This October marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, ignited by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517. What is the story behind the man who not only changed the course of Christianity but also impacted Western civilization, raised the status of women, influenced the rise of individualism and nationalism, gave us a picture of the Christian family, and translated the Bible from the original languages into the common tongue? This month, your friendly neighborhood historian will share a series of articles based on many travels throughout Germany.
After returning to school after visiting his family during a summer break in 1505, the 21-year-old Martin Luther was overcome by a thunderstorm. Just 6 miles from his university town of Erfurt in the fields of the village of Stotternheim, the ferocity of the storm was so great that he feared for his life. The recent death earlier that year of two of his lawyer friends had awakened in him a sense of mortality. Their last words were “Oh, that I had become a monk.” When a lightning bolt struck near him, he cried out:
“Help me, Saint Anne, I will become a monk!”
This promise to St. Anne, Jesus’ grandmother who was the patron saint of copper miners, he took seriously. He had previously given thought to the ministry.
The storm safely passed over him, and arriving at the university, he related the story and his commitment to his fellow students. They were unsuccessful in dissuading him from his course. After a final dinner with friends two weeks after the storm, he sold his Corpus Iuris, expensive law books his father had bought him, and entered the Black Cloister of the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.
A few friends accompanied him to the door where he told them “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.” His father was angry that his son would waste his education, and a fine mind, to turn his back on the profession that would have made his parents proud — the Law. Instead, Luther became a monk.
Our story begins about 22 years earlier. While passing through Eisleben in 1483, Johannes (Hans) and his wife Margarethe (Hannah) Luder delivered their first of 8 children shortly after midnight. If you visit that house today, you’ll see a plaque over the door that reads “In this house Dr. Martin Luther was born, the 10th of November 1483” along with the inscription:
God’s Word is Luther’s lore; which abides for evermore.
The day after his birth was St. Martin of Tours‘ Day and, as was not uncommon in those times, the child took the name of the saint. If you walk out the back door of his house, less than 2 blocks, about 300 feet away is the church of Saint’s Peter & Paul.
There, the child was baptized Martin Luder(or Ludher). He would Latinize his name to Luther when he went away to school.
Part of the original baptismal font from the time of Luther’s baptism still remains there in the church.
Behind it on the wall is a triptych, a three-fold picture, portraying the birth of Jesus attended by Joseph and Mary. Visiting the manger, however, is not a shepherd, but instead a copper miner with his lamp, representative of the industry of that area.
The next year his family moved to Mansfeld. Though Hans was originally of peasant lineage, his mother was a Lindemann of trading-class stock, burghers in the Eisenach region, though of middling means at the time. Nevertheless, Hans worked in the local copper mines and eventually rose to become owner/leaseholder of several mines and smelters. He was proud when he became a citizen representative in the City Council. Martin began Latin school in 1491 and lived here between 1484 and 1496.
Martin was sent to Magdeburg in 1497 for further schooling where at the age of 13 he was exposed to the teachings of the pious Brethren of the Common Life, popularized by the “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. From there Martin was educated in Eisenach at the parish Latin school of St. George’s between 1498 and 1501 where he would travel the streets with a band of choirboys and sing for his supper “Bread in God’s Name” he’d sing, a common practice at the time. Martin had a pretty good voice and he loved playing the lute.
He was a good student there and lived initially with family, and then with the influential Cotta family in what is now called Lutherhaus. Eisenach would also become the home of Johann Sebastian Bach, though 200 years later. They’d go to the same school. Luther would return to Eisenach some 20 years later to the castle above the city, the Wartburg. Though years later he would call it his “beloved city” he also referred to Eisenach as a “nest of priests and an emporium of clergy,” as 1/3 of the population of four thousand were monks or nuns.
In 1501 at the age of 17 or 18 Martin left for Erfurt, the 5th largest city in the Holy Roman Empire, to attend one of the finest universities in Germany. He took a Bachelor’s Degree after three semesters and then in 1505 a Master’s Degree at the minimum age of 22. He was called “the wonder of the whole university.” He was awarded the master’s ring and the red-brown biretta cap. His father was proud for neither he nor his predecessors had attended university as his son Martin had. He no longer referred to his son in the informal dubut the formal ihr. Luther later recalled:
“My dear father, maintained me there with loyal affection, and by his labour and the sweat of his brow enabled me to go there.”
He studied Scholastic philosophy, namely: logic, rhetoric, physics, and metaphysics. Indeed, it was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Muslim forces that initiated what came to be the definitive response to formal Scholasticism. Countless Byzantine Greek scholars hastily departed the region to settle in Europe, bringing with them their classic Greek and Latin classic, once thought lost forever by the West. As a result, Greek and Latin studies enjoyed a great revival, leading to what we now call Renaissance Humanism, whose motto was ad fontes! Back to the sources!
Humanistic studies were reviving all over Europe with the migration of the Renaissance north, from the cities and universities of Italy into northern Europe, and Luther studied ancient classics, especially Cicero, Virgil, Plautus, and Livy. He acquired sufficient mastery of Latin to write it with clearness and vigor, though not with elegance and refinement; but in original thought and in the mastery of his own mother tongue he was unrivaled.
At his father’s encouragement and with the gift of law books, following his Master’s degree he began to study law, as his cousin had before him. And he would have become a fine, though unknown lawyer… if not for a fateful thunderstorm.
To be continued in Part 2.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian