Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg is one of the most famous events in Western history – but did it actually happen on 31 October 1517? In this excerpt Peter Marshall looks at the commemoration of the Reformation’s centenary in 1617 that further cemented the idea that Martin Luther posted his theses on the 31 October 1517 precisely.
We have today become thoroughly accustomed to the notion that the passage of a hundred years after a significant episode or event constitutes an appropriate, almost a natural moment to commemorate it and reflect on its significance. Yet the idea of the centenary is itself a product of history. The decision in 1617 to stage celebrations and commemorations of Luther’s protest a hundred years earlier was the very first large-scale modern centenary. It was a critical moment, not only in how the Reformation was to be understood and remembered, but in how history itself would afterwards play a role in the public life of western Europe.
The growing concern with uniform blocks of years was scarcely a symptom of some ‘modern’, rationalizing way of seeing the world. Rather, an obsession with the measurement and inspection of time reflected the widespread conviction that the world was hastening towards its end, and that distinctive dates might be the markers in a continuing cosmic contest between the forces of Christ and Antichrist—a countdown to the Second Coming and Last Judgement. Luther’s eminence as a prophet of the end times was hailed in his own lifetime, and resurrected in numerous Lutheran New Year’s sermons for 1600: a David confronting and slaying the papal Goliath. Increasingly, 1517 was regarded as the year when this divine mandate was announced to the world.
The anniversary celebrations of 1517 were rooted in an existing culture of commemoration, and in a powerful ordering vision of a divine plan for humanity. But they were nonetheless the product of particular contemporary circumstances, and as they took shape, distinct religious and political agendas could be identified at work in them. The first impetus seems to have come, predictably enough, from the Theological Faculty at the University of Wittenberg. In March 1617, the Wittenberg theologians wrote to the supreme decision-making body for the territorial Church in Saxony, requesting permission to celebrate the last day of October as primus Jubileus Lutheranus, the first Jubilee of Luther.
The word ‘Jubilee’ was a carefully chosen one, and represented both a claim and a provocation. The concept’s origins were biblical. In the book of Leviticus, God instructed Moses that every fiftieth year was to be kept as a holy year of Jubilee, when fields were to be left untilled, debts redeemed, and slaves set at liberty. The idea of a holy year of emancipation and restoration was revived by the medieval papacy. In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII declared a year of grace, when special plenary indulgences were offered to those coming to Rome on pilgrimage. The original intention was for these papal jubilees to occur every hundred years, later reduced to every fifty in accordance with biblical precept. In 1470, Pope Paul II decreed that they should take place every twenty-five years, so that each generation might get to experience at least one. After a crisis of morale in the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the jubilees of 1575 and 1600 were celebrated in Rome with particular splendour—a symptom of the renewed confidence of the Catholic Church after the reforms, and the zealous condemnations of Protestantism, undertaken by the Council of Trent (1545–63).
Papal jubilees were inextricably tied up with indulgences, and with promises of access to the Treasury of Merits. For Lutheran theologians, appropriating the term was a daring act of theological piracy. The intention was that 1617 would be experienced, not just as a moment of historical retrospection, but as a true ‘holy year’ of divine favour and grace, a celebration of the triumph of the Gospel over the false promises of Antichrist. An effect was to underline still further the significance of the indulgence controversy—in itself a relatively minor skirmish in the grand clash of theological arms—as the underlying ‘cause’ of the Reformation in Germany.
As the evangelicals’ plans became clear, Rome reacted with predictable fury. The next holy year was not due until 1625, but on 12 June 1617 Paul V announced that the rest of the current year was to be kept as a period of extraordinary jubilee, a time of penance and atonement, and of prayer for God to protect the Church from its heretical enemies. Some Catholic territories fixed their main ceremonies for 31 October 1617 itself, in an effort to undercut the Protestant ‘pseudo-jubilee’. In places where Catholics and Lutherans lived side by side—such as in the great imperial city of Augsburg—rival celebrations took place at the same time and fuelled simmering sectarian hatreds. Some contemporary chroniclers even dated the beginning of the Thirty Years War, which was to erupt into open conflict in 1618, to the competing jubilees of the preceding year.
Featured image credit: Church Lutherstadt Wittenberg by unknown. Public domain via Max Pixel.