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 10: Towards the Summit
Anti-clericalism, along with demands for Church reform and renewal, further powered by general social unrest, was growing everywhere. Its leaders were coming from the ranks of the priests themselves. In the capital town of the Swiss canton of Zurich, the new young parish priest at the Great Minster, Ulrich Zwingli, was getting into his stride with new-style biblical sermons, denunciations of Indulgences, and a reference or two to Luther as a prophet for the times, a description taken from the Introduction in Froben’s volume of Luther’s writings.
In London the violent death in prison of Hunne had left tensions unresolved; Londoners felt that same resentment about the numerous members of the privileged class of pensioned Massing priests, and even more about their easy living superiors, which Luther and his contemporaries had felt in Eisenach, Erfurt and Wittenberg. Across England and Scotland were secret groups of Lollards, a network of people who for a century now had nurtured among themselves a tradition of reading translations of the text of the Bible in manuscript excerpts from various popular sections of the Old and New Testaments, and occasionally from the complete edition of Wycliffe’s (or Purvey’s) fourteenth-century translation, rare though it was, the only English translation in existence. While for the most part conforming to the normal expressions of public ecclesiastical observance, the Lollards privately responded with the special fervour of total commitment to the Gospel, nourished a form of religious egalitarianism which in some respect could be called a proto-Protestantism, and were sharply critical of the established priesthood. The civil and ecclesiastical authorities were continually on the watch for them; church trials and civil burnings occurred regularly for a century and more, in many areas of the two countries. Merchants and shop people as well as peasants were involved, and they were to form a ready seedbed later when Tyndale’s New Testament (1526) arrived in the country — in 1520 Tyndale was a mature student at Cambridge at a time when Luther’s works were just coming on sale in the bookshops in the university town. Attempts to keep them out by public burnings of them were not successful.
England was least well served of all European countries in the matter of vernacular translations of the Bible. To possess a copy of the Wycliffe (or Purvey) version, when it was recognised was taken as evidence of heresy. The version was, however, sometimes in highly orthodox hands and greatly prized without being recognised; this was the case with a copy of it at the Charterhouse in Sheen, which Sir Thomas More thought must be one of the very rare copies of some permitted fifteenth- century translation. Elsewhere in Europe translations were not suspect in the same way, and were now spreading rapidly with the diffusion of printing presses in every town in Europe. While ecclesiastical authority normally held itself aloof from giving its favour to such translations, in some places, particularly Florence, no stigma attached to the practice of reading the Bible in groups in ones own language, and very occasionally as by Bishop Briconnet in Meaux, twenty miles east of Paris, it was actually encouraged.
Of the various attempts to spread a better understanding of the Bible, much the most ambitious was a Spanish project for a complete text in the original languages of the whole Bible, the work of Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros at the University of Alcala. It comprised five volumes, and included both the original Hebrew version and the later Greek version of the Old Testament (along with an interlinear Latin crib), an original Greek text of the New Testament, and on every page, for comparison, the standard ‘Vulgate’ fourth-century Latin translation of Jerome. It was intended as a study volume and on the page was included a variety of Hebrew and Greek grammatical assistance. For the opening five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch), across the bottom of the page was printed the Targum, a version in Aramaic (the derivative from Hebrew which Jesus of Nazareth spoke) made in about AD 100. A magnificent work of scholarship this ‘Polyglot Bible’, or ‘Complutensian Bible’ can be seen in a number of libraries today. Copies were delivered to the Vatican Library, and eventually registered there in 1520. Not surprisingly, they made no impact on the Luther case. They were part of the world of high scholarship, greatly respected, and used when necessary, but always somewhat suspect. The whole stock of the five volumes had in fact been impounded in Spain for more than three years — the work was completed in 1517 when Ximenes died. This world of theological and biblical study by-passed the Pope, busy with ecclesiastical business, family affairs, and pleasure.
The Luther case was reopened at the Vatican in January 1520. A committee of cardinals, including Cajetan, met at the beginning of the year and put proposals to the Pope in March. He should issue a Bull condemning various theses, some as ‘offensive to pious ears’, others as actually ‘heretical’, but not naming Luther. At the same time, further letters were to be sent to Luther’s superior, and the Elector. It did not occur to the Vatican authorities to make any attempt to reply directly to Luther’s appeal to be shown from Scripture where he had gone wrong; they were apparently unaware of the threateningly critical impact of the new scholarship, and of the revised theology which would inevitably flow from it. However, Cajetan wanted to keep the temperature low, in spite of his own ill-judged threats at the Augsburg meeting. He was more aware than anyone else at the Vatican of the need to improve the practice of theology and the popular understanding of religion.
Cajetan, however, had reckoned without Dr Johann Eck, who arrived in Rome at this moment with the avowed purpose of putting an end to Luther’s initiative for good. He quickly obtained an audience with the Pope and got him to reject the somewhat eirenic proposals of Cajetan’s committee. He recommended outright condemnation of Luther by name; and his uncomplicated approach convinced the Pope. Here, after all, was an experienced theologian from Germany who really understood the situation. His approach would see an end to the matter which had dragged on for more than two years now, and was threatening to become much more than a local Saxon difficulty. Two recent satires on Cajetan by the knight-poet Hutten, did not help the moderate party which was now overruled. In early May, Eck took fresh proposals, to the Pope’s country estate of Magliana, where the Pontifex Maximus was enjoying a hunting expedition in the spring weather. The fun of the chase and the exhilaration of the hilly scenery inspired Eck —or even the Pope himself — to a stirring opening lot their text: Exsurge Domine. . . Arise, Lord! Vindicate your cause against the fierce foxes who are trying to destroy your vineyard, against the wild boar which wreaks havoc there. . . Arise Peter, Paul and all the saints, the Church universal. . .’
Luther was the wild boar who was wrecking the vineyard of the Church and he was said to be guilty, along with accomplices, of all sorts of things which were declared to be heretical. It was another brash Roman text. The text declared that it was heretical to point out that the three parts of the Sacrament of Penance, contrition, confession, and satisfaction are not to be found in the New Testament; it was heretical to say that the laity should communicate in both the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine; it was heretical to say that it was contrary to the will of the Spirit to burn heretics; and soon, along with the more technical doctrinal matters of Indulgences, good works, and free will.
The Pope liked the text which Eck carried triumphantly off to the Consistory of Cardinals. Objections from Cardinals Cajetan and Carvajal that the text was unscholarly and inaccurate in its failure to make distinctions between matters of doctrine, discipline and opinion, were overruled by the majority. Various legal aspects were ironed out, and turned out later to comprise the most efficiently drafted parts of the Bull. Formal assent was obtained on 1 June. Luther would have sixty days from the day on which he received the Bull to recant or be denounced as a heretic and excommunicated. After the usual bureaucratic delays the Bull was sent speeding off by two special emissaries to Germany. One emissary was Eck himself the other was the highly experienced Jerome Aleander.
Rumours about the new Roman document reached Luther in increasingly emphatic form during the summer round about the time he was penning the remark: ‘I know another little song about Rome.’ As the final sheets of the Open Letter to the Nobility were going down to the printer in the first days of August, Luther was already making notes for this next communication. It was to be a text in Latin for the Church itself, about itself . It would present his conclusions on the true nature of the community of Christians, the Church, and would cause shock waves throughout Christendom. It was October before author and printer had completed their work. At the same time, throughout August, Luther was composing a formal and personal letter to the young Emperor and a public Offer and Protest— these were personal matters and both texts he discussed in detail with Spalatin in sharp distinction from his polemical works about which he seldom consulted anyone once he had settled the truth of the matter in his own mind, and the text began to flow like molten metal. But texts on matters of negotiation about his personal case were quite different. In his letter, Luther asked the Emperor not to ‘allow truth or falsehood to be condemned without being heard and defeated’ and ‘to protect the truth’. He entrusted a copy of it to the Elector, who would be attending the Emperor’s coronation and first Diet in the coming months. In fact, the letter only reached the Emperor’s hands in January when he finally arrived in Worms. The public Offer and Protest was on similar lines and was eventually nailed upon the doors of various churches throughout Germany. Meanwhile, other developments were crowding in.
Very Reverend Father Staupitz, Vicar General of the Reformed Augustinians, was getting weary and felt unable to cope any longer with the threatening developments of the Luther case. Two years previously at Augsburg, the encounter had reduced him to a state of panic when he released Luther from his vows. Now the affair had grown from a merely Saxon affair to one of European-wide concern. Polarisation was proceeding apace, and he found he could not go along with outright opposition to papal authority. The formal excommunication of Luther, immediately in view now, was more than he could face. He decided to retire at the next triennial Chapter. However, this was not due till April 1521, and by July 1520 he could stand the pace no longer. He called the Chapter early, held it at Eisleben at the end of August and duly resigned. Wenceslas Link was elected Vicar General in his stead. Link was a friend and firm but prudent supporter of Luther. They had known each other in the cloister since 1508 and Link was convinced in principle of the rightness of Luther’s position, though like others he had tried a few weeks previously to persuade Luther not to publish the Appeal to the Nobility. The election of Link indicated the balance of opinion in favour of Luther within the Order.
Miltitz was present at the Chapter, still worrying away at the Luther case. He persuaded Link and Staupitz to ask Luther to write a letter to the Pope in a personal sense, and if possible to send him some writing as well. Luther was always willing to listen to reason, and always willing to let his fluent pen flow; and he had no personal animosity against the Medici Pope himself but only against the whole system of papal procedures. Miltitz asked Luther to come and see him at Lichtenberg about the matter. Luther wrote to Spalatin describing the meeting on 11 October. ‘We agreed . . . that I should publish a letter in German and Latin addressed to the Pope, as a preface to some brief writing. . . I am to relate my whole story and show that I never wanted to attack the Pope personally, and throw all the blame on Eck.’ Twenty-one months previously, Miltitz had decided to throw Tetzel to the dogs in furtherance of a peace plan; now it was Eck’s turn — but this time it was to be too late. However, Luther complied with his plan, and with his usual dispatch composed a remarkable letter and to go with it a fine piece, The Freedom of a Christian Man, often considered the most successful of all his writings.
It is not known if the Pope ever saw the letter Luther wrote. He would have been shocked if he did, for it was written as from one Christian brother to another. It was without rancour, though not without deliberate irony; and it had all the disarming qualities of Luther at his best — it was factual, honest, logical, while clothed in the fairly strong language of current fashion.
To Leo, Pope at Rome, Martin Luther wishes salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Living among the monsters of this age with whom I am now for the third year waging war, I am compelled occasionally to look up to you, Leo, most blessed father . . . Indeed, since you are occasionally regarded as the sole cause of my battles I cannot help thinking of you. . . Your godless flatterers have compelled me to appeal from your See to a future council, despite the decrees of your predecessors Pius and Julius, who with a foolish tyranny forbade such an appeal. Nevertheless, I have never alienated myself from Your Blessedness to such an extent that I should not with all my heart wish you and Your See every blessing. . . I beg you to give me a hearing after I have vindicated myself by this letter, and believe me when I say that I have never thought ill of you personally . . . I have truly despised your See, the Roman Curia, which however, neither you nor anyone else can deny is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was. . . Meanwhile, you, Leo, sit like a lamb in the midst of wolves. . . How can you alone oppose these monsters? Even if you would call to your aid three or four well-learned and thoroughly reliable cardinals, what are these among so many? You would all be poisoned [a sharp reference to an attempt to poison Leo X which had in fact been made three years previously] . . . If Bernard felt sorry for Eugenius [St Bernard wrote a book on the Pope’s Duties at the time of Pope Eugenius III, 1145-53] at a time when the Roman See which, although even then corrupt, was ruled with better prospects for improvement, why should not we complain who for three hundred years have had such a great increase of corruption and wickedness?
Luther then related how Cardinal Cajetan failed to make peace with him and how Miltitz, whose previous efforts were defeated by Eck, had now tried again by suggesting to the Augustinians that Luther should write to the Pope himself.
Therefore, my Father Leo, do not listen to those sirens who pretend that you are not mere man but a demigod so that you may command and require whatever your wish. . . . You are a servant of servants [the famous title of the Pope, servas servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God], and more than all other men you are in a most miserable and dangerous position . These men are your enemies . . . who exalt you above a council and the church universal . . . who ascribe to you alone the right of interpreting Scripture . . . If men do not see that I am your friend and your most humble subject in this matter, there is One who understands and judges [John 8.50].
Finally, he said he was sending a gift of some writing, small, but ‘unless I am mistaken it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form, provided you grasp its meaning. I am a poor man and have no other gift to offer, and you do not need to be enriched by any but a spiritual gift. May the Lord Jesus preserve you forever. Amen. Wittenberg, 6 September 1520.’
Luther translated the letter into German and had it printed and published in Wittenberg as a separate pamphlet on 4 November. The piece that had gone with it, and of which he himself thought so highly, was also published in German a little later. The Freedom of a Christian Man is a kind of epitome of Luther’s doctrine. As he told Spalatin in a letter about this time, he was ‘feeling so free now’. Having got down on paper all that was on his conscience about the Church and Society, he was able to express the heart of his understanding of Christianity almost entirely without the violence which crept into other texts. It was a moment of special freedom — the trammels had fallen away, new responsibilities had not yet accrued. It was the kind of writing he excelled in, at once practical, spiritual and intellectually authentic. The temptation or need to express his aggression fell away. In the heart of the mystery, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, understood as the Christ, the Word, in the God of Mercy he found total assuagement for his bitterness and aggression.
Using the traditional dialectical method he took up two statements of St Paul from the New Testament; 1. ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.’ 2. ‘A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.’ From practical, well-judged statements that the liturgy, church services, have their essential place, as symbolic acts, he ran the full gamut through to existential, even mystical, affirmations. ‘A Christian lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbour. Yet he remains always in God and in his love, as Christ says in John: "Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man."’
There was something of Renaissance individualism about the freedom with which Luther penned this piece, but equally of old-fashioned Bernadine, conscientious bluntness about the letter he wrote to the Pope. The die was cast. His new Latin piece on the Church was just coming from the presses. If the German Appeal to the Nobility, written to the propertied, pedigreed, privileged and powerful in the German lands with their varieties of inherited responsibilities, created consternation, the new Latin piece written to the educated of all Europe brought the realisation that nothing less than a religious revolution was afoot.
Luther had been lecturing and preaching for eight or nine years now on the distinctive message of Jesus of Nazareth. But the body of ‘believers’ in Jesus, the ‘Church’, the ‘community’ or ‘congregation of Christians, sometimes identified as the spiritual arm’ of Christendom, the whole Christian world —about this, he had only adumbrated his ideas, attacking this anomaly here, or swiping at that obvious corruption there, albeit with a virulence and sharpness beginning to look unique. As in the case of Huss in the previous century, and of so many others in the sixteenth century, the sight of so many activities which seemed to assort ill with the nature of a ‘Church’ as it might be discerned in the text of the New Testament, set him searching for a description of the Church which would fit the words of Jesus and his first followers.
But Luther was unable to sit down and write a quiet academic piece, De Ecclesia, on the Church. It had to be polemic. He set it in a typical late medieval metaphor, taken from the endemic anti-papalism stretching back to Joachim of Fiore, using the ‘Old Testament’ metaphor of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’. About the year 600 BC, Jerusalem was attacked and taken by the Babylonians. The Jews were deported to Babylon, where they remained for about sixty years. Luther entitled his piece De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praeludium (Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church). It was on the captivity of the Church to the papacy, a veritable deportation of the Christian people to the papal tyranny. But the thirty thousand words he wrote were only a kind of overview of it all, so it was a ‘Prelude.’
‘Farewell, Rome’, Luther had written a few months previously, in a kind of desperate apocalyptic, almost ecstatic, half with terror, half with joy. And this new piece was a spelling out of that farewell, a farewell indeed to some of the most obvious characteristics of the Roman Church. Much of it Luther had said before. But here his ideas were collected together and remoulded, poured out again within a single scheme. Some of the crucial points were those which are once again being anxiously turned over by the twentieth-century Catholic Church — the nature of the Christian priesthood the proper understanding of the eucharist, as an act of the Christian Church, the nature of sacraments and the proper place of ‘the Word of God’.
In Luther’s scheme there was one overriding sacrament, that of the Word, the preaching of the good news of the Word of God found in the Bible, and subsidiary to it two major sacraments of the Church, baptism and eucharist and one minor sacrament, that of confession of sins and forgiveness. The eucharist was emphatically never to be looked on as a ‘good work’, never a sacrifice or an act of man which would earn him merit. On the contrary, when men celebrated it, it was the self-disclosure of God to man. The Church, Luther thought, had ruined it into what amounted to a piece of magic. He was struggling towards an understanding of it which would enable it to be understood, (to use today’s quasi-anthropological terms), as an elemental gesture from the heart of humanity, from that divinely oriented spirit which is its soul and therefore also a self-disclosure of God. One could say that Luther was struggling to free himself from the arid Western conceptualism which could not adequately describe either the gesture as a human rite or the spiritual theology needed to interpret it, let alone the simple Greek text based on the Aramaic words that went with the original gestures.
What really shocked people was the statement that all baptized Christians were ‘priests’; they needed a licence from the community to act liturgically but nothing more. They needed no sacramental ‘ordination’. Luther believed that this ‘ordination’ ceremony, which he had gone through with such enormous anxiety at the cathedral in Erfurt, was wrongly understood, like the Mass itself as a kind of reverse image of the pagan priesthoods and pagan sacrifices. Although not directly connected with it doctrinally, the public symbols of this belief were the demand that the laity share in the consecrated wine as well as the consecrated bread at the Eucharist, and that priests should be allowed to marry — the latter a demand which is again being made today.
This demand was now winging its way all over Germany, for Luther’s understanding of universal Christian priesthood had been a major basis for his turning to the nobility. All those who could read German were told there by the famous Wittenberg Doctor of Theology:
All Christians possess a truly spiritual status and among them there is no distinction save that of function. This so because we possess one baptism, one faith, one gospel, and are equal as Christians. Anyone who has emerged from the waters of baptism may pride himself on already being ordained priest, bishop or pope, although not everyone may be suited to exercise such an office. Therefore let every congregation elect a devout citizen to be their priest.
Luther was not the only person to feel utterly dissatisfied with society as it was. Sir Thomas More, Under-Sheriff of London, kicking his heels during a long stay at Antwerp, on behalf of the merchants of the City of London in 1515 had written his Dialogue about Utopia (a pun in Greek which could mean either Nowhere, or Good Place). It was written in such a way that it was in fact impossible to know what More’s own opinions were. But, in general, he was speaking up for the option and practical possibilities of a ‘true’ Catholic Christianity, and against the sinful Christian vices of the (Christian) rulers and citizens of the day by showing the ‘natural’ virtues of ‘good pagans’ (who, incidentally, he depicted as practising euthanasia, an option for ‘reasonable’ men unenlightened by Christian faith) in his imaginary faraway republic.
Another alternative view was given by Erasmus in his Colloquia, composed to show how a classically-minded Christian might deport himself in the course of the day’s work — sweetness and light pervaded the scene. Both writers wished to purge the Church rather than to reform it in the radical Lutheran way. More ended up dying for the ancient papal traditional Church in defiance of the illegality and hypocrisy of a monarch who, ten years earlier, had got More to help him in a text defending the Pope against Luther. Erasmus remained the detached and increasingly saddened observer committed, however, to the cause of scholarship which he served to the end with impeccable determination.
But neither More’s relatively enlightened Catholicism, nor Erasmus’s quiet following of the gospel, both within the bounds of the old institution, measured up to the excitement being felt by so many men and women as they read the New Testament, brooded on it, compared it with the teaching and life-style of the monks, nuns and priests they knew. Neither responded successfully to the practical expectations, economic, political and religious, which continued to grow among poor and rich alike. The Gospel spoke to a man individually from the page, and in worship, and stirred him to join his fellows in being a ‘true’ Christian. So eventually it was Luther, and Tyndale, and many other reformers and translators who became the new leaders. Erasmus and More were remembered as fine men, one a great humanist scholar, the liberal par exemple, the other, the author of Utopia, Lord Chancellor of England, and a martyr of the Catholic Church, an honest, practical lawyer determined to stand firm before a power-mad sovereign; both were unable to harness the complex social energies, at the same time idealistic and disillusioned, which sought for a radical change.
Resentment and anger, always lying only half dormant, ready to be roused in many people, found a perfect symbol and stimulant in the anger and furious resentment which Luther expressed in his polemical works. These emotions continued to be expressed by him for another twenty-six years, till the end of his life, and became a kind of cliche, almost a way of life. But they reached a special first climax as he responded to the Bull of Excommunication. It was partly a rage of utter misery — the misery of a depression due to emotional and intellectual disillusion. He had been misled. The leaders of the most important group in the world were not, after all. serious. It was a rage of disbelief and disillusion — he, Martin Luther, a ‘heretic’, because the Pope and his men had not kept faith. ‘Did Satan ever speak so impiously against God from the beginning of’ the world?’, Luther asked Spalatin, groaning under the horror of seeing the Bull Exsurge which had been delivered to the University on 11 October and shown to him that day: ‘The sheer extent of the blasphemies in the Bull overwhelms me. . . I am convinced. . .that the last day is almost here. The reign of anti-Christ is beginning.’ But he was yet able on that 11 October to go off to Lichtenberg and deal in notably pragmatic style with Miltitz.
In late September and early October, Eck published the Bull in the episcopal towns of Merseburg, Meissen and Brandenburg. He had added to it, with permission, names of other accomplices, including Karlstadt. Attempts to publish it elsewhere brought strong local resistance. Even in Leipzig the students shouted rude songs after him in the street, and the Bull remained unannounced there and at other places, including conservative Erfurt, where it was thrown in the river. Luther soon published Against the Accursed Bull of Anti-Christ, sending it to Spalatin On 4 November, saying: ‘This Bull seems to have had its miserable conception at some all-night carousal of a horde of prostitutes; or it may be it was just jumbled together in the raging dog days.’ He was not the last theologian to use the Roman summer to explain the poverty of a papal text.
The Bull stated that money and a safe conduct had been offered to Luther at Augsburg, enough to take him to Rome. This, Luther stated, was not true. But if they wanted to send money, let them send enough for him to go to Rome accompanied by twenty thousand foot and five thousand horse. ‘In this manner I shall guarantee that faith is kept with me, and this on account of Rome, which devours its inhabitants, never having kept faith nor keeping it now, where the most sacred fathers kill their beloved sons for the love of God, and brothers destroy brothers in obedience to Christ, as is the Roman custom and style.’
Luther’s piece against the Bull was in Latin, and included the familiar theological content. But he then made a German version which was a little different. Among other things, Luther told the people that the supporters of the Pope had substituted an infallible Pope for an infallible Christendom. The usual vituperation poured forth. The Bull was defecated by Rome. The booksellers were doing tremendous business. The German Appeal to the Nobility, the Latin Prelude, and the Latin and German polemical works which followed were in intense demand, and many printers were involved. Luther’s case was coming to a final personal climax. Everyone who read, or listened to, writings read out in German was becoming increasingly excited. And now at last the young Emperor was in Europe; the October coronation in Aachen was to be followed by his first Diet, the formal consultation with the Electors and Estates of the Empire. Luther’s case was high on the agenda. Elected Emperor in the summer of 1519, young Charles Habsburg had delayed coming back to Europe from Spain for nearly a year. Finally, at the end of May 1520, he set sail from Corunna and arrived offshore at Dover on 26 May to make a courtesy call on Henry VIII and to meet for the first time his own aunt, Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s queen.
The next day was Whit Sunday, the great feast of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The King and Emperor rode together in state to Canterbury, where Katherine and the Court were. The whole district was buzzing with thousands of royal retainers, preparing for a crossing of the Channel to Calais, and the meeting of reconciliation between Henry and Francis, King of France, at the Summit Meeting, subsequently called the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Before that, there were two days’ dancing, feasting and jousting at which Henry participated with his usual fervour, while Charles, a pious, reserved twenty-year-old, remained a spectator; with his protruding lower jaw, his adenoidal speech, and his reserved and authoritative demeanour he fitted uneasily into Henry’s pleasure-filled world. Henry left for Dover and Calais. The Emperor crossed to his lands in the Netherlands by way of Sandwich, but remained in reach of Calais; his advisers had no wish that Henry and Francis should entirely surrender the enmity traditional between the two countries, lest they should combine against the Empire. At Calais, between 10 and 14 July, Henry and Charles met again, in splendour only slightly less than that of the Cloth of Gold. Erasmus was present. being an official councillor for both parties. The interlude was then over, and Charles departed for Antwerp and the business of his territories and the Empire.
It was at Antwerp in late September that the Emperor received Hieronymus Aleander, papal emissary, charged with publication of the papal Bull, and with arranging official burnings of Luther’s writings. The two men took to each other. They both spoke French. Charles had the innate conservatism of a scion of an ancient house; for him, heresy was the same kind of creature as secular revolt. Aleander, charged by the Pope with putting down the new heresy, was given cordial support and received an order from the imperial executive to confiscate and burn Luther’s books in the Netherlands and Burgundy. But then he found that the local officials were not so co-operative; a legal objection prevented a burning in Antwerp. He went to Louvain where the conservatives were in power at the University and were delighted to have a burning, with the bonfire lit by the Public Executioner in the market place. But the minority, among whom were the now almost venerable Erasmus and many of the students, was numerous. And they knew Aleander well; he was a humanist of sorts himself, had learnt Greek and had actually been working at the great publishing establishment of the printer Aldus in Venice in 1508 when Erasmus had stayed there, Later graduating to the Rectorship of Paris University, he had turned to diplomacy and the papal service. At Louvain, the students brought works of scholastic theology along to the fire and turned the occasion into something rather different from what was intended. Bitter complaints were made by Erasmus at the irregular procedure which alone had enabled the burning. However, at Liege where Aleander had once been Chancellor to the local Bishop the burning went without a hitch.
From Antwerp the imperial court moved to Aachen to prepare for the coronation of the Emperor, which was duly held On 23 October. Elector Frederick, along with Spalatin and the Saxon court had set out in late August on a slow journey to the Rhineland arriving in Cologne in early October. They remained there on account of plague in Aachen. The Emperor came on to Cologne to pay the traditional visit to the shrine of ‘The Three Kings’ (the magi of St Luke’s gospel). Finally it was on a day late in October in the precincts of a church that the young, French-speaking Emperor met his elderly Saxon Reichsvikar. Charles Habsburg had learnt how to behave in such a situation. He deferred a little to the old man and told him through an interpreter that the first Diet would open at Worms in January, and that his sister would come soon from Spain — a marriage was being arranged between her and the Elector’s ultimate successor, his nephew, young Duke John. The language barrier made a quick personal rapprochement difficult, but they each played their well-defined roles with genial courtesy.
Aleander found some difficulty in getting access to the Elector in Cologne, but eventually managed to waylay him at Mass. At first he was pleased since the Elector said he would consider what he had to say about the Luther case. But he soon found what a mountainous task it was going to be to out-manoeuvre the wily old Saxon into surrendering either Luther or Luther’s case. The old man insisted on seeing documents, on following correct procedures, and stood on his rights as senior Elector. He told Aleander that Luther should go before an independent tribunal as he had offered to do for so long. That was anathema to Aleander in the case of a man already judged by Rome. To accede to it would lose him his job.
During his stay in Cologne, the Elector requested Erasmus, still at the Imperial Court, for his advice and was told that the trouble was that Luther had committed two sins: he had touched the Pope’s crown, and the monks’ bellies. Erasmus was persuaded to put his recommendations into print, so he set down the Axiomata, among which were the following: ‘Good Christians . . . are less shocked by Luther’s principles than by the tone of the papal Bull. Luther is right to ask for impartial judges. . . The Emperor would be ill-advised to begin his reign over-rigorously . . . Luther has still not been refuted.’ The Elector found a somewhat ambiguous taste left in his mouth. A decade later, Luther told his friends that the Elector had given Erasmus a damask coat on this occasion and had said to Spalatin: ‘What sort of a man is he? One does not know where one is with him.’
Luther’s Appeal and Offer was on display in the town, with its appealing tone asking for an honest appraisal of his writings by the standard of Scripture. Aleander was bewildered and disheartened by the apparent lack of any real, widespread, anxiety about the Luther case. The official bonfires continued to be chancy. At Cologne, the fire was held successfully, but only at the cost of giving it no publicity. At Mainz, Aleander himself barely escaped a stoning by students. In shops he saw pictures of Luther with a halo and a dove hovering over his head. In the street, men recognising an Italian, rested hand on sword and muttered audible curses. Lodgings were cold and crude. ‘Nine-tenths of the Germans shout "Long Live Luther", and the other tenth ‘Death to Rome"’, Aleander reported to his masters.
The Electoral party returned to Saxony for a few weeks, before setting out again for Worms. In Wittenberg, as well as the ordinary affairs of the University and the ceaseless activities of writing and publishing, Luther was engaged in meeting people of great importance and receiving a new batch of promises of support. There were surprising gifts of cash, conscience money from those who in their hearts wanted to support Luther but could not manage to do it openly. A hundred florins came from the Chancellor of the Bishop of Naumburg, who was about to hold a conference with Eck— the latter having requested permission to publish the Bull.
The ultimate heir to the Saxon Electorate, Duke John, seventeen-year-old nephew of Frederick, whom Spalatin had tutored, had written pledging his support to Luther, who replied with a letter which showed his usual deference to authority, expressed his gratitude, and told the young Duke something of what was going on. Luther dedicated a commentary on the Magnificat to him.
Not long after Spalatin’s return from Cologne, he received a letter from Luther about another kind of book burning: ‘On 10 December 1520, at nine o’clock in the morning, all the following papal books were burned in Wittenberg at the eastern gate near the Church of the Holy Cross: the Decretum, the Decretals, . . .and the most recent Bull of Leo X; likewise the Summa Angelica, Eck’s Chrysopassus . . . This was done so that the incendiary papists may see that it doesn’t take much to burn books they cannot refute. This is the news here. . .’ It was the day on which the time limit for Luther to recant ran out, since he had seen the Bull on 10 October. He had now for certain to be declared an excommunicate heretic.
Melancthon had put up a notice the day before and a good crowd had collected for the bonfire. As the day wore on, the students became obstreperous and brought along dummies of the Pope and more books. It was another of those irreversible actions. It was the Canon Law that Luther was burning. Luther’s book of books was the great book of the Word, the Bible, not the rule book of the organisation which claimed to have the divine right to control its celebration.
It was an ending both formal and popular to Luther’s career within the old institution; it was also a reply to the fires which Aleander had set going. It signalled the beginning of an avalanche of anti-Roman publications. Among numerous polemical texts of the following three months, one that went through ten swift printings was Luther’s German language pamphlet, Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples were Burned. In it he maintained that Canon Law was in the end supported solely by the false idea that the Pope is above all human judgement.
The excommunication and the burning of books on both sides shared in stimulating the flood of pamphlets which now began to pour out from the presses from many hands. Luthers were in the lead when it came to quantity and virulence — but in the latter quality, many were not far behind. Most famous of the other authors was Hutten, who produced a biting satire on the Papal Bull, some patriotic German poetry and an open letter actually calling the Emperor and German princes to arms against the Romans. More pamphlets also began to appear on the papal side, now that Luther had declared himself in favour of revolutionary changes. Many humanists, as well as Erasmus, began to speak with an uncertain voice, wishing to support Luther and oppose the Pope but hoping to stop short of violence and indeed of the rapid change that Luther spoke for. Wolfgang Capito was one of these. No longer working for Froben, he had taken service with the Archbishop of Mainz and sent Luther a long letter in December giving him a gleeful account of the cynical reception at Court of satires on the Roman party, and jokes about Aleander and his bonfires. But it was all written in a context which advised Martin to work for peace and be patient, in a Latin both silvered and somewhat rough in spirit. And again Crotus, now Rector of Erfurt University, wrote warning Luther of the physical danger in which he stood. The Elector of Brandenburg called at Wittenberg on his way to Worms. More friends sent money.
A network of pragmatism surrounded Luther with the manoeuvring of those whose actions were all dictated by the ‘art of the possible’ and personal interest. Luther felt himself increasingly driven to act on principle. And to drive him on to it were, on the one hand, his own inner anger and, on the other, in total contrast, a certainty which had about it the deeply peaceful assurance of the Word. In his sermons in the parish church he often made little or no reference to public affairs and his own battles; in one at this time, he said: ‘He who calls on Christ in faith. . . the Holy Spirit most certainly comes to him. When the Spirit comes, look, he makes a pure, free, cheerful, glad and loving heart, a heart which is simply righteous, seeking no reward, fearing no punishment. Such a heart is holy for the sake of holiness and goodness alone, and does everything with joy.’ A genuine religious note, authentically Christian was struck.
Luther awaited some kind of final catastrophe.
Up to now one has only played around in this case; now something serious is at hand . . . All these things are now completely in the hand of Almighty God . . . There is such tremendous turmoil that I think it cannot be quieted except by the arrival of the Last Day.
So wrote Luther to Staupitz, who was trying unsuccessfully to keep out of trouble away in Salzburg. Luther began this letter of 14 January: ‘When we were at Augsburg and discussed my case, Most Reverend Father, you said to me among other things, "Remember, Friar, you began this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." I have accepted this word not as coming from you but as spoken to me through you, and I have kept it firmly in mind ever since.’
Staupitz had written only ten days before to Link: ‘Martin has undertaken a hard task and acts with courage, enlightened by God. I stammer and am a child, needing milk.’ Cardinal Lang had been exerting pressure on Staupitz in totalitarian style to stay with the orthodox line, and to sign a legally witnessed document that he agreed that Martin’s teachings were heretical. Staupitz gave in. He had never envisaged revolution. His submission was made public. Luther protested in an anguished letter of 9 February: ‘If Christ loves you, he will make you revoke that declaration. You should have stood up for Christ. . . You are too yielding, I am too stiff-necked . . . Dear Father, the present crisis is graver than many think. . . The word of Christ is not the word of peace but the word of a sword. . . I fear you will take a middle course between Christ and the Pope. . . Your submission has saddened me not a little.’ It was a catalytic time.
From December to March, Luther was in violent controversy with his enemy, the secular priest Jerome Emser of Leipzig, whom he always called ‘The Goat’ because Emser’s coat of arms was adorned with a goat. Emser attacked Luther’s Appeal to the Christian Nobility, and Luther replied with To the Goat in Leipzig. Emser replied with a furious, To the Bull in Wittenberg, and Luther came again at the end of January with Concerning the Answer of the Goat in Leipzig. This was followed by Reply to the Raging Bull in Wittenberg. Luther sent a further blast at the end of March. Answer to the Hyperchristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser in Leipzig — including some ‘Thoughts regarding his Companion the Fool Murner’. It began: ‘Dear Goat, don’t butt me’, and after much badinage it got down to serious matters; but such exchanges were the small change of the public scene, half entertainment.
In early January the Elector was back in the Rhineland at Worms with his court. The Diet was due to open before the end of the month. The Luther case was being fiercely canvassed. The Elector was shown the formal Edict of Excommunication, Decet Romanum, which had arrived from Rome. He returned it swiftly to the sender, refusing to receive it on grounds of its inaccuracy, since it named the Elector himself as one of those guilty of inciting Luther to heresy. He insisted that he had never taken any responsibility for the teachings of Friar Martin Luther, though he did believe those teachings had never been properly examined. The document ‘was returned to Rome and rewritten omitting the Elector’s name and also Hutten’s, the final and definitive version being issued in May. But of the formal excommunication of Luther there was no doubt. And it immediately affected the young Emperor, made him the more determined not to have Luther examined at the Diet as some were suggesting. He tore up in anger the letter which Luther had written to him in the autumn, which had only just reached his hands. Aleander ‘was present and picked up the bits, for his Roman report.
Aleander began to work very hard along with the Emperor’s Confessor Fr Glapion to persuade the Electors that the Diet should issue an Edict in support of the excommunication handing Luther over to the ecclesiastical authorities. Glapion like Aleander, was a man of some sophistication a humanist of sorts who admitted the justice of much of Luther’s earlier writings, and was under the impression at an earlier stage that Luther might be persuaded to drop some of his provocative statements. The Electors were not well disposed towards Roman inspired demands, and were only too conscious of general unrest and of the widespread support for Luther, who was fast becoming a popular focus and symbol of every public dissatisfaction. A further difficulty facing Aleander was that the Emperor needed the support of the Electors in raising an army with which to travel down to Italy to claim his coronation by the Pope as Holy Roman Emperor, and to do battle with France in Northern Italy. Numerous sub-plots revolved around the numerous embassies from France, England, Poland, Hungary, etc.
Eventually, the Emperor was faced with such widespread insistence that Luther should come to the Diet, that he acceded to it. He had a personal and eirenic letter drawn up, in the form of a safe conduct requesting Luther to come to the Diet. However, he then felt free to make his own imperial will known and issued an Edict on his personal responsibilities, banning all Luther’s writings, whether good or bad. Aleander, shocked by the summoning of Luther to Worms, was able to write a delighted letter to Rome; wagonloads of Luther’s books which had come over from the Frankfurt Spring Book Fair would have to go back. Three weeks later, to Aleander’s despair, the Emperor sent the Imperial Herald off to Wittenberg with the Safe Conduct, to fetch Luther. The Herald was a patriotic Rhinelander, one Kaspar Sturm and just the kind of man who would enable Luther’s journey to turn into a kind of triumphant progress.
Worms was overcrowded, uncomfortable, swarming with traders and prostitutes, and far from secure. Only a day’s march away was a substantial body of fighting men kept at the castle of von Sickengen, where Hutten also was. If they had been so minded, they could have put the town to massacre. However, Aleander and Glapion went over to the Ehrenburg castle with a substantial bag of gold, and bills for more. They returned with promises from Hutten both of freedom from threat and of service to the Emperor when and as required.
Luther remained in Wittenberg, but he was in constant contact with Spalatin and received the changing and contradictory reports of the progress of the three-sided tussle between the Emperor’s men, the Pope’s men, and the Germans. He assured Spalatin and the Elector himself that he was quite willing to come to Worms as long as he had a safe conduct and as long as he was not being summoned simply for the purpose of recantation. He had enough work, he said, ‘for three of me for six years and then it would not get done . . . But I am well and have leisure time.’
Spalatin had the usual practical questions to ask Luther. What was to be done about confessors who treated the reading of books by Luther the ex-communicate as a mortal sin? An Instruction to Penitents concerning the Forbidden Books of Dr M Luther was the result, delivered to the printer on 17 February and published ten days later. Luther used the traditional advice that people should follow their conscience and not confess what they did not consider to be a sin, and priests should not go ferreting around trying to give someone a false conscience. If a priest would not grant absolution, one should put up with the situation; God would not withhold grace. Luther was anxious that the institution of Confession, which he valued highly, should not be abused; nevertheless, one did not have to pretend that authority for it went back to the New Testament: ‘For although private confession is one of the most salutary practices, we know perfectly well that the authority on which it is based is quite shaky.’
Three days before Easter there was a flurry at the gates of Wittenberg, and the rumours were finally confirmed. The Imperial Herald was there, with a letter for Dr Luther from the Emperor: ‘Honourable, dear and pious Martin, we and the Estates of the Holy Roman Empire. . . desired to hear you on the doctrines and books put forth by you over a period of time. We order you to come here and grant you in our name and the name of the Empire every security and guarantee as the safe conduct here enclosed witnesses. . .’ Once again, things seemed to be turning in Luther’s favour. The Diet was, at any rate for the moment, simply ignoring the Roman excommunication. Luther stayed on in Wittenberg for Easter, to complete his obligations of preaching and celebrating the Feast Day of the Raising of Jesus, ‘The Resurrection’.
The little party set out on the Tuesday following Easter. The town rose to the occasion and provided a cart and horses. With Luther went Fr Amsdorf of the University and Cathedral, Dr Jerome Schurff the lawyer, a young friar, Johann Petzensteiner, and a young humanist nobleman from Pomerania, Peter Suaven. The Herald and his companion led on horses. Luther was setting out from a Wittenberg solidly behind him; the solidarity which included the practical men of the Town Council, the University professors and students and many priests was rooted deep in the locality through his blood relations, including his own parents who had recently been present in Wittenberg at Melancthon’s wedding.
It was another Spring journey through Thuringia. The journey turned out as Aleander had feared, something close to a triumph at times. Yet it was a strange progress, an excommunicate friar moving across Germany to the first Diet of the young Emperor. Leipzig received Luther honourably with a gift of wine. Luther had been nervous about Erfurt, with the old conservative university men still in power there. He need not have feared. Long before he reached the city, a party of young students met him, having come out to bring him in triumph to the town. He stayed there the Saturday night, 6 April, and preached to a crammed church on Sunday – so much so that the balcony creaked under the weight. Luther told them not to worry, it was only the devil trying to stop him. Four elegies were produced for him by his friend the celebrated German humanist, Helius Eobanus Hessus: Magna piis pro te Germania stabit in armis (Great Germany), piously armed, will stand by you. He moved on, preaching again to enthusiastic welcomes at Gotha and Eisenach. Luther wrote to Melancthon that the party were ‘keeping the Augustinian Rule, and discussing a pious subject, to wit the Book of Joshua as image of the Gospel’. But the journey did him no good. ‘Surrounded by men, drinks and chatter’ as he put it, each evening, he became ill, and remained so for a week.
Spalatin was worried for Luther’s arrival in Worms; he might not be safe there. Luther replied to him from Frankfurt, two days’ journey north of Worms: ‘I am coming, my Spalatin, although Satan has done everything to hinder me with more than one illness. All the way from Eisenach I have been unwell’ — he was getting his usual attack of constipation, but also some further trouble, headaches and exhaustion. He had been bled. He ended the letter: ‘So prepare the lodgings.’ One more attempt was made, this time by friends, to head him off. At Oppenheim a small market town a few miles north of Worms, Martin Bucer who had left the Dominicans (with permission) and was now chaplain to von Sickingen, arrived with a plan that Luther should turn off into the hills and go up to the Ehrenberg castle, where the knights von Sickingen and Hutten would protect him and give him a power base from which to negotiate. Luther brushed the offer aside, with thanks.
The entry into Worms on Tuesday, 16 April, was an event witnessed by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people of all classes. Many people on foot and horse had gone out to meet Luther’s party. The excitement was intense. Aleander reported that he had heard that some priests tried to reach out and touch, even kiss, Luther’s habit. Before he went into the lodgings provided by the knights of Rhodes, he turned, said Aleander, and surveyed the crowds, ‘with his demonic eyes’. Luther himself believed that his affair was one of battle for ‘the Word’ and against Satan.