Friday, August 19, 2011

October 31, 1517 – Martin Luther Nails Ninety-Five Theses to Wittenburg Town Hall

After a study of social structure, lawyer and university professor Martin Luther sent his famous letter to Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, as well as publishing a copy on the door of the town hall with ninety-five questions critiquing the current political and economic system in the Holy Roman Empire called "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Rule." The points would become the most famous document of the time, being republished along with many other of Luther’s works calling for social reform based upon early humanist ideals. With a sudden concrete philosophical base, peasants who had been kept under feudal thumb for centuries would successfully rise up to establish representation as Europe’s dominant political system.

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben in the midst of the Holy Roman Empire. His father, Hans Ludher, was of comfortable wealth in the working middle class, serving in the copper industry as owner of mines and smelters as well as a citizen representative in the town council. As eldest son, Martin was expected by his hardworking parents to become a lawyer and make a great name for himself in Germany. Martin was well educated as a youngster and sent to the University of Erfurt (which he later described as “a beerhouse and whorehouse”) where he would gain a master’s degree in 1505 and enroll in law school. He found the law to be vague and his schooling to be nothing more than rote learning. Tutors inspired him to critique even so-called “great thinkers”, but Luther found difficulty accepting cold reason when a loving God was key to the meaning of man.

On July 2, 1505, Luther rode through a thunderstorm on his way home from university and became terrified when lightning began to strike. He called out, "Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” Luther survived the storm and told his father about his vow. Hans became livid and attempted to persuade his son not to waste his years of education by leaving law and going into a monastery. Luther was unconvinced until his father reminded him of the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” Luther would have ample time to become a monk upon retirement after fulfilling his father’s request of serving in the law. The moment would convince Luther of the effectiveness of reason in earthly matters, such as his own life, while unquestionable truths, such as carrying out his vow, were still in the realm of God and Heaven.

For the next decade, Luther threw himself into his work, completing his juris doctorate and establishing a successful practice in nearby Wittenberg. Still in his thirties, Luther began to teach at the university and worked to perfect the tangled mess that was the legal code at the dawn of sixteenth century Germany. After much struggle, he determined that the law being a “top-down” system was ineffectual when a much better “bottom-up” system would establish code of conduct as well as rights for all men. Although accused of anarchy and purporting regicide, Luther never encouraged and even decried violence against ruling royalty. In many of his writings, he supported the idea of rulers being placed in position by God, yet he said that if their position was abused, they should be removed legally, just as the servant with one talent had been unfaithful in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents.

Upon publication of his thoughts in 1517, Luther would become an international name. Frederick the Wise would become a benefactor of Luther, whereas many lords called for his immediate execution for treason. It is said that Frederick, though holding his claim and estates, understood the changing of the times. The Bundschuh Movement had caused uprisings along the Rhine valley among the peasants calling for better treatment (the “bundschuh” being a tied peasant’s shoe, which they used for their symbol). Each of these uprisings had been violently put down with mass executions of anyone resembling an instigator with even crusades launched against the followers of Huss, but more and more would crop up as years passed. Frederick encouraged his fellow nobles to read Luther’s writings and attempt to work with the peasants instead of stemming an ever-increasing tide.

In 1521, Luther was taken to be questioned by Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and King of the Romans, Italians, and Spanish, as well as Duke of Burgundy and Lord of the Netherlands; he was the most powerful man in Europe outside of the Pope. At the conclusion of the diet, Charles declared Luther an outlaw and banned his books, but Luther was secretly taken to safety by Frederick to Wartburg Castle and eventually returned quietly to Wittenberg. Meanwhile, the “Knights’ Revolt” would erupt with lesser nobility attempting to seize addition freedoms and rights, but would quickly be put down.

Three years later, peasants following Luther’s ideals sent a petition to Charles called the Twelve Articles of the Black Forest addressing grievances, such as the demands of the Countess of Lupfen for serfs to collect snail shells for her thread spools during harvest-time. More radical leaders such as Zwilling and the Anabaptist movement were largely passed over since Luther had inspired a sense of separation of church and state in many of his arguments. The petition was ignored by Charles, and the peasants revolted with initial nonviolence, simply refusing to carry out the orders of those who had abused their post and electing new officials. Luther applauded the moderate revolution and noted the failures of the “poor barons” of the Knights’ Revolt.

Finding increasing cohesion across Germany, the peasants’ army grew into the hundreds of thousands, and their elected officials served effectively, especially those lesser nobles who volunteered after losing their claims in the failed Knights’ Revolt. Scholars would later describe this joining of forces by the lower and middle class as instrumental in toppling the Holy Roman Empire and spreading their ideals to Italy, England, and Eastern Europe. The resulting confederacies would follow much of the Swiss style, creating the Reformed Era of Europe. For the next several centuries, the absolute monarchies of nations such as France, Sweden, and Russia would war against the Confederations, despite their inherent religious ties through Christendom. Technology and industry made leaps and bounds in central Europe, especially after advancements in capitalism and banking, and well judged political systems would ensure the sharing of resources and the rights of workers as early as the late eighteenth century as outlined by English philosopher John Locke.

Luther himself would enter a monastery on his sixtieth birthday, serving there until his death two years later.


In reality, Martin Luther was unconvinced by his father to avoid becoming a monk and entered a closed Augustinian friary only a few weeks later. He would be disenfranchised, writing "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul,” and soon set out to reform the practice of selling indulgences when only God may forgive. The resulting Reformation would split Europe along battle lines of Catholics and Protestants for centuries.

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