Even if we set aside the movements spawned by the proto-Protestants, we find that different parts of Europe embraced markedly different visions of Christianity during the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. As one traveled northward from the sun-kissed Mediterranean coast, the tone of the religion darkened and grew more austere in rhythm with the landscape and the weather. In central and northern Europe, where the climate was harsher, the skies cloudier, and the winter nights longer and colder, the apocalyptic urgency of a character like Girolamo Savonarola was actually less of an anomaly than in bucolic Italy. Here the artistic spirit of the turn of the sixteenth century was not to be found in the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo or Raphael but in the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, who seemed almost to derive a sadomasochistic thrill from showing humanity as the hapless plaything of God. Bosch’s The Last Judgment is a lovingly detailed gallery of horrors, in which mortal sinners are whipped at mill wheels, crammed into tiny cages, ridden like animals, and subjected to all manner of other degradations and tortures, as Jesus Christ and Mother Mary look down on the scene approvingly.

The central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Last Judgment. (Public Domain)

While Martin Luther never saw The Last Judgment, he was every inch a creature of the religious atmosphere which gave birth to it. Christianity in his part of Germany did not have the wink-wink quality that it so often did in Italy — the sense that, sure, we pay homage to God in Heaven, but we also want to have a good time here on Earth. For Luther, grace and sin, salvation and damnation were existential concerns that filled — or ought to fill — every moment of every day.

Martin Luther was born in the Saxon town of Eisleben on November 10, 1483, the first of seven children of Hans Luther, a copper miner whose hard work and cleverness made the family steadily more prosperous and respectable through the boy’s childhood years. Still, it was not an easy upbringing; Hans and his wife Grethe were both thoroughly steeped in Bosch’s version of Christianity, and believed that sparing the rod now would quite likely mean condemning their children to an eternity of far worse torment after their short mortal lives were finished. “A religion of terror in a home of rigorous discipline shared in forming Luther’s youth and creed,” writes Will Durant.

At age seventeen, he began attending the University of Erfurt in order to fulfill his father’s plan for him: that he should become a lawyer. Five years later, after he had received his master of arts and was two months into his study of the law proper, he had his Road to Damascus — or rather Road to Erfurt — moment. One day while he was returning to university following a visit to his family back home, he was caught out in a frightful thunderstorm; a bolt of lightning felled a tree just a few feet away from him. Taking the storm as a sign of God’s displeasure with his worldly career choice, he promised his savior then and there that, if he was spared, he would become a monk. The storm passed, and Luther made good on his promise. Much to the displeasure of his father, who had invested a goodly sum of money in his education, he entered a monastery right there in Erfurt. He told Hans Luther that the stakes were too high for him to do anything else — an argument, it must be admitted, that was more than logical given his worldview. For if one truly believes, as Luther did, that our mortal existence is the merest down payment on an eternity of either rapture or torment, why on earth would one do anything other than devote that paltry span of years absolutely and comprehensively to God?

So, Martin Luther took his final vow of perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience in September of 1506; eight months later, he was ordained a priest as well. “I was a pious monk, and so strictly observed the rules of my order that, if ever a monk got into Heaven by monkery, so should I also have gotten there,” he wrote later. “If it had lasted longer, I should have tortured myself to death with watching, praying, reading, and other work.”

The reading in particular would have a profound influence on his future. Here in the churches and monasteries of sober-minded Germany, far from the pomp of the papal court in Rome, the ideas of the proto-Protestants were not so roundly condemned as they were there; in fact, their writings were in many cases readily available. Luther’s reading of Jan Hus marked the point of origin of a slow-building crisis of faith with the Church as currently constituted. He couldn’t understand why “a man who could write so Christianly and so powerfully had been burnt. I shut the book and turned away with a wounded heart.”

Of course, he read the Bible over and over as well. Here he was struck by a simple sentence from Saint Paul: “The just shall live by faith.” Good works alone, in other words, were not sufficient to get one into Heaven; only complete devotion to God could accomplish that. If this was true, what did that mean for the Church’s longstanding practice of selling indulgences, allowing sinners to donate money to it so that it could do good works elsewhere — works which, it was claimed, could easily and painlessly erase the sinner’s debt to God? Another seed was planted at the back of Luther’s mind, one that would continue to grow and fester over the years to come. And then his trip to Rome in 1510 only strengthened his dawning suspicion that the Church may have lost sight of the true meaning of Christianity.

During his years as a novice monk, Luther spent some time in a monastery in the town of Wittenberg as well as Erfurt, and shortly after his return from Rome he was promoted to friar and transferred there permanently. In view of his erudition, he was asked to leave the cloister each day to act as an instructor in logic, physics, and theology at the new University of Wittenberg. That institution had been founded by Frederick III, the “elector” of Saxony, one of a council of six noblemen who ceremonially chose the next Holy Roman Emperor whenever that post became vacant and served just under him, helping him to administer his sprawling territories. Himself a man of deep-seated faith, Frederick would play a pivotal role in Luther’s future as his supporter and protector.

This engraving of Martin Luther was made by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1520. (Public Domain)

Luther’s thinking became steadily bolder and more radical in Wittenberg. At its heart was always the question of salvation by faith versus salvation by deeds, with Luther firmly in the former camp, in contrast to a Church that seemed implicitly if not explicitly to believe in the latter. Instead of being an end unto themselves, Luther thought, good deeds would inevitably follow once one had first embraced Christ in the heart. His conviction on this point undoubtedly fueled his vociferous antisemitism, which was extreme even by the standards of his time. For, in addition to being labeled the betrayers of Jesus and being the object of so many other recrimination that had been flying around Europe since the dawn of the Middle Ages, the Jews were, with all of their rigid rituals and rules, living embodiments of the performative, externally focused religious practices that Luther despised. His ideal of Christianity was a personal relationship between the individual and his maker. His problem was that even his own Church did not seem to agree with him, having itself grown every bit as elaborately ritualistic and performative as Judaism over the centuries. He was growing more and more restless with holding his tongue and tempering his criticism.

The pope at the time — the successor to Julius II — was, of all things, a Medici. And therein lies a tale in itself.

Giovanni de’ Medici was the second of the three sons of Michelangelo’s first patron and mentor Lorenzo the Magnificent. He had fled Florence in 1494 alongside his dissipated older brother Piero, who would die in exile in Naples in 1503 at the age of just 31, and his younger brother Giuliano, who would make a home for himself in Venice. For his part, Giovanni ended up in Rome. A man of great charm and bonhomie who also happened to have a considerable fortune at his disposal, he ingratiated himself with the leading citizens there, becoming a cardinal in the Church.

In 1512, Florence’s post-Savonarola government, never overly stable or popular to begin with, managed to turn most of Italy against it by supporting France in a dispute that nation was having with the Papal States, Venice, Milan, and Naples. Florence soon found itself all but under siege by its neighbors, whereupon Giovanni proved that his sharp Medici nose for opportunity had not been blunted by his long exile, paying his friends in Rome 10,000 gold ducats to escort him into Florence and install him in the Hall of the Great Council there. The Florentines themselves, having endured a fairly underwhelming couple of decades since the death of his father Lorenzo, proved willing to accept him on the strength of his promise of a return to the glory days. Just like that, the old Florentine order was reconstituted.

But events were about to take an even stranger turn. Being still officially a cardinal, Giovanni was called back to Rome after the death of Julius II in February of 1513 to participate in the selection of a new pope. Much to his own surprise, his colleagues wound up giving him the job. So, rather than returning to Florence, he turned that city over to his younger brother Giuliano and stayed in Rome to reign as Pope Leo X.

Although he was only 37 years old and not even ordained as a priest — that failing had to be hastily rectified before his appointment was announced — he must have seemed like an ideal choice at the time in most other respects. An admirer and patron of the arts in the grand tradition of his family, he could be counted on to continue Julius’s project of beautifying and modernizing Rome. Yet he shared none of Julius’s aggressive bellicosity, had no desire to march around with armies or to otherwise disrupt the comfortable lives of the Church’s representatives in Rome. “After the wars and turbulence and tantrums of Julius,” writes Will Durant, “it was a relief that a young man already distinguished for his easygoing good nature, his tact and courtesy, and his opulent patronage of letters and art, was now to lead the Church, presumably in the ways of peace.” The farthest thing from a scourer of the flesh, his sanguine motto as pope had more in common with the philosophy of Epicurus than the passion of Christ: “Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us.” He did so by sponsoring literary salons, art exhibitions, concerts, and plays, and most of all by indulging in his favorite pastime of hunting. By most accounts, he wasn’t a bad sort at all; he even found it in his heart to laugh off Erasmus’s biting satirical pamphlets instead of excommunicating and/or calling for the head of their author, as many another pope before and after him would have done. Tragically for him, though, this unusually likeable, get-along-and-go-along pope was destined to preside over the most devastating diminution of the Catholic Church in its history.

Pope Leo X, as painted by Raphael. (Public Domain)

Predictably enough, the troubles initially stemmed from the sale of indulgences, that theologically suspect but immensely profitable practice which had been bothering conscientious believers like Martin Luther for centuries now. Julius II had made liberal use of indulgences to fund his armies, his building projects, and the lavish lifestyles of himself and his court, and Leo saw no reason not to continue to use them for the latter two purposes at least.

Thus in 1517, he dispatched to central Germany Johann Tetzel, a friar whose specialty was raising money in this way. Tetzel would enter each successive town and village to the ringing of bells and the music of an organ and choir. He would then set up his collections box in front of the local church, with a schedule of sins and the associated prices of absolution sitting beside it. And he would formally erase the negative entries on the moral ledgers of those who paid.

May our lord Jesus Christ have mercy on thee, and absolve thee by the merits of his most holy passion. And I, by his authority, that of his blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and of the most holy pope, granted and committed to me in these parts, do absolve thee, first from all ecclesiastical censures, in whatever manner they may have been incurred, and then from all thy sins, transgresssions, and excesses, how enormous soever they may be, even from such as are reserved for the cognizance of the Holy See; and as far as the keys of the Holy Church extend, I remit to you all punishment which you deserve in Purgatory on their account, and I restore you to the holy sacraments of the Church, and to that innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism, so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut, and the gates of the paradise of delight shall be opened. And if you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost…

Many people inside the Church in Germany were outraged by Tetzel’s peddling of salvation, which was done even more blatantly than was the norm with the practice of indulgences. “It is incredible what this ignorant monk said and preached,” reported a friar who witnessed the traveling roadshow. “He gave sealed letters stating that even the sins which a man was intending to commit would be forgiven. The pope, he said, had more power than all the apostles, all the angels and saints, more even than the Virgin Mary herself, for these were all subject to Christ, but the pope was equal to Christ.”

Frederick III of Saxony was so disgusted that he refused Tetzel permission to enter his territory, despite the official authorization from Pope Leo X which he carried with him. Undaunted, Tetzel set up shop on the border of Saxony, doing a good business with salvation-seeking Saxon punters who came to see him there.

The hand of fate reached out to touch Martin Luther when several purchasers of Tetzel’s “papal letters” showed them to him, telling him with smug equanimity that they had gotten the little problem of their soul’s eternal fate sorted nicely, thank you very much. An appalled Luther thundered in response that Tetzel’s indulgences weren’t worth the paper they had been printed on in the reckoning of God. The question of salvation, he said, was decided between the individual and God; outside intervention couldn’t change the equation one whit. Luther being by now quite a well-known lecturer and theologian in his corner of the world, word of his righteous condemnation spread rapidly through the population of Saxony, getting back to Tetzel in no time at all. The latter, seeing his trade threatened, denounced Luther’s denunciation as a rebellion against the just, God-given authority of the pope.

In response, Luther did what aggrieved scholars have always done: he picked up his pen, which in the era of the printing press especially truly could be mightier than the sword. Indeed, in this case Luther’s pen would shake the Western world to its very foundations, dictating the course of centuries of history to come. He wrote out 95 theses: short statements of fact and reasoned opinion which built upon one another, crystalizing for himself as much as anyone the set of affirmations and reservations that had been forming inside him since well before his dismaying visit to Rome. He did not go so far as to say that the pope was an illegitimate figure, but he did make it clear that he was not infallible and emphatically not the equal of Jesus Christ. The pope could pray for someone else’s salvation, as could any good Christian, but he could not requisition it like a manager signing a purchase order in a warehouse. His habit of pretending that he could, said Luther, “makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence” for him that ought to be his due. After all, if he had the powers he claimed to and was the embodiment of goodness he asserted himself to be, “why does not the pope empty Purgatory for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems a number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” (Luther was referring here to the still-unfinished Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the primary purpose of the current indulgence drive, not to the Church as an institution.) In reality, Christians could hope to enter Heaven only “through many tribulations rather than through the false security” of papal indulgences.

At noon on All Hallows Eve, 1517 — five years to the day after Michelangelo and Pope Julius II had unveiled the complete Sistine Chapel ceiling, that overwhelming testament to the just dominance of a single Catholic Christian Church — Luther left his humble study with his 95 Theses in his hand, heading for Wittenberg’s comparatively humble Castle Church. He tacked the document to the door there, knowing that thousands of worshipers would see it as they streamed into the building in the days to come.

The pot came to a boil only slowly. Being the man on the scene, as it were, Johann Tetzel was the first to respond to the 95 Theses, offering up 106 Antitheses of his own that were more interested in spreading invective than enlightenment. But then, his role in history was largely complete already; he was doomed to go down in its annals as the chance spark, insignificant in and of itself, which ignited a conflagration whose dry tinder had been piling up for centuries.

As word of the 95 Theses spread gradually through the universities and cathedrals of Germany and then reached Rome, some Church authorities called for Luther to be burnt at the stake for his “Hussite” teachings. He responded to these attacks with a tract called A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, which marked a sharp escalation in rhetoric from his first controversial text. “If I am called a heretic by those whose purses will suffer from my truths, I care not much for their brawling,” he wrote. “For only those say this whose dark understanding has never known the Bible.” But almost more important than its contents was the medium by which this latest protest was conveyed: Luther wrote it in German instead of Latin, and arranged to have it printed and sold as cheaply as possible, thereby to reach as many ordinary laypeople as possible. In doing so, he moved the argument out of the upper echelons of the Christian intelligentsia and onto the streets, to be taken up by the Christian masses. Like Jan Hus before him, the 34-year-old Martin Luther became a populist hero, the great hope of thousands and then millions of everyday people who were fed up with the Church’s “do as I say, not as I do” business-as-usual, whose list of grievances extended far beyond the sale of indulgences.

On August 7, 1518, Luther received the letter he must surely have been dreading: a peremptory summons to Rome, to either recant or defend his positions before the Inquisition there. While he was by all indications willing to become a martyr if there was no other alternative, he wasn’t unduly eager to do so. He ignored the summons, whereupon Rome ordered a cardinal in the city of Augsburg to collect him and bring him down by force if necessary. Upon hearing of the order, Luther begged Frederick III for protection. And Frederick, being sympathetic to many of Luther’s views if not always willing to say so publicly, almost certainly saved his life by preventing his extradition.

Against the advice of many of the Church officials around him, Pope Leo chose not to press the issue. Feeling increasingly unnerved by the restiveness Luther was spreading, he issued a remarkable statement on November 9, 1518, one which effectively acknowledged the correctness of Luther’s original 95 Theses. Church indulgences, he accepted, could not in and of themselves absolve sins in the eyes of the God; they could only work in tandem with genuine remorse and repentance. The pope likewise admitted that his personal will was not automatically the infallible will of God — that, although he prayed and did his earnest best to understand what the Maker wished from him, he could and sometimes did make all too human errors of judgment.

If this near-total capitulation had come earlier, it might have nipped the Protestant Reformation in the bud. But Luther, now a full-fledged folk hero across much of the Holy Roman Empire, had already gone well beyond the 95 Theses. Although his messaging was decidedly mixed during this period, he had begun hinting when he was feeling his oats most strongly that the pope might at least potentially be “the real antichrist,” “worse than any Turk,” and kept demanding ever more extensive revampings of the Church’s traditional ways of going about its business. Leo responded to Luther’s ongoing intransigence — or rather failed to do so — by equivocating and doing nothing for many long months. It might be said that the Protestant Reformation came to be in the end not because of any tyranny on Leo’s part but because of his leniency with this loose cannon in the Church’s midst.

Leo’s conservative allies in Germany were infuriated by his unwillingness to act. One of them was Johann Eck, a glib and charismatic professor of theology at the University of Freiburg. In his opinion and that of others like him, Luther was engaging in a disingenuous rhetorical dance, musing whether the pope might be the antichrist one minute, then proclaiming his respect for the papacy and most if not all of what it represented the next. (In truth, Luther’s inconsistencies were probably down more to a mercurial temper and a degree of fear of making a final, irrevocable break with Rome than any deliberate wiliness, but the effect was largely the same.) Eck now concocted a plan to use Luther’s own volatility against him, by tricking him into stating bald-faced heresies in public, of the sort that long Church precedent dictated could only result in execution. He challenged him to a week-long public debate in the Saxon city of Leipzig, beginning on July 4, 1519. And Luther accepted the challenge.

It was the event of the year for the citizens of Leipzig, who packed to the rafters the cavernous reception hall of the Pleissenburg, the city’s central castle. The rowdy crowd roared its approval or derision whenever one of the debaters made a point. Eck and Luther displayed no more decorum toward one another. They were polar opposites who all too obviously loathed one another — Eck sleek and well-fed and physically intimidating, with a booming voice that threatened to blow over the skeletal Luther, his body withered by many years of asceticism but his eyes burning with conviction. Sometimes they dissected scripture in painstaking detail, while at others they simply flung insults back and forth.

From Eck’s perspective at any rate, Luther walked right into the traps that had been laid for him. Eck got Luther to deny that Jesus had conferred everlasting authority to the popes through his statement to his apostle Peter in the Gospel of Matthew: “And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” It was clear when reading that statement in context, said Luther, that the “rock” to which Jesus referred was not Peter but faith in the abstract. He said that Eck’s claim that “we have always recognized the possessor of Peter’s chair as his successor and as the vicar of Christ” was likewise untrue, as even the most cursory reading of early Christian history would lay bare a time when Rome was not the religion’s guiding light but its oppressor.

Eck did much to win the crowd over to his side by repeatedly calling his opponent another Jan Hus; thanks to the anti-German dimension of the rebellion Hus had led, he was still a detested figure among the ordinary citizenry of Leipzig, which lay just 60 miles (95 kilometers) from the border of Bohemia. Again, Luther played right into Eck’s hands by saying that “many of the articles of Jan Hus and the Bohemians are plainly most Christian and evangelical,” prompting a lusty chorus of boos. Even Duke George of Saxony, who owned the castle that was playing host to the debate, shouted out, “The plague take him!” — whether in reference to Hus or to Martin Luther himself, no one was quite sure.

More than anything, the debate was a clash between the old way of doing scholarship, reliant on arguments from authority and tradition, and the new, ruthlessly empirical one that had led to the discrediting of the Donation of Constantine, the devaluing of the Vulgate Bible, and so much else that the Church found uncomfortable. In his dual biography of Erasmus and Luther, Michael Manning notes how Eck and Luther

seemed to belong to different eras. Eck the traditionalist took as indisputable the established teachings of the Church and sought to demonstrate them by drawing on the accepted body of patristic commentary and canon law. Luther the insurgent used his knowledge of languages and history to scrape away the successive layers of accrued interpretation of the Bible to get at its underlying meaning.

When the long debate was over, the feeling in Leipzig was that Eck had won the week decisively. But that conclusion had more to do with the audience’s prejudices coming in and with Eck’s ability to work the room than it did with the merits of the two men’s arguments. For Luther, the debate proved another crystalizing moment. In backing him repeatedly into corners and forcing him to state his beliefs so unequivocally, Eck may have done Luther an ironic service. From that July week on, Luther no longer paid any deference whatsoever to the pope. “Luther had been labeled a heretic, and the more he saw that term used, the less horrifying it seemed,” writes Manning. “Eck’s unrelenting campaign to marginalize Luther and declare that the Church had no place for someone with his views made it in fact seem the case [to Luther himself].”

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, however, Johann Eck was thoroughly pleased with himself, convinced that the transcript of the proceeding, which had been carefully compiled by scribes in attendance, would serve as Luther’s death warrant. He forwarded it on to Rome forthwith — but, much to his dismay, Pope Leo still dithered. He continued to do so even after Eck went to Rome personally in early 1520 to plead the urgent necessity of action.

Eck had good reason to feel unnerved by what he saw happening in Germany; it was starting to resemble what had happened in Bohemia a century earlier. The conflict was expanding beyond the realm of theology alone to take on a socio-ethnic dimension, becoming a protest against the German-speaking lands’ long subservience to Rome, as embodied in the very title of the Holy Roman Emperor who led them. Ulrich von Hutten, the foremost German poet of the age — almost a Petrarch-like figure for the German people, with a bandwidth greatly amplified by the printing press — had taken up Luther’s cause on just these terms. He cast the conflict as a long overdue righting of wrongs that stretched back to Henry IV’s humiliation in the snow outside Canossa Castle. In fact, he cast his eye back even farther, musing wistfully about the latter days of the Roman Empire of Antiquity, recalling how the Germanic peoples had once been the Romans’ terror and scourge rather than their obedient underlings: “While our forefathers thought it unworthy of them to submit to the Romans when these were the most martial nation in the world, we not only submit to these effeminate slaves of lust and luxury, but suffer ourselves to be plundered to minister to their sensuality.” Echoing the tone of the Book of Revelation if not its exact words, he called Rome a “gigantic bloodsucking worm,” a “sea of impurity,” a “mire of filth,” a “bottomless sink of iniquity,” and the “common curse of humanity.” Could the Whore of Babylon be far behind?

Hutten’s extremism seemed to radicalize Luther still further, goading him on to new heights of intransigence. He now made it abundantly clear that the reformation he desired was not internal reform within the Church, but a reformation of the religion of Christianity as a whole, one that would exclude the pope and his Church entirely. “I have cast the die,” he wrote on June 11, 1520. “I now despise the rage of the Romans as much as I do their favor. I will not reconcile myself to them for all eternity. Let them condemn and burn all that belongs to me. In return, I will do as much for them.” He had come a long way in the two and three quarter years since he had posted his 95 Theses, which now seemed downright modest and mild in their arguments. It had become a zero-sum game between himself and Pope Leo.

Leo too seemed belatedly to be realizing this. Just four days after Luther wrote the words above, the pope yielded at last to the urging of Johann Eck and sent his nemesis a public ultimatum. He must come to Rome by December 11, 1520. Once there, he must recant everything he had said or written since that fateful All Hollows Eve of 1517 and throw himself on the mercy of the Holy Father and his Holy Mother Church; there was no more talk of compromise or negotiation from Leo’s side. If he failed to do these things, he would be excommunicated and would be declared persona non grata in all of Western Christendom, subject to summary arrest and execution as the consequence of his heresies. And regardless of what he did, all of his books and pamphlets were to be burnt wherever they were found.

Luther responded with yet another defiant outburst. Writing once again in German instead of Latin, he took up the cause of Germany’s political liberation from Rome as enthusiastically as he did the need for religious reform.

Some have estimated that every year more than 300,000 gulden find their way from Germany to Italy. We come here to the heart of the matter. How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property at the hands of the pope? If we justly hang thieves and behead robbers, why should we let Roman avarice go free? For he is the greatest thief and robber that has come or can come into the world, and all in the holy name of Christ and Saint Peter! Who can longer endure it or keep silence?

Around this time, Luther stumbled across Lorenzo Valla’s merciless evisceration of the Donation of Constantine. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “What darkness and wickedness is at Rome! You wonder at the judgment of God, that such inauthentic, crass, impudent lies not only lived but prevailed for so many centuries as articles of faith.” He equated all Western Christians’ 1200 years of subservience to Rome to the Babylon Captivity of the Israelites in the Old Testament. It was time, he said, for the German people at least to break free, to become an example to the world by forming their own church, one that embraced the true teachings of Jesus Christ, with none of the gilded ritualistic nonsense of Rome.

The Roman Church now faced a reckoning of its own. Luther’s writ of excommunication could be signed by the pope in the comfort of his palace if and when the heretic failed to turn up there. But did Leo still have enough sway in Germany to deliver on the rest of the consequences he had promised Luther? The signs were mixed at best. In the more prosperous, urbane southern part of Germany the bishops and secular authorities still supported Rome, albeit in many cases reluctantly. But their counterparts north of Mainz refused to even post the ultimatum to their noticeboards, much less make any concerted effort to round up and destroy Luther’s writings.

Luther, who was still enjoying the personal protection of Frederick III in Wittenberg, decided that turnabout was fair play. On the day Leo’s ultimatum expired, he publicly burned dozens of volumes of canon law and papal decrees, dating from the murky past to the present day. “The Lord shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them,” he said, quoting from Psalm 21. Then Luther effectively excommunicated the pope from his own Protestant Church in the offing, at the same moment that Leo was doing to same to him in the name of the established Church in Rome. The only path to salvation, each man said to his followers, was to renounce the same man who was renouncing him.

There was only one man who might have the power to break the impasse. The fate of Martin Luther, and quite possibly that of Western Christendom as a whole, lay in the hands of a short, unprepossessing twenty-year-old with an equine face and a whiny voice, who was newly known to the world as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

7 Comments for "Chapter 16: The Reformer"

  • Leo Vellés

    “almost a Petrach-like figure for the German people”.
    Petrach should be Petrarch?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes. Thanks!

  • Martin

    All good history and stuff but not very related to the Sistine Chapel. Is the story going to cycle back at some point or turn more into a history of the various factions of Christianity?

    • Jimmy Maher

      A little of both…

      • Martin

        No problem either way.

        I’ll admit I liked the Jesus & Mother Mary comment about the Bosch painting. Hard to imagine they would be looking on approvingly.

  • Krsto

    Thanks Jimmy for a another great article!
    Sorry for nitpicking, but one thing seems off in sentence “Rome ordered a cardinal in the -nearby- city of Augsburg”. If I’m not mistaken Augsburg and Wittenberg are not so close (more than 400 km apart), not something I would call nearby in our age, let alone in 16th century.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Not at all. Thanks!


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