The Protestant Reformation, that split the Catholic Church asunder and paved the way for centuries of religious persecution and warfare, was the culmination of fundamental change taking place in Western Europe. Yet, two of the most important events that led inexorably to the emergence of Protestantism are the responsibility of two Germans. Johannes Gutenberg died in 1468, a mere 15 years before Martin Luther was born in 1483, but both would revolutionise the world around them.
In 1440, Gutenberg invented the printing press in Strasbourg, and was responsible for the first book ever printed in Europe from movable type, the Gutenberg Bible. In 1510, five years after becoming a Catholic monk, Martin Luther visited Rome. So scandalised was he by the corruption he witnessed there, that he returned to Germany to publish a series of pamphlets attacking papal abuses. Married to Gutenberg’s new technology, Luther’s ideas spread like wildfire across Europe.
Luther was living in Wittenberg during this period, and here in 1517 he published his ’95 Theses’, legend has it by defiantly nailing them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Known as the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, the 95 Theses were a list of questions that directly challenged the Catholic Church’s authority by claiming salvation could only be achieved through faith and divine grace. This would eventually lead to his excommunication as a heretic in 1521.
A couple of years ago I was myself in Rome. A visit that also left me scandalised, not by religion, but by the flagrant commercialism and deep unpleasantness of a tour around the Vatican. There was a particularly troubling ten minutes in the Sistine Chapel. I probably didn’t feel the same sense of outrage Luther felt, but it seems things haven’t improved much since 1510. A recent visit to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, as Wittenberg is now known, served to underscore the ideological divide that drove the emergence of Protestantism.
I walked through this small sleepy town wondering how it could have been that, during the 16th century, this was the epicentre of a radical strand of Christianity that directly challenged the immense power of the Catholic Church. Wittenberg would probably fit inside the Vatican, can boast few artistic masterpieces and the closest I came to seeing a crowd was a small group of elderly Americans on a guided tour of the Luther House, the former monastery that the Reformer called home for 35 years.
Luther first lived here as an Augustinian monk, before using it as a base to develop the ideas that would help bring about the Reformation. Compared to the Vatican, this is a small building, yet it’s still the largest museum anywhere in the world dedicated to the Reformation. It was just about the first building I saw walking from the train station to the old town centre, and was the starting point for a day of exploration around this lovely place.
I was here on a Saturday and couldn’t believe how quiet it was. The building is largely the result of 19th century add ons to the earlier building, but there are areas that have been preserved almost intact from when Luther lived here. The famous ‘Table Talks‘ took place in the Luther Room, which still has its original features from a time when he would debate religion and other, more mundane, matters around a table with guests. In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. She moved in that same year.
It turns out that Luther had a great fondness for women, and wasted no time in putting the new Reformation rules about marriage to full use. He and Katarina raised six children in this house. In fact, Luther had a rather modern (if somewhat sexist) take on some areas of life, stating once that, “Drinking wine in moderation and enjoying a lovely girl; that is in community with the fear of God, the sweetest life.” I started to get the feeling his beef with the Pope wasn’t just about the sale of indulgences.