Luther: A Life by John M. Todd
John M. Todd is the author of a number of books, including Reformation, and John Wesley and the Catholic Church. Luther: A Life was published in 1982 by The Crossroad Publishing Company. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 1: Young Luther
Mansfeld, where Martin Luther was brought up, was a small country town, with a population of a little over 3000. Its walls were stout and ancient, with four corner towers. Outside and on a hilltop was the great castle of the Counts of Anhalt. Altogether the place provided a sense of security, implying a certain doubt about security outside the walls of town or castle. The townsfolk at Mansfeld as elsewhere felt superior to the countryfolk who lived outside on the farms and came to Mansfeld to sell their produce and buy what they needed. In a sense everyone was ‘rural’ — almost everyone had a fair smattering of knowledge about crops and cattle and country matters. But, inside the walls, the burghers thought highly of themselves, all the more so since they themselves were subservient to the princes of Church and State. The town community, although lacking modern police, and subject finally to the will of the local ruler, was able to regulate its own economic and political affairs. Within it the Church operated as a separate privileged corporation. A sizeable slice of local affairs was in its affluent, authoritarian, often corrupt but also quite often sincere and able hands.
Mansfeld had at its centre the Church of St George, and near to it the town school, to which Martin went at the age of seven. He had been born not at Mansfeld, but at Eisleben, late at night, and was baptised the next day, 11 November, St Martin’s Day, 1483. It was the following year that Margaret and Hans Luder as they usually spelt it) moved with the baby to Mansfeld and settled there for good.
The town was set in a variegated landscape of forest and field. Copper mining occupied as many people as the farms. The copper was sold to travelling merchants, Mansfeld being on the route from Nuremberg to Hamburg — Hamburg and the sea
which hardly anyone in this inland area had ever seen. Martin’s grandfather was a farmer, but the farm went to a younger son. His father had taken up mining, at first working for someone else, before he gradually built up his own business. Before Martin was eight, his father, along with a partner, had a lease of a foundry, having borrowed capital from a merchant — he was a shareholder in one of the small firms engaged in mining. He was a success. ‘Big Hans’, as he was called, was elected in 491 to be one of the ‘Four’, representatives of the citizens, who sat on the town council — ‘Big Hans’, to distinguish him from his brother ‘Little Hans’, who was frequently in the courts for brawling and use of a knife when his temper was roused. Hans Luther’s identity as a respected senior citizen is attested by the inclusion of his name in a list of citizens requesting the local bishop for a special Indulgence to be attached to the local church in 1497. By 1511 he was part owner of not less than six mines and two foundries.
In the last years of their lives, Martin’s parents were painted by Cranach the Elder. The paintings show the rough, determined, resigned faces of hard-working small proprietors. Big Hans was tough, shrewd, earthy, sometimes drinking a little too much beer; but, said Martin, this brightened the family atmosphere. His father was ‘by nature a jovial companion, always ready for fun and games!’ His mother Margaret nee Lindernann) has a suffering look about her, and seems to have had the strong traditional piety of the age. Her sharp eyes are the same as the famous glinting eyes of her son, which Cranach often portrayed — he lived in Wittenberg and came to the painting of Luther’s parents from a very close friendship with Martin of over ten years.
If there was a convivial atmosphere most of the time, it was within the context of hard physical facts. Birth and death were frequent events. Plague, bubonic and other, was a regular visitor. There was a new child in the family most years; perhaps half or more died. Nobody could remember how many there had been. Eight were living when Martin was twenty-two. He was the eldest. Discipline within the family as in society at large was equally rough and ready. There was a lot of beating which Luther continued to resent for the rest of his life. He remembered the severity of both his mother who beat him for stealing a nut, drawing blood, and of his father who laid into him so hard on one occasion that it took the father some time to get Luther (so he said) to stop holding a grudge against him. ‘My parents kept me under very strict discipline, even to the point of making me timid.’ But these strongly felt statements in the ‘Table Talk’ are immediately followed by: ‘they meant it heartily well.’ This quite lengthy passage is full both of tension and of understanding: ‘It’s a bad thing if children and pupils lose their spirit on account of their parents and teacher.’ It is clear that Luther thought his parents, combined with his schoolmasters, managed to cow him. ‘They weren’t able to keep a right balance between indulgence and punishment. One must punish in such a way that the rod is accompanied by the apple.’ This passage also contains a classic piece of hindsight: ‘By such strict discipline they finally forced me into the monastery.’ He is speaking, at the age of fifty-two, about an event in his early twenties. In fact, he entered the monastery in direct opposition to his father’s wishes. What he sees, however, looking back, is a young man, so fearful of all the demands of life and religion that he thought the best thing to do was to retire from it to a monastery. The argument suited the general religious polemic of the later Luther. But there was insight here, as well as hindsight. Luther had a sense of inferiority, and believed its origins to lie in the sometimes over-strict home regime. It may also have postponed the flowering of Luther’s energies and abilities, heightening them when they did burst forth with an almost pathological force.
Luther’s relationship with his father in adult life was important, and involved great tension between the two of them. Big Hans was a forceful character and, although law abiding, a man with the same drive that got his brother into trouble with the peace-keeping authorities, and later his son into collision with some of the establishment structure of society. During Martin’s childhood his father must have dominated at home, as he dominated also at work. Luther was frightened of him at times. Later he was grateful as he realised that his father’s success had enabled him to go to school.
Luther recalled that his mother used to go out, like many others to gather the firewood for the house from the surrounding forests. Later in life Luther, with his wife, engaged in a good deal of gardening and small farming, and drew on the early experience, of his parents, his grandfather, and of his uncle who had inherited the old family farm.
In spite of regular visitations by the plague, and the threats to health and safety from both disease and, in the countryside, occasional robbers, there was an emphatic though provisional economic and social stability. No foreign troops had threatened the town or district for many years, no recruiting sergeant threatened to take away the young men of the district; though occasionally disbanded mercenaries or followers of the few remaining knights, were a danger. And it was only a few hundred years since a finally settled civilisation had arisen. Everyone carried weapons. It was a special proviso of university examination boards that such weapons were not to be carried into the examinations. Violence lay thin below the surface. University authorities sometimes stood in danger of assassination for failing to pass a candidate.
There was a long-established system of rights and proprietorship; it was a society which was a large step on from subsistence economy, through trade, banking and regular communications, This stability needed to be called provisional because of the bitter resentment of property and monopoly rights felt from time to time by apprentices, journeymen, the generally less privileged, and by the peasants throughout the countryside. The stability was anchored to religion and its highly structured expression of the Christian ‘Myth’. Ritual observance and inner devotion gave a strong motivation to numerous norms at all points of behaviour. But partly blanketing this motivation was a universal resentment of the privileges, economic and legal, of the very numerous clergy.
Though solemn and serious in background, religion provided more occasions for jollification than the opposite. ‘Holy days’, which were holidays, were numerous, commonly the celebration of the life and achievement of a saint. The annual cycle of seasons, roughly attuned to the life of Jesus, with its main stages at Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, the Ascension and Whitsun, were again more joyful than sombre. A hint of the atmosphere survives in the continued celebration of carnival in Europe today, particularly the festive goings-on in the older German towns during the enormously long carnival season from St Martin’s Day (11 November) till Shrove Tuesday in February.
The reverse side was sombre. There was a final reckoning to come, a ‘last judgement’. The ‘four last things’, death, judgement, heaven or hell, were commonly depicted on the frescoed walls, or sculptured stone in the church. Even the crucifix came, so Luther says, to have for him a threatening appearance — the suffering Christ, arms at full stretch, seeming to hang over him, demanding more than he could ever give. Keyed in with this was something of hysteria and violence to be seen not only in movements like those of the flagellants who whipped themselves in public, and of the craze for relics of every kind, but in the art of the time too. In Diner’s famous pictures of Melancholy and of The Knight, Death and the Devil, and even more in Grunewald’s pictures of the crucifixion there is a kind of desperation. In trying to reach a truly actual depiction of the horror of the subject, the painters imparted a sense of despair, or expectation of terror, which became a common psychological coin.
Along with this dark side of religion went the widespread ‘superstition’, belief in the work of evil spirits, witches and the like. Luther’s father spoke of the injuries he had seen on a miner’s body, made by an evil spirit. His mother believed one of her children to have been killed by a witch. Luther believed that a lake in Prussia was haunted by evil spirits, and certainly attributed many troublesome events, including his own ill health, to preternatural influence. Partly it was simple lack of knowledge of how thunder and lightning work and a hundred other mechanisms of the natural world; partly it was response to the mystery of life itself, the human potential for malice and for love, a mystery which still calls for answers beyond those easily formulated by the human sciences.
‘Superstition’ is hardly a satisfactory description of the sense of ‘something else’ and the half-instinctive ‘pagan’ activities which went with it. Sound hypotheses can be advanced for various experiences of telepathy, sense of terror, and of healing, and of other things which come under the umbrella of extrasensory perception. Religious activity and phenomena are not adequately identified as merely subjective or merely functions of other systems, biological, psychological and sociological. Understood in their own right, they comprehend everything, the whole of a person’s experience. Instead of there being no room left for religion, it could be that today there is only a little room left for superstition. Many phenomena previously thought of as part of a world of superstition may be seen to have a genuine religious validity; or the phenomena themselves may be seen after all to be systematic parts of the mechanics of new models of the cosmos.
If such a position is to be acceptable some definition of the genuinely religious is needed. Two components stand out: dependence and freedom. (1) Man is genuinely free, he can take decisions which are not predictable. Most notably he is a ‘moral’ being. In his relations with other people, he can act from the dictates of his own conscience; at its highest the relationship of love can be elevated to a degree of complete service and good will which seems to transcend the space-time continuum. (2) The sense of this extra dimension is that which leads to a recognition by man of his final dependence on something which must also, in some sense, be the organising principle of the whole cosmos. These two are the characteristics of the genuinely religious. Their presence, and their absence, enabled Luther’s parents and Martin himself to feel a sense of rightness and of satisfaction in their religious life, and equally distress and revulsion at its exploitation and corruption.
Hans found that he had a very promising boy, one who could do honour to the family and to the town. Rather than apprentice him in his own business, or some other, he decided to send Martin to school. At primary schools the Trivium, the threefold discipline of grammar, logic and rhetoric was taught. Often, perhaps, the students got little further than grammar. But they also did some music, at any rate in the form of the songs which all schoolchildren sang frequently in the street. In the case of older children away from home this was a means to begging at least a part of their daily bread. All teaching was in Latin and began with the standard religious prayers, the Pater Noster (‘Our Father’), the creed, and the Ten Commandments. There was a standard grammar text book, an old classic work by Aelius Donatus. Latin was the language of all educated people. German was forbidden in school to older boys, even in the playground, and most rigidly in the classroom. People who had been to school in the end found it easier to use Latin than German for many professional purposes. Shorthand notes of meetings often used a combination of Latin and German, and the combination became very common in popular writing and songs.
Martin found his schoolmasters at Mansfeld to be no less strict than his parents, according to many comments: ‘Ah, what a time we had on Fridays, with the lupus and on Thursdays with the parsings from Donatus.’ The lupus (wolf)was the Latin name for the senior pupil who acted as prefect and reported any misdemeanours such as speaking German. Donatus’s grammar seems to have given trouble even to Martin Luther, but probably he was remembering some of the less gifted pupils and their miseries when he said of these parsing sessions: ‘These tests were nothing short of torture. Whatever the method that is used, it ought to pay attention to the difference in aptitudes and teach in such a way that all children are treated with equal love.’
In 1496 Martin, now twelve, was sent away to school, to the great commercial and cathedral town of Magdeburg, forty miles down the Elbe on the way to Hamburg, the famous trading port. The journey itself was undertaken by Martin in company with the son of one of his father’s business associates at Mansfeld. This was Hans Reinecke, a little older than Martin; the two of them were to remain friendly for the rest of their lives.
Magdeburg, the first sizeable town he had seen, was a revelation to Martin. Instead of one main paved street, there was a medley of surfaced streets, churches, buildings of all kinds, and all the noise of a busy urban and commercial environment to be found in a town with a population of 12,000. He was on his own For the first time, and in a quite new dimension. He had the fun of going round with a group of other schoolchildren singing from house to house — the traditional way of earning something to help defray living costs. They were at the cathedral school. Some of the teachers were from the house of the Brethren of the Common Life, recently established in Magdeburg. This was an Order founded in the Netherlands in the previous century, intended to provide a way of dedicating one’s life, with the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but without becoming a priest. The idea was to devote oneself to work for the good of society, often to teaching. The brothers preferred a quiet, contemplative kind of piety to the more demonstrative kind of liturgy. From this they got the popular name of Nullbruder, which is how Luther referred to them later in life. They probably contributed their quota of serious and devoted, one might reasonably say authentic, religion to Luther’s makeup.
There is only one other reference in Luther’s writings to his year at Magdeburg. This was to his seeing an old man, a Franciscan friar, carrying a bag of bread which he had begged. He looked very ascetic and exhausted to the boy’s eyes, ‘the picture of death, mere skin and bones’. Martin was overcome with wonderment and a secret wish to emulate him, when he was told that this wizened old man was not in fact so very old, and was no less than one of the Dukes of Anhalt who had left his affluent circle and devoted himself to the strict life of a friar.
The impact of such a sight on Martin was part of his awakening to the greatest single driving force in church and society. The ‘religious orders’ were single sex communities of monks or friars, and of nuns. These ‘religious’ took the three vows: to own nothing personally, to be obedient to the head of their community, and to live a celibate life. ‘Monk’ was generally used for members of the older orders using the Rule of St Benedict sixth century AD) who remained in the same monastery for life and were broadly ‘contemplatives’. Friar was used for the modern orders of men who were committed to working in society, and to ‘passing on the fruits of contemplation’, and were frequently moved from one friary to another.
The early monks in Europe had practised a subsistence economy. They had been so successful at it that they quickly became rich and the abbeys were the greatest landowners after the monarchs themselves. The strict rule enabled them to work more effectively than any other group in society. The sheer efficiency of people keeping a strict rule and living without family ties was such that the religious orders had become not only a spiritual ideal but a kingpin of society. Add to these considerations the current theological theory that ‘the religious life’ was a way of perfection and offered greater prospects for salvation than other ways of life, and it is not difficult to see how the monks, the friars and the nuns became so ubiquitous. And given the resultant wide ranging power, it is not difficult to see how devastatingly corruption was able to seep into the communities at every level, and in every way.
For the following ten years the power of the ideal reverberated in Martin’s mind. The habits were to be seen daily in the street, and inside them all conditions of men and women, but always some whose devotion and holiness impressed him.
Next year Martin was moved to another school; this was at Eisenach, as far away again from his home but in the opposite direction. The Luthers had relations there, including the man elected mayor the year of Martin’s arrival. This was Heinrich Lindemann, brother of Luther’s mother. At Eisenach Luther continued with the normal curriculum, and in a setting which appealed strongly to his artistic sense. In later times he often referred to his love of the good old town of Eisenach’. With a population of only 2000, set on the edge of the Thuringian forest, it was picturesque as it still is. Above it towered the hill on which was the great castle of the Wartburg. Already so old that it was no longer in regular use by the local Wettin princes, the castle was for military and special occasions, for hunting parties and security, and would sometimes be used to house an unexpected guest who wished not to be seen in the town. As such it was to play an important part in Luther’s own life. In the thirteenth century it had been the residence of the Landgrave of Thuringia, and in the time of the Landgrave Hermann the Minnesingers and the epic poets, and notably Walter von Vogelweide, came to it. In the nineteenth century it became a central inspiring symbol for a number of Wagner’s operas. Musical life was strong in all German towns and in their schools, specially so at Eisenach.
Martin imbibed the traditional culture and kept his place in a severe social hierarchy, shuttling between various respectable and well-set-up families, the Schalbes and the Cottas for whom he did baby sitting, and accompanied Heinrich Schalbe’s son to school. The Schalbes supported a charitable foundation, the Collegium Schalbe, a small alms house community. The town was full of churches and the ringing of bells. Martin went to Vespers on Sunday evenings and acquired a great love of the Magnificat, and a lifelong devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus, which was not lessened in later years by new ecclesiastical styles. Again there was singing in the streets and the memory of an angry voice shouting as the boys ran away from a door thrown open, only to return when it was clear that the voice was offering them some sausage. Commerce, which had dominated the streets of Mansfeld and Magdeburg, was swamped at Eisenach by cloisters and schools. When in a polemical rather than a romantic mood, Luther later referred to it as a ‘nest of priests’; they were one in ten of the population.
Martin’s great-aunt Margarete and her husband Conrad Flutter befriended the boy. Hutter was sacristan of the church of St Nicholas. Ten years later Martin included him in an invitation to the first Mass he would celebrate as a priest, in a letter written to the rector of another church at Eisenach, the Rev. Johann Braun, a Franciscan friar with whom Luther kept up a friendship for many years. In a postscript to this same letter Luther tentatively suggested that the Schalbes would be very welcome, but feared he was being presumptuous even to suggest it on account of their superior social status.
A story retailed by Dr Matthkus Ratzeberger, Luther’s medical doctor at Wittenberg in later years, about the headmaster of Luther’s school at Eisenach, Johann Trebonius, tells of the customs to be found there. This master on entering the classroom would take off his scholar’s beret and bow to his students; his assistant masters were instructed to act likewise. His reason was that ‘God may intend many of them for burgomasters, chancellors, scholars or rulers’. This solid German self-respect went along with great care for discipline and convention and for the detail of the school work. The other side of it was an arrogance, and a carelessness about justice, which led to revolts among the poorest, and a certain self-indulgence. It was an affluent culture, rather decadent and unimaginative.
We get a useful echo of what Martin’s schooldays were like from sermons and letters of twenty years later. When he was forty-six, Luther published a ‘Sermon on Sending Children to School’, encouraging parents to send their children to school.
God wishes to make beggars into Lords. . . Look about you at the courts of all the kings and princes, at the cities and the parishes. . . There you will find lawyers, doctors, counsellors, writers, preachers, who for the most part were poor and who have certainly all attended school, and who by means of the pen have risen to where they are lords. Do not look down on the fellows who come to your door saying Bread for the love of God , and singing for a morsel of bread. . . I too was such a collector of crumbs, begging from door to door, especially in my beloved city of Eisenach — though afterwards my dear father lovingly and faithfully kept me at the University of Erfurt, by his sweat and labour helping me to get where I am. Nevertheless, I was once a collector of crumbs, and I have got where I am through the writer’s pen.
From this time comes Luther’s love of German proverbs and of Aesop’s Fables, and his ability with language. The gruelling mandarin world of grammar and syntax, at the same time sophisticated and effete, involving the memorising of long catalogues of types of expression turned out to be a tool he could use to enormous effect. He understood how these two disciplines are at the service of rhetoric, or ‘communication’; the sole purpose of language was to get across what one wanted to say. Meanwhile, however, rhetoric had its rules which had to be learnt by the schoolboy, now looking beyond the school to university.
Schooldays came to an end. Martin had fulfilled the early promise and was clearly university material. In the previous one hundred and fifty years, tertiary education had grown apace in German-speaking lands. For Luther’s father there were two universities to choose from within sixty miles of home. Leipzig was nearer but the less attractive of the two. Erfurt had a number of points in its favour, most notably that it was only thirty miles from Eisenach. Luther’s schoolmasters had sent many other pupils on to Erfurt University, and there was a regular exchange of information between the school at Eisenach and Erfurt. One of the lecturers at Erfurt, Johann Trutvetter, a future chancellor of the University, was a native of Eisenach. In the heart of Saxony, Erfurt was, like Eisenach, both a beautiful and a prestigious place, with something of the same traditional atmosphere about it. But Erfurt was on a far bigger scale, ten times the size, set on another attractive site surrounded by vineyards, forest and farmland. Martin’s move there was part of a natural progression through the best of the Saxon educational structure.
Erfurt University had a history of a hundred and fifty years, going well back behind the date of its first official registration in 1392. It was thus one of the older of the fifteen universities founded in central Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Together they witnessed to the prosperity and the intellectual vigour of the region, as great in its way as that of Renaissance Italy, and far greater than that of England where no university had been founded subsequent to the thirteenth century foundations of Oxford and Cambridge, though Scotland could boast three universities founded in more recent times. The presence of the university had attracted houses of monks, friars, and nuns to the city, and by the time Martin arrived there were many, including communities of most of the best known orders — the Benedictines, Augustinians, Carthusians, Dominicans, Franciscans and Servites. Their various habits were to be seen daily in the streets, though in the case of the Carthusians only one or two lay brothers ever went outside the monastic walls. It was another veritable ‘priests’ nest’; indeed its local nickname was ‘Little Rome.’
The population was over 20,000. Economically the town depended much on the marketing of woad, the famous dye grown in the surrounding district, used for dyeing textiles and marketed to merchants who travelled through Erfurt to pick it up. The town itself was an ecclesiastical town, part of the property of the archbishopric of Mainz. This complicated its financial operations and tended to keep business away. The surrounding country was under the jurisdiction of the competing secular authority, the Ernestine branch of the Saxon House of Wettin. Dues had to be paid as boundaries were crossed. Inside Erfurt, too many authorities were taking their tax cut, and too much cash ended up, as interest on loans, in the hands of the bankers. There was chronic unrest, often breaking out in the form of angry protests by those at the bottom of the economic ladder. The contrast between their condition and that of the wealthy burghers and the over-numerous and sometimes very well-fed priests who often had little to do, was provocative. Preachers had been known to remind people that if a man was starving it was not a sin for him to steal. Outside the town walls lay a few pitiful shanty-type suburbs. Typhus was endemic and the plague a regular visitor; it had an open invitation in these slums.
The wealthy Augustiniac house was busy building new halls for library and rectory and also a lecture hall beside their great Gothic church, already a landmark in the town on their property which formed an island in the busy streets — the Order was wealthy, as a result of numerous bequests in the past century. There were many other fine buildings, including the Cathedral of Mary the Virgin, and the magnificent Church of St. Severus right beside it. Both stood, and still stand, on an eminence with a beautifully modulated flight of steps up to them. Higher up again behind them was the episcopal palace and the ancient Benedictine abbey, whose history took one back hundreds of years into Erfurt’s past; later, Napoleon would use it for stables, and today the German Democratic Republic uses it as a warehouse. Such architecture influenced the lives of those who lived in Erfurt. They were conscious of privilege. The buildings played their part in enhancing grand occasions such as the visit in October 1502 of the papal legate, the Cardinal Archbishop of Lurk, when there were great processions, with banners and litanies and hymns throughout the town.
When Martin arrived, he was not seeing Erfurt for the first time, since the city was directly on the route from Eisenach to Mansfeld. He had been used to do the three- or four-day journey on foot while at school. Erfurt was not so different from Magdeburg in being an important and sizeable city. But it had an air of ecclesiastical authority and of learning which impressed Luther. He was proud to belong to the University. He took his place with ease in the traditional religious set-up, within the structure of church occasions, Masses for the dead, Masses for all sorts of guilds and fraternities, veneration of relics, plans for pilgrimages.
Luther was never easily impressed by criticism of existing conventions or authority, though he must certainly have heard such criticism. His father and uncles occasionally let drop an oath about the behaviour of the clergy. Even at pious Eisenach, the schoolboys were not ignorant of the wheeling and dealing for ecclesiastical promotion. Many priests had no job save that of offering Mass daily, Enquiring minds asked what was the use of these pensioners and whether they might not have contributed a little more to the well-being of society. People in various parts of Europe had been asking this and similar questions for much more than a century. Numerous official synods and programmes had been drawn up to curb the abuses of moneyraising through Indulgences, and a wide variety of corrupt practices. But this very fact provided an effective inoculation against any really revolutionary movement. Everyone criticised the abuses and the clergy all the time. The strongest critics were often themselves members of the clerical class. Every reform programme got bogged down in a chorus of assent to it, and in the lack of will power to surmount the enormous difficulties inherent in any attempt to tamper with the finances and the Canon Law which immediately became involved.
The picture was also confusing because there was a widespread seam of strict observance. At Erfurt the priory of the Augustinians was one of a group entitled ‘observant’ on account of fairly recent commitment to a stricter regime than had previously been customary. The friars there followed a rule of considerable asceticism. The standard fasts, every Friday, and during other long periods of time including Lent, allowed for only one meal taken late in the day. Indulged in strictly, these fasts could and sometimes did undermine health. But at other times they ate and drank massively. The allowance of beer and wine on the numerous feast days saw them red faced as they left the table, Luther observed later.
At Erfurt certainly both sides of the coin were in full view, from the sometimes strict life of the observant Augustinians and the stricter life of the Carthusians, to the interference in daily affairs of the representatives of the Archbishop of Mainz. The Archbishop died in 1505 and in order to save the expenses involved in electing and then in providing for a new archbishop the seat was left vacant for eight years. It was then filled in an election of extraordinary irregularity. Twenty-three-year-old Prince Albrecht Hohenzollern of Brandenburg, who was already Archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of the diocese of Halberstadt, was elected in addition to his existing benefices. He had been under age for Magdeburg according to Canon Law, and he was still under age for Mainz. He had had to pay a great fine to Rome in order to get approval of the former; a further great fine was payable again for approval of the latter: a fine of 21,000 ducats for the appointment, and one of 10,000 ducats for wrongly accumulating ecclesiastical offices. This money was lent to him by the banking house of Fugger. It was to be repaid from cash collected by means of the preaching of an Indulgence which would encourage the faithful to do the good work of subscribing to church funds. Half of the proceeds would go to the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome (the present building) and half to the Fuggers, as the Archbishop’s repayment. That was ten years ahead; but this was the normal atmosphere of ecclesiastical affairs which had aroused intense criticism and resentment for many years. It was not only that every baptism, every marriage, every possible occasion involved some contribution. Reformers inside the Church were continually defeated by the problems involved in trying to see how both to maintain the Church in existence and to rid it of the incubus of this obviously corrupting structure.
The student Martin Luther came humbly into this complex world of the great Saxon university town of Erfurt. The University register of May 1501 shows that Martinus Ludher ex Mansfeldt was entered as a student in the faculty of arts. He was numbered thirty-eight out of 300 or so newcomers. He had a long oath to take in Latin, swearing by God and the gospels to obey the rector and the statutes, to refrain from creating disturbances in the University and in the town, to look to the University courts not to the town courts if he was in trouble, and to leave the University if commanded to do so. Universities were indeed part of that threefold magisterium of social authorities which operated throughout Europe, church, state and university.
Luther is listed among those who were able to support themselves. Big Hans had made the advance payment of twenty groschen, and had put enough money in Martin’s pocket to enable him to live as a student. Nearly all students were members of a particular college or Bursa as it was called, and Martin was almost certainly in St George’s. It was a stone building and had the nickname ‘beer-bag’ among the students. There was some kind of initiation ceremony of an unofficial student kind permitted by authority and defended by Luther many years later as a necessary bit of ‘experience’. But discipline in general was strict. Each Bursa had its college chapel and a lecture hall. The students slept in dormitories with a young lecturer close by under the same roof. The day began and ended with a service in chapel. During meals the Bible and other suitable books were read aloud. Dress had to be dignified. Special permission was required for exit after dark. There was no street lighting in Erfurt, and the carrying of lanterns was essential at night if numerous small brooks were to be avoided. The lantern count was used as a check to know who was absent.
When Luther was in a polemical mood in later years, he would say that the city was ‘a bawdy house and a beer house’. It was normal for such a city to have a tolerated brothel, a Frauenhaus, and Erlurt was no exception, although married men were forbidden to visit it. Sometimes it was engagingly called the Muhmenhaus, the Aunties’ House. Alter a great fire in 1472 the city council took responsibility for rebuilding it. Erotic and religious interest went side by side. Society was both permissive and conventional. Perhaps a cliche may be valid — the reaction from self-indulgence found an outlet in pilgrimages and formal religious gestures of all kinds, sometimes hysterical. As contemporary painting shows, from burgher to worker, from student to professor, from priest to bishop the town atmosphere was reassuring in its closeness and humanity. But in many European towns there was tension near the surface, and this was certainly so in Erfurt as in London: tension between the underdog and the authorities and the wealthy generally, tension between the whole populace and the clergy. Faced with such tension throughout his life, Luther had a lively sense of the importance of established authority as long as it was not blatantly tyrannical or unjust. When he came to live in Erfurt he was in a mood to reverence those who ran the University and the town, and to range himself on their side in any dispute.
In later years Luther remembered the seamy side of things, but he also remembered the impressive nature of the University and the satisfactory nature of participating in it, regretting the disappearance of much of the great tradition. He looked back with some yearning to the day of graduation for those taking their degrees of Master: ‘What majesty and splendour there was when one received his master’s degree. They brought torches to him and presented them. I think that no earthly joy could be compared with it.’
The first degree, the BA, could be taken in a minimum of eighteen months and Martin took it in just that time. It was fairly grinding work. To start with, the course was a completion of study he had already been doing in language, the complicated structure of logic and grammar. Bracketed with them was rhetoric. There was also the beginning of natural philosophy, and some study of nature largely as categorised by Aristotle. Aristotle also supplied the essential basis for the logical studies; the first text book on logic had been written by Luther’s own lecturer Trutvetter, who was also Rector of the University. There was much memory work, but the essential work was in the true academic tradition, in the sense that students were forbidden to take verbatim notes and had to digest the material and represent it at regular disputations, first daily in the college, and then at weekly public debates in the University’s faculty hall.
Luther soon became adept in propounding a hundred or so arguments for a thesis.
Once a year on 24 August there was a grand ‘free for all’ in the University lasting the whole day, when any proposition from the liberal arts could be put forward. Facetiousness was tempting and was not always avoided, even though forbidden. Luther recalled one of the jokes which related to the conventional posture usually given to statues of St Dominic and St Francis respectively: ‘Query: why is Dominic represented with threatening fingers, but Francis is always depicted with outstretched hands? Answer: Dominic is saying ‘‘Oh, Francis, what naughty fellows you have in your order", and Francis is replying ‘What can I do about it?’
Luther got through the exam, placed thirtieth out of a total of fifty-seven. Two-thirds of the students had already fallen away, as usual. Luther was a slow developer and was only to rise almost to the top in the finals. This first degree was taken by him in the autumn or 1502. It involved a promise under oath that he had studied the books set, and that he would lecture in the faculty of philosophy at the end of his course.
Study of the quadrivium, urn, for the Master’s degree, now began, and the student was set on a serious career. The quadrivium was something like a preliminary, but academically serious study of all that was known. The four headings were music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry; and there were other studies which lay outside those formally required. In this latter area Martin found time to become closely acquainted with a selection of classical authors, long sequences of whose work he had off by heart, due to his remarkable gift of memory. Throughout his life he could quote easily from Vergil, Plautus, Ovid and Livy; and he read at this time also Juvenal, Horace and Terence.
Martin’s artistic side developed, and he became an expert musician. He was known among his comrades as an excellent lute player, and one who enjoyed singing. He had a chance to practise his music when lying up after an accident. When journeying cross country a short sword was carried, and Martin had one with him on his occasional walks home to Mansfeld. On one of these occasions, near the end of the return journey, after resting before the last mile or two, he cut himself severely with his sword through some carelessness. He lost a great quantity of blood both then and again during the following night when the wound which a doctor had bound broke open again. Luther remembered the occasion as one of some panic when he prayed to Mary the Mother of Jesus for help, and then of a time of convalescence when he was able to indulge his love of music.
Martin enjoyed university life, but attracted little attention apart from being recognised as a most promising student. To judge by his capacity for typically German buffoonery on occasion in later life and his ability to drink deeply, he must have been in these respects a normal student. The University turned out to be an almost perfect preparation for the life he was to lead. Erfurt gave him the entree into the cultural life of Germany, and indeed of sixteenth-century Europe. He met there many of the people who would become close friends or remain acquaintances for the rest of his life, and many of whom would play some part in the unfolding drama which was to be set in motion by himself. A fellow student who was also destined to join the same Order, was Johann Lang. Another who would eventually become the chaplain, librarian and right-hand man in religious matters of the Saxon Elector, Frederick, at Wittenberg was Spalt. Another again was the poet Johann Jager from Hesse who liked to change his name to the Latinised Crotus Rubeanus, to signify his allegiance to the humanist movement.
Scholars who liked to call themselves humanists found in Erfurt one of their perennial meeting places; it was not the principal centre of the humanist movement, but the leaders visited it regularly. The Italian Renaissance was becoming naturalised in northern Europe. Saxon humanists had been visiting Italy for some decades. These men had glimpsed the idea that beyond all the philosophical and theological systems lay the study of man and the study of the means he used to express himself. As humanists they tended to distance themselves intellectually from the somewhat claustrophobic curricula of the largely clericalised German lecture halls, just as they had already distanced themselves geographically by their Italian trips.
The movement had its roots in the new and serious attention to classical texts. The philologist Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457) was the inspirer of many who began to realise how important it was to assure themselves of the accuracy of the texts they were studying, and of the real meaning intended by their authors. They learnt Hebrew and Greek to study the original texts of the Bible. Great scholars were already at work in this way, Ximenes in Spain and Erasmus in northern Europe. One of the superficial but important symbols of this distancing was the renaming by scholars of themselves with Latinised versions of their names — Hausschein (Houselight) becomes Oecolampadius, and Schwarzerd (Blackheath) becomes Melancthon. For a few months about 1516, Luther began to call himself Eleutherius (Freeman) but soon reverted to his Saxon identity.
German humanism developed a nature of its own. In 1500 appeared a new student edition of Tacitus’ Germania published by the humanist poet Celtis who accompanied it with a poem Germania Generalis . Enthusiasm began to be generated for the native culture, and renaissance patriotism burgeoned in verse and prose. In 1495, Celtis had done a Latin description of the origins and customs of the model town of Nuremberg. This Saxon humanism was taken up enthusiastically by Ulrich von Hutten, the knight poet and anti-clerical. The Latin of these men became the Latin of Cicero and Ovid and Plautus, rather than of St Bernard.
Conrad Mudt, calling himself Mutianus was one of the leading German humanists and visited Erfurt regularly from his base in Gotha. He had been in Italy for a whole decade and professed a detached and a patronising attitude to the Church’s rites, while drawing a fat salary as a Canon. In 1515, just when Luther himself would be starting his really serious criticism of the current syllabus, Mutianus was also voicing criticism, but from the superior position of a literary man, rather than a theologian. He was influenced by Erasmus, whose criticism of the whole theological scene had been widely disseminated for the previous seven years in In Praise of Folly, ajeu d’esprit, written for Thomas More, being in fact a play on his name in its original Latin title Encomium Moriae — a piece begun as Erasmus was journeying happily across Europe in 1509 to a reunion he was greatly looking forward to after a stay in Italy, where neither the food nor the hours at which it was eaten pleased him. Mutianus wrote to a friend: ‘Today the apes of theology occupy the whole university, teaching their students the figures of Donatus, a most unintelligible thing; the figures of Parvulus, pure nonsense; mere exercises in complexities the silliest stuff.’ Such criticisms were already abroad when Martin was a student.
These superior literary men formed a kind of snobbish club. With their new classical names, and their insights into history and literature, their attitudes stretched all the way from a lampooning of the gullible piety of the masses to a more philosophical agnosticism or a mysticism, which stood apart from ecclesiastical authority.
The humanists were criticising virtually the entire range of existing educational norms at the university, hardly bothering to distinguish any more between the various schools whose protagonists, however, were in a substantial majority and still took their own differences very seriously. The dominant group at Erfurt, as at most other universities, was that of the narrow logicians of the day, followers of the philosopher William of Occarn. This was known as the modernist movement, and its philosophy was that of nominalism: philosophical argument was no more than a descriptive tool, the words were just names, and pointed no further. Philosophy was to stick to its world, and theology would keep to its territory of revealed truth, grasped not by the reason but by faith. Other groups were the Scotists using the works of the philosopher Duns Scotus, championed by the Franciscans; the Thomists using the texts of Thomas Aquinas, championed by the Dominicans — Aquinas had worked philosophy and religion into a great single Summa, transposing Aristotle into the context of Christian theology under the influence of Augustine and Bernard, in which fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, was integrated organically with philosophy; finally there was also a via antiqua, the ancient way, which was centred on Plato, but was also used to describe the Thomists.
The cross currents and interrelationships were numerous. At Erfurt the Occamists gave Martin a confidence in logical processes and the use of argument and dialectic which never left him, however much he thundered against it as a way to religious faith. He often said that, philosophically, he remained of the modernist persuasion. The humanist movement in its turn gave him a confidence in human culture, a love of the classics and a connatural feeling for language, for beauty in the form of words, and for words in their natural setting of everyday language that eventually flowered in the German Bible, a whole language coming both to birth and to a first apotheosis — a miracle of the sixteenth century to set beside the achievement of Shakespeare in England at the end of the century.
Luther’s own thought was to develop out beyond all these various influences. Yet he remained the product of a sixteenth century university. All his life the influences could still be traced, and could be confusing in their complexity. Like other innovators he was deeply marked by the influences of his formative intellectual years, and made use, sometimes in very unexpected ways, of the theories which first excited him, even though he had essentially outgrown them. Luther would come to echo the modernists that philosophy was indeed in no sense the handmaid of theology, not because of the merely intellectual inappropriateness of this as he saw it, but because the whole world of man, all the world of philosophy was thrown entirely into the deepest of shadows under the sign of sin when a man had become bound by the Word of God. In spite of this Aristotle remained a permanent influence. Luther, the graduating student, soaked up his texts, so that, though he would fulminate later against the habit of using this ‘pagan’ for an understanding of religion, he would himself retain Aristotle’s Poetics and the Organon in his proposed educational system of 1521. (An Den Christlichen Adel). The poetry of Vergil was becoming an important part of his life, as well as music and the love of ceremony.
At the final examination for the MA, twenty-one-year-old Luther came second out of the mere seventeen pupils who had survived. The graduation ceremony was in February 1505. He swore the oath not to receive the Master’s degree at any other university. He was invested with his Master’s brown beret and his ring. And he duly gave the usual address and provided a feast as all new Masters had to do. These were great and glorious moments for him, symbolised for the rest of his life by the torches, having about them an atmosphere of almost unearthly joy.