Chapter 6: First Encounters, 1516

Luther: A Life
by John M. Todd

Chapter 6: First Encounters, 1516

Staupitz had been right. Wittenberg was the making of Martin. It produced many different Luthers: the Religious Superior, the theology lecturer, the popular preacher, the spiritual guide, the University man, and Luther the man, universal friend and acquaintance and, soon now, author. In Wittenberg all his gifts gelled together into a mix which fitted what he was given to do. While his own inner life churned away, sometimes to his own utter misery, it commonly enhanced, rather than otherwise, all his numerous activities. Sometimes his exaggerated self-denigration or his compensating impetuosity could be a disadvantage, but it often proved attractive. Then he had good judgment about men, in an almost instinctive way; and along with it went rapid action and an intense sincerity born of the inner struggles.

Luther the District Vicar had to write and depose a Prior, and tell the Community to elect a new one, in a letter addressed to the Fathers and the Prior jointly at Neustadt/Oral (25 September 1516). It was not an easy thing to do. But Luther had attained a good measure of savoir faire by watching others at it. The opening paragraph is one of embarrassment. The community, he says, is not of one mind, or one heart or one soul, and this wretched way of living is partly the fault of the community and partly Luther’s own fault (in the sense of negligence); the latter can hardly have been true since Luther had been District Vicar for such a short time. However, it was a prudent thing to say and undoubtedly Luther felt responsibility for the state of affairs. He expressed the sense of spiritual failure which was becoming his diagnosis of the human condition: ‘We do not weep aloud to the Lord. . . nor pray that he make our way straight in his sight and lead us in his righteousness [a quotation from the Psalms]. He errs, he errs, who presumes to guide himself by his own wisdom — not to speak of guiding others.’ He makes it clear that he is not just waving a big stick — and then asks, ‘What now? Life without peace is dangerous because it is life without Christ, and it is death rather than life.’

He soon came to the point and put the matter clearly and finally: ‘I order you, Friar Michael Dressel, to resign from your office and surrender the seal. By the same authority I release you from the office of prior. . . I do not want you to complain that I have judged you without a hearing, or that I have not accepted your defence. . . You have done as much as you had grace to do . . .’ But ‘it is not enough that a man be good and pious by himself. Peace and harmony with those around him are also necessary.’ He went on with explicit directions about the new election, begging the friars not to go in for an, apparently common, foolish approach to such matters by trying to elect a friar not in fact eligible.

The word ‘peace’ in the letter is a key word. It was becoming an obsessive theme in Martin’s mind. The words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah were forever echoing there: ‘"Peace! Peace!" they say, but there is no peace’ — they occur in a long lyrical denunciatory section of semitic poetry. The word for peace is Shalom, not just the absence of conflict, but the blessed harmony of those who lived by God’s Law, perhaps the peace of the coming age of the Messiah. Luther seldom does more than quote a word or two, but the Bible was his daily reading and he knew long sections by heart simply from frequent reading. The highly significant context from which Luther took his thoughts about peace runs:

For thus says Yahweh Sabaoth

‘Be warned, Jerusalem

lest I should turn away from you,

and reduce you to a desert,

a land without people’.

Yahweh Sabaoth says this:

‘Glean, glean, as a vine is gleaned,

what is left of Israel;

like a grape-picker pass your hand again

over the branches.

. . . . . . .

Plainly the word of Yahweh is for them something


they have no taste for it. But I am full of the wrath of Yahweh,

I am weary of holding it in.

Then pour it on the children in the streets,

and where young men gather, too.

All shall be taken: husband and wife,

the graybeard and the man weighed down with years.

. . . . . . .

For all, least no less than greatest,

all are out for dishonest gain;

prophet no less than priest,

all practise fraud.

They dress my people’s wound

without concern: "Peace! Peace!" they say,

but there is no peace.

They should be ashamed of their abominable deeds.

But not they! They feel no shame,

They have forgotten how to blush

And so as others fall, they too shall fall;

and they shall be thrown down when I come to

deal with them

— says Yahweh.

In his earlier letter to Michael Dressel, Luther had said to him, in a vein similar to that of his words quoted to Friar Spenlein: ‘God . . has placed his peace in the middle of no peace, that is in the middle of trial’ and the man who is disturbed by nothing is not a man who has real peace (Shalom), he has only the ‘peace of the world.’ On the other hand, the man who has true peace is the man ‘whom all men and all things harass and who yet bears it quietly with joy’. Instead of saying ‘Peace, peace’, where there is no peace, he says rather ‘Cross, cross’ and there is no cross — for as soon as you say joyfully: ‘Blessed cross, there is no tree like you,’ the cross ceases to be a cross. ‘Seek peace and you will find it, but seek only to bear trials with joy as if they were holy relics.’ ‘Relics’ was another word Luther built up into a whole metaphorical usage of his own. Veneration of relics (especially of the ‘True Cross’ — supposedly pieces of the cross of Jesus’s

crucifixion found in Israel) became suspect to him and objects of criticism by him as mere substitutes for true religion; Luther began to speak of personal ‘crosses’ as things to be welcomed like veritably ‘true’ relics.

Another letter from Luther the District Vicar earlier the same year was to his old friend Lang, just after the latter’s appointment as Superior at Erfurt. Luther had been there on an official visitation and on his return to Wittenberg wrote to Lang about the Guest House. It was being used too much as a convenient hotel. Luther suggested that Lang might keep a tally of exactly how much was eaten and drunk there each day.

People were beginning to respond to Fr Luther’s insights. The friars, the students, the townspeople listened to his sermons and came to his lectures. People began asking for copies of his lectures and addresses. Printers and merchants were always on the look-out for authors who would provide them with a product they could market. They liked pious material best; they could market it not only to the numerous laity who could read, but also to the less snobbish members of the clerical and academic world. More scholarly material obviously was limited to university circles, but there were funds, public and private to make sure of an adequate sale. Luther was able to provide the printer-publishers with both kinds of material. In the winter and spring, 1516-17 he brought out his first publication in each sphere.

His beloved Psalms provided the material for his more popular book. It was a translation, in the vigorous and accurate German he was beginning to enjoy writing, of the Seven Penitential Psalms, together with a commentary. It pleased him greatly. He sent a copy to his old mentor Staupitz but thought it best not to send copies off to his humanist friends, who would find this an old-fashioned kind of thing to publish. A German humanist, if he must produce something in his own language ought to look to native literary traditions. Spalatin complained that no copy had been sent to him, and Luther replied; ‘The fact is, I do not want you to have them. They have not been published for refined minds but for the roughest sort.’ Such thrice-chewed food was not for the humanist palate. And he had to write in similar vein to his friend Christoph Scheurl, once the Dean Of Law at Wittenberg and now a leading humanist at Nuremberg, to whom Staupitz had shown the book. ‘They were not put out for the Nurembergers, that is for highly sensitive and sharp-nosed souls, but for rough Saxons, the sort you know, the sort for whom Christian scholarship can never be chewed small enough.’

Martin had put something of himself into these Psalms as he did into everything he wrote. In his Preface, he spoke of reliance on the great Reuchlin in his attempt to render the Hebrew truthfully. He was thinking much about the world into which Jesus came. In his lectures on the Letter to the Hebrews he called the Jews, ‘the very Sacrament, that is, the kind Father’s beloved children in Christ.’ Publishing this Jewish poetry, used by Christians as prayer now for nearly fifteen hundred years, gave him both great literary pleasure and the enormous reassurance that the people to whom he preached in St Mary’s Church in Wittenberg wanted it. An English translation uses many ‘Saxon’ (rather than ‘Latin’) words and gives some idea of the flavour of Luther’s translation:

For my days pass away like smoke

and my bones burn like a furnace

My heart is smitten like grass and withered;

I forget to eat my bread. . .

For I eat ashes like bread,

and mingle my tears with my drink,

because of thy indignation and anger;

for thou hast taken me up and thrown me away.

My days are like an evening shadow;

I wither away like grass.

But thou O Lord art enthroned for ever;

Thy name endures to all generations.

Thou wilt arise and have pity on Zion;

it is the time to favour her.

(from Psalm 102)

This came out in the spring of 1517. Into it had gone something of Luther’s new theological assurance but also of a new spirituality which was to be seen in his other ‘first’ book, in the more scholarly sphere. Although scholarly, it was also in German not Latin. In the autumn of 1516 he had come across the intellectual element in that seam of medieval culture usually called ‘Rhineland mysticism’. He read Tauler (d. 1361), a member of the Order of Dominican Friars, and another book in the same tradition called A German Theology. From their teaching on the Cross, on Verlassenheit (abandonment of all things for God) and Gelassenheit (a word Indicating the result of abandonment of self to God, that is serenity or sometimes resignation, he hammered out part of his theology of the Cross and strengthened further his sense of inner commitment. In an excited letter to Spalatin (on this occasion he was considered highly suitable for a discussion of the text), dated 14 December 1516, Luther wrote: ‘If reading a pure and solid theology, which is available in German and is of a quality closest to that of the Fathers, might please you, then get yourself the sermons of Johann Tauler, the Dominican . . . I have seen no theological work in Latin or German that is more sound and more in harmony with the gospel than this. . . Taste it and see how sweet the Lord is, [a quotation from the Psalms] after you have first tried and realised how bitter is whatever we are’. The enclosure was in fact the anonymous treatise A German Theology, which Luther thought to be by Tauler and had just had printed in Wittenberg, and to which he had contributed an Introduction. It was his first printed text, offered for sale by a printer-publisher, to the general public. These two German publications were significant coming from a man for whom Latin was the normal means of communication when it came to the written word.

In the University at Wittenberg by the autumn of 1516, Luther had become the unacknowledged leader of what amounted to a campaign to change syllabus. The students had been voting with their feet. Hardly any of them attended the lectures on Aristotle; they were to be found in the biggest numbers in the lecture hall of the Bible man. Dr Luther, however, was not as yet seen by his colleagues as any kind of unique phenomenon, but simply as part of the avant garde, one of the followers of Erasmus, Reuchlin and others who, throughout the European universities, were demanding new syllabuses in line with the ‘new learning.’ Johann Lang, in a letter to Spalatin in March 1516 (shortly before he was appointed to Erfurt) referring to the large numbers of students who were dropping out of the courses on scholastic philosophy and theology, and explaining the rebirth of biblical studies (he used the Renaissance type word reviviscere) and the new Strong interest in antiquae scriptores, identified the phenomenon by pointing to the international influence of Reuchlin and Erasmus, ‘men of great erudition and integrity’. That same month, Erasmus had published the epoch-making new version of the New Testament based on Greek manuscripts. It was printed in Greek, but also in Latin, translated for the benefit of the majority who could not read Greek; many ecclesiastics considered it almost sacrilegious to read the Bible in any version except that of Jerome’s fifth-century Latin Vulgate.

On 7 September 1516, Luther gave the final lecture in his course on the Letter to the Romans. He had time now to devote to one of the most able of the students who had gathered around him, Bartholomaeus Bernhardi, a mature student, graduate of Erfurt, only four years younger than Luther. He was about to proceed later in the month to the Degree of Sententiarius. For his thesis he had taken Fr Luther’s great central theme from Roman, on the uselessness of the powers and will of man without grace. It was an exciting occasion for the young professor. He had been getting support for his idea, but by no means all the faculty had been won over and that included Archdeacon Karlstadt, DD, previously and now once again Dean of Theology. The latter was just back from an eighteen-month absence in Italy, collecting some humanist scalps, notably (notoriously easily won) Doctorates of Canon and Civil Law in Siena and some lovely Italian clothes. He allowed Fr Luther to preside at the Disputation, but made his disagreement with the thesis abundantly clear. Karlstadt had been the light of theology at Wittenberg from the earliest days and had had works published there as early as 1507 and 1508, marking out the University’s first claims to a reputation. He was shocked to find this young candidate for Sententiarius being encouraged to question the scholastic method. But, once convinced of something, Luther took little account of opposition however much it upset him, and his student was given full rein to present Luther’s ideas.

The date of this Disputation, 25 September, is also the date of the letter deposing Prior Michael Dressel. It was the end of the following month that Luther wrote to Johann Lang about his need of two secretaries. The small friary was beginning to fill up with those who wanted to come and hear Luther. And he himself already had too much to do. He was thinking about the texts of his two books in German to be published in the coming seven months. He was reading with a raging excitement Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum, with its new text of the New Testament, while preparing for his next lecture course on the Letter to the Galatians, due to start at the end of October; and he was preparing sermons to be preached in St Mary’s.

In this latter sphere he was more and more worried by the Indulgences which the parishioners were forever running after, a passion which reached its height each year on 1 November, All Saints Day, when they repaired to the Elector’s Museum to see and venerate the relics, the bones, the holy wood and the rest, and gain an Indulgence, paying for the privilege as they went in. On 31 October, Fr Martin preached in Wittenberg on the need for that true repentance, which does not try to evade punishment by buying an Indulgence, but on the contrary welcomes it. He followed this in subsequent weeks with a series of sermons warning against the abuse of prayer to the saints, and held up many practices to ridicule — ‘I am astonished that St Bartholomew is not pictured in yellow trousers and spurs’. All this brought a query from Spalatin as to whether Martin was not falling into the Hussite heresy. Martin replied truthfully that he was preaching only against abuse, not the practices themselves; he encouraged people to pray to the saints not just for material things, but for spiritual goods. Not much more than normal stock-in-trade of university intellectuals, this exchange, however, did signal the first note of alarm from a friend at the direction of Luther’s thought.

It was a matter of doctrine which had roused the query, what might today be called ideology. Spalatin, at court, was more conscious than Luther of lines beyond which it was advisable not to stray: Spalatin had not worried about Luther’s denunciations of corruption in the Church, occurring in his university lectures for more than a year now, so common were these throughout Europe. Though the Office of the Church was sublime, it was filled with corrupt officials, Luther had said. Pope and prelates were arraigned for enriching themselves on the income from Indulgences, and seducing Christians from the true worship of God; they branded people as heretics merely for opposing the purely temporal rights of the Church. That had been in the lecture hall, not the parish church. Not long after Spalatin’s enquiry, however, Luther returned to the attack in sermons in the parish church. On 24 February, at St Mary’s, he said: ‘People learn to fear and run away from the penalty of sins, but not the sins themselves. . .Indulgences are rightly so called, for to indulge means to permit . . . Not through Indulgences, but through gentleness and lowliness, says he [Jesus], is rest for your souls found. Oh the dangers of our times! Oh, you snoring priests! Oh, darkness deeper than Egyptian! How secure we are in the midst of the worst of all our evils!’ Many people had attacked Indulgences, and although some had been labelled heretics, many had not. Luther was thought of only as a young man fighting for desirable reforms.

The Elector remained remarkably unmoved by the explosions from the pulpit in the parish church, even though they were implicitly an attack on his income and his great museum of relics. At the moment, in Luther’s sermons, it was only a matter of emphasis; the principle of Indulgences was not attacked, only its obtrusion, and the greater importance given to it than to the life of faith through the Bible and the sacraments. But the sermons must have given the Elector some pause. Two years previously, he had had difficulty in raising the cash for rebuilding the bridge over the Elbe at Torgau; it was done by means of a local Indulgence allowing people to be dispensed from fasting during Lent — they called it the ‘Butter Tax’. He had had to beg the Bishop to tell his priests to emphasise the fact that the faithful must buy the Indulgence if they wished to avail themselves of the privilege of not listing.

Reform was the great cliche of the last hundred years. The Pope had a Council of the Church sitting at this very time, the Fifth Lateran Council, dedicated to that purpose. It had opened in 1512 with the glorious announcement that Reform had at last arrived, and a claim that the apocalyptic Third stage of Time, of Joachim, was in sight — an announcement by Giles Viterbo, Superior General of the Augustinians, Luther’s own Order. Emendatio was the Fabian-like word used. Espousal of reform was not in itself at all a ground for suspicion of heresy. On the other hand, as in every totalitarian polity, everyone and every action was implicitly under suspicion all the time. And the moment espousal of reform became strongly linked with criticism of doctrine, and particularly of practice linked with doctrine, and very particularly if it had financial implications, it was time to beware. Only Spalatin had noticed the possible congruence.

Luther himself was entirely unaware where his thought might take him. He and his colleagues in cloister and university were Christians, loyal members of the Church, living in the ancient framework of the Christian religion, the Mass, and Divine Office; sacrament, priest and Canon Law. Elsewhere in Europe, sometimes in considerable numbers, deviants were to be found, Waldensians, Hussites, Lollards, sometimes much harassed, sometimes relatively free; then, in Bohemia, not so far away in the land of the Czechs a whole church was in permanent schism from Rome.

Luther sometimes preached against the Hussites; heresy should always be opposed. The life of the Friary, University and town experienced only a generalised sense of unease, the endemic irritation with ecclesiastical authority, common to so much of Europe. But this was always increasing. Everywhere it was liable to flare into crisis. In this year, 1516, tension in London reached extremes after the death in prison of a merchant tailor, Hunne, who had had a disagreement with the clergy about mortuary fees, was arrested by the Bishop of London, accused of heresy, and died, inexplicably, in prison. In Germany itself, among the more affluent, the growing sense of national identity was beginning to express itself in a new and stronger resentment against Rome. Aleander, the papal nuncio, reported perceptively to his Curial superior in Rome that the whole of Germany was only waiting for a leader to enable it to rise in revolt against Rome. But Wittenberg went on its way, as yet largely undisturbed except by the bubonic plague which was raging just now; two hundred students left Wittenberg temporarily late in 1516 for their homes, or to stay elsewhere for a while till the plague should move on. Johann Lang suggested to Luther that he ought to go as well. In his letter of 26 October, Luther wrote: ‘You . . . advise me to escape. Where should I go to? I hope the world will not fall to pieces when Friar Martin tumbles down. Of course I shall disperse the friars across the whole countryside if the plague increases. My place is here, due to obedience.’

In that busy October of 1516, Luther was preparing his lectures on Galatians. He had before him the perfect text to enable him to grapple with the consequences in Church life of his ideas about faith. This text concerns the relation between an inherited legal structure and a new community spirit, between Law and Love, between divine threats and divine approval. The first Christians, as Jews, continued to live by the old Judaic Law, the Torah, including circumcision of all males. But was the message of Jesus for Jews only, or for all men, asked Paul? Clearly it was intended for all men; clearly it was a teaching of love in a kind of freedom; new, non-Jewish Christians need not follow the Law and be circumcised. So the Jewish Christians who wished to insist on circumcision were wrong. This was not a worry about the physical or sexual nature of circumcision. In fact, Paul played up the physical side, contrasting the ritual circumcision with the beatings he had had: ‘The marks on my body are those of Jesus.’ The point was simply that ‘Christians are told by the Spirit to look to faith . . . whether you are circumcised or not makes no matter. But Paul reckoned that ‘everyone who accepts circumcision is obliged to keep the whole Law’ — ‘When Christ freed us he meant us to remain free’.

Luther found himself applying this by analogy to the legalism of the Church authorities on the one hand, with its Canon Law and its theological rationale for Indulgences, and, on the other, to the free life of faith as proclaimed by Paul. The Christian life was not the keeping of a Law, leading to a series of minute obligations, ‘works’ to obtain ‘grace’, but rather a service to one another, and a waiting on the Spirit, faithful to the simplicities and demands, normally beyond human capacity, of humility and love. This was the gospel of freedom in Christ, said Luther as preached by John (the Gospel and Epistles of St John in the New Testament) and by Paul.

The theme of Romans had spoken to Luther’s inner condition. The theme of Galatians spoke perfectly to his already burning sense of the evil involved in Christians treating their observances as the core of their religion. Later in his life he called this text his ‘Katie von Bora’, his favourite, after the name of his wife. Students jotted down their notes of what Luther was saying, interlineally on the great pages. Echoes of Tauler and of that passive sense of man in God’s world can be caught in one such note: ‘To know God — or rather to be known by God’ — ‘All our works are rather our sufferings and the works of God’. The text, to be published three years later, showed Luther reaching up to substantial heights of conviction and intellectual achievement:

For the life of the Christian is not of himself but of Christ living in him . . . it is to be noted that it is true that Christ is not exactly ‘formed’ in anybody ‘personaliter’, and thus the gloss is correct which says that ‘faith in Christ or the knowledge of Christ should be taken here for Christ’. . . ‘but beware most carefully lest this be taken as a kind of speculative knowledge, with which Christ is known as a kind of object. . . for this is dead knowledge and even the demons have this . . . but it is to be taken practically, as life, essence and experience of the example and image of Christ, that Christ may be no longer an object of our knowledge but rather we are the object of his knowledge’.

Luther was using the new text of Erasmus and finding it invaluable. But not so with Erasmus’s commentary. It was superficial and missed the point, so Luther thought, sadly typical of the world of humanistic culture. He to Spalatin: ‘What disturbs me about Erasmus, the most learned man. . . in explaining Paul he understands the righteousness which originates in ‘‘works’’ or in the "law" or "our own righteousness" as referring to ceremonial observances.’ In a sense, this was correct, but Erasmus had missed the point that behind the observances was the Law which led to them, underestimating the real importance of the Law. Paul was contrasting the Law with Freedom in Christ. The Law was not just a matter of observances; it comprised, for instance, the Ten Commandments and a whole range of connected morals and conventions, necessary for human society, appropriate indeed for human nature, but which man in his weakness was in fact never able to obey fully. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not kill . . .’ — so often they were broken, so often, when kept they were broken in the heart, and when kept were the cause of hypocritical spiritual pride. All that was swept away by the life in Christ, where grace enabled a man to be fully human, and often to live up to this standard, and, when he failed, to be quickly reconciled in Christ who bears men’s sins. Such was Paul’s dynamic theology, and Erasmus had failed, so Luther judged, to understand on the one hand the relative dignity and goodness of the Law, on its own merits, and on the other the fact that in any case to keep it was useless, and indeed largely impossible for most men without Christ: ‘Fulfilment without faith in Christ, even if it creates men like Fabricius, Regulus and others [heroes of Roman history] who are wholly irreproachable in the sight of men — no more resembles righteousness than sorb apples resemble figs.’

Luther asked Spalatin to pass on his criticism to Erasmus, since he knew him. Luther did not want to tangle personally with the great scholar, seventeen years his senior, and the best known literary man in Europe; only this very year (1516), Erasmus the famous author of Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Manual of the Christian Knight, 1503) had published in addition to the Greek New Testament his edition of Jerome, and an original work commissioned for the likely future emperor, sixteen-year-old Charles Habsburg of Castile and the Netherlands, grandson of Emperor Maximilian, Institutio Principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Price), a plea for international peace and the encouragement of learning. But Luther wanted to alert Erasmus to the proper understanding of New Testament theology. He said the French scholar Stapulensis was also guilty — although ‘a man otherwise spiritual and most sound’, he ‘lacks spiritual understanding in interpreting divine Scripture; yet he definitely shows so much of it in the conduct of his own life and the encouragement of others. You could call me rash for bringing such famous men under the whip of Aristarch.’ However, ‘I do this out of concern for theology and the salvation of the brethren.’ It was this letter that ended: ‘In great haste, from a corner in our monastery, 19 October 1516. Friar Martin Luder, Augustinian.’

Here Fr Martin sounded for the first time a note which will be increasingly repeated, ‘from a corner in our monastery’. The Latin word is angulum. Luther had a real feeling of inferiority — he was after all only the son of the mine owner from Mansfeld, a young Saxon in the reformed Augustinians. ‘Our little monastery’ was another oft-repeated identification. There was always a balancing phrase, often a reference to the fact that he was a Doctor of Theology, and had a duty. On this occasion, he emphasised: ‘I do this out of concern for theology and the salvation of the brethren.’ A man of the people, an intellectual, a man of pastoral care, a man of determination and an ability to ignore the fear which sent the adrenalin racing through his body so often, was becoming someone to be reckoned with. ‘Why then do you imagine you are among friends?’ he had asked the young man in April. He had taken the measure of life. It would always be a battle. Friends were only human. He felt he would be happier if he might be allowed to stay quiet in his little angulum in the Friary. But his demon would not let him. He kept seeing gaps in everyone’s case — and everyone tended to come under the whip of his tongue, already bitter. Somewhere deep in Luther was burning resentment. Fed by the early sense of guilt, it was always ready to surface in angry demonstration against the inadequacies around him. As yet, however, he was restrained. This was a confidential letter to Spalatin, not for the public.

Through the winter, daily life brought its unrelenting sequences of demands on Luther. A letter from Luther to Spalatin on 14 December provides a profile. There had been postal difficulties: ‘You were right to be worried and to tell me to forward my mail via the Wittenberg carrier if I want to send something to you or to Hirschfeld’ — Hirschfeld was one of the Elector’s Councillors. Snow was threatening, it was cold, Luther’s habit was in need of attention and the Cloister was short of money: ‘Thank the Sovereign on my behalf for so generously providing me with cloth . . . better quality perhaps than is fitting for a monk’s cowl were it not a sovereign’s gift.’ Then there was a piece of relic business to report on. The Elector had for a long time had his eye on the relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins’ – allegedly driven from Britain in the fifth century, and led by a chieftain’s daughter Ursula to the Netherlands, where they were killed by Huns. These relics were in St Ursula’s Convent in Cologne, and Frederick had asked Staupitz to try to obtain them for him and the Wittenberg Museum. Luther had the task of reporting: ‘The Reverend Father Vicar has succeeded in getting permission from the Archbishop of Cologne to obtain the relics for the Sovereign’, but ‘the Mother Superior of St Ursula’s took refuge behind a papal prohibition . . . Although a copy of the papal permission to you to obtain the relics was shown to her, so far she has refused to surrender them on the grounds that the copy was not attested and sealed.’ Luther asked that the Elector should either send a properly authorised document or desist. He was acting scrupulously as the agent of his Superior, Fr Staupitz, and made no comment on the transaction, which was certainly a great bore, and distasteful to him.

Then Luther turned to a remark from Spalatin’s previous letter to the effect that the Elector often referred to him, Luther, with great respect. Luther replied, a little laboriously, and with some embarrassment, that it is better to praise God than man. However, he sent back a message of gratitude, though again qualified with ‘the praise of men is always vain’, a pious remark that had an energy about it rather beyond mere ‘piety’. Then Spalatin had been asking his advice about translating some writings into German. Again the comment is laboured: ‘This is beyond my competence. Who am I to judge?’ However, Spalatin was to go ahead, by all means, if it was God’s will. But he must not expect many people would thank him for his pains.

On the intellectual front, Luther continued to be concerned and worried about the formal presence of Aristotelean studies as the principal basis for the University syllabus in philosophy, with its further strong influence on theology; he began a serious study of the question. On 8 February 1517, he sent his old teacher, the one time Rector of Wittenberg University, now back at Erfurt, Jodocus Trutvetter, a letter filled with serious questions regarding logic, philosophy and theology. . . against the hopeless studies which characterise our age’. Such is the description Luther gives of it to Johann Lang in a covering letter in which he asks Lang to pass on his letter to Trutvetter.

Luther had good arguments with which to make his case, But, in addition behind them he put a strong emotional drive and presented the arguments in words that were sharp even in an age of strong speaking: ‘What will they not believe who have taken for granted everything which Aristotle, this chief of all charlatans, insinuates and imposes on others, things which are so absurd that not even a donkey or a stone could remain silent about them!’ The emotion was partly frustration at the sight of young men caught up in futile studies: ‘Part of my cross, indeed its heaviest portion, is that I have to see friars born with the highest gifts for fine studies spending their lives and wasting their energies in such play-acting. . .All my files are filled with material against these books which I consider absolutely useless. Everyone else could see that too, if only they would not be bound by that everlasting law of silence.’

Three weeks later, Luther’s mind was still full of his worries about Erasmus, running along the same lines as those in his letters to Spalatin a few months earlier. In a letter to Lang he said he was glad to see that Erasmus constantly yet learnedly exposed and condemned ‘monks and priests, snoring in their deep rooted ignorance’, but found him superficial; ‘human things weigh with him more than divine’. The communication, however, was confidential: ‘I definitely wish to keep this opinion a secret so that I do not strengthen the conspiracy of Erasmus’s enemies. Perhaps the Lord will give him, in his own good time, a true understanding.’ Luther’s confidences to Lang and Spalatin were not betrayed, but letters easily went astray, were in fact frequently quoted, even put into print without reference to the writer. Luther regarded himself, rightly, as not of great importance and so could not see any harm in writing the letter. But his fierce avowals carried with them a certain measure of naivete, as though the letter might have been written by someone out of touch with affairs. Possibly the idea entered Luther’s own head. On this occasion, he ended the letter with a reference to the official title of his Order as one of eremites or hermits: ‘From our hermitage in Wittenberg, 1 March 1517, Friar Martin Luther Augustinian Vicar.’ At this time Luther ceased to use the form ‘Luder’, and from now on normally used ‘Luther’.

Luther’s work as Superior called regularly for special measures. In March he had to send a tiresome friar, Gabriel Zwilling, over to Lang at Erfurt in need of discipline. Another letter to Lang, in May, was brief, written only because there was a friar travelling from Wittenberg to Erfurt — ‘I thought this father should not leave without a letter and greetings.’ But the truth was that Luther was on top form again. His views were more and more being underwritten by the rest of the University and he wanted to tell Lang about it: ‘No one can expect to have any students if he does not want to teach this theology, that is, lecture on the Bible or on Augustine . . . Aristotle is gradually falling from his throne.’

The clinching factor was that Dean Karlstadt had done an about-turn. Stung by the criticisms of the traditional course made by Luther and his pupil the previous autumn, he had been up to Leipzig in the winter and bought a complete set of St Augustine’s works, since it was primarily on St Augustine that the case against the traditional theology had been made. All his life Karlstadt was a great ‘student’. He finally found Luther’s arguments convincing. He felt indeed that Luther’s case needed his support, amazed to discover how cogent it was. A year later, in his rather pompous, rhetorical way he wrote that he had been quite overcome at this time: obstupui, obmutui, succensui —stupefied, silenced, excited, in turns. Karlstadt drew up 151 Theses of his own, opposing medieval theology and championing Augustinian theology, which in a general way was what Luther had been propounding. He presented these 151 Theses at the University in April. Luther, delighted, sent a copy to Christoph Scheurl in Nuremberg with whom he was having an intense correspondence: ‘Not the paradoxes of Cicero, but of our own Karlstadt, nay rather, of Augustine. . . Blessed be God who once again bids the light shine out of darkness.’ Scheurl, who had been Dean of Law in the early days at Wittenberg, had written to Luther in January formally requesting his friendship on the basis of their common admiration for Staupitz. In Nuremberg a conversazione group had been founded, the Sodalitas Staupitziana. It was one of a number of important contacts for Luther and was sealed towards the end of the summer, when Scheurl was visiting the Elector as an official envoy from Nuremberg. Luther invited Spalatin to a party and hoped he would bring Scheurl with him: ‘See to it that you also get some wine for us, because as you know you will come from the castle to the monastery and not from the monastery to the castle. . . if his honour Counsellor Christoph is with you, please let him come along.’

Luther was becoming one of the leading men in the University now. It was time for a formal attack on the traditional syllabus.