Although it certainly wasn’t my intention to write such a single-minded book, it is probably possible to read much of what has come before in these pages as little more than a record of the Catholic Church’s abuses and hypocrisies, of the countless times and ways in which it manifestly failed to lived up to the claims it made for itself. And now, here as we near the end of our tale, along comes Martin Luther to call the Church out at last. Because his message was such a direct challenge to the dominance of the Church, which remained an essentially Medieval institution, we might be tempted to imagine Luther to be more Modern than he really was. But in reality, he himself was in many ways still a captive of the Medieval mindset which others in Europe were slowly moving beyond; he was, that is to say, often more reactionary than radical in his thinking. While it cannot be denied that he played a pivotal role in the unleashing of full-bore Modernity upon the world, that was more by accident than intention.
Few things illustrate Martin Luther’s inconsistencies as well as his relationship to the new discipline of philology. Where it suited his ends, such as was the case with Lorenzo Valla’s debunking of the Donation of Constantine, Luther embraced the tool with gusto. And yet he refused categorically to join contemporaries like Erasmus in admitting the Bible to be a flawed text — written, copied, and translated by all too mortal hands. On the contrary, the Bible was, Luther insisted, the inerrant word of God. Seeming discrepancies like those in the creation stories of Genesis, even seeming outright errors like the missing 42nd ancestor of Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Gospel of Mathew, must be read as evidence of nothing more than our imperfect understanding of God’s wisdom. When Luther couldn’t explain the Bible’s contradictions away using elaborate edifices of twisted, self-referential logic, he simply attributed them to the ineffable unknowability of God. He definitely did not apply to the Bible the same empirical philological standard that he was happy to see used on secular documents like the Donation of Constantine. Martin Luther was, in other words, the first Biblical fundamentalist in addition to being the first Protestant.
Hewing to this standard of Biblical literalism, Luther railed at the Catholic Church’s presumption in claiming authorities that were given to it nowhere in the Bible and its concomitant eagerness to build upon the edifice of God’s word to its own advantage in places where it had no right to do so. While still living in his garret in the Wartburg, he decided that the practice of “monkery” to which he had once sworn to devote his life was among these. Finding no mention of monks in the Bible, he concluded that the cloistered life was against the natural order of God, and exhorted all the monks of Germany to repudiate their vows, leave their monasteries, and take wives. Luther himself would get married — appropriately enough for this former monk, to a former nun — in 1525.
Priests too should lose their holy status, given that the word “priest” did not appear once in the entire New Testament. Henceforward, those who led congregations in worship ought to be elected by the flock. They should be encouraged to have other jobs in their communities in addition to this one, and should be allowed — expected, even — to have wives and children of their own as well. Services should be conducted in German and the other vernacular languages of Europe rather than Latin so that everyone could understand and participate fully, just as Jesus had preached in the language of the people of Palestine. All the pro-forma rituals of “popery” should be done away with. This included Communion and the associated doctrine of transubstantiation, whose persnickety details had caused the last great schism in Christianity. Ditto Confession; a Church-mandated Confession, Luther wrote, was worth no more in the eyes of God than “the poop in front of you on the street.” A spontaneous private confession to God, by contrast, was worth everything.
In the spirit of all of the above, Luther completed a German translation of the New Testament while he was living in the Wartburg and sent it out into the world to join his other writings. In Wittenberg alone, 100,000 copies of it were printed during his lifetime. It was supplemented by an Old Testament, the product of many years of intermittent labor by Luther, in 1534.
This wasn’t the first version of the Bible in German, but it was the first to be self-consciously written in simple, everyday language so that it would be accessible to ordinary people. “We must not, as asses do, ask the Latin letters how we should speak German,” Luther said, “but we must ask the mothers in their houses, the children in the streets, the common people in the marketplace. We must be guided by them in translating. Then they will understand us and will know that we are speaking German to them.” Accordingly, he changed the Greek drachma into the German Groschen, changed a centurion into a Hauptmann. He invented homespun turns of phrase that have remained with us to this day, such as “throwing pearls before swine.” Nor was he above modifying the text of the Bible in subtle but telling ways to provide “proof” of his preferred interpretations. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, for example, he tacked the adjective “alone” onto the end of Paul’s statement that “therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith,” the better to drive home one of his most important teachings.
It seems almost inexplicable on the face of it that a man who was thus personally guilty of some of the practices that have made the “original” text of the Bible so impossible to establish could still believe the book to be the inerrant words of God, but such was the nature of this complicated, often self-contradictory man. When it came to the Bible and much else besides, for Luther “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has. She is the devil’s greatest whore, who ought to be trodden underfoot and destroyed, she and her wisdom. Throw dung in her face. Drown her in baptism.”
He had good cause to regard reason as his enemy: for all his seeming predilection to look backward rather than forward, Luther’s claim that he was returning Christianity to the religion which was to be found in the Bible, with no extra-Biblical embellishments whatsoever, can’t withstand a moment of honest logical scrutiny. Indeed, in light of his oft-professed absolute faith in the Bible, it’s ironic to observe how many of his teachings are not to be found there. Most obvious among these is his belief in Satan and Hell, neither of which is explicitly described anywhere in the Bible. Nonetheless, his trust in the literal truth of The Evil One often seemed even more real than his belief in God and Heaven. For Luther, the devil and his many henchmen were a daily presence dogging his heels and obtruding on his dreams. They were not only in the winter wind that howled through the lofts of the Wartburg, but also physical beings he claimed to have encountered in the flesh many times. “Many devils are in woods, in waters, in wilderness, and in dark, pooly places, ready to hurt people,” he said. They could even creep into women’s beds at night and impregnate them. The children that resulted from such blasphemous unions were best drowned, just as the witches who had willingly sold their souls to Satan must be burnt at the stake. The laws of science — or rather “natural philosophy,” as it was commonly called at this time — had no place in Luther’s worldview. Everything was the work of divine or demonic forces — more commonly the latter in this fallen mortal world he was currently inhabiting. It’s interesting to note how willing Luther was to believe in a devil with millions of infernal servants at his beck and call, given that he rejected the Catholic Church’s veneration of a multitude of angels and saints, including even the hallowed Virgin Mary, as rank, polytheistic idolatry. But then, “the wicked always outnumber the good,” he believed. At least a thousand sinners would burn in eternal torment for every one who was saved.
For liberal-minded, reason-focused Catholics like Erasmus, steeped in the humanism of the Italian Renaissance, Martin Luther’s demon-haunted world was appalling to contemplate, far worse than the very real abuses of the Catholic Church which had touched off his Protestant Reformation. Erasmus’s good friend, a lawyer and scholar named Willibald Pirkheimer whose qualified support for Luther’s early message had actually gotten him excommunicated for a while, came in time to feel the same.
I do not deny that at the beginning all Luther’s acts did not seem to be in vain, since no good man could be pleased with all those errors and impostures that had accumulated gradually in Christianity. So, with others, I hoped that some remedy might be applied to such great evils, but I was cruelly deceived. For, before the former errors had been extirpated, far more intolerable ones had crept in, compared with which the others seemed child’s play. Things have come to a pass that the popish scoundrels are made to appear virtuous by the evangelical ones. Luther, with his shameless, ungovernable tongue, must have lapsed into insanity, or been inspired by the Evil One.
Luther was an indifferent theologian in many respects, prone to change his mind and his rhetoric from year to year and even pamphlet to pamphlet, but he was a superb populist and polemicist. No one could fire up the masses like Martin Luther — which was of course why even the reformers in the Catholic Church learned to fear him so. “Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language,” wrote Erasmus. “No one would believe how widely he has moved men.”
So, the new spirit of the age rolled out from the Wartburg across the countryside. On November 12, 1521, thirteen monks walked out of Luther’s own first monastery in Erfurt to get married, the beginning of a mass exodus that would see the closure of half the monasteries and nunneries in Germany within a decade. On December 3, a group of Protestants stormed a small church in Wittenberg and drove the priests out at knife point, so that they could worship there in their own fashion. On Christmas Day, the service was given at Castle Church — the same one where Luther had posted his 95 Theses four years and a seeming lifetime earlier — in German rather than Latin for the very first time. The following day, the priest who had conducted the service announced his pending nuptials with a local fifteen-year-old girl.
On March 9, 1522, Martin Luther left the Wartburg to return in triumph to Wittenberg, traveling openly now. The message was implicit but clear: the Catholic Church no longer had any jurisdiction here. The pope, the Inquisition, even the Holy Roman Emperor no longer had the power to silence Luther by means fair or foul. The establishment had squandered its last chance to do so when it had chosen to allow him to depart the Diet of Worms a free and living man.
Luther held court almost like a new pope in Wittenberg, as the princes of Saxony and the surrounding provinces began to pledge their loyalty to his nascent “Lutheran” Church in place of the one in Rome. Having abandoned his monkly asceticism, Luther was no longer the gaunt figure who had debated Johann Eck; he had in fact grown somewhat plump by now. But all who met him were still struck first and most by his eyes, which, in the words of an ambassador from Poland, “are piercing and twinkling most uncannily, the way one sometimes sees in a person possessed.” The same witness reported that in speech he was given to “scolding, contradicting, and mocking.” Luther, that once humble monk, no longer answered to either of those descriptors.
Meanwhile there was a new pope in Rome as well: Leo X had died suddenly of malaria on December 1, 1521. His passing went unmourned by the dominant conservative faction in the Church, who blamed his hesitancy and squeamishness for the crisis that currently beset them. Still, his replacement was little better by their lights: Hadrian VI, the only Dutchman ever to hold the papacy and the last non-Italian until John Paul II in 1978, proved sickly and ineffectual, his only useful act being that of dying after less than two years in office. His successor Clement VII was the second Medici to hold the office, being a first cousin of Leo and a nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence’s glory days. But he proved to be weak as well, and also longer lived: he would be pope until 1534, doing little to quench the fires of religious fervor that were continuing to engulf the heart of Europe. Now that a “warrior pope” along the lines of Julius II seemed like just what the Church needed, it couldn’t seem to find one.
The Church had long warned the secular rulers of Europe that it would be a short, heady hop for the peasantry from the throwing off of ecclesiastical control to the throwing off of political and economic hegemony. Events in Germany were now proving that warning to have been well-founded, however self-serving it may also have been. Like so many ostensibly religious revolutions before it, the “Peasants’ War” that began in Germany in 1524 had at least as much to do with the pocketbook and the stomach as it did with the eternal soul.
Economic changes of the sort that were transforming central Europe in this dawning age of Modernity will always bring discomfort, displacement, and disruption, no matter how beneficial they may prove in the end. The prices of foodstuffs and wool in the marketplaces had been rising steadily since the beginning of the century, as the Holy Roman Empire became a trade-driven rather than a feudal society. Taxes had been increased to fund a growing administrative state. And the rise of free markets brought with it a rise in the assertion of property rights; pastures where peasants had been wont to graze their livestock were fenced, forests where they had gathered firewood and lakes where they had fished declared off-limits. Like the peasantry everywhere, those in Germany were accorded few legal rights by their social betters; the only realistic way for them to make their discontent felt was armed revolt. Just as had happened in Bohemia and other places in earlier centuries, secular and religious matters all blended together in Germany in a bloody-minded stew of grievance.
The most prominent instigator of the Peasants’ War was Thomas Müntzer, an apocalyptic Protestant preacher from the Saxon town of Allstedt. His rhetoric was far more extreme and intolerant than that of Martin Luther at this juncture. “The godless,” he said, meaning all of those who refused to renounce the pope in Rome and conform to the new orthodoxy, “have no right to live except in so far as they are permitted to do so by the elect.” He wished to remold all of society on proto-communist lines. “All things are in common and should be distributed as occasion requires, according to the necessities of all,” he said, in an eerie foreshadowing of Karl Marx. “Any prince, count, or baron who, after being earnestly reminded of this truth, shall be unwilling to accept it, is to be beheaded or hanged.”
Müntzer took over the Saxon town of Mühlhausen, where he set up an “Eternal Council” to rule in accord with his communist principles, even as he sent his printed works and his human lieutenants out to aid the revolts that were now taking shape across most of Germany. “Forward!” was his rallying cry to the peasantry everywhere. “Forward while the iron is hot! Let your swords be ever warm with blood!” They responded by taking over town after town and castle after castle, seizing the property of the nobility and killing any who refused to renounce their ancestral privileges and declare themselves peasants like all the rest now and forevermore.
Unnerved by what his calls for religious reform had helped to unleash, Martin Luther pleaded for cooler heads on both sides. “You, lords, let down your stubbornness,” he said. “Give up a little of your tyranny and oppression, so that poor people get air and room to live. The peasants for their part should let themselves be instructed…”
He was denounced from both sides for his pains — but, much to his surprise, the criticisms from his alleged co-coreligionists were by far the more personal and vociferous. The title of Thomas Müntzer’s response says it all: A Highly Provoked Defense and Answer to the Spiritless, Soft-Living Flesh at Wittenberg, Who Has Most Lamentably Befouled Pitiable Christianity in a Perverted Way by His Theft of Holy Scripture. Punning on Luther’s name to label him “Doctor Lügner” (“Liar”), Müntzer accused him of being besotted with “good wine” and “whores’ banquets,” recycling many of the accusations and even word choices Luther himself had leveled against the pope in Rome. The Protestant Reformation had taken on a life of its own, independent of its instigator, so much so that Protestants like Müntzer saw no reason not to lump Luther in with the pope whenever it served their purposes. The Reformation would continue to splinter into many different creeds and attitudes from here on, some less extreme than those of Luther, many of them, like that of Müntzer, more so.
Elector Frederick of Saxony, that principled man who was the sole reason Martin Luther was still alive at this juncture, was ironically more sympathetic to the peasants than the agitator he had sheltered for so long. He made no overt moves against Müntzer, leading to complaints from his advisors similar to those that had once dogged Pope Leo X: that his well-meaning spirit of tolerance was aiding and abetting a dangerous movement that really, really needed to be nipped in the bud. But Frederick was now suffering his life’s very last illness, and he no longer had much to lose from acknowledging the world as it was. From his deathbed, he wrote to the younger brother who would succeed him as elector, whose name was Johann, that “in many ways, the poor are being burdened by us.” Perhaps it truly would be for the best, he mused, to let “the common man rule.” On the heels of that extraordinary statement, he died on May 5, 1525, at the age of 62.
Frederick’s willingness to mull the justice or lack thereof of Europe’s current social order may have been unique, but his reluctance to act against the rebels was less so. Everywhere in Germany, the authorities took an inordinately long time to mount a concerted defense against the peasants, albeit for less principled reasons. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was now fighting a major war against France that took up all of his attention, and the rest of the princes of his empire seemed overwhelmed by the succession of crises that had afflicted them since Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church.
But the new Elector Johann of Saxony was made of stronger stuff. Although he shared many of his brother’s sentiments about religion in the abstract, he had no intention of letting Thomas Müntzer and his radical ilk take over his realm. And, remarkably, Luther now decided to unabashedly side with him. Just a few days after Frederick’s death, he issued a pamphlet of his own whose title said it all: Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. “Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab” them, he said, “remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just when one must kill a mad dog. If you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you. The rulers, then, should go on unconcerned, and with a good conscience lay about them as long as their hearts still beat. If anyone thinks too hard, let them remember that rebellion is intolerable.”
Just ten days after his brother’s death, Elector Johann saw his chance to put those exhortations into practice, when Müntzer traveled personally to the town of Frankenhausen to lend aid and comfort to a peasant insurgency there. Working in tandem with the elector of the province of Hesse, Johann attacked the town. Poorly equipped and knowing nothing of proper military tactics, the peasants melted like so much butter in the frying pan of a determined, disciplined assault by regular soldiers. Müntzer himself was apprehended in a house in town, where he lay in bed pretending to be gravely ill with the plague or typhoid fever, hoping the soldiers would pass the house by rather than risk being infected themselves. Unfazed by the gambit, the forces of law and order bundled him off. He was subjected to the usual tortures, admitted to the usual laundry list of crimes — this via a “confession” that could be quickly dashed off on printing presses all over the land — and was beheaded on May 27. By that time, his principal lair of Mühlhausen as well had been purged of his communist influence.
With those events, the Peasants’ War was effectively over in Saxony. A similar story played out elsewhere in Germany, as the peasant armies were crushed one by one by the regular military. At least 130,000 rebels were killed in all.
Many of those who survived were left deeply embittered against Martin Luther, and understandably so. “The peasants felt that the new religion had sanctified their cause,” writes Will Durant, “had aroused them to hope and action, and had deserted them in the hour of decision.” Yet, and whether he framed it this way to himself consciously or not, Luther’s break with their radicalism was one of his most brilliant political moves of all, a gambit worthy of Machiavelli. By allying himself with the establishment at this critical moment, he made his brand of Protestantism seem to many rulers of Europe to be a reasonable choice of faiths for their realm. It dawned on them that they could free themselves of the Catholic Church’s interference in their affairs without sacrificing the existing orderly hierarchies of European life. In an amazingly short span of time, Luther’s Protestantism was transformed in their eyes from a dangerous agent of chaos to a legitimate, potentially even advantageous alternative to Catholicism. This was a fruition that none of the other radical religious sects of the past 1000 years, barring only the partial exception of the Hussite Church in Bohemia, had ever succeeded in effecting.
Sadly, where Protestantism was adopted as the official religion of the state, it would indulge in much the same persecutions against those of other creeds as the Catholic Inquisition had so long been guilty of. In fact, Martin Luther himself grew less tolerant and more dogmatic as he aged. He implied more and more that, for all that the Christian religion was at bottom a private matter between the individual and the creator, an external show of Lutheran orthodoxy ought to be compulsory for the greater good. He wrote in 1529 that “in order to avoid trouble, we should not suffer contradictory teachings. Even unbelievers should be forced to obey the Ten Commandments, attend church, and outwardly conform.” He seemed not to see the irony in making such a statement after he had condemned Judaism and Catholicism for so many years for their own fixation on outward-facing ritual in place of inward-facing faith. Just one year later, he could write sanguinely that the Protestant governments of Europe should put to death anyone who “should teach that Christ was not God but a mere man.”
Again, although Martin Luther enabled Modernity, he was never himself a Modern man, certainly not a humanist in the sense of Erasmus and his peers. Increasingly as he aged, he rejected the notion of free will, that bedrock of human dignity, setting the stage for the theology of predestination that would soon be preached by John Calvin in Geneva. Writing in response to a pamphlet by Erasmus entitled The Freedom of the Will, Luther claimed in his own The Bondage of the Will that “God foresees, foreordains, and accomplishes all things by an unchanging, eternal, and efficacious will. By this thunderbolt, free will sinks shattered in the dust.” It is hard to know what to do with such a nihilistic, agency- and dignity-denying statement of humanity’s place in the scheme of things — not to mention hard to reconcile it with the earnest young man who had once chosen to enter a monastery because his God had spared him from another of his thunderbolts. Michael Manning:
With The Bondage of the Will, Luther was finalizing his break from not only Erasmus but also Christian humanism in general, with its emphasis on autonomy, pluralism, and rationalism. With it, one can see the Reformation parting ways with the Renaissance. Viewed more broadly, Luther was creating a new religious model in Western Christendom — that of the Bible-quoting militant who considers scripture the unchallengeable word of God and who in asserting it is ready to cause tumult, strife, and bloodshed.
Martin Luther died in 1546, like his erstwhile protector Frederick at the age of 62. The legacy he left behind is as complicated as any in history, and as significant. Like the holy book in which he placed so much trust, he said many things during his life, some of them contradictory. Whether beautiful or appalling, all of them would be picked up and used for good or ill by the generations who came after him. Thanks to him, the map of Western Europe is still to this day divided into Catholic and Protestants regions — although, thankfully, bloody wars are no longer fought over the issue.
That said, Germany today is not a uniformly Catholic or Protestant nation, but rather one that accommodates both branches of the Christian faith. That accord was arrived at in 1555, when, tired of the constant unrest within and between the provinces of the Holy Roman Empire over the question of Catholicism versus Lutheranism versus other, generally more extreme versions of Protestantism, the princes of the realm arrived at a “Peace of Augsburg.” Each supreme ruler of each territory, it stipulated, would have the right to decide for himself what the religion of his people would be, and to enforce that choice within his borders as he saw fit, as long as he did not interfere with those lands that lay outside of them. Alas, the era when the choice of a religion — or, for that matter, the choice to have no religion — could be a matter for the individual consciences of those who were not princes would have to wait until long after the time span covered by this book.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)