Mark Schauer, History 338, Summer 2008
Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, is often considered the man who ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the Renaissance. Indeed, Luther’s great impulses, “a reverence for authority, a vehement spirit, a cutting wit, a special talent for obscenity, and, most important, a contempt for sinful human nature, coupled with a profound and melancholy awareness of the body’s fate at death,” combine the best and worst of both epochs. (86) His attempt to roll Christian doctrine back to the days of St. Paul of Tarsus were viewed as heretical by the Church he had once fervently believed in. He eventually lambasted Jews and, especially, the Pope in the most vehement words and obscene imagery he could muster. He was a scriptural fundamentalist who believed bigamy and polygamy were acceptable in that they were not explicitly condemned in the Bible, yet felt adultery should be punished by death. Scholars consider his influence on the German language comparable to Shakespeare’s on English. His fight against the papacy inspired peasant revolts against the entire social order, which Luther explicitly rejected. He disbelieved in the geographic reality of hell and purgatory, but believed in the existence of witchcraft and sorcery. He was complex and contradictory, but profoundly influential.
Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, then the territory of the count of Mansfeld, on November 10, 1483. His father, Hans, leased copper mines, an occupation that elevated him enough above the common peasant to serve as the equivalent of an alderman on the council in the town of Mansfield. As was customary in this time and place, young Martin was routinely disciplined through spankings and beatings from his parents and teachers: his mother “beat (him) until the blood flowed” for stealing a nut, and he later recalled being, “beaten fifteen times before noon,” by a teacher for failing to “decline and conjugate, even though (he) had not yet been taught this.” (22) Although he hated his schooling, Luther nonetheless distinguished himself academically, and he earned a Master’s Degree at age 21. In accordance with his father’s vehement wishes, Luther entered law school, but, according to Martin, he abruptly became a monk after believing that St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, had delivered him from death in a thunderstorm he encountered while walking from his parents’ home to law school. The fear of death would play a prominent role in his theology.
Luther was keenly aware that by leaving law school he was jettisoning a promising career and future prominence to become an anonymous monk, and was nearly talked out of his decision by friends. Perhaps this is why he chose to join an Observant Augustinian cloister in Erfort, which was more strict than the Franciscans and Dominicans (whose popular reputation for debauchery and worldliness were chronicled in the works of Boccaccio and others), but far less rigorous than the Carthusians. Although it was not ordinary for monks to be ordained, Luther’s superior, Johann von Staupitz, recognized his intellectual abilities and sensitive disposition, and pointed him toward the priesthood. He was ordained two years after entering the friary, and earned two more Bachelor’s degrees in Biblical studies in the next two years. After this he followed Staupitz to the University of Wittenberg for a year, where he was compelled to teach Aristotle’s ethics.
Wittenberg was a cramped town of about two thousand people. The Elector Frederick the Wise, desiring the prestige of a university, took the unusual step of requesting a charter from the Emperor instead of the Pope. It was granted in 1502, six years prior to Luther’s first abbreviated stay. Although Luther hated teaching Aristotle, whose pagan ‘reason’ seemed to contradict Church values, he grew closer to Staupitz, whom he revered as a second father. He must also have realized that Wittenberg enabled him to be a big fish in a small pond: “Like Newton in 17th century Cambridge, Luther lacked colleagues strong enough or even well-educated enough to set his agenda for him.” (84)