme caution. Besides the territories he had inherited, Charles added several more Dutch provinces, Milan, Mexico and Peru to his empire at home and overseas.

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Europe in the time of Henry VIII, Charles I of Spain and Francis I of France

The Map above shows the extent of Charles’ scattered empire; it included many peoples, each proud of their own traditions, language, and separate government. Even in Spain, only the royal will bound together Castile with Granada and Aragon, which, in turn, was made up of the four distinct states of Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia and Navarre. There was a serious revolt in Aragon itself in 1520. Besides Spain, he had to assert his nominal authority over the independent princes, bishops, knights and city-states that formed the Holy Roman Empire.  If all this wasn’t enough to contend with, he was opposed by successive popes, who resented his power in Italy despite his championship of the Roman Church. Within the Church, from 1517, reformers like Martin Luther had begun to challenge the authority of both the ecclesiastical and secular leaders of the Empire, leading to further disunity both within and between the German states.

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Above: The Central European Habsburg Empire of Charles V

The rise of Protestantism in Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century placed an additional strain on his European empire. Charles failed to suppress it by force, but held firm to Catholicism even though, in Germany at least, it might have been politically expedient to convert to Lutheranism. In 1517-19, Martin Luther had challenged the authority of the Pope in tolerating the abuses of the Church, and a considerable movement for reform had grown around his protest at Wittenberg. His work and that of subsequent reformers was greatly stimulated by the translation of the Bible into ‘high’ German, which Luther himself completed in 1534, and by its printing and widespread publication. This religious movement coincided with the rise of national feeling. Renaissance princes, eager to gain complete domination over their territories, were supported in a breach with the Pope by their subjects, who regarded Papal authority as foreign interference. The wealth and lands of the Church, combined by the heavy exactions it made on its adherents, had provoked great dissatisfaction among princes, merchants and peasants.

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In 1517, the impulsive and headstrong Augustinian friar and Professor of Theology at Wittenberg had denounced the sale of indulgences by unprincipled agents of the Papal envoy, Tetzel, and had won enthusiastic support. The Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan to interview Luther at Augsburg (I have written about these early disputations over indulgences in more detail elsewhere on this site). When he got word that Cajetan had been empowered by the Pope to arrest him, Luther escaped the city gates by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride to Nürnberg in his cowl, without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived back in Wittenberg on 30 October, exactly a year after he had first posted his 95 Theses to the Castle church door. Cajetan then demanded that Frederick the Wise should either send  Luther bound to Rome or else banish him from his territories. Luther made matters even more difficult for his prince by publishing his own version of his interview with the Cardinal. There was no longer any attempt to explain the papal decree against him in any favourable sense. Instead, he declared that it was emphatically false, and contrasted the ambiguous decretal of a mortal pope with the clear testimonies of Holy Scripture:

The Apostolic Legate opposed me with the thunder of his majesty and told me to recant. I told him the pope abused Scripture. I will honour the sanctity of the pope, but I will adore the sanctity of Christ and the truth. I do not deny this new monarchy of the Roman Church which has arisen in our generation, but I deny that you cannot be a Christian without being subject to the decrees of the Roman pontiff… I resist those who in the name of the Roman Church wish to institute Babylon.

His accusation that the Roman pontiff and curia were instituting Babylon introduced an apocalyptic tone into the dispute. On 28 November, Luther lodged with a notary an appeal to the pope for a general council, declaring that such a council, legitimately called in the Holy Spirit, could better represent the Catholic Church than the pope, who, being a man, was able to err, sin and lie. Not even St Peter, he pointed out, was above this infirmity.  Luther had the appeal printed, requesting that all the copies should be withheld from publication unless and until he was actually banned. The printer, however, disregarded the embargo and gave them out immediately to the public. Pope Julius II had ruled that a direct appeal to a council, without papal consent, constituted in itself an act of heresy. Luther had placed himself in an exposed situation and had also embarrassed his prince. Frederick the Wise considered himself to be a most Catholic prince. He was addicted to the cult of relics, devoted to indulgences and quite sincere in his claim that he was not in a position to judge Luther’s teaching. That was why he had founded the University of Wittenberg and why he so often turned to it for advice on matters juristic and theological. Luther was one of the doctors of that university, commissioned to instruct his prince in matters of faith.

As far as Frederick was concerned, if the pope declared Luther a heretic, that would settle the matter, but the pontiff had not yet pontificated. Neither had the theological faculty at Wittenberg repudiated their colleague. Many scholars throughout Germany believed Luther to be right. Frederick differed from many other princes in that he never asked how to extend his territories nor even how to preserve his dignities. His only question was, what is my duty as a Christian prince? He wrote to the Emperor beseeching him either to drop the case or to grant a hearing before unimpeachable judges in Germany. He also sent to Cajetan the only document ever sent to the Roman curia on Luther’s behalf:

We are sure that you acted paternally towards Luther, but we understand that he was not shown sufficient cause to revoke. There are learned men in the universities who hold that his teaching has not been shown to be unjust, unchristian, or heretical. The few who think so are jealous of his attainments. If we understand his doctrine to be impious or untenable, we would not defend it. Our whole purpose is to fulfill the office of a Christian prince. Therefore we hope that Rome will pronounce on the question. As for sending him to Rome or banishing him, that we will do only after he has been convicted of heresy. … He should be shown in what respect he is a heretic and not condemned in advance. We will not lightly allow ourselves to be drawn into error nor to be made disobedient to the Holy See. 

Prince Frederick also appended a copy of a letter from the University of Wittenberg in Luther’s defence. Luther himself wrote to his mentor and confidant, George Spalatin, to express his joy at reading the prince’s letter to the Papal Legate. Cajetan knew that, although Luther was a vexation, he was not yet a heretic, since heresy involved a rejection of the established dogma of the Church, and the doctrine of indulgences had not yet received an official papal definition. On 9 November 1518, the bull Cum Postquam definitely clarified many of the disputed points. Indulgences were declared only to apply to penalty and not to guilt, which must first have been remitted through the sacrament of penance. In the case of the penalties of purgatory, the pope could do no more than present to God the treasury of the superfluous merits of Christ and the saints by way of petition. This decretal terminated some of the worst abuses Luther had complained about in his Ninety-Five Theses.

Had it appeared earlier, the controversy might conceivably have been terminated, but in the interim Luther had attacked not only papal power but also the infallibility of the Pope. He had also questioned the biblical basis for the sacrament of penance and had rejected part of canon law as being inconsistent with Scripture. For his part, the Pope had called him ‘a son of iniquity’ and the loyal Dominicans had already declared him to be ‘a notorious heretic’. The conciliatory policy commenced in December 1518 was prompted by political considerations which now became more marked due to the death of Emperor Maximilian and the need to elect a successor as Holy Roman Emperor. The election of Charles V at the end of June 1519 made no great difference to the situation with Luther, because for over a year Charles was too occupied in Spain to concern himself with Germany, where Frederick remained the pivotal figure. The pope still could not afford to alienate him unduly over Luther and so his conciliatory policy continued.

Tetzel was made the scapegoat for the controversy over indulgences. Cajetan’s new German assistant, Milititz summoned him to a hearing and charged that he was extravagant in travelling with two horses and a carriage, and that he had two illegitimate children. Tetzel retired to a convent where he died of chagrin. Luther wrote sympathetically to him; you didn’t start this racket: The child had another father. 

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Meanwhile, the University of Wittenberg was becoming known as a Lutheran institution. Prominent among the faculty were Carlstadt and Melanchthon. Carlstadt, a senior colleague to Luther, was erudite but sometimes recklessly outspoken and more radical. Melanchthon was gentler, younger (at twenty-one) a prodigy of learning, already enjoying a pan-European reputation. These two reformers ‘in their own right’ soon became the leaders of the Reformation in Wittenberg. Against them, the papacy found a worthy academic in John Eck, a professor from the University of Ingolstadt, who had already published a refutation of Luther’s theses. He had been Luther’s friend, a humanist and a German. Eck also succeeded in persuading the University of Leipzig to sponsor him against Wittenberg, which added the internal political rivalry of ducal and electoral Saxony to the mix. Duke George, the patron of Leipzig, agreed that Eck should debate with Carlstadt at Leipzig. Carlstadt had already launched a determined defence of Luther and a virulent attack on Eck, but the latter was in no mood to accept ‘second best’. He openly baited Luther by challenging his assertions that the Roman Church in the days of Constantine had not been seen as superior to the other churches and that the popes had not always been seen as in apostolic succession to Peter, and that therefore the papacy was a relatively recent human institution, not a divine one.

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Above: Philip Melanchthon’s study in his home in Wittenberg

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Clearly, this debate was between Eck and Luther, but the bishop of the diocese interposed a prohibition. Duke George said that all he wanted to know was whether as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. He reminded the bishop that…

Disputations have been allowed from ancient times, even concerning the Holy Trinity. What good is a soldier if he is not allowed to fight, a sheep dog if he may not bark, and a theologian if he may not debate? Better spend money to support old women who can knit than theologians who cannot discuss.

Luther set himself to prepare for the debate. Since he had asserted that only in the decretals of the previous four hundred years could the claims of papal primacy be established, he must devote himself to a study of the decretals. As he worked, his conclusions grew even more radical. He wrote to a friend in January that…

Eck is fomenting new wars against me. He may yet drive me to a serious attack upon the Romanists. So far I have been merely trifling.

In March, Luther confided to Spalatin:

I am studying the papal decretals for my debate. I whisper this in your ear, “I do not know whether the pope is Antichrist or his apostle, so does he in his decretals corrupt and crucify Christ, that is, the truth.”

The reference to Antichrist was ominous. Luther was to find it easier to convince people that the pope was Antichrist than that ‘the just shall live by faith’. The suspicion which Luther did not yet dare to breathe in the open linked him with the medieval millenarian sectaries who had revived and transformed the theme of Antichrist, the figure invented by the Jews and developed in early Christian eschatology in times of captivity and persecution to derive comfort from their calamities on the grounds that the Advent or Second Coming of the Messiah would be retarded by the machinations of an Anti-Messiah, whose predominant evil would reach a peak before the Saviour would come. The gloomiest picture of the present thus became the most encouraging vision for the future. The Book of Revelation had added the details that before ‘the End of Time’ two witnesses would testify and suffer martyrdom. Then the Archangel Michael would appear, together with a figure with flaming eyes upon a white horse, to cast the beast into the abyss. How the theme was dealt with in Luther’s day is graphically illustrated in a woodcut from the Nürnberg Chronicle (below):

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In previous posts on this site, I have examined how the theme became very popular in the late Middle Ages among Flagellants, Wyclifites and Hussites, especially the more radical Táborites in Bohemia, who increasingly identified the popes with the Antichrist soon to be overthrown.  Luther was, therefore, aligning himself with these sectaries, with one significant difference. Whereas they had identified particular popes with Antichrist, due to their apparently evil lives as well as other contemporary events, Luther held that every pope was Antichrist even if personally exemplary in their conduct, because Antichrist was for him a collective symbol of penultimate evil, the institution of the papacy and the Roman curia, a system which corrupts the the truth of Christ and the true Church. This explains how Luther could repeatedly address Leo X in terms of personal respect only a few days after blasting him as Antichrist. Nevertheless, to one who had been, and remained, so devoted to the Holy Father as the chief vicar of Christ, the thought that he, in person, might be Christ’s great opponent was difficult to reconcile. At the same time, it was also a comforting thought, for the doom of Antichrist was ensured by Scripture. If Luther should be martyred like the two witnesses, his executioner would soon be demolished by the hand of God. It was no longer merely a fight between men, but against the principalities and powers and the ruler over this darkness on earth.

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Meanwhile, between 4-14 July Luther engaged in the Leipzig debate with Eck. The Wittenbergers arrived a few days after Eck; Luther, Carlstadt and Melanchthon with other doctors and two hundred students armed with battle-axes. Eck was provided with a bodyguard of seventy-six men by the town council, to protect him from the Wittenbergers and the Bohemians who were believed to be amongst them. The concourse was so great that Duke George placed the auditorium of the Castle at their disposal. After a week of theological debate between Eck and Carlstadt, Luther answered a rhetorical question from Duke George; what does it all matter whether the pope is by divine right or by human right? He remains the pope just the same. Luther used the intervention to insist that by denying the divine origin of the papacy he was not counselling a withdrawal of obedience from the Pontiff. For Eck, however, the claim of the Pope to unquestioning obedience rested on the belief that his office was divinely instituted. Eck then attacked Luther’s teaching in its similarities with that of Wyclif and Hus, both of whom had been condemned as heretics in the early fifteenth century:

“I see” said Eck “that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wyclif, who said ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of John Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.”

“I repulse the charge of Bohemianism,” roared Luther. “I have never approved of their schism. Even though they had divine right on their side, they ought not to have withdrawn from the Church, because the highest divine right is unity and charity.”

Eck was driving Luther onto dangerous territory, especially at Leipzig, because Bohemia was close by and, within living memory, the Hussites had invaded and ravaged the Saxon lands thereabouts. Luther used an interlude in proceedings to go to the university library and read the acts of the Council of Constance, at which Hus had been condemned to be burnt. To his amazement, he found among the reproved articles the following statements of Hus:

The one holy universal Church is the company of the predestined… The universal Holy Church is one, as the number of the elect is one. 

He recognised the theology of these statements as deriving directly from St Augustine. When the assembly reconvened, Luther declared:

 Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn… As for the article of Hus that ‘it is not necessary for salvation to believe the Roman Church is superior to all others’, I do not care whether this comes from Wyclif or Hus. I know that innumerable Greeks have been saved though they never heard this article. It is not in the power of the Roman pontiff or of the Inquisition to construct new articles of faith. No believing Christian can be coerced beyond holy writ. By divine law we are forbidden to believe anything which is not established by divine Scripture or manifest revelation. One of the canon lawyers has said that the opinion of a single private man has more weight than that of a Roman pontiff or an ecclesiastical council if grounded on a better authority or reason. I cannot believe that the Council of Constance would condemn these propositions of Hus… The Council did not say that all the articles of Hus were heretical. It said that ‘some were heretical, some erroneous, some blasphemous, some presumptuous, some sedtious and some offensive to pious respectively… 

Luther went on, now in German, to reiterate that a council cannot make divine right out of that which by nature is not divine right and make new articles of faith, and that a simple layman armed with Scripture is… above a pope or a council without it. Articles of faith must come from Scripture, for the sake of which we should reject pope and councils. Eck retorted, in a manner which conjured up memories of the Hussite hordes ravaging Saxon lands, that this is the Bohemian virus, in that the Reverend Father, against the holy Council of the Constance and the consensus of all Christians does not fear to call certain articles of Wyclif and Hus most Christian and evangelical. 

After the Leipzig debate, Eck came upon a new fagot for Luther’s pyre. “At any rate,” he crowed, “no one is hailing me as the Saxon Hus.” Two letters to Luther had been intercepted, from Hussites of Prague, in which they said, “What Hus was once in Bohemia you, Martin, are in Saxony. Stand firm.” When they did eventually reach Luther, they were accompanied by a copy of Hus’s work On the Church. “I agree now with more articles of Hus than I did at Leipzig,” Luther commented. In February of the following year, he had come to the conclusion that “we are all Hussites without knowing it.” For Eck and the Roman Pontiff and curia, however, ‘Hussite’ remained a byword for ‘heretic’, and Luther was indeed known amongst them as ‘the Saxon Hus’. Luther was still in mortal danger, and no doubt remembered how his predecessor had been given an imperial pass to Constance and never returned.

By February 1520, Luther had also become a national figure in Germany, as a result of the Leipzig debate. His endorsement of Hus was not likely to have brought him acclaim among Germans more widely, except that it cast him in the role of an insurgent heretic who had held his argument against one of the most renowned theologians of his time. But it may well have been the dissemination of his writings which proved more influential in making him not only a national but also an international figure. In addition to reaching Spain and England, the Swiss reformer Zwingli had also been distributing his printed sermons around Zurich and the Swiss cantons. Such acclaim rapidly made Luther the head of a movement which has come to be known as the Reformation. As it took on shape, it was bound to come into contact with those two great philosophical movements of his day, the Renaissance and nationalism.

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The Renaissance was a many-sided phenomenon in which a central place was occupied by the ideal commonly labelled ‘Humanism’. Although a synthesis between the classical and the Christian had already been achieved by St Augustine, a menace to Christianity was still implicit in the movement because it was centred on mankind, because the search for truth in any quarter might lead to ‘relativism’ and because the philosophies of antiquity had no place for the distinctive tenets of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Cross. Yet, at several points, Humanism and the Reformation could form an alliance. Both demanded the right of free investigation. The Humanists included the Bible and the biblical languages in the curriculum of reviving antiquity, and Luther’s battle for the right understanding of Paul’s teaching on the Hebrews appeared to them, as to Luther himself, as a continuation of the campaign of the great German Hebraist, Reuchlin, over the freedom of scholarship (see the cartoon below).

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The deepest affinity appeared at that point where the Renaissance man was not so sure of himself, when he began to wonder whether his valour might not be thwarted by the goddess Fortuna or whether his destiny had not already been determined by the stars. Here was Luther’s problem of God the capricious and God the adverse. Renaissance man, confronted by this enigma and having no deep religion of his own, was commonly disposed to find solace less in Luther’s stupefying irrationalities than in the venerable authority of the Church. Erasmus was closer to Luther than any other figure of the Renaissance because he was so Christian. His ideal, like that of Luther, was to revive the Christian consciousness of Europe through the dissemination of the sacred writings, and to that end, it was Erasmus who first made available the New Testament in its Greek original. The volume reached Wittenberg just as Luther was working on the ninth chapter of Romans, and thereafter it became his working tool. It was from this tool that he learned of the inaccuracy of the Vulgate rendering of ‘do penance’ rather than ‘be penitent’. Luther and Erasmus had much in common. Both insisted that the Church of their day had relapsed into the Judaistic legalism castigated by St Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, has been made to consist not in loving one’s neighbour, but in abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent.

 

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Nevertheless, Erasmus was wary of giving his unreserved support to Luther. He was nostalgic for the old unities of Europe, the multi-cultural states and empires. His dream was that Christian Humanism might serve as a check upon the growth of nationalism. The threat of war and division implicit in the Reformation frightened him, and he had good cause for this, as German nationalism was the second great movement to attach itself to the Reformation, just as Bohemian nationalism had previously attached itself to the cause of the Hussites. Germany was retarded in the process of national unification as compared with Spain, France, England and even Bohemia. Germany had no centralised government and no obvious capital city. The Holy Roman Empire no more than approximated a German national state because it was at once too large, since any European prince was eligible for the highest office, and too small, because of the dominance of the Habsburg dynasty and, by 1519, their huge European and overseas empire.

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Germany was segmented into small and overlapping jurisdictions of princes and bishops. The free cities became entangled in shifting alliances with the territories as well as, for trading purposes, with the Hanseatic League. The knights were a restive class seeking to arrest the waning of their power, and the peasants were likewise restive because they wanted to have a political role commensurate with their economic importance. No government and no class was able to weld Germany into one. Dismembered and retarded, she was derided by the Italians and treated by the papacy as a private cow. Resentment against Rome was more intense than in countries where national governments curbed papal exploitation. The representatives of German nationalism who for several years in some measure affected Luther’s career were Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen. Hutten was himself both a knight and a Humanist. He illustrates the diversity of Humanism, which could at once be internationalist in Erasmus, and nationalist in him.

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Hutten did much to create the concept of German nationalism and to construct the picture of the ideal German, who should repel the enemies of the fatherland and erect a culture able to vie with the Italian culture. In the opening stages of Luther’s skirmishes with Eck at Leipzig, Hutten looked on the controversy as a squabble between monks, but he soon realised that Luther’s words had a ring of his own about them. Luther, too, resented the fleecing of Germany, Italian chicanery and duplicity. Luther wished that St Peter’s might lie in ashes rather than that Germany should be despoiled. Hutten’s picture of the Romantic German could be enriched by Luther’s concept of a mystical depth in the German soul exceeding that of other peoples.

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In August 1520 Luther intimated that, due to the promises of support he had received from Hutten and Sickingen, including an offer to ride to his aid with a hundred knights, he would attack the papacy as Antichrist. He also wanted the curia to know that, if by their fulminations he was exiled from Saxony, he would not go to Bohemia, but would find asylum in Germany itself, where he might be more obnoxious than he would be under the surveillance of the prince and fully occupied with his teaching duties. While the assurance of protection from the German knights undoubtedly emboldened him, the source of his courage was not to be found in a sense of immunity. As Roland Bainton has pointed out, the most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him. Luther, who had trembled before the face of God, had no fear before the face of man. It was at this point, in August 1520, that Luther penned his tract, The Address to the German Nobility, one of several that he wrote during the summer months of that year.

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Franz von Sickengen’s castle, where Hutten also established himself during

the ‘warless winter’ of 1519-20.

The poet laureate read to the illiterate knights from Luther’s German works.

(to be continued…)

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Who was Martin Luther and why did he ‘rebel’ against the Pope in 1517-18?   Leave a comment

The Eve of the Reformation:

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Traditionally, the Protestant Reformation began on the eve of All Souls’ Day, 31 October 1517. On that day Martin Luther (1483-1536), professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in Germany, announced a disputation on indulgences. He stated his argument in Ninety-Five Theses. Though they were heavily academic in both form and content, and were moderate in tone, news of them spread rapidly throughout Germany as soon as they were translated into German and printed. But the 95 Theses were not by any means intended as a call to radical reformation. They were not even a proposal for reform of an abuse of the Church’s power, but were propositions put forward by an earnest university professor for a discussion of the theology of indulgences, the selling of ‘pardons’ by clergy and bankers’ agents in order to collect money for the upkeep and building of churches.

The dealings in indulgences (‘the holy trade’ as it was openly known), had grown into a scandal. To begin with, reformers did not oppose indulgences in their true and original sense – as the merciful release of a penitent sinner from a penance previously imposed by a priest. What they opposed were the additions and perversions which they saw as harmful to the salvation of men, and which infected the everyday practice of the Church. Medieval people had a real dread of the period of punishment in purgatory which was portrayed in great detail in the decorations within their churches. They had no great fear of hell, believing that, if they died forgiven and blessed by their priest, they were guaranteed access through heaven’s gates, the keys to which were held by the pope, as St Peter’s successor. But they feared purgatory’s pains; for the church taught that before they reached heaven they had to be cleansed of every son committed in mortal life. Once penance was made a sacrament, the ordinary person believed that an indulgence assured the shortening of the punishments to be endured after death in purgatory. The relics of the Castle Church in Wittenberg were reckoned to earn a remission of 1,902,202 years and 270 days!

Luther’s Early Life:

More books have been written about Luther, the great German Reformer, than about any other figure in history, except for Jesus Christ. Like the latter, not much is known about the first thirty years or so of his life. He was born at Eisleben and studied law at the University of Leipzig. In 1505 he joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, after taking a dramatic vow in a thunderstorm, and was ordained in 1507. After studying theology he was sent by his order to the University of Wittenberg to teach moral theology and the Bible. In 1511 he visited Rome on business for his order, and in the same year became a doctor of theology and professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg.

When. as a monk, Luther diagnosed the disease of Christian Europe to be the same as his own spiritual disease, he broke through to the gospel. In his monastery Luther had been searching for God’s pardon and peace. He faithfully obeyed his order, and observed punctiliously the spiritual techniques. Yet he found himself no nearer to God. He began to see that the way of the monk was merely a long discipline of religious duty and effort. Mysticism was an attempt to climb up to heaven. Academic theology was little more than speculation about God, his nature and his character.

Luther found one basic error in all these techniques of finding God. Ultimately they trusted in man’s own ability to get him to God, or at least take him near enough for God to accept him. Luther realised that it was not a matter of God being far from man, and man having to strive to reach him. The reverse was true. Man, created and sinful, was distant from God; God in Christ had come all the way to find him. This was no new truth, but simply the old gospel of grace, which had been overlaid. Luther’s discovery did not represent a break with traditional doctrines. The reformers held, within the Roman Church at first, all the orthodox doctrines stated in the general creeds of the early church, but they also understood these doctrines in the particular context of salvation in Christ alone. From Luther’s rediscovery of the direct and personal relationship between Christ and the believer came the three great principles of the Reformation; the primacy of the Bible as God’s word of authority, justification of the sinner by grace alone, and the belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

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Luther’s views became widely known when he posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. He attacked the teaching behind the sale of indulgences and the church’s material preoccupations. But he also contrasted the treasures the treasures of the church with its true wealth, the gospel. Indulgences served not merely to dispense the merits of the saints but also to raise revenues. Roland Bainton, in his seminal work, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950), referred to them as the bingo of the sixteenth century. The practice had grown out of the crusades, as they were first conferred on those who sacrificed or risked their lives in fighting against the Ottoman Turks and were then extended to those who, unable to go to the Holy Land, made contributions to the enterprise. The device proved so lucrative that it was speedily extended to cover the construction of churches, monasteries, and hospitals. The gothic cathedrals were funded by these means, and even secular projects were financed in this way, including a bridge across the Elbe built by Frederick the Wise. However, indulgences had not degenerated into sheer mercenariness by Luther’s time. Conscientious preachers sought to evoke a sense of sin in the purchaser, and only those genuinely convicted would buy. Nevertheless, for many others, as for Luther, the indulgence traffic was a scandal, with one preacher characterising the requisites of the church as three-fold: contrition, confession and contribution.

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The Indulgence Sale of 1516-17

The cartoon above, by Holbein, makes the point that the handing over of the indulgence letter was so timed as to anticipate the dropping of the money into the coffer. This can be seen in the chamber on the right in which the Pope, Leo X, is enthroned. He is handing a letter of indulgence to a kneeling Dominican friar. In the church stalls on either side are seated a number of church dignitaries. On the right one of them lays his hand upon the head of a kneeling youth and with a stick points to a large iron-bound chest for the contributions, into which a woman is dropping her ‘mite’.  At the table on the left various Dominicans are preparing and dispensing indulgences. One of them repulses a beggar who has nothing to give in exchange, while another is carefully checking the money and withholding the indulgences until the full amount has been received. In contrast, Holbein depicts, on the left, the true repentance of David, Manasseh, and a notorious sinner, who address themselves only to God.

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The indulgences dispensed at Wittenberg served to support the Castle Church and the university. Luther’s attack therefore struck at the revenue of his own institution. The first blow was certainly not the rebellion of an exploited German against the expropriating greed of the Italian papacy. He was simply a simple priest responsible for the souls of his parishioners and therefore felt a keen sense of duty to warn them against the spiritual pitfalls of buying indulgences. As he put it, good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works. He was determined to preach this, whatever the consequences for the Castle Church and the university. 

In 1517 Luther!s attention was drawn to another instance of the indulgence traffic, this time arising out of the pretensions of the house of Hohenzollern to control both the ecclesiastical and civil life of Germany. Every bishop controlled vast revenues, and some bishops were also princes. Albert of Brandenburg, a Hohenzollern, held the sees of Halberstadt and Magdeburg, and aspired to the archbishopric of Mainz, which would make him the primate of Germany. Albert was confident that money would speak, because the Pope needed it so badly. The pontiff was Leo X, of the House of Medici, whose chief pre-eminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling and hunting. The Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor declared that the ascent of this man in an hour of crisis to the chair of St. Peter, a man who scarcely so much as understood the obligations of his high office, was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church. Leo was particularly in need of funds to complete a project commenced by his predecessor, the building of the new St. Peter’s. Pope Julius II had begun the work, but though the piers were laid, work had stopped before Julius died and Leo took over.

The negotiations between Albert and the Pope were conducted through the mediation of the German banking-house of Fugger, which exercised monopoly on papal finances in Germany. When the Church needed funds in advance of revenues, she borrowed at usurious rates from the Fuggers, and indulgences were then sold in order to repay the debts, the bankers themselves supervising their collection. They informed Albert that the Pope demanded twelve thousand ducats for the twelve apostles. Albert offered seven for the seven deadly sins, and they compromised on ten, presumably for the Ten Commandments! Albert had to pay the money first, in order to secure his appointment as Archbishop of Mainz, and he borrowed the amount from the Fuggers. To enable Albert to reimburse himself, the Pope granted him the privilege of dispensing an indulgence in his territories for a period of eight years. One half of the returns was to go to the repayment of the Fuggers, and the other half to the Pope.

The indulgences were not offered in Luther’s parish, since the Church could not introduce one without the approval of the civil authorities, and Frederick the Wise would not grant permission in his lands because Wittenberg already had it own indulgences, for All Saints, so the vendors could not enter electoral Saxony, although Luther’s parishioners could go over the border and return with ‘concessions’ which would tempt others to do the same. Subscribers would enjoy a plenary and perfect remission of all sins, as well as restitution to the state of innocence they had enjoyed in baptism and relief from all the pains of purgatory. For those securing indulgences on behalf of the dead, the stages of contrition and confession could be by-passed. Preaching stations, marked by the Cross (see below) were set up so that all might contribute according to their capacity to pay. There was a set fee for each level in the feudal hierarchy, and soon so much money was going into the coffer of the vendor that new coins had to be minted on the spot.

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Those without even a single florin to give were allowed to contribute through prayer and fasting, so it is incorrect to suggest that the very poor were stripped of all coinage. The proclamation of the indulgence was entrusted to the Dominican Tetzel, an experienced vendor. When he approached a town, he was met by the civic dignitaries, who then entered with him in solemn procession. A cross bearing the papal arms preceded him, and the pope’s bull of indulgence was borne aloft on a gold-embroidered velvet cushion. The cross was solemnly planted in the market place, and a lengthy sermon began, in which the children of departed were implored to open their ears to their parent’s pleading from purgatory:

We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory.

The assembled were then reminded that for just a quarter of a florin they could secure the instant release of their beloved dead from the ‘flames’ and the transition of their souls into the ‘fatherland of paradise’. Tetzel used a familiar rhyming couplet to bring this home to even the most uneducated among them:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, 

The soul from purgatory springs.

Luther’s returning parishioners even reported Tetzel to have said that the papal indulgences could absolve a man who had violated the Mother of God, and that the cross emblazoned with the papal arms set up by the vendors was equal to the cross of Christ. The cartoon (below), published by one of Luther’s followers sometime later, shows the cross in the centre empty of all save the nail holes and the crown of thorns. More prominent beside it stood the papal arms above the preacher, and the Medici balls above the vendor, hawking his wares in the foreground.

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The Ninety-Five Theses:

So, on the eve of All Souls, 1517, when Frederick the Wise would offer his indulgences, Luther decided to speak out by posting, in accordance with the current practice, a printed placard in Latin on the door of the Castle Church. It consisted of ninety-five theses, or propositions, intended for academic dispute and debate. He directed his attack solely against Tetzel’s reputed sermon, not against Albert of Brandenburg’s transaction. Pope Sixtus IV had set a precedent on promising the immediate release of souls from purgatory, so Tetzel’s jingle did not represent a departure from accepted teaching within the Church, resting on papal authority.  However, Luther’s Theses differed from the normal use of propositions for debate in tone rather than content, crafted as they were in anger. The ninety-five ‘affirmations’ are crisp, bold and unqualified. In the discussions which followed, he explained his meaning more fully. There were three main points: an objection to the avowed object of the expenditure, the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome; a denial of the pope’s powers over purgatory, and a pastoral concern for the welfare of the individual sinner.

The attack focused first on the ostensible intent to spend the money in order to shelter the bones of St Peter and St Paul beneath a universal shrine for all Christendom. We Germans cannot attend St Peters, he wrote, suggesting that the pope would do better to appoint one good pastor and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences. Certainly, he argued, it should never be built our parochial churches be despoiled. This went down well with the Germans, who had been suffering a sense of grievance for some time against what they saw as the corrupt practices of the Italian curia, whilst overlooking those of the German confederates. Luther himself accepted this distortion by ignoring the fact that much of the money collected by Albert was going into the coffers of the Fuggers, rather than to Rome. However, Luther was not concerned so much with the details of the financial transaction as with undermining the whole practice, even if not a single gulden was to leave Wittenberg.

His second point denied the power of the pope over purgatory for the remission of either sin or penalty for sin. The absolution of sin, in his view, was something that could only be given to the contrite sinner in the sacrament of penance:

Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God. The power of the keys cannot make attrition into contrition. He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences. The pope can remove only those penalties which he himself has imposed on earth, for Christ did not say, “whatsoever I have bound in heaven you may loose on earth.”

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Luther argued that the penalties of purgatory could not be reduced by the pope because they had been imposed by God, and the pope did not have at his disposal a treasury of credits available for transfer. Thus far, Luther’s attack could in no sense be regarded as heretical or original. Even though Albert’s actions rested on papal bulls, there had as yet been no definitive pronouncement, and many contemporary theologians would have endorsed Luther’s claims. It was his doctrine on salvation which represented a departure from traditional Catholic teaching:

Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor is better than he who receives a pardon. He who spends his money for indulgences instead of relieving want receives not the indulgences of the pope but the indignation of God… Love covers a multitude of sins and is better than all the pardons of Jerusalem and Rome… Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross. He who is baptised into Christ must be as a sheep to the slaughter. The merits of Christ are vastly more potent when they bring crosses than when they bring remissions.

The Road to Augsburg and back:

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses ranged in scope all the way from the complaints of aggrieved Germans to the cries of a wrestler in the night watches. One portion demanded financial relief, the other called for the crucifixion of the self. The masses could grasp the first. Only a few elect spirits would ever comprehend fully the importance of the second. Yet it was in the second that the power lay to create a popular revolution. Complaints of financial extortion had been voiced for more than a century to no great effect. Men were stirred to deeds only by one who regarded indulgences not only as corrupt, but as blasphemy against the holiness and mercy of God.

Neither did Luther intend to start a popular revolution. He took no steps to spread his theses among the people. He was merely inviting scholars to dispute with him, but others surreptitiously translated the theses into German and gave them to the printing presses. They soon became the talk of Germany. Luther had meant them for those most concerned with the indulgence controversy in his part of the country, divided as it was into many ‘independent’ territories and cities within the Empire.  He had sent a copy to Albert of Mainz, along with the following letter:

Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, forgive me that I, the scum of the earth, should dare to approach Your Sublimity.  The Lord Jesus is my witness that I am well aware of my insignificance and my unworthiness. I make so bold because of the office and fidelity which I owe to Your Paternity. May Your Highness look upon this speck of dust and hear my plea for clemency from you and from the pope.

These words, so many of them beginning with obsequious capitals, were hardly those of a revolutionary. Luther then reported what he had heard about Tetzel’s preaching that through indulgences men are promised remission not only of penalty but also of guilt. Nevertheless, rather than simply reading the theses and replying, as Luther requested, Albert chose to forward them to Rome. Pope Leo is credited with making two comments, neither of which can be claimed as authentic, but both of which can be claimed to be revealing in what they tell us as legends. The first was, Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober, and the second was, Friar Martin is a brilliant chap. The whole row is due to the envy of the monks. If Luther was not a drunken German, he was certainly an irate one, who might be amenable if mollified. If the pope had issued his bull of a year later, clearly defining the doctrine of indulgences and correcting the most glaring abuses, Luther might have given way. During the four years in which his case was pending, his letters reveal no great preoccupation with the dispute. Instead, he continued to be fully engrossed in his duties in the university and his parish.

Yet the pope preferred to snuff out the opposition by appointing a new general of the Augustinians who would quench a monk of his order, Martin Luther by name, and thus smother the fire before it should become a conflagration. In December 1517 the Archbishop of Mainz complained to Rome about Luther. Luther felt constrained to declare himself more fully to the general public, since his Ninety-Five Theses had, by the spring of 1518, been published throughout the German states and read in German, though he had intended them only for fellow scholars. The many bald assertions called for further explanation and clarification. However, his summaries of sermons, The Resolutions Concerning the Ninety-Five Theses also contained some new points. In particular, he had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mis-translation.  The Latin for Matthew 4:17 read as “do penance”, but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original phrase meant simply “be penitent”. The literal sense of the verb “to repent” was “to change one’s mind”. That was all that was necessary for the sinner to be granted forgiveness by God.

In his dedication of the Resolutions, written to his mentor Staupitz, Luther described how, fortified with this passage, I venture to say that they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek. This became what he called his glowing discovery. What he had discovered was something far more radical than his objections to indulgences, though arising from them and from his doctrine of salvation. He had discovered that one of the chief sacraments of the Church did not have any basis in scripture. From this point on, it was on the scriptures that he based his challenges to the Church’s practices.  He also questioned whether the Roman Church was above the Greek Church in authority. This was to claim that the primacy of the Roman Church was simply a historical development, or even an accident of history, rather than a result of divine ordination reaching back to the founding of the universal Church. The pope responded by banning Luther who, in turn, preached on the ban declaring that excommunication and reconciliation affect only the fellowship of the earth and not the grace of God. These alleged statements were printed by opponents and shown at the imperial diet to the papal legates, who were rumoured to have sent them to Rome. Luther was informed that, this time, the damage was inestimable. He wrote out and printed what he could remember of his sermon, but this only served to underline his rejection of the pope’s authority to sever spiritual communion. Quoting Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he stated that no creature can separate the believer from the love of Christ.

The printed sermon was not off the press until the end of August. In the meantime, the pope turned away from Luther’s own order, the Augustinians, and towards the Dominicans, to produce a reply to Luther’s reported statements. They asserted that the Roman Church was one and the same with the universal Church in terms of its authority.  The leadership of Church might consist of cardinals, but ultimate authority lay in the pope. Just as the universal Church could not err on matters of faith and morals, nor could the Roman Church, either in its true councils nor in the pope when he was speaking in his official capacity. Whoever did not accept the doctrine of the Roman Church and its pontiff as the infallible rule of faith from which sacred Scripture derived its strength and authority was a heretic, so that anyone who declared that, in matters of indulgences, the Roman Church could not do what it decided to do, was also a heretic. The Dominicans proceeded to refute Luther’s errors, describing him in the colourful colloquialisms of the time, as a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron. Luther retorted in kind:

I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel. Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no Scripture. You give no reasons. Like an insidious devil you pervert the Scriptures. You say that the Church consists virtually in the pope. What abominations will you not have to regard as the deeds of the Church?… You call me a leper because I mingle truth with error. I am glad you admit there is some truth. You make the pope into an emperor in power and violence. The Emperor Maximilian and the Germans will not tolerate this.

The radicalism of this tract lay not in its invective, however, but in its affirmation that the pope and a council of cardinals might err, and that final authority lay in Scripture. Yet again, prior to the appearance of his declaration, the pope had already taken precipitate action. On the seventh of August, Luther received a citation to appear at Rome to answer charges of heresy and ‘contumacy’ (insubordination). He was given sixty in which to make his appearance. The following day Luther wrote to the elector to remind him of the previous assurance that the case would not be taken to Rome. This began a tortuous series of negotiations culminating in Luther’s hearing before the Diet of Worms in April 1521. The main significance of that event was that an assembly of the German nation came to function as a court of the Catholic Church. The four years leading up to this were merely a prelude to the main act of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s plea to the elector was transmitted via Frederick’s court chaplain, George Spalatin. Frederick opened negotiations with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, to give Luther a personal hearing in connection with the forthcoming meeting of the imperial diet at Augsburg. The hearing was to be private, and not before the diet, but would at least be on German soil. Cajetan was a high papalist of integrity and erudition. He could scarcely tolerate Luther’s recent tracts, and was less inclined to moderation because the Emperor had been incensed by the excerpts from the reputed Sermon on the Ban and had himself taken the initiative on the fifth of August in writing to the pope to set a stop to the most perilous attack of Martin Luther on indulgences lest not only the people but even the princes be seduced. With the emperor, the pope and the cardinal against him Luther had only a slender hope of escaping the fate of Jan Hus, being burnt at the stake.

He began his physical journey to Augsburg with grave misgiving. He was in grave danger, far greater than three years later when he went to Worms as the champion of the German nation. In 1518 he was only an Augustinian eremite accused of heresy. He saw the stake ahead and told himself, Now I must die; What a disgrace I shall be to my parents! On the road he contracted an intestinal infection and almost fainted. Even more disconcerting was the recurring doubt as to whether the taunt of his critics might after all be right, Are you alone wise and all the ages in error? Luther’s friends had advised him not to enter Augsburg without a guarantee of safe-conduct, and Frederick eventually obtained one from Emperor Maximillian. Cajetan, on being told of this, was incensed, declaring If you don’t trust me, why do you ask my opinion, and if you do why is a safe-conduct necessary? But there was indeed a severe threat to Luther’s life, as the correspondence between cardinals, the pope and the elector Frederick show. The two letters, both written on the seventh of October 1518, reveal that the papal authorities were determined that Luther should be placed in the hands and under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. Cajetan’s instructions were also quite clear in this regard. He was limited to inquiry into Luther’s teaching, and was not permitted to enter into discussion with him.

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Three interviews took place – on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the twelfth to the fourteenth of October. Staupitz was among those present. On the first day Cajetan informed him that he must recant. Luther answered that he had not made the arduous journey to Augsburg to do what he could have done in Wittenberg. Instead, he asked to be instructed as to his errors. When the cardinal answered that the chief of these was his denial of the Church’s treasury of merit, the doctrine of 1343 that Christ’s sacrifice acquired a treasure which, through the power of the keys, had been placed at the disposal of Peter and his successors in order to release the faithful from temporal penalties. Luther’s reply was both rude and irrelevant, but Cajetan realised that he was in danger of going beyond his instructions in debating the whole concept of the treasury of the surplus merits of Christ and the saints. Luther was trapped because he must either recant or give an acceptable interpretation to the bull of 1343. Since he had already refused to recant, he requested to be able to submit a statement in writing, adding that they had wrangled quite enough. Cajetan retorted, My son, I did not wrangle with you. I am ready to reconcile you with the Roman Church. But since reconciliation was only possible through recantation, Luther protested that he ought not to be condemned unheard and unrefuted:

I am not conscious of going against Scripture, the fathers, the decretals, or right reason. I may be in error. I will submit to the judgement of the universities of Basel, Freiburg, Louvain and, if need be, of Paris.

Again, these were undiplomatic words, aimed at challenging the cardinal’s jurisdiction. Luther then shifted ground on the content of the ‘charge’ by rejecting the authority of the pope who had formulated the decretal, or bull:

I am not so audacious that for the sake of a single obscure and ambiguous decretal of a human pope I would recede from so many and such clear testimonies of divine Scripture. For, as one of the canon lawyers has said, ‘in a matter of faith not only is a council above a pope but any one of the faithful, if armed with better authority and reason’.

The cardinal reminded Luther that Scripture itself had to be interpreted, and that the pope had to act as interpreter. In so doing, he was above a council and everything else in the Church. Luther retorted that his Holiness abuses Scripture and that he denied that the pope was above Scripture. At this, Cajetan flared up and bellowed at Luther that he should leave and never return unless he was willing to recant. Luther wrote home that the cardinal was no more fitted to handle the case than an ass was suited to play on a harp. Before long, the cartoonists took up this theme (see below), picturing the pope himself in this pose. Cajetan soon cooled off and had dinner with Staupitz, over which he urged him to induce Luther to recant. Staupitz answered that he had often tried to moderate Luther, but that he was not equal to him in ability and command of Scripture. As the pope’s representative, it was up to the cardinal to press the case. Staupitz then released Luther from his vow of obedience to the order. He may have wished to relieve the Augustinians of the responsibility for their friar, or he may have wished to release the restraints on him, but Luther himself felt that he had been disowned. He later joked that he was excommunicated three times, first by Staupitz, secondly by the pope and thirdly by the emperor.

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Luther fled the town when summoned to Rome. He complained that the citation to Rome  would submit him to the Dominicans and that Rome would not be a safe place even with a safe-conduct. Even Pope Leo had recently been the object of a poisonous conspiracy. In any case, as a mendicant, Luther had no funds for the journey. He wrote:

I feel that I have not justice because I teach nothing save what is in the Scripture. Therefore I appeal from Leo badly informed to Leo better informed.

Rumour then reached Luther that the cardinal was empowered to arrest him. The gates of the city were being guarded. With the help of friendly citizens, Luther escaped by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride horseback in his cowl without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived in Nürnberg where he was shown the pope’s instructions to Cajetan. On the thirtieth of October, almost a full year after posting the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was back in the sanctuary of Wittenberg.

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What was the significance of Luther’s Protest?

Luther saw that the trade in indulgences was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. It encouraged a man in his sin, and tended to turn his mind away from Christ and from God’s forgiveness. It was on this point that Luther’s theology contrasted sharply with that of the church. The pope claimed authority ‘to shut the gates of hell and open the door to paradise’. An obscure monk challenged that authority. His contemporaries knew at once that Luther had touched the exposed nerve of both the hierarchy of the church and the everyday practice of Christianity. Christian Europe was never the same again, but in 1518 there was nothing to indicate that it was about to undergo a revolutionary change in both its religious and secular institutions and life. The only prediction that many were making on All Souls’ Eve in 1518 was that Martin Luther would soon be burnt at the stake. This was also the friar’s own prediction.

Luther’s discovery about the meaning of penitence led him to the belief that the believer came into a direct relationship and union with Christ, as the one, only and all-sufficient source of grace. His grace is available to the penitent believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God. This eventually did away with the need for the Virgin as mediator, the clergy as priests and the departed saints as intercessors. In fact, the reformers were never innovators, as the papacy was so often to allege, but renovators. What they removed were the medieval innovations of Rome, in favour of the teachings of the Bible and the doctrines of the early Christian theologians.

 

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