Sixteenth century Europe was a time of change; it was moving forward from the Renaissance period and is commonly regarded as the rise of Western Civilisation. The economy was booming, technological advances were seen and there was a dramatic shift in religion. Catholicism was the dominant, if not the only religion in Europe, and became known as the Holy Roman Empire by the thirteenth Century when German Emperor Otto I (r. 962 – 73) won by military conquest the empire of Charlemagne, placing it under German rule. From thereafter, the empire was almost exclusively ruled by a German monarch until its dissolution in 1806. During this time, princes known as ‘electors’ provided the majority vote for the election of king and emperor; the crown conferred by the head of the Catholic church, the Pope. However, over time, animosity simmered and later grew between the electors and emperor, until it culminated in what is known as the Protestant Reformation – emperors remained as Roman Catholics, while electors supported the Reformation.
The Reformation began in 1517, when a young Augustinian monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), condemned the practices of the Catholic Church as corrupt and an abuse of administrative power. Luther took particular issue with the selling of ‘indulgences’ which, put simply, allowed sinners to buy their way to heaven. Luther protested these practices and many others in his manifesto called the 95 Theses. Fundamentally, Luther believed human salvation was predicated on individual faith and hard work, rather than something that could be bought. In 1520, Luther wrote a Letter to German Nobility (Letter hereafter), which sought to gather aristocratic support for his Protestant vision. It is this letter which is the primary source focus of this essay. The Letter underlined the need for major changes, not only within the Church, but also politically and economically. It signified the start of world historical change in the 16th century, which would flow through to later decades, the Protestant religion later becoming known as Lutheran.
To ascertain how Luther’s Letter to German Nobility reflected world historical change during the 16th century, I will utilise an empirical approach by examining its content, context and significance.
Martin Luther’s works were written at a period of change, not yet twenty decades into the new century, where Europe was still finding its feet following the Renaissance period. This era fits within the phase of globalisation termed ‘archaic globalisation’, a time before industrialisation. Archaic globalisation saw a focus on the development of cities, and the connections between them, as well as trade and commerce; the growth of an economy through manual labour and distributive occupations. It also saw a predominant focus on belief systems, such as Christianity. This context of religion is where Martin Luther’s works are so influential in changing the course of history.
Through analysing his works, it is crucial to consider the documents intended audience. The Letter was written to the Christian nobility of the time, as well as presumably the Church itself, given it denounced several of its practices. The letter was written in 1520, following the Disputation of Leipzig in 1519, whereby Luther was protected by humanists Melanchthon, Reuchlin, Erasmus and knight, Franz von Sickingen. Luther was convinced a break with Rome was ‘both inevitable and unavoidable’, and by addressing in writing the reformation required by God, but which was being ignored by the Pope and subsequent clergy, Luther was able to attack the church in a new way.
1520 was also the year in which Luther was warned by Pope Leo X he would be ex-communicated from the church, unless he struck out 41 sentences of his 95 Theses within 60 days. It could be said that Luther’s subsequent writings in the Letter were an act of revenge for he was indeed, ex-communicated on 3 January 1521, after setting fire to the papal bull and decretals at Wittenburg in December 1520. However, looking at Luther’s writings as a whole, it is clear he was more interested in eliciting change within the church, to better the people following its faith and could not be swayed in his quest, regardless of being viewed as an enemy of the pope.
While bearing in mind the context in which the Letter was written, its content can now be analysed to better understand Luther’s position in the Protestant Reformation. Luther was until the end, a German theologian. He matriculated to the University of Erfurt in 1501, where he studied liberal arts and in turn earned a master’s degree and a thorough grounding in Scholasticism. Eligible to pursue a degree in law, he later turned to theology, entering the monastery in Erfurt, the Order of the Hermits of St Augustine and eventually earning a theology degree in 1509. In 1510/11, he was chosen to head an assignment to Rome, to argue against a papal decree by Pope Julius II, who had administratively merged monasteries two opposing school of thoughts: observant and non-observant. It could be argued this trip, which was ultimately unsuccessful, was the defining moment in Luther’s quest for change within the Church. Comments from Luther in later years suggested the experience was a negative one, describing a lack of spirituality in Rome where it should have been bursting from the seams.
Fast forward to the year 1520 and Luther has published his Letter to the German Nobility, an obvious example of past grievances in his dealings with the Church. It is the first statement of the early reformation, outlining the appeals of the new religious movement, whilst also giving some insight into Luther’s personal motivations. The first section addresses his views on the pope and emperor: ‘How can a man rule an empire and at the same time continue to preach, pray, study and care for the poor? Yet these are the duties which properly and peculiarly belong to the pope, and they were imposed by Christ in such earnest that He even forbade His disciples to take them…since these duties can scarcely be performed by one who has to rule even a single household. Yet the pope would rule an empire and continue to be pope!’.
The second section addresses the papal homage. The first paragraph deals with his thoughts on pilgrimages: ‘[By] pilgrimages men are led away into false conceit and a misunderstanding of thee divine commandments; for they think that this going on pilgrimage is a precious, good work, and this is not true. It is a very small good work, oftentimes an evil, delusive work, for God has not commanded it…’
Luther then addresses marriage of priests: ‘…it should be the custom for every town to choose out of the congregation a learned and pious citizen, entrust him to the office of ministry, and support him…leaving him free choice to marry or not…At a later time, when there were so many persecutions and controversies with heretics, there were many holy fathers who of their own accord abstained from matrimony to the end that they might the better devote themselves to study and be prepared at any time for death or for controversy. Then the Roman See interfered…and made a universal commandment forbidding priests to marry. This was done at the bidding of the devil…’
Luther also had thoughts on festivals: ‘All festivals should be abolished, and Sunday alone retained…The reason is this: The feast-days are now abused by drinking, gaming, idleness and all manner of sins, so that on the holy days we anger God more than on other days, and have altogether turned things around: the holy days are not holy and the working days are holy, and not only is no service done to God and His saints by the many holy days, but rather great dishonour’.
Lastly, Luther asserted some strong feelings towards begging: ‘One of our greatest necessities is the abolition of all begging throughout Christendom…It would also be easy to make a law, if only we had the courage and the serious intention, to the effect that every city should provide for its own poor…Every city could support its own poor, and if it were too small, the people in the surrounding villages also should be exhorted to contribute…In this way, too, it could be known who were really poor and who were not’.
The medieval mindset of the this time period meant that many people were of the assumption that the ‘Kingdom of God [in order to] flourish here on earth and the forces of darkness be held in check…believed that Christ had instituted two forces’ : the church and the state. While each had differing functions, it was understood they worked together to achieve a common goal – ‘the furthering of the well-being of God’s children on their pilgrim journey toward the yonder land’.
The significance of Luther’s Letter is its ability to affect change within these two factions. In terms of the State, the fact that Luther is tearing down the role of the pope as both that, and emperor, has lasting connotations for the modern world. As a result of the reformation and events later to come, the pope is now only a religious entity with no standing in state functions. Luther’s direct question of how a pope can rule an empire and continue to preach, pray and study is a derisive attack on the church.
Further, Luther’s views on festival days is significant, given the continued rise of Western civilisation saw Sunday as, generally, the only holy day, where whole villages and towns would attend church. Whilst large religious festivals have made a comeback in more modern times, they are celebrated through mass prayer and acts of kindness, compassion and giving back to those less fortunate, rather than delving into drunkenness and sinful activities.
It is also evident from his thoughts on begging, that being able to distinguish from ‘those who are poor and those who are not’, would help weed out dishonest people who were taking advantage of the system and who, essentially, had little faith the church was there to help them. Specifically, with the practice of selling indulgences, misguiding people’s beliefs that entrance to heaven could be bought rather than through penance of sins, Luther concludes the Letter with ‘God gives us all a Christian mind, and especially to the Christian nobility…a right spiritual courage to do the best that can be done for the poor Church’. He is basically stating that it is everyone’s responsibility to curb evil in the state, but that a fundamental change to the church to an invisible body is required in order to fulfil this duty.
The significance of the first of Luther’s writings is that it was the catalyst of the division of Western Christendom into several different faiths in later years. The key tenets of his theology shaped the emergence of Protestantism, through his insistence on the Bible being the sole source of religious authority, an emphasis on human salvation through grace appropriated by faith, and the church as a community rather than a hierarchical structure. It is therefore a prudent argument that Luther’s writing had a direct impact on world historical change in the 16th century.
When considering how the Letter to the German Nobility instituted world historical change in the 16th century, we looked at its context, that is, the time and events in which it was written, its content, what exactly were Luther’s thoughts towards the church, and its significance, how it reflected or even promised change in the 16th century and what this meant for the years to come. I showed that Luther’s writings were the catalyst of the Protestant reformation and that he was not afraid of overstepping boundaries. His writings were an honest depiction of one man’s quest to elicit change in a system he believed was flawed. Through attacking the various tenets of the church and its abuse of administrative power, Luther was able to establish a religious movement that had people talking and the power of speech is a mighty thing. He did not care that he was excommunicated or was viewed as an enemy of the Church. His unwavering faith to his cause, not only a personal cause, but a worldly motivation to affect change in a time where anything different to the norm was considered heresy, means the modern world now has a vast array of religions to choose from depending on one’s own personal beliefs. The world history would not be the same without the protestant reformation, and one Martin Luther.