On 31 October 1517 the German monk Martin Luther posted 95 theses for academic disputation on the door of a church in Wittenberg. This event now symbolises the starting point of the Protestant Reformation, and this year sees its 500th anniversary. We have put on an exhibition of original Lutheran tracts which tell the story of the turbulent early years of the Reformation.
The 95 theses spelled out Luther’s misgivings about indulgences: a sort of insurance you could buy to protect you from punishment in purgatory. One of the rare copies of the first printing in book form is on display.
This was seen as a challenge of the Pope’s authority, and the church took measures to silence the unruly monk. Luther was interrogated at the Imperial Diet in Augsburg: a meeting of the Holy Roman Emperor and the German Estates to take political decisions. Delegates from the church were present too. One of them, Cardinal Cajetan, demanded that Luther recant his theses, but Luther refused. On this occasion he got off the hook and returned to Wittenberg unscathed because Emperor Maximilian I needed political support from Luther’s patron Frederic the Wise.
Nothing happened for about a year. Luther used the time to pen some of his most important Reformation writings.
But in June 1520, Pope Leo X finally issued a bull, a papal edict, that threatened Luther with excommunication.
The bull demanded that Luther recant 41 of his 95 theses within 60 days. He didn’t, and another bull then excommunicated the monk. Both bulls are on display .
Luther was granted the opportunity for questioning and appeared at another Imperial Diet, this time in Worms. Again he refused to give in and to recant. The church’s argumentation relied on church tradition, which claimed the Pope’s absolute authority, whereas Luther argued with the Bible. There was not going to be an agreement between them.
Now the Emperor, Maximilian’s successor Charles V, declared that one little monk could not possibly be right and 1000 of church history wrong. He put Luther under imperial ban and thus made him an outlaw. The monk should have been finished – but Frederic the Wise, his patron, had him abducted on his way home from Worms and taken into protective custody on Wartburg Castle.
Luther stayed there for 10 months and used the unexpected lull to write letters and theological treatises. And he translated the New Testament from the original Greek into German – in 11 weeks! The first print run sold out at the Leipzig bookfair within a couple of days, and during Luther’s lifetime (he died in 1546) 12 authorised editions were published as well as some 50 pirated ones. About half a million copies were sold. Luther was undoubtedly the bestselling author of the Holy Roman Empire.
Luther finally returned to Wittenberg in March 1523. Frederic the Wise ensured that the imperial ban was not enforced in his territory, Electoral Saxony, and Luther continued to live and work there unhindered.
The Reformation display runs until 10 December. Entry is free.
For more information about the display go to our website.