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Shortly before midnight one November 10, probably in 1483, in the Saxon town of Eisleben, Margarethe Lindemann Luder gave birth to a son. When he was grown and had made enemies, some of them charged that this "beloved mother" had been a whore and bath attendant. Not at all. She was instead a hardworking woman of trading-class stock and middling means. When he did later write of her, Luther remembered Margarethe as someone who could punish him severely. Parents in her time and place routinely did that. But, he recalled, she had meant heartily well.
His father, Hans Luder or Ludher-later Luther-was a leaseholder of mines and smelters. He was to become respectable enough to serve as one of four citizens who represented others before a town council. This ambitious and occasionally jovial father could likewise be a harsh disciplinarian, but-as Martin also said of him-Hans had meant heartily well.
Eisleben, where the family lived for only a few months after the child's birth, straddled the edge of the Harz Mountains and the Thuringian forests. Haunting the dark heights above the town, many believed, were witches and poltergeists. In the town churches, peasants and villagers took refuge against both threatening supernatural beings and naturalhazards. The Luthers, among these other Saxons, needed such refuge. Tales of the Black Death, which had killed perhaps one-third of Europe's people, kept later generations aware of the precariousness of living and terrified when plaguelike diseases struck. Peasant existence and, for men like Hans, the mining business brought daily hazards. Thus, while a mine could yield copper and produce prosperity, it also might collapse on the miners or drag leaseholders like Hans into debt.
Pleading for all the help they could get, cowering believers prayed to saints. Miners invoked their popular protector St. Anne, known to them as the mother of the Virgin Mary. The pious, hoping such saints would shield them, feared a God who judged and punished them. To ward off the devil in such a setting, the Luther infant was brought just hours after his birth to Sts. Peter and Paul Church. There, after the saint of that day, they christened him Martin. The baptismal rite, though subdued, was momentous. The church taught that its waters cleansed the infant of sin as they drove out the devil and produced a new Christian.
Seven years after his baptism, his prudent parents sent Martin to Latin schools, first in his hometown of Mansfield, then in Magdeburg, and finally in Eisenach, for an experience that he later recounted as being in purgatory and hell. Those three schools were literally "trivial," which meant devoted to the trivium, because teachers drilled three subjects into the heads of urchins: Grammar served Luther well as he produced writings that now fill about one hundred mammoth volumes. Rhetoric, the second discipline, helped him become the influential writer and speaker whose words affronted and charmed multitudes for decades. The boy made much less of the third, logic, though it did help him survive philosophy courses later at the university.
In the Latin schools Martin also wrestled with Christian basics. If teachers taught also about the love of God, it was their warning that Jesus the Son of God would judge them after their death that fired their imaginations, especially Martin's. More alluring were Aesop's Fables and other stories that helped inform and prompt a mature Luther to salt his discourse with parables and narratives. In school Luther lived in terror of the "wolf," the classmate charged to tattle weekly on the children and finger them as candidates for physical punishment. But there were joys, as when young Martin savored the music that filled the chapel during Masses. Having learned to sing, the boys at Magdeburg and Eisenach performed during door-to-door rounds, welcoming "crumbs," or small gifts.
Influences that shaped the child remain obscure. He had several brothers and sisters and was close to one of them, Jacob, with whom he remembered playing. But he was very young when the burden of influence moved from home and family to school. The pious Brothers of the Common Life ran the school at Magdeburg and no doubt shared their love of the Scripture and the life of simple prayer with him. Some thought his known sightings of one begging Franciscan friar, formerly Prince Wilhelm of Anhalt, and his friendship with a learned priest at Eisenach inspired this alert adolescent when he later chose his vocation. Whatever young Luther might have been planning to study, father Hans insisted he take up law. Having a son who was an attorney or a judge would one day enhance the status and serve the practical needs of the aged Luthers.
He came to admire his teachers at Eisenach, so the Latin schools cannot have been such purgatories and hells as a scornful Luther later deemed them. So neither was his chosen university at Erfurt in Thuringia simply the whorehouse and beerhouse he would one day recall. In the summer of 1501, after taking his oath of loyalty to the dean, he launched a career that kept him in the university world all his life. Hans Luther's son was on track toward joining the Thuringian or Saxon elites through an academic career in a time when the fates of universities, the church, and civil governments were intertwined.
Luther used the university as his base as he developed his decisive role in the portentous intellectual, spiritual, and political dramas of his day. He remarked that the market town of Erfurt was a fortified city, so he felt protected there in many ways. Among the walled-in population of about twenty thousand lived almost a thousand priests, monks, and nuns. Faith was a public matter; the churchgoing citizens took Christian images from the sanctuaries to the streets, where townspeople enjoyed sacred processions, festivals, and displays of piety.
University authorities in Erfurt sternly regulated academic life. At four each morning the bell roused students for a day of rote learning and often wearying spiritual exercises. Starting low in class ranking, Luther studied hard and moved toward the top, usually enjoying his courses. He said he regarded the ceremonies that came with his master's degree-achieved in 1505-as incomparable among joys on earth, and he came to know enough joys to give weight to such a comparison.
While he followed his father's wishes and enrolled that year in legal studies, he almost instantly dropped out of them, explaining that in his mind law represented nothing but uncertainty. At Erfurt the edgy law professors liked to call theologians asses. Luther returned the compliment ever after by showing his disdain for lawyers. In the academy he now began to ask himself whether theology might offer him the certainty he was seeking in life, the assurance his soul and mind demanded, and a boon he could provide to others.
At Erfurt two living teachers and three dead philosophers especially caught his interest. Bartholomdus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter were the professors who instructed Luther in the thought of the ancient thinker Aristotle and, from more recent centuries, William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Usingen and Trutfetter staged disputations, dead-serious debates, about their philosophies, ostensibly to seek truth. They taught students to be suspicious of even the greatest authors, men who might give the impression of being certain about assertions and claims when they were not or had no reason to be.
Luther determined along the way that when the philosophers considered human reason to be a credible agent for knowing and pleasing God they could offer none of the assurance of the love of God that he craved. As he studied philosophy he developed a lasting love-hate-from some angles even a hate-hate-relation to Aristotle. The Greek sage was a legitimate guide on practical earthly subjects, Luther affirmed, but he charged that Christian universities employed Aristotle's approach to reason as a deceptive and finally unsatisfying means for coming to know God.
Luther's professors, adapting what some called the modern way and others referred to as the nominalism of Ockham and Biel, stressed a commonsense counsel: Test theory by experience. For Luther, this meant questioning the writings of his teachers and then moving on to testing the absolute authority that the key institution, the church, claimed as the guardian of divine truth. Nominalists contended that only a particular, individual thing, not a general idea, was real.
That meant humans could learn of a world beyond their everyday scene only through divine revelation, which is one reason why Scripture became so decisive for Luther and why he came to reject so much of the church's use of Aristotle's reason as a means of using ideas to find and please God.
Interrupting his academic course on a July day in 1505, the twenty-two-year-old graduate surprised friends and perhaps to some extent himself when he decided to trade academic garb for the cowl. He held a farewell supper for friends who then led him with tears, he said, to the door of the town's Black Cloister. With more than a tinge of melodrama he turned to pronounce, "This day you see me, and then, not ever again." Friends had to ask why he made this sudden decision. One acquaintance blamed Luther's apparently abrupt move on the melancholy he displayed after the death of two friends. Another faulted the supernatural, musing that an apparition must have visited him. His father, who thought Martin was now going to waste his education, his life, and the prospects of his parents, was predictably furious.
Luther later admitted that fear turned him to his new course. On the way back to the university after a journey home on July 2, as he neared the village of Stotternheim, he was jolted by a thunderbolt and lightning. "Help me, St. Anne," he prayed, and then vowed, "I will become a monk." He busied himself with interpreting this event all his life.
Sixteen years later he wrote to his father that he had that summer day been called by terrors from heaven. Specifically, cowering in the agony of prospective sudden death and the dread of divine judgment, he made the monastic vow he thought he could never break. Soon he was called to prostrate himself before an altar at Erfurt, over the brass plate that covered a tomb. Buried there was an Augustinian leader who in 1415 at a church council in Constance had helped condemn to death the prophetic Bohemian preacher Jan Hus. Ironically, Luther and others came later to honor not the buried Augustinian but his victim Hus as a precedent for their own ventures, a martyr to true faith and a man who defied those spiritual rulers who turned him over to secular authorities for execution.
The custodians of the cloister doors that closed behind Luther on July 17 belonged to the very strict Order of Augustinian Hermits. Luther selected his order well, since Augustinians prized scholarship, as did he. They honored and studied the fifth-century scholar and bishop St. Augustine, as would he. He was ready for self-punishing treatment, and they offered it. Monastery rules demanded that the novice master, the prior, and other chapter leaders must regiment the lives of monks. Luther dutifully obeyed, but though he had sought rigor, he came to chafe under the weight of the monotonous routines. Years later he disparaged the monastic disciplines as distractions from what he determined the fear-stricken and spiritually hungry people of God deserved.
Beyond the walls of the university, the fortifications of Erfurt, and then the protective confines of the cloister, the world around Luther was in turmoil, and he was soon to find himself unexpectedly central to much of its drama. We know almost nothing about what he knew or thought about the political and religious conflict of the moment, but one of its features had to stand out: His was an entirely Catholic world. After Spain had defeated the Muslims and purged the Jews in 1492, Europe became almost solely Christian, and Christianity was the only faith recognized and supported by the governments. Christians did not live near the people they called the Turk, Muslims with whom they were in imperial conflict. Small Jewish communities mainly under force and sometimes partly by choice still huddled in Italian ghettos or clustered around synagogues in numerous towns of northern Europe. Mountain valleys hid a few dissenting Christian sectarians. While folk beliefs that the theologians of the day called pagan were very widespread, a Christian could roam through Europe and find familiar the main beliefs of almost anyone he met. By the time Luther died, however, even the surface unity of Western Christendom would be shattered. What he learned in the university and how he used that learning contributed decisively to the shattering.
To help make sense of Luther's inner world, his thought, and the emphases in his subsequent career therefore requires some acts of imagination. I like to picture someone from any remote culture where people did not worship God stumbling onto the monastic scene and being utterly bewildered. Such a person from beyond Christendom in those years might well have comprehended the new sciences then developing in Europe, but the form that the search for meaning took and the theology used to interpret it would have been alien and forbidding. Luther, like the poets Chaucer and Dante before him and like the scholars Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More in his own time, inhabited a spiritual world in which people struggled in inventive ways with God and Satan, going on pilgrimages and fearing purgatories. Their religious ventures taught them to be consumed by the threat of damnation and the hope of being saved for eternity with God.
Luther boasted that if ever a pious monk could have gotten to heaven through his monkery, it would have been he. He said he prayed, fasted, kept vigils, and almost froze to death in the unheated chambers. Though his colleagues evidently considered him a good friar, he confessed that he faced persistent temptations. These were not beguilingly sexual, and little in his record would attract those with prurient tastes. As he wrestled against the lures of the devil, he instead became increasingly convinced that no one could ever do what he fervently aspired to do, that is, please God through monastic efforts. Their hours spent in solitude gave Augustinians ample time to explore the inner life. Luther testified that from the first he struggled with himself and his God.
Excerpted from Martin Luther by Martin E. Marty Copyright © 2004 by Martin E. Marty. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 8, 2004
This is an excellent book detailing the human side of Martin Luther's life. It was especially interesting as part of my personal research on Protestant history. The writing style is a bit academic and isn't the easiest read -- but that aside, I found it fascinating to grasp the man, his torments, political persecuters, family, and passion for his beliefs.
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Posted June 24, 2011
Marty gives us a better glimpse of the "earthy" side of Luther. Quick and easy read for anyone interested in the life of this reformer.
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Posted March 21, 2014
Posted December 16, 2009
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