Chapter 13: The New World
Luther bustled in and out of the Friary, as busy as ever. Meals were eaten swiftly, sometimes alone, sometimes with Prior Brisger, the only other remaining friar. Food for the two priests and any visitors was prepared by Luther’s ever present servant, the ex-student Seeberger, and other occasional serving hands. There was an emptiness about the Friary where until three years ago there had been meals in common, chanted Office in church, and a community routine. Now life was haphazard. Luther’s bed was not made in a year, he said later, and became foul with sweat. He just fell into it at the end of each day. Occasionally, he would eat with one of his friends in the town, and drink — he boasted of his growing capacity. With it was also growing his own girth. Fatter, he was also less well, increasingly plagued with minor illnesses which threatened to become bigger.
He began to have a ringing in the ears, and the first signs of gall stones. Then there was the malaise of threatening depression, ‘attacks’ of despair, temptations from the devil as he experienced them. At night, a cloud of terrible sadness often enveloped him — then he would see only the bad things, the increasing violence in the countryside, the warring of the political authorities, the failure to get people to live by the Word, enemies to the left, enemies to the right, and his own unfaithfulness. He would turn and shout at the devil, and speak a verse of the Psalms. ‘Lord you are my stronghold and my only God.’ Then as he recounted, he broke wind, farted at the devil —take that you swine, you can’t stand up to my God, to the Word, to Christ. Or, in worse agony, he would express his feeling of despair directly to God. The last ‘freedom’ he now had was terrifying. He was fighting phantoms. Every battle had been won. He was left with himself, God — and the idiotic chaos of ‘Satan.’
On 5 February 1525 he preached in the parish church, and spoke from his own anguished heart:
Christ makes a special point of saying that he is gentle. It is as though he were saying: ‘I know how to deal with sinners. I myself have experienced what it is to have a timid, terrified conscience.’ As the letter to the Hebrews says, he ‘in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning’. . .He says ‘My yoke is easy and my burden light’ . . . It is called gentle, sweet and easy because he himself helps us carry it and when it grows too heavy for us he shoulders the burden along with us. . . then one has a good companion and, as the saying goes: ‘With a good companion the singing is good.’ When one person alone cannot carry a load at all well, two can carry it easily.
People were beginning to say something like that, in another sense, about Luther’s household. They were asking why he did not marry. Luther had to admit himself that it was an odd business. Two years previously he had received in Wittenberg nine nuns who had managed to escape from a convent near Grimma. Since then he had been operating what amounted to a marriage bureau, matching them up with husbands in Wittenberg and district. The escape had been effected by means of a herring merchant, who always brought his barrels of fish into the convent in a covered wagon. ‘A cart load of vestal virgins has just arrived in the town,’ wrote a student. Some were lodged with families, others in the empty rooms at the Friary. What more eligible bachelor was there than Luther himself? A noble lady had pointed this out to Spalatin in November 1524, and the latter passed the comment on to Luther, who replied:
I am not surprised about such gossip. . . give her my thanks and tell her I am in God’s hand as a creature whose heart God may change and change again, kill and revive again at any moment. Nevertheless, the way I feel now. . . I shall not marry. It is not that I do not feel my flesh or my masculine sexuality, since I am neither wood nor stone, but my mind is far removed from marriage, since I daily expect death and the punishment due to a heretic, so I shall not limit God’s work in me, nor shall I rely on my own heart. Yet I hope God does not let me live alone.
In the turmoil of public affairs it was still likely enough that the turn of events would enable the law officers to arrive at Wittenberg and carry him off, and it would be welcome enough, for it would be the end of problems too big for solution. It was no time to think of marrying. In any case he felt no spirit for the married life. He had lived by the Rule and kept his distance from women. Sexual tension was sometimes a problem, but he did not think to solve it in married life. In any case, perhaps the world would end soon. The Turks were ever threatening and he might die himself.
But a seed had been sown, and began to live — a barely expressed movement towards filling the emptiness. Once it started to grow, it went quickly — and took root in his mind, doubtless emotionally and sexually, but less so than apocalyptically and polemically: very well, he would show them. He realised that his closest friends might well be shocked — he was by now on a pedestal, someone special, the leader who should not marry. So he said little about his thoughts. If he did do it, he would present them with a fait accompli. In mid April, he teased Spalatin in a letter encouraging him to marry, saying of himself it was strange that ‘a famous lover like me does not get married’ and referring to the ex-nuns who had been of material help in the Friary: ‘I have had three wives simultaneously. . . but you are a sluggish lover who does not dare to become a husband of even one woman. Watch out that I, who have no thought of marriage at all, do not one day overtake you . . . just as God usually does what is least expected.’
As the spring lengthened, the violence in the country worsened rapidly, the Elector became more ill, and all things seemed to be moving to some terrible crisis. Then the Count of Mansfeld, near his old home, invited Luther and Melancthon to go and organise a school in Eisleben. While any journey was now dangerous, it would be an opportunity to preach to the peasants en route through Thuringia. Luther decided to go, and took Melancthon in his party. They found unrest everywhere, and Luther wrote Admonition to Peace, which eventually appeared too late to influence those peasants who were already committed to massive violence by extremist leaders. In Nordlingen, where Karlstadt had been for a time, Luther’s sermon was heckled. However, they reached their destination and Melancthon provided guidelines for a school there which was duly established.
On the way home they visited Luther’s parents and other relations. And suddenly the decision was made. His father was still longing to see grandchildren from Martin’s loins. There was one nun left unmarried at Wittenberg, living with the Cranachs, and she had set her cap at Luther herself. Having declined two successive suggestions for husbands after a previous abortive engagement, she had said she would consider Amsdorf — or Luther. Katherine von Bora seemed to have some spirit about her. She was twenty-six, rather old for marrying at that time.
On his return, Luther spoke to her and they agreed. The projected wedding then became part of a terrible threefold crisis in Luther’s life: the Elector was dying, and a full-scale civil war was now in progress. The ‘peasants’, who included numbers of underprivileged from the towns, were plundering the countryside massively and taking control of castles, religious houses, food supplies and some towns. The rulers were uniting their military forces to oppose and defeat them. Luther saw both sides to be in the wrong: the peasants suffered widely from injustice, but in the end they did not have the right to resort to violent revolt against the established rulers. He then issued his blistering advice to the princes to suppress the peasants ruthlessly in his Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants — this again appeared too late, when the princes were already victorious and indulging in brutal vengeance.
On 4 May, when the military issue was still in the balance Luther wrote to John Ruhel, a councillor to the Count of Mansfeld and married to a relative of Luther, about the need to resist the peasants with all necessary force, speaking also in reckless mood about something he had not confided to closer friends: ‘I would rather lose my neck a hundred times than approve. . . the peasants’ action . . . If I can manage it, before I die I shall marry my Kate to spite the devil, even though the peasants are still fighting. I trust they will not steal my courage and joy. . . Give my greetings to your dear Rib.’ Ruhel and his wife to whom Luther had mentioned Katie von Bora on his recent visit, wondered what kind of a marriage this was going to be. A marriage ‘to spite the devil’? To enable Luther to show his freedom?
Luther’s projected marriage began to look like a function of public affairs. It fitted nicely into the total crisis. The Elector died on 5 May. On 15 May, a series of encounters between the armies of the peasants and of four rulers who had united to defeat them, was capped by a final and total victory for the latter at Frankenhausen. The wedding itself had to wait a few weeks while things got sorted out subsequent to the death of the Elector, and the terrible massacres of the peasants.
Luther wrote of his deceased sovereign that he ‘departed this life in the enjoyment of his full reason, taking the sacrament in both kinds and without the Last Anointing. We buried him without Masses or vigils, but yet in a fine and noble manner.
He died of the stone. . . The signs of his death were a rainbow which Melancthon and I saw one evening last winter over Lochau [a residence of the Elector], and a child born here at Wittenberg without a head, and another with feet turned round.’ Luther’s ‘signs’ lay in the world of superstition, but his comments on the Elector were not unjust: ‘When the genius of a financier, a statesman and a hero concur in the same prince, it is a gift of God. Such a one was Frederick. He was indeed very wise . He took care of the administration himself and did not leave everything to a pack of fools.’ The ‘wisdom’ had often irritated Luther; two years previously he had written: ‘His way of acting does not please me, for it savours of I don’t know what unbelief and courtly infirmity of soul, preferring temporal to spiritual things.’
Frederick was succeeded by his brother Duke John, whose first task was to make sure that the campaign against the peasants was satisfactorily concluded, and to meet up with his allies, young Landgrave Philip of Hesse, Duke George, and Duke Henry of Brunswick. Luther was well acquainted with the new Elector and felt sufficient confidence to send him, on 15 May, a memorandum about the urgent financial and other needs of the University, a memorandum originally intended for Elector Frederick, who in the last twelve months of his life had slowed down his normally very deliberate procedures almost to stopping point. On 8 June, Spalatin was in Wittenberg with the reply, which was reassuring and thoroughly favourable — the ‘praiseworthy University’ would not be neglected, but they must be a little patient while the problems of the civil war were settled. Meanwhile, there was a substantial rise in salary for Luther and other professors; and two new courses in Law were instituted.
In spite of his letter to Ruhel about it, Luther had kept his counsel for the most part about his proposed marriage, especially from his close friends. He wanted no advice, practical or spiritual. Melancthon in particular was not consulted. Then, in the second week in June, Luther alerted his colleagues Johann Bugenhagen and Justus Jonas, Herr and Frau Cranach, and a professor of Law, Dr Apel, but not Melancthon. They foregathered with Luther and Katie von Bora in the Friary on the evening of 13 June, and the legally binding ceremony of marriage was gone through before the witnesses. Luther had ceased to believe in marriage as a true Church sacrament, and no ceremony in church was necessary as far as he was concerned. However, he and Katie immediately set about organising a grand party to include a service of rejoicing in church, for a fortnight later, to celebrate the fait accompli, when Katie would move into the Friary.
‘Indeed the rumour is true. I was married all of a sudden, to silence the mouths which are so used to complaining about me’, he wrote to Amsdorf, by now the local pastor in Magdeburg. Luther spoke of the great wish of his father for grandchildren, and then in his open German way averred: ‘I feel neither passionate love nor strong sexual desire for my wife, but I cherish her. To give a public witness to my marriage, I shall give a party next Tuesday and my parents will be there. I definitely want you to be there too. . . if you can possibly do so.’ The letter went straight on to political matters concerning the Peasants’ War. The massive totals of peasants killed were terrifying. But, meanwhile, he had taken a decisive step in his own life:
Mr George Spalatin, a servant of Christ, my dearest brother in the Lord. Grace and peace in the Lord! The wedding banquet for me and my Catherine will be held this coming Tuesday, that is after the festival of St John the Baptist. I am inviting you, my Spalatin, to it so that I may see myself that you really rejoice in my marriage. Please do not miss it. I have also written to the Marshall for some venison.
At the same time Luther dropped a note to the good citizen of Torgau who had effected the original abduction of the nuns from the convent, and asked him if he would contribute a barrel of beer.
The celebration went off well, in spite of the difficult times. All Wittenberg was there, together with many of Luther’s relations, Above all, his gnarled old father and his mother with the eyes of Luther and an air of well-earned suffering, were there. The Cranach portraits date from shortly after this time. It was a day-long affair, with a procession through the town to church, dancing and feasts. Luther aged forty-two and the bride in her mid-twenties were jolly and confident. Towards the end of the evening there was a rumpus outside, and the voice of someone Luther knew but had not seen for a year, and the last person he expected to see calling on him without notice. The old ex-Dean was standing there, Karlstadt, bedraggled and begging a night’s lodging. He had escaped at the last minute from Frankenhausen when the peasants were making their last stand. Let down over the city walls of Rothenburg in a basket, he had fled to Frankfurt-am-Main. He then decided to try to return and reside in Wittenberg under the new Elector, and wrote a letter to Luther begging forgiveness. Katie and Martin put him up for a month or two before he went off again, on a journey which took him and his wife widely over German speaking lands during the next fifteen years, and left her a crippled old woman in her late thirties when he died. ‘That unhappy man took refuge in my house. The world is not big enough for him now — he is under such pressure that he had to look for protection from his enemy.’ Luther wrote in August.
Luther’s new married status was soon accepted — though more easily by some of his cynically minded enemies than by his friends. Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, promoter of Indulgences, pluralist, who at one time thought of publicly marrying one of his mistresses, and at other times bitterly persecuted married priests in his diocese, sent Luther and Katie a wedding present of twenty guilders. Luther wanted to refuse it. Katie had it handed to a trustee. Melancthon, however, had grave reservations about the whole thing, only barely managing in public to accept the marriage with something like good grace. In late July, still unable to bring himself emotionally to terms with it, he wrote in Greek to an academic friend, Camerarius, a letter which he later regretted:
On 13 June Luther unexpectedly and without informing any of his friends in advance. . . married Bora. . . You might be amazed that at this unfortunate time. . . he turns to self-indulgence and diminishes his reputation, just when Germany has special need of his judgement and authority. . .The man is certainly pliable; and the nuns have used their arts . . . society with the nuns has softened or even titillated this honourable, high-spirited man. . . the rumour that he had previously dishonoured her is clearly a lie. . .Now that the deed is done, we must not take it too hard, or reproach him; for I think, indeed, that he was compelled by nature to marry. When I see Luther in low spirits and disturbed by his change of life, I really try to comfort him, since he has done nothing that seems to me worthy of censure or incapable of defence . . . I have hopes that this state of life may sober him down, so that he will discard the cheap buffoonery that we have so often criticised.
There was further moralising and practical comment as Melancthon came to terms with something which he was still seeing essentially as a ‘failure’ on the part of his leader. It had been a severe experience. Melancthon had written a few years before: ‘If there is anything on earth that I love it is the studies of Martin and his pious writings, but above all else I love Martin himself?’ They were soon reconciled, however, and the two families were frequently in each other’s houses.
Before it took place, the marriage had begun to look like a mere function of Luther’s public life, or his spiritual witness. And Melancthon implied in the letter just quoted that Luther was already regretting the matter in July. But the truth was otherwise. The language of public affairs and spiritual crisis had been doing duty for a language and an experience as yet unknown. Luther knew nothing of courtship, or of emotional and sexual fascination. But he very swiftly began to enjoy Katie’s presence in both bed and house, as something a good deal more than merely an adjunct to his public career. Even before the month of June was out, he began to refer to her as ‘My Lord Katie’, half mocking and half pleased as she began to take over the household with the traditional efficiency and bonhomie of the German housewife. In no time, Luther’s letters took on the joyous lineaments of the family household, and less was heard about imminent death. For a few months, his change in status was a shock to himself, and he wondered what he had done. His ‘Table Talk’ a few years later has: ‘In the first year of marriage one has strange thoughts. At table he thinks: "Previously I was alone, now I am with someone." In bed when he wakes he sees beside him a pair of pigtails which he did not see before.’ But the first phase was over swiftly. He soon felt at home with Katie, whom he nicknamed ‘The Morning Star’ because she was up so early in the morning.
Luther’s marriage had given Spalatin the courage to take the matrimonial plunge, too, shortly after Luther’s own wedding. In December, Luther wrote to him: ‘I wish you grace and peace in the Lord, and also joy with your sweetest little wife. Greet your wife kindly from me. When you have your Katherine in bed, sweetly embracing and kissing her, think: Look, this being, the best little creation of God has given me by Christ, to whom be glory and honour. I will guess the day on which you will receive this letter and that night I will make love with my wife in the same way in your memory and think specially of you. My rib and I send greetings to you and your rib.’
The letters began to be full of all sorts of domestic matters. To the erstwhile tiresome friar, Gabriel Zwilling, he wrote in January 1526, ‘My Gabriel, I am sending the measurements for the length and width of the mattress as I would like to have it made.’ Zwilling, however, was still tiresome. The letter went on: ‘Recently you returned some money by placing it in my Psalter. But since the little book was thrown into the wagon, most of the coins were lost. . . It would have been better if you had left the coins for the household servants than that I should have lost them in this way. . . Goodbye, and pray for me.’
As the first months of marriage went by, Luther had a new anxiety: perhaps they would have no children. He waited and worried. But not for long, though afterwards it remained a bad memory. Eventually, all was well. By May 1526, Katie’s condition became part of a little domestic drama. Luther wanted to give a pewter dish to his old student Agricola. Katie did not want to part with it and hid it. In a letter to Agricola, Luther said: ‘Just wait until Katie is confined to childbed; then I will steal it and carry it off.’
On 8 June, he wrote to Rulhel: ‘Please tell Mr Eisleben that yesterday at two o’clock my dear Katie by God’s great grace gave to me a Hanschen Luther. Tell him not to be surprised . . . for he should remember what it is to have a sun at this time of year.’ Luther could never resist a pun. ‘Please greet your dear sun-bearer and Eisleben’s Else. . . Just as I write, my tired Katie is calling for me.’ Two months later he was in the young husband’s seventh heaven still wondering how he could have deserved such happiness: ‘God has blessed me . . . with a healthy and vigorous son, Johann, a little Luther. Katie, my rib, sends her greetings . . . She is well and by God’s grace compliant and in every way obedient and obliging to me, more than I had ever dared to hope (thank God), so that I would not want to exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.
In some sort Luther’s life was transformed, and he began himself to live the very thing he had been preaching, family life lit by the faith of the Gospel. Katie turned out to be very able. She did some gardening which gradually blossomed into smallholding; and she encouraged Martin to turn his hands to practical matters he had almost forgotten about — letters went off asking for a quadrant and for melon seed. She enjoyed company, as Luther did. From the beginning she kept the doors open for the inevitable stream of students, who tended to linger longer and longer; and some she began to board in the Friary which the new Elector handed over to Martin and Kate. So began twenty-one years of a newly energised patriarchal household, which became famous both for the perpetual flow of wisdom and buffoonery (to quote Melancthon in a bad mood) from its head, leading eventually to the published ‘Table Talk’, famous too for its rowdiness — older people thought twice before accepting an invitation to stay.
Without Katie, one is tempted to think Luther would hardly have survived the two and half years from midsummer 1525. His reputation was severely damaged by the Peasants’ War itself, and by the defeat of the rebel armies, Erasmus’s book against Luther had finally polarised almost all opinion either pro or contra Luther, and Luther’s reply to it would confirm this. The civil war with its massive death toll (conceivably as many as 100,000), had pulled down the whole of society. Wittenberg was thought of in a general way, both as guilty and as the losers, by those who were not entirely committed to serious reform, and that was the majority of people. Public opinion had it that Luther and his friends had suffered a serious knock. The intake into the University sank low in 1525, and in 1526 to sixty or so (Erfurt was down to a mere fifty). Strict traditional Christians would no longer send their children to Wittenberg. There was no sense yet of ‘Catholics’ versus ‘Reformers’; a separate structure for religion was not thought of by Luther or anyone else, But Luther’s own theology was now clearly committed to the importance of the local church, the relative unimportance of any centralising religious agency, and a conviction of the positive evil of the papacy as it was.
The conservative mass of people, recovering from the shock of civil war, acknowledged that Luther might be in the right on many matters but were waiting to see whether, after the war, an excommunicate and an outlaw still had might on his side. Undoubtedly a minority of rulers were on Luther’s side, the Elector of Saxony, and Philip of Hesse, and many towns. But many had a waiting policy. The burghers of Erfurt discouraged papists from preaching and did not encourage the reformers, either. They excused themselves to Duke George by saying they had to preserve the civil peace. In Saxony, Luther had become a leader, without whom nothing of real importance could be done. But there was also a sense in which Luther was now distanced from many groups of people .
To himself, the situation was dispiriting. Men seemed to be deserting the Word on all sides, and God to be turning away from them. Reformers, with what looked like erroneous views, were springing up everywhere. It was no longer just the swarm of spiritists in Saxony; news kept coming of new reformers giving new teaching in Switzerland and the Rhinelands; Zwingli Oecolampadius — and, among them, his old acquaintance Bucer. He did not wish to get involved with them, any more than he wished to get involved in government at home. But his situation could not be made into something other than it was.
Luther was caught in a political bind commonly unavoidable for any man who emerges as a religious leader of a large number of people. But, furthermore, Luther’s solution to the problem of how to reform the Church was that the rulers of society, itself God-given like everything else, should take on the task of reform if the Church authorities themselves would not do it. But then the rebelling peasants had identified their cause with that of religious reform. In spite of a long record of disowning reform from below, disorderly and unplanned, Luther was thought of as implicated, especially as he had often denounced the rulers for their injustice towards the under-privileged, and as the peasants had referred to him in their pamphlets. Public opinion selects, usually arbitrarily, to give a particular identity to public figures. Luther’s texts of April and May 1525 enabled this to happen in a notable way.
In March 1525, moderate peasant leaders had put out The Twelve Articles, which listed the usual and reasonable complaints: that peasants were sometimes held as property, that wild venison and fish were appropriated by the wealthy, that too much work was demanded for rent, that fields and meadows were misappropriated. But at the head were religious demands: ‘Each community should choose and appoint a pastor . . . to teach us the Gospel pure and simple. . .’ and this was preceded by a statement that the demands were not intended as ‘revolt and disorder’ and that they only asked that ‘the Gospel be taught them as a guide in life’. Also they wanted to control the tithe money collected to support the pastor whom they should choose.
Luther replied to it in his Admonition to Peace. He agreed that many of the demands were reasonable, but insisted that the secular matters were concerns of justice and injustice, and not immediately relevant to the heart of the Gospel message. As for their demands concerning their pastors and the tithes, these demands should only be looked at in the context of existing rights, structures and laws. As it stood, he told them, their demand to control tithe money was simply an attempt at ‘theft and highway robbery’.
Both rulers and peasants came under Luther’s lash as he urged the peasants to be peaceful and the princes to come to terms with them. The text also reflected something of his desperation in the face of past failure to get his message across to either party:
The peasants who have now banded together in Swabia have formulated their intolerable grievances against the rulers in twelve articles, and have undertaken to support them with certain passages of Scripture . . . the thing that pleases me most . . . is that they offer to accept instructions . . . Since I have a reputation for being one of those who deal with the Holy Scriptures here on earth, and especially as one whom they mention and call upon by name in the second document, I have all the more courage and confidence in openly publishing my instruction. I do this. . . as a duty of brotherly love, so that if any misfortune or disaster comes out of this matter, it may not be attributed to me, nor will I be blamed before God and men because of my silence. . . We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion except you princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks whose hearts are hardened . . . The murder-prophets [a reference to Karlstadt, Muntzer and all the Schwarmerei] who hate me as they hate you, have come among these people . . . for more than three years, and no one has resisted and fought against them except me . . . I beseech you not to make light of this rebellion . . . The peasants have just published twelve articles some of which are so fair and just as to take away your reputation in the eyes of God. . . Because you made light of my To The German Nobility you must now listen to and put up with these selfish articles.
To the peasants he preached almost undiluted non-violence and resignation: ‘Even a child can understand that the Christian law tells us not to strive against injustice, not to grasp the sword. not to protect ourselves, not to avenge ourselves, but to give up life and property, and let whoever takes it have it . . . The punishing of wickedness ‘is not the responsibility of everyone but of the worldly rulers who bear the sword’. He begged them ‘Can you not think it through, dear friends? If your enterprise were right, then any man might become the judge of another.’ Society ought to respect the legal sovereign and established authority.
Luther was truly at his wits end — faced with the chaos of civil war and the breakdown of society:
It is not my intention to justify or defend the riders in the intolerable injustices which you suffer from them. They are unjust and commit heinous wrongs against you; that I admit. If, however, neither side accepts instruction and you start to fight with each other — may God prevent it — I hope that neither side will be called Christian. . . Your declaration that you teach and live according to the Gospel is not true. . .You want power and wealth so that you will not suffer injustice. . .The Gospel however . . . speaks of suffering, injustice, the cross, patience, and contempt for this life and temporal wealth. . . You are only trying to give your unevangelical and unchristian enterprise an evangelical appearance.
‘Take a hold of these matters properly, with justice and not with force or violence, and do not start endless bloodshed in Germany,’ he wrote in a final combined appeal to both sides.
Luther composed this text on his trip to Eisleben in April, his mind full of a rising conviction that some fearful final crisis might be brewing, and that part of it would be his own marriage. By the time it was in the hands of the public, he was beginning to hear of the fall of the cities of Erfurt and Salzungen to the peasants’ army and the occupation of many castles, monasteries and convents. At Eisleben, or on the journey to his parents, he realised that the whole situation was out of control, not least because his own ruler, the dying Elector had refrained from using military force, hoping for a negotiated settlement. After all, it was now too late to talk about peace and negotiation. Violence had to be put down, violently. On his way home he threw all his anger into a very brief pamphlet Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants, the content of which was echoed in his letter to the Mansfeld Councillor Ruhel —already quoted — in which he also said: ‘If there were thousands more of the peasants, they would still be altogether robbers and murders, who take the sword simply because of their own insolence and wickedness, and who want to expel sovereigns and lords and to destroy everything and to establish a new order in this world . . . The peasants are committing perjury to their lords.’ It seemed possible the peasants would win: ‘If I get home I shall prepare for death with God’s help, and await my new lords, the murderers and robbers.’ It was the apocalyptic mood of the pre-marital month.
On 23 May, Luther wrote to Ruhel after hearing of the fall of Frankenhausen to the rulers, horrified and fascinated: ‘I am specially pleased at the fall of Thomas Muntzer. Please let me have further details of his capture and of how he acted, for it is important to know how that proud spirit bore itself . . . It is pitiful that we have to be so cruel to the poor people, but what can we do?. . Do not be troubled by the severity of their suppression. For it will profit many souls.’ It was only towards the end of May that Luther’s Against the Robbing and Murdering Mobs of Peasants came into the hands of readers, when the rulers were already victorious and were indulging in revenge and unnecessary violence. The effect was brutal. The little sentence which was repeated and repeated for the next four and a half centuries ran: ‘Let whoever can, stab, strike, kill.’ Its immediate context, with its unwelcome feeling of a holy war ran:
Therefore, dear Lords, here is a place where you can release, rescue, help. Have mercy on these poor people [the prisoners which the peasants had taken]. Let whoever can, stab, strike, kill, if you die in doing it, good for you! A more blessed death can never be yours, for you die while obeying the divine word and commandment in Romans 13 and in loving service of your neighbour, whom you are rescuing from the bonds of hell and of the devil.
Public reaction, already aghast at the massive slaughter of the peasants, was immediate. Criticism reached Luther swiftly. At the end of May, he wrote to Amsdorf: ‘You inform me of a new honour. . . that I am called a toady to the sovereigns’, and there followed much talk of Satan, and a quotation from the Psalm used at Compline in the last Office of the day: ‘He who has thus far so often beaten Satan . . . will not allow the basilisk to tread on me. . . It is better that all of the peasants should be killed rather than that the sovereigns and magistrates should be destroyed.’
The day after the legal marriage ceremony, Luther was smarting still and wrote to Ruhel: ‘What an anguished outcry has been caused by my pamphlet against the peasants. All is now forgotten of what God has done through me. Now lords, priests, and peasants are all against me and threaten my death.’ In his letter inviting Amsdorf to the wedding party, he described some of the military detail he had heard about: ‘In Franconia eleven thousand peasants were killed in three different places. . . sixty-one intact cannon were captured . . . In the Duchy of Wurtenberg, six thousand peasants were killed . . . Thus the poor peasants are being killed everywhere.’
In July, Luther wrote a pamphlet defending himself, An Open Letter on the Harsh Pamphlet, spelling out with clarity and aggressive emphasis that there was no way of avoiding one’s obligation to obey established civil authority. He outlined his doctrine of the two kingdoms, the Kingdom of the world where all is law and severity, intended to restrain evil doers on earth, and the Kingdom of God where all is peace and goodness. The same man may be involved in both at the same time, acting appropriately according to the role he fulfils. it was Luther’s solution to the problem of the Church and politics. It had a certain realism about it and echoed his theology of man, always a sinner, always redeemed.
The pamphlet had something of the air of the ‘explanation’ in which inevitably qui s’excuse s’accuse. But, on the whole, Luther took the argument into the enemy country and deliberately repeated the words to which exception had been taken, reinforcing them: ‘Therefore, as I wrote then so I write now: Let no one have mercy on the obstinate, hardened, blinded peasants who refuse to listen to reason; but let everyone, as he is able, strike, hew, stab, and kill, as though among mad dogs, so that by so doing he may show mercy to those who are ruined, put to flight and led astray by these peasants, so that peace and safety may be maintained.’
For some, Luther became a synonym for a man who might turn angrily on his supporters. Ex-friar and professor, the preacher became Fuhrer, he knew little or nothing of the art of Politics, the art of the possible, of compromise, of government — at least he was commonly unable to exercise it. His pronouncements on public policy began sometimes to sound as dogmatic in their way, and as vulgarly insulting as pronouncements from Rome had done. Melancthon bitterly disapproved of this rough side of Luther. Yet he and Luther’s many other friends continued also to retain deep affection for him, knowing that this uncontrolled anger and aggression came from a too sensitive Luther, a man otherwise gentle and generous, of intellectual and moral integrity. The price of leadership in public life is liable to be misunderstanding and type-casting, and the deepening of wounds in one already delicately balanced emotionally. Luther never trimmed. He tended rather to accept the identity handed out to him and to wear the cap he was fitted with.
Polarisation meant more enemies. It also meant firmer friends — and political security, even though it was some years before the new Elector was able to assure one of a safe journey so well as his ‘Wise’ brother had succeeded in doing. However, by the autumn of 1525, in spite of the new enemies, Luther had in his own immediate world new opportunities, and in many ways was living in what was substantially a new world.