History of Literature

German literature



Origins and Middle Ages

Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance

The 18th century

The 19th century

The 19th century. Fin de siecle movements

The 20th century


German literature

Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance


Johannes von Tepl

Sebastian Brant

Illustrations by  Albrecht Durer

Desiderius Erasmus
Hans Sachs
Martin Luther
Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen
Martin Opitz
Andreas Gryphius
Christian, baron von Wolff

Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance

The late Middle Ages in Europe was a time of decadence and regeneration. A proliferation of literary forms, including didactic literature, prose renderings of classic works, and mystical tracts, was one symptom of this double tendency. The elegant Minnesang was replaced by the wooden verse of guild poetasters, the Meistersang (“mastersong”). The age’s preoccupation with death produced a macabre flowering of art: the dance of death, a large body of sermon literature on the memento mori theme, tracts on the art of dying well (ars moriendi), as well as a rich body of visual and plastic art.

A curious and remarkable work, Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (Death and the Ploughman is the colourful title of a modern translation), consists of a debate between its author, Johannes von Tepl, and the figure of Death that is in effect a confrontation between the moribund late Middle Ages and the life-affirming tendencies of a nascent Renaissance. Perched significantly on the watershed between a dying and a rising culture, Johannes von Tepl made his work, written about 1400, a monument to his young wife, Margaretha, who had recently died in childbirth. The author (the “ploughman”) raises a hue and cry against Death, who has robbed him of his wife. Death answers his complaints, and a debate follows in which Johannes defends the value of human life against its attacker, Death. God judges the debate and gives victory to Death but honour to man.

The Renaissance in Germany—rich in art, architecture, and learned humanist writings—was poor in German-language literature. Works from Italy were eagerly received and translated, especially those of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and the humanist scholar Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. Rabelais’s works found a vigorous imitator in Johann Fischart. For Germany the 16th century was an age of satire. One of its most popular works was Das Narrenschiff (1494; Ship of Fools) by Sebastian Brant, who thus inaugurated a genre of “fool” literature. (The best-known representative of this body of work is probably Desiderius Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly [1509].) One of the most versatile writers of popular plays, short stories in verse, and narrative and satirical poems was the Nürnberg shoemaker and Meistersinger Hans Sachs, whose style has the simplicity and roughness of woodcuts.

Among the abundant popular literary digests known as Volksbücher (“folk books,” popular prose narratives), one that deserves mention—because of its resonance in a time of renewed enthusiasm for learning and because of its grand future—is the Historia von D. Johann Fausten (MARLOWE CHRISTOPHER "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus"1587). This story of a doctor whose thirst for knowledge leads him to make a pact with the Devil was to supply Goethe with the outline of his drama Faust.

Johannes von Tepl

also called Johannes von Saaz

born c. 1350, Tepl or Schüttwa, Bohemia [now in Czech Republic]
died c. 1415, Prague

Bohemian author of the remarkable dialogue Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (c. 1400; Death and the Ploughman), the first important prose work in the German language.

After taking a degree at Prague University, he was appointed, probably before 1378, a notary in Saaz (Žatec), and he became headmaster of the grammar school there in 1383. In 1411 he became a notary of Prague New Town, where he remained until his death.

In the Ackermann—which, though described in a Latin dedication as an exercise in rhetoric, probably arose from the death of the author’s first wife in 1400—a plowman, representing Man, bitterly accuses Death of unjust dealings toward humanity. Death’s counterarguments reconcile the plowman to the necessity of Death’s activities, though the plowman still champions human nobility against Death’s more negative view. God, the judge, awards Death the victory but Man the honour. Its complex structure, vigorous rhythmical prose, and expression of human grief make this work—despite the uncertain state of the text—unique in medieval German literature. Widely regarded as essentially medieval in thought and even in technique, it contains elements of Renaissance literature and humanistic thought.



Sebastian Brant

"Ship of Fools" 
Illustrations by  Albrecht Dürer

Brant also spelled Brandt

born 1457, Strassburg [now Strasbourg, France]
died May 10, 1521, Strassburg

satirical poet best known for his Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Ship of Fools), the most popular German literary work of the 15th century.

Brant studied in Basel, where he received his B.A. in 1477 and doctor of laws in 1489; he taught in the law faculty there from 1484 to 1500. In 1500, when Basel joined the Swiss Confederation (1499), he returned to Strassburg, where in 1503 he was made municipal secretary. Maximilian I appointed him imperial councillor and count palatine.

Brant’s writings are varied: legal; religious; political (in support of Maximilian, against the French and Turks); and, especially, moral (adaptations of the aphorisms of Cato, Faceto, and Freidank). His chief work, however, is Das Narrenschiff, an allegory telling of a ship laden with fools and steered by fools setting sail for Narragonia, the “fool’s paradise.” The ship allegory is not sustained; instead Brant presents more than 100 fools representing every contemporary shortcoming, serious and trivial. Criminals, drunkards, ill-behaved priests and lecherous monks, spendthrifts, bribe-taking judges, busybodies, and voluptuous women are included in this unsparing, bitter, sweeping satire. Brant’s aims are the improvement of his fellows and the regeneration of church and empire. The language is popular, the verse rough but vigorous; each chapter is accompanied by a woodcut, many ascribed to Albrecht Dürer; they are beautifully executed but often only loosely connected with the text. Brant’s work was an immediate sensation and was widely translated.

Two English versions appeared in 1509, one in verse by Alexander Barclay (The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde) and another in prose by Henry Watson, and it gave rise to a whole school of fool’s literature. Yet Brant essentially looks backward; he is not a forerunner of the Reformation nor even a true humanist but rather a representative of medieval thought and ideals.




Desiderius Erasmus

Albrecht Durer - Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam

born Oct. 27, 1469, Rotterdam, Holland [now in The Netherlands]
died July 12, 1536, Basel, Switz.

humanist who was the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance, the first editor of the New Testament, and also an important figure in patristics and classical literature.

Using the philological methods pioneered by Italian humanists, Erasmus helped lay the groundwork for the historical-critical study of the past, especially in his studies of the Greek New Testament and the Church Fathers. His educational writings contributed to the replacement of the older scholastic curriculum by the new humanist emphasis on the classics. Bycriticizing ecclesiastical abuses, while pointing to a better age in the distant past, he encouraged the growing urge for reform, which found expression both in the Protestant Reformation and in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Finally, his independent stance in an age of fierce confessional controversy—rejecting both Luther's doctrine of predestination and the powers that were claimed for the papacy—made him a target of suspicion for loyal partisans on both sides and a beacon for those who valued liberty more than orthodoxy.
Early life and career

Erasmus was the second illegitimate son of Roger Gerard, a priest, and Margaret, a physician's daughter. He advanced asfar as the third-highest class at the chapter school of St. Lebuin's in Deventer. One of his teachers, Jan Synthen, was ahumanist, as was the headmaster, Alexander Hegius. The schoolboy Erasmus was clever enough to write classical Latin verse that impresses a modern reader as cosmopolitan.

After both parents died, the guardians of the two boys sent them to a school in 's Hertogenbosch conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay religious movement that fostered monastic vocations. Erasmus would remember thisschool only for a severe discipline intended, he said, to teachhumility by breaking a boy's spirit.

Having little other choice, both brothers entered monasteries. Erasmus chose the Augustinian canons regular at Steyn, near Gouda, where he seems to have remained about seven years (1485–92). While at Steyn he paraphrased Lorenzo Valla's Elegantiae, which was both a compendium of pure classical usage and a manifesto againstthe scholastic “barbarians” who had allegedly corrupted it. Erasmus' monastic superiors became “barbarians” for him by discouraging his classical studies. Thus, after his ordination to the priesthood (April 1492), he was happy to escape the monastery by accepting a post as Latin secretary to the influential Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai. His Antibarbarorum liber, extant from a revision of 1494–95, is a vigorous restatement of patristic arguments for the utility of the pagan classics, with a polemical thrust against the cloister he had left behind: “All sound learning is secular learning.”

Erasmus was not suited to a courtier's life, nor did things improve much when the bishop was induced to send him to the University of Paris to study theology (1495). He disliked the quasi-monastic regimen of the Collège de Montaigu, where he lodged initially, and pictured himself to a friend as sitting “with wrinkled brow and glazed eye” through Scotist lectures. To support his classical studies, he began taking in pupils; from this period (1497–1500) date the earliest versions of those aids to elegant Latin—including the Colloquia and the Adagia—that before long would be in use in humanist schools throughout Europe.

The wandering scholar

In 1499 a pupil, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited Erasmus to England. There he met Thomas More, who became a friend for life. John Colet quickened Erasmus' ambition to be a “primitive theologian,” one who would expound Scripture not in the argumentative manner of the scholastics but in the manner of Jerome and the other ChurchFathers, who lived in an age when men still understood and practiced the classical art of rhetoric. The impassioned Coletbesought him to lecture on the Old Testament at Oxford, but the more cautious Erasmus was not ready. He returned to the Continent with a Latin copy of St. Paul's Epistles and the conviction that “ancient theology” required mastery of Greek.

On a visit to Artois, Fr. (1501), Erasmus met the fiery preacher Jean Voirier, who, though a Franciscan, told him that“monasticism was a life more of fatuous men than of religious men.” Admirers recounted how Voirier's disciples faced death serenely, trusting in God, without the solemn reassurance of the last rites. Voirier lent Erasmus a copy of works by Origen, the early Greek Christian writer who promoted the allegorical, spiritualizing mode of scriptural interpretation, which had roots in Platonic philosophy. By 1502 Erasmus had settled in the university town of Louvain (Brabant) and was reading Origen and St. Paul in Greek. The fruit of his labours was Enchiridion militis Christiani (1503/04; Handbook of a Christian Knight). In this work Erasmus urged readers to “inject into the vitals” the teachings of Christ by studying and meditating on the Scriptures, using the spiritual interpretation favoured by the “ancients” to make the text pertinent to moral concerns. The Enchiridion was a manifesto of lay piety in its assertion that “monasticism is not piety.” Erasmus' vocation as a “primitive theologian” was further developed through his discovery at Park Abbey, near Louvain, of a manuscript of Valla's Adnotationes on the Greek New Testament, which he published in 1505 with a dedication to Colet.

Erasmus sailed for England in 1505, hoping to find support for his studies. Instead he found an opportunity to travel to Italy, the land of promise for northern humanists, as tutor to the sons of the future Henry VIII's physician. The party arrived in the university town of Bologna in time to witness the triumphal entry (1506) of the warrior pope Julius II at the head of a conquering army, a scene that figures later in Erasmus' anonymously published satiric dialogue, Julius exclusus e coelis (written 1513–14). In Venice Erasmus was welcomed at the celebrated printing house of Aldus Manutius, where Byzantine émigrés enriched the intellectuallife of a numerous scholarly company. For the Aldine press Erasmus expanded his Adagia, or annotated collection of Greek and Latin adages, into a monument of erudition with over 3,000 entries; this was the book that first made him famous. The adage “Dutch ear” (auris Batava) is one of many hints that he was not an uncritical admirer of sophisticated Italy, with its theatrical sermons and its scholars who doubted the immortality of the soul; his aim was to write for honest and unassuming “Dutch ears.”

De pueris instituendis, written in Italy though not published until 1529, is the clearest statement of Erasmus' enormous faith in the power of education. With strenuous effort the very stuff of human nature could be molded, so as to draw out (e-ducare) peaceful and social dispositions while discouraging unworthy appetites. Erasmus, it would almost be true to say, believed that one is what one reads. Thus the “humane letters” of classical and Christian antiquity would have a beneficent effect on the mind, in contrast to the disputatious temper induced by scholastic logic-chopping or the vengeful amour propre bred into young aristocrats by chivalric literature, “the stupid and tyrannical fables of King Arthur.”

The celebrated Moriae encomium, or Praise of Folly, conceived as Erasmus crossed the Alps on his way back to England and written at Thomas More's house, expresses a very different mood. For the first time the earnest scholar saw his own efforts along with everyone else's as bathed in auniversal irony, in which foolish passion carried the day: “Even the wise man must play the fool if he wishes to beget achild.”

Little is known of Erasmus' long stay in England (1509–14), except that he lectured at Cambridge and worked on scholarly projects, including the Greek text of the New Testament. His later willingness to speak out as he did may have owed something to the courage of Colet, who risked royal disfavour by preaching a sermon against war at the court just as Henry VIII was looking for a good war in which towin his spurs. Having returned to the Continent, Erasmus made connections with the printing firm of Johann Froben and traveled to Basel to prepare a new edition of the Adagia (1515). In this and other works of about the same time Erasmus showed a new boldness in commenting on the ills of Christian society—popes who in their warlike ambition imitated Caesar rather than Christ; princes who hauled wholenations into war to avenge a personal slight; and preachers who looked to their own interests by pronouncing the princes' wars just or by nurturing superstitious observances among the faithful. To remedy these evils Erasmus looked to education. In particular, the training of preachers should be based on “the philosophy of Christ” rather than on scholastic methods. Erasmus tried to show the way with his annotated text of the Greek New Testament and his edition of St. Jerome's Opera omnia, both of which appeared from theFroben press in 1516. These were the months in which Erasmus thought he saw “the world growing young again,” and the full measure of his optimism is expressed in one of the prefatory writings to the New Testament: “If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.”

Erasmus' home base was now in Brabant, where he had influential friends at the Habsburg court of the Netherlands in Brussels, notably the grand chancellor, Jean Sauvage. Through Sauvage he was named honorary councillor to the 16-year-old archduke Charles, the future Charles V, and was commissioned to write Institutio principis Christiani (1516; The Education of a Christian Prince) and Querela pacis (1517; The Complaint of Peace). These works expressed Erasmus' own convictions, but they also did no harm to Sauvage's faction at court, which wanted to maintain peace with France. It was at this time too that he began his Paraphrases of the books of the New Testament, each one dedicated to a monarch or a prince of the church. He was accepted as a member of the theology faculty at nearby Louvain, and he also took keen interest in a newly founded Trilingual College, with endowed chairs in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Ratio verae theologiae (1518) provided the rationale for the new theological education based on the study of languages. Revision of his Greek New Testament, especially of the copious annotations, began almost as soonas the first edition appeared. Though Erasmus certainly made mistakes as a textual critic, in the history of scholarship he is a towering figure, intuiting philological principles that in some cases would not be formulated explicitly until 150 years after his death. But conservative theologians at Louvain and elsewhere, mostly ignorant of Greek, were not willing to abandon the interpretation of Scripture to upstart “grammarians,” nor did the atmosphere at Louvain improve when the second edition of Erasmus' New Testament (1519) replaced the Vulgate with his own Latin translation.

The Protestant challenge

From the very beginning of the momentous events sparked by Martin Luther's challenge to papal authority, Erasmus' clerical foes blamed him for inspiring Luther, just as some of Luther's admirers in Germany found that he merely proclaimed boldly what Erasmus had been hinting. In fact, Luther's first letter to Erasmus (1516) showed an important disagreement over the interpretation of St. Paul, and in 1518 Erasmus privately instructed his printer, Froben, to stop printing works by Luther, lest the two causes be confused. Ashe read Luther's writings, at least those prior to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Erasmus found much to admire, and he could even describe Luther, in a letter to Pope Leo X, as “a mighty trumpet of Gospel truth.” Being of a suspicious nature, however, he also convinced himself that Luther's fiercest enemies were men who saw the study of languages as the root of heresy and thus wanted to be rid of both at once. Hence he tugged at the slender threads of his influence, vainly hoping to forestall a confrontation that could only be destructive to “good letters.” When he quit Brabant for Basel (December 1521), he did so lest he be faced with a personal request from the Emperor to write a book against Luther, which he could not have refused.

Erasmus' belief in the unity of the church was fundamental, but, like the Hollanders and Brabanters with whom he was most at home, he recoiled from the cruel logic of religious persecution. He expressed his views indirectly through the Colloquia, which had started as schoolboy dialogues but now became a vehicle for commentary. For example, in the colloquy “Inquisitio de fide” (1522) a Catholic finds to his surprise that Lutherans accept all the dogmas of the faith, that is, the articles of the Apostles' Creed. The implication is that bitter disputes like those over papal infallibility or Luther's doctrine of predestination are differences over mereopinion, not over dogmas binding on all the faithful. For Erasmus the root of the schism was not theology but anticlericalism and lay resentment of the laws and “ceremonies” that the clergy made binding under pain of hell. As he wrote privately to the Netherlandish pope Adrian VI (1522–23), whom he had known at Louvain, there was still hope of reconciliation, if only the church would ease the burden; this could be accomplished, for instance, by grantingthe chalice to the laity and by permitting priests to marry: “At the sweet name of liberty all things will revive.”

When Adrian VI was succeeded by Clement VII, Erasmus could no longer avoid “descending into the arena” of theological combat, though he promised the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli that he would attack Luther in a way that would not please the “pharisees.” De libero arbitrio (1524) defended the place of human free choice in the process of salvation and argued that the consensus of the church through the ages is authoritative in the interpretation of Scripture. In reply Luther wrote one of his most important theological works, De servo arbitrio (1525), to which Erasmus responded with a lengthy, two-part Hyperaspistes (1526–27). In this controversy Erasmus lets it be seen that he would like to claim more for free will than St. Paul and St. Augustine seem to allow.

The years in Basel (1522–29) were filled with polemics, some of them rather tiresome by comparison to the great debate with Luther. Irritated by Protestants who called him a traitor to the Gospel as well as by hyper-orthodox Catholic theologians who repeatedly denounced him, Erasmus showed the petty side of his own nature often enough. Although there is material in his apologetic writings that scholars have yet to exploit, there seems no doubt that on the whole he was better at satiric barbs, such as the colloquy representing one young “Pseudo-Evangelical” of his acquaintance as thwacking people over the head with a Gospel book to gain converts. Meanwhile he kept at work on the Greek New Testament (there would be five editions in all), the Paraphrases, and his editions of the Church Fathers, including Cyprian, Hilary, and Origen. He also took time to chastise those humanists, mostly Italian, who from a “superstitious” zeal for linguistic purity refused to sully their Latin prose with nonclassical terms (Ciceronianus, 1528).

Final years

In 1529, when Protestant Basel banned Catholic worship altogether, Erasmus and some of his humanist friends moved to the Catholic university town of Freiburg im Breisgau. He refused an invitation to the Diet of Augsburg, where Philipp Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession was to initiate the first meaningful discussions between Lutheran and Catholic theologians. He nonetheless encouraged such discussion in De sarcienda ecclesiae concordia (1533), whichsuggested that differences on the crucial doctrine of justification might be reconciled by considering a duplex justitia, the meaning of which he did not elaborate. Having returned to Basel to see his manual on preaching (Ecclesiastes, 1535) through the press, he lingered on in a city he found congenial; it was there he died in 1536. Like thedisciples of Voirier, he seems not to have asked for the last sacraments of the church. His last words were in Dutch: “Lieve God” (“dear God”).

Influence and achievement

Always the scholar, Erasmus could see many sides of an issue. But his hesitations and studied ambiguities were appreciated less and less in the generations that followed his death, as men girded for combat, theological or otherwise, in the service of their beliefs. For a time, while peacemakers on both sides had an opportunity to pursue meaningful discussions between Catholics and Lutherans, some of Erasmus' practical suggestions and his moderate theological views were directly pertinent. Even after ecumenism dwindled to a mere wisp of possibility, there were a few men willing to make themselves heirs of Erasmus' lonely struggle for a middle ground, like Jacques-Auguste de Thou in France and Hugo Grotius in the Netherlands; significantly, both were strong supporters of state authority and hoped to limit the influence of the clergy of their respective established churches. This tradition was perhaps strongest in the Netherlands, where Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert and others found support in Erasmus for their advocacy of limited toleration for religious dissenters. Meanwhile, however, the Council of Trent and the rise of Calvinism ensured that such views weregenerally of marginal influence. The Catholic index expurgatorius of 1571 contained a long list of suspect passages to be deleted from any future editions of Erasmus' writings, and those Protestant tendencies that bear some comparison to Erasmus' defense of free will—current among the Philippists in Germany and the Arminians in the Netherlands—were bested by defenders of a sterner orthodoxy. Even in the classroom, Erasmus' preference for putting students directly in contact with the classics gave way to the use of compendiums and manuals of humanist rhetoric and logic that resembled nothing so much as the scholastic curriculum of the past. Similarly, the bold and independent scholarly temper with which Erasmusapproached the text of the New Testament was for a long time submerged by the exigencies of theological polemics.

Erasmus' reputation began to improve in the late 17th century, when the last of Europe's religious wars was fading into memory and scholars like Richard Simon and Jean Le Clercq (the editor of Erasmus' works) were once again taking a more critical approach to biblical texts. By Voltaire'stime, in the 18th century, it was possible to imagine that the clever and rather skeptical Erasmus must have been a philosophe before his time, one whose professions of religious devotion and submission to church authority could be seen as convenient evasions. This view of Erasmus, curiously parallel to the strictures of his orthodox critics, waslong influential. Only in the past several decades have scholars given due recognition to the fact that the goal of hiswork was a Christianity purified by a deeper knowledge of itshistoric roots. Yet it was not entirely wrong to compare Erasmus with those Enlightenment thinkers who, like Voltaire, defended individual liberty at every turn and had little good to say about the various corporate solidarities by which human society holds together. Some historians would now trace the enduring debate between these complementary aspects of Western thought as far back as the 12th century, and in this very broad sense Erasmus and Voltaire are on the same side of a divide, just as, for instance, Machiavelli and Rousseau are on the other. In a unique manner that fused his multiple identities—as Netherlander, Renaissance humanist, and pre-Tridentine Catholic—Erasmus helped to build what may be called the liberal tradition of European culture.

James D. Tracy



Hans Sachs

born Nov. 5, 1494, Nürnberg, Ger.
died Jan. 19, 1576, Nürnberg

German burgher, meistersinger, and poet who was outstanding for his popularity, output, and aesthetic and religious influence. He is idealized in Richard Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Wagner’s opera is partly a tribute to the common people—and Sachs was one of them. The son of a tailor, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker in 1509 after studying at a Latin school. He became a master cobbler in about 1519. Many guild workmen and tradesmen of that day practiced a type of singing based on elaborate rules; to become meistersingers (“master singers”), they had to prove themselves in a contest. Sachs became a master in the Nürnberg Singschule in about 1520, conducted a school of meistersingers at Munich, and headed the Nürnberg group in 1554.

Some of Sachs’s 4,000 meisterlieder (“master songs”), which he began writing in 1514, are religious. An early champion of Martin Luther’s cause, he wrote a verse allegory, Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall (1523; “The Nightingale of Wittenberg”) that immediately became famous and advanced the Reformation in Nürnberg. His 2,000 other poetic works include 200 verse dramas, 85 of which are Fastnachtsspiele, or homely comedies written to entertain Shrovetide carnival crowds.

Sachs remained a cobbler while pursuing the arts. Grief came to him with the loss of his seven children and, in 1560, of his wife. After marrying again in 1561, when he was 66, he resumed his output of cheerful composition. Virtually forgotten after his death, Sachs was rediscovered two centuries later by J.W. von Goethe. Some of Sachs’s plays, such as Der farent Schüler im Paradeis (1550; The Wandering Scholar), are performed today, and renewed interest in Renaissance music has resulted in a revival of his songs.


The culture of Germany in the 16th century stood in the shadow of the Protestant Reformation, which was initiated by the German monk Martin Luther in 1517. Luther contributed to the development of the German language in his translation of the Bible, one of the vital forces creating a standard language in a Germany whose culture was essentially regional and whose language was essentially a collection of local dialects. The century’s literary culture produced few classic works but many instruments of religious propaganda, which now reached comparatively large audiences because of new media developed since the 14th century—the woodcut and the printing press. An extensive body of polemical literature served the causes of the parties to the religious schism initiated by Luther. Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1515–17; The Letters of Obscure Men), a witty satire written in large part by the humanists Crotus Rubeanus (Johannes Jäger) and Ulrich von Hutten against the anti-Semitic and antihumanistic forces at work in the German universities, opened a gap between humanists and conservative scholastic intellectuals that would favour the move of the humanists into the Lutheran camp, where they became part of an important intellectual coalition against the Roman Catholic party. The satiric mode of literature set the tone for popular polemics such as the “fool” satires of Thomas Murner, a Catholic adversary of Martin Luther: Die Geuchmat (1519; “Field of Fools”) and Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren (1522; “Concerning the Great Lutheran Fool”).

The 16th century, although poor in great works of literature, was an immensely vital period that produced extraordinary characters such as the revolutionary humanist Ulrich von Hutten, the Nürnberg artist Albrecht Dürer, the Reformer Luther, and the doctor-scientist-charlatan Paracelsus. In the early modern period, as in various periods before and after, Germany was subject to division and party wrangling.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther in 1529 by Lucas Cranach

German religious leader

born Nov. 10, 1483, Eisleben, Saxony [Germany]
died Feb. 18, 1546, Eisleben

German theologian and religious reformer who was the catalyst of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Through his words and actions, Luther precipitated a movement that reformulated certain basic tenets of Christian belief and resulted in the division of Western Christendom between Roman Catholicism and the new Protestant traditions, mainly Lutheranism, Calvinism, the Anglican Communion, the Anabaptists, and the Antitrinitarians. He is one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity.

Early life and education » Early life
Soon after Luther’s birth, his family moved from Eisleben to the small town of Mansfeld, some 10 miles to the northwest. His father, Hans Luther, who prospered in the local copper-refining business, became a town councillor of Mansfeld in 1492. There are few sources of information about Martin Luther’s childhood apart from his recollections as an old man; understandably, they seem to be coloured by a certain romantic nostalgia.

Luther began his education at a Latin school in Mansfeld in the spring of 1488. There he received a thorough training in the Latin language and learned by rote the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and morning and evening prayers. In 1497 Luther was sent to nearby Magdeburg to attend a school operated by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay monastic order whose emphasis on personal piety apparently exerted a lasting influence on him. In 1501 he matriculated at the University of Erfurt, at the time one of the most distinguished universities in Germany. The matriculation records describe him as in habendo, meaning that he was ineligible for financial aid, an indirect testimonial to the financial success of his father. Luther took the customary course in the liberal arts and received the baccalaureate degree in 1502. Three years later he was awarded the master’s degree. His studies gave him a thorough exposure to Scholasticism; many years later, he spoke of Aristotle and William of Ockham as “his teachers.”

Early life and education » Conversion to monastic life
Having graduated from the arts faculty, Luther was eligible to pursue graduate work in one of the three “higher” disciplines—law, medicine, or theology. In accordance with the wishes of his father, he commenced the study of law. Proudly he purchased a copy of the Corpus Juris Canonici (“Corpus of Canon Law”), the collection of ecclesiastical law texts, and other important legal textbooks. Less than six weeks later, however, on July 17, 1505, Luther abandoned the study of law and entered the monastery in Erfurt of the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine, a mendicant order founded in 1256. His explanation for his abrupt change of heart was that a violent thunderstorm near the village of Stotternheim had terrified him to such a degree that he involuntarily vowed to become a monk if he survived. Because his vow was clearly made under duress, Luther could easily have ignored it; the fact that he did not indicates that the thunderstorm experience was only a catalyst for much deeper motivations. Luther’s father was understandably angry with him for abandoning a prestigious and lucrative career in law in favour of the monastery. In response to Luther’s avowal that in the thunderstorm he had been “besieged by the terror and agony of sudden death,” his father said only: “May it not prove an illusion and deception.”

By the second half of the 15th century, the Augustinian order had become divided into two factions, one seeking reform in the direction of the order’s original strict rule, the other favouring modifications. The monastery Luther joined in Erfurt was part of the strict, observant faction. Two months after entering the monastery, on Sept. 15, 1505, Luther made his general confession and was admitted into the community as a novice.

Luther’s new monastic life conformed to the commitment that countless men and women had made through the centuries—an existence devoted to an interweaving of daily work and worship. His spartan quarters consisted of an unheated cell furnished only with a table and chair. His daily activities were structured around the monastic rule and the observance of the canonical hours, which began at 2:00 in the morning. In the fall of 1506, he was fully admitted to the order and began to prepare for his ordination to the priesthood. He celebrated his first mass in May 1507 with a great deal of fear and trembling, according to his own recollection.

Early life and education » Doctor of theology
But Luther would not settle for the anonymous and routine existence of a monk. In 1507 he began the study of theology at the University of Erfurt. Transferred to the Augustinian monastery at Wittenberg in the fall of 1508, he continued his studies at the university there. Because the university at Wittenberg was new (it was founded in 1502), its degree requirements were fairly lenient. After only a year of study, Luther had completed the requirements not only for the baccalaureate in Bible but also for the next-higher theological degree, that of Sententiarius, which would qualify him to teach Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences (Sententiarum libri IV), the standard theological textbook of the time. Because he was transferred back to Erfurt in the fall of 1509, however, the university at Wittenberg could not confer the degrees on him. Luther then unabashedly petitioned the Erfurt faculty to confer the degrees. His request, though unusual, was altogether proper, and in the end it was granted.

His subsequent studies toward a doctoral degree in theology were interrupted, probably between the fall of 1510 and the spring of 1511, by his assignment to represent the observant German Augustinian monasteries in Rome. At issue was a papal decree that had administratively merged the observant and the nonobservant houses of the order. It is indicative of Luther’s emerging role in his order that he was chosen, along with a monastic brother from Nürnberg, to make the case for the observant houses in their appeal of the ruling to the pope. The mission proved to be unsuccessful, however, because the pope’s mind was already made up. Luther’s comments in later years suggest that the mission made a profoundly negative impression on him: he found in Rome a lack of spirituality at the very heart of Western Christendom.

Soon after his return Luther transferred to the Wittenberg monastery to finish his studies at the university there. He received his doctorate in the fall of 1512 and assumed the professorship in biblical studies, which was supplied by the Augustinian order. At the same time, his administrative responsibilities in the Wittenberg monastery and the Augustinian order increased, and he began to publish theological writings, such as the 97 theses against Scholastic theology.

Although there is some uncertainty about the details of Luther’s academic teaching, it is known that he offered courses on several biblical books—two on the book of Psalms—as well as on Paul’s epistles to the Romans, the Galatians, and the Hebrews. From all accounts Luther was a stimulating lecturer. One student reported that he was a man of middle stature, with a voice that combined sharpness in the enunciation of syllables and words, and softness in tone. He spoke neither too quickly nor too slowly, but at an even pace, without hesitation and very clearly.
Scholars have scrutinized Luther’s lecture notes for hints of a developing new theology, but the results have been inconclusive. Nor do the notes give any indication of a deep spiritual struggle, which Luther in later years associated with this period in his life.

The indulgences controversy » Indulgences and salvation
In the fall of 1517 an ostensibly innocuous event quickly made Luther’s name a household word in Germany. Irritated by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was reported to have preached to the faithful that the purchase of a letter of indulgence entailed the forgiveness of sins, Luther drafted a set of propositions for the purpose of conducting an academic debate on indulgences at the university in Wittenberg. He dispatched a copy of the Ninety-five Theses to Tetzel’s superior, Archbishop Albert of Mainz, along with a request that Albert put a stop to Tetzel’s extravagant preaching; he also sent copies to a number of friends. Before long, Albert formally requested that official proceedings be commenced in Rome to ascertain the work’s orthodoxy; meanwhile, it began to be circulated in Germany, together with some explanatory publications by Luther.

Luther clearly intended the Ninety-five Theses to be subservient to the church and the pope, and their overall tone is accordingly searching rather than doctrinaire. Nevertheless, there is a detectable undercurrent of “reforming” sentiment in the work—expressed in several theses beginning with the phrase “Christians are to be taught that…”—as well as some openly provocative statements. Thesis 86, for example, asks,

Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?


Scholars have disagreed about how early Luther began to formulate the theological positions that eventually caused him to part ways with the church. If he had done so by the fall of 1517, then the Ninety-five Theses must be viewed as the first—albeit hesitant—manifesto of a new theology. Most scholars, however, believe that Luther’s conversion was a lengthy process that did not culminate until well after the indulgences controversy was in full swing in the spring of 1518. Indeed, his conversion to a new understanding of the gospel was heavily influenced by the controversy, according to this view.

By the end of 1518, according to most scholars, Luther had reached a new understanding of the pivotal Christian notion of salvation, or reconciliation with God. Over the centuries the church had conceived the means of salvation in a variety of ways, but common to all of them was the idea that salvation is jointly effected by humans and by God—by humans through marshalling their will to do good works and thereby to please God, and by God through his offer of forgiving grace. Luther broke dramatically with this tradition by asserting that humans can contribute nothing to their salvation: salvation is, fully and completely, a work of divine grace.

Luther’s understanding came to him after a long inner conflict in which he agonized, even despaired, over his inability to marshal his will adequately to do good works. While meditating on The Letter of Paul to the Romans (1:17)—in which the Apostle declares, “For in it [i.e., the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith: as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’”—Luther experienced an illumination that he later described as a kind of conversion. “It was as if the very gates of heaven had opened before me,” he wrote. The dramatic and intensely personal nature of this experience helps to explain Luther’s determined refusal, during the indulgences controversy, to recant his theological views.

The indulgences controversy » Luther, Cajetan, and Eck
By the summer of 1518 the causa Lutheri (“the case of Luther”) had progressed far enough to require that Luther present himself in Rome to be examined on his teachings. After his territorial ruler, the elector Frederick III of Saxony, intervened on his behalf, Luther was summoned instead to the southern German city of Augsburg, where an imperial Diet was in session. Frederick took action not because he supported Luther’s teachings—which were still being formed—but because he felt that it was his responsibility as a prince to ensure that his subject was treated fairly. Rome, for its part, acceded to Frederick’s wishes because it needed German financial support for a planned military campaign that it hoped to sponsor against the Ottoman Empire—whose forces were poised to invade central Europe from Hungary—and because Frederick was one of the seven electors who would choose the successor of the ailing Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I. The papacy had a vital interest in the outcome of this election.

Against these larger political issues, the case of the Wittenberg professor paled in importance. Luther’s antagonist at the imperial Diet, Cardinal Cajetan, was head of the Dominican order, an ardent defender of the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and one of the most learned men in the Roman Curia. Cajetan had taken his assignment seriously and was thus well prepared for his interrogation of Luther. Once the two men met, their fundamental differences quickly became apparent. Their encounter was made even more difficult by the fact that neither had great respect for the other—Cajetan observed that Luther had “ominous eyes and wondrous fantasies in his head,” while Luther remarked that Cajetan may well be “a famous Thomist, but he is an evasive, obscure, and unintelligible theologian.”

In Cajetan’s view the key issues were Luther’s denial that the church is empowered to distribute as indulgences the infinite “treasury of merits” accumulated by Christ on the cross—on this point Luther directly contradicted the papal bull Unigenitus Dei Filius (1343; “Only Begotten Son of God”) of Clement VI—and Luther’s insistence that faith is indispensable for justification. After three days of discussion (October 12–14), Cajetan advised Luther that further conversations were useless unless he was willing to recant. Luther immediately fled Augsburg and returned to Wittenberg, where he issued an appeal for a general council of the church to hear his case.

Luther had reason to be nervous. Papal instructions from August had empowered Cajetan to have Luther apprehended and brought to Rome for further examination. On Nov. 9, 1518, Leo X issued the bull Cum postquam (“When After”), which defined the doctrine of indulgences and addressed the issue of the authority of the church to absolve the faithful from temporal punishment. Luther’s views were declared to be in conflict with the teaching of the church.

Well aware that he was the cause of the controversy and that in Cum postquam his doctrines had been condemned by the pope himself, Luther agreed to refrain from participating in the public debate. Others, however, promptly took his place, sounding the knell of reform in both church and society. The controversy was drawing participants from wider circles and addressing broader and weightier theological issues, the most important of which was the question of the authority of the church and the pope. Eventually, a bitter dispute between Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt, a colleague of Luther at Wittenberg, and Johann Eck, a theologian from Ingolstadt and an able defender of the church, drew Luther back into the fray. Because the entire controversy was still considered an academic matter, Eck, Carlstadt, and Luther agreed to a public debate, which took place in Leipzig in June 1519.

The setting was hardly a friendly one for Luther and Carlstadt, because Duke George of Saxony had already established himself as a staunch defender of the church. Upon hearing the sermon of the opening ceremony, which exhorted the participants to adhere to the truth in their debating, George remarked that he had not realized that theologians were so godless as to need such preaching. The initial debate between Eck and Carlstadt covered extensive theological ground but was listless. Luther’s debate with Eck was more lively, as Eck, a skillful debater, repeatedly sought to show that Luther’s position on the issue of papal primacy was identical to that of Jan Hus, the Bohemian theologian who was condemned for heresy at the Council of Constance (1414–18). This was a conclusion calculated to shock the audience at Leipzig, whose university had been founded in the previous century by refugees from the Hussite-dominated University of Prague. Luther repeatedly denied the charge but then noted that some of Hus’s opinions, such as his assertion that there is one holy Catholic Church, were not heretical. Eck’s prodding led Luther to state that even general councils, such as the Council of Constance, can be in error when they promulgate opinions not de fide (concerning the faith). This admission was perceived as damaging to Luther’s cause and allowed Eck to boast that he had succeeded in revealing Luther’s true beliefs.

The indulgences controversy » Excommunication
Meanwhile, after a delay caused by the election of the new German emperor, the formal ecclesiastical proceedings against Luther were revived in the fall of 1519. In January 1520 a consistory heard the recommendation that Luther’s orthodoxy be examined, and one month later a papal commission concluded that Luther’s teachings were heretical. Because this conclusion seemed hasty to some members of the Curia, another commission, consisting of the heads of the several important monastic orders, was convened; it rendered the surprisingly mild judgment that Luther’s propositions were “scandalous and offensive to pious ears” but not heretical. After Eck appeared in Rome and made dire pronouncements on the situation in Germany, yet another examination of Luther’s writings was undertaken. Finally, on June 15, 1520, Leo issued the bull Exsurge Domine (“Arise O Lord”), which charged that 41 sentences in Luther’s various writings were “heretical, scandalous, offensive to pious ears,” though it did not specify which sentences had received what verdict. Luther was given 60 days upon receiving the bull to recant and another 60 days to report his recantation to Rome.

At first Luther believed that the story of the bull was a malicious rumour spread by Eck. When the reality of his condemnation became clear, however, he responded belligerently in a tract titled Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist. Upon the expiration of the 60-day period stipulated in the bull, on Dec. 10, 1520, Luther cancelled his classes, marched to a bonfire started by his students outside one of the city gates, and threw a copy of the bull into the fire.

The ensuing bull of excommunication, Decet Romanum pontificem (“It Pleases the Roman Pontiff”), was published on Jan. 3, 1521. Martin Luther was formally declared a heretic. Ordinarily, those condemned as heretics were apprehended by an authority of the secular government and put to death by burning. In Luther’s case, however, a complex set of factors made such punishment impossible. The new German king (and Holy Roman emperor), Charles V, had agreed as a condition of his election that no German would be convicted without a proper hearing; many, including Luther himself, were convinced that Luther had not been granted this right. Others noted various formal deficiencies in Exsurge Domine, including the fact that it did not correctly quote Luther and that one of the sentences it condemned was actually written by another author. Still others thought that Luther’s call for reform deserved a more serious hearing. A proposal was therefore circulated that Luther should be given a formal hearing when the imperial Diet convened in Worms later in the spring.

Understandably, the papal nuncio Girolamo Aleandro, who represented the Curia in the Holy Roman Empire, vehemently rejected this idea. His position was clear: a convicted heretic did not warrant a hearing. The Diet could do nothing other than endorse the ecclesiastical verdict and bring the heretic to his deserved judgment. Charles shared Aleandro’s sentiment but realized that the idea of giving Luther a hearing enjoyed widespread support in Germany. Charles’s adviser Mercurino Gattinara, mindful of the need for good relations with the estates (the three main orders of society—clergy, nobility, and townspeople), repeatedly urged the emperor not to issue an edict against Luther without their full consent. Gattinara’s caution was justified, because in February the estates refused to support an edict condemning Luther’s writings and instead urged that, in view of the restlessness of the commoners, Luther be cited to appear before the Diet “to the benefit and advantage of the entire German nation, the Holy Roman Empire, our Christian faith, and all estates.” Charles acceded, and on March 6, 1521, he issued a formal invitation to Luther to appear before the estates assembled in Worms. Charles’s apparent surrender was perhaps the only acceptable resolution of the matter; even Aleandro could easily convince himself that Luther’s citation was in the best interest of the church. If Luther recanted, the problem of his heresy would be removed; if he did not, the estates could no longer refuse to endorse formal action against him.

The indulgences controversy » Diet of Worms
Luther appeared before the Diet at Worms on April 17, 1521. He was informed that he had been called to the meeting to acknowledge as his own the books that had been published in his name and to repudiate them. He briefly acknowledged the books but requested time to ponder his second answer, which was granted. The following day Luther admitted that he had used inappropriate language but declared that he could not and would not recant the substance of his writings. According to a traditional but apocryphal account, he ended his statement with the words, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Following his appearance, Luther participated in intense discussions involving representatives of the emperor, Aleandro, and the Saxon elector Frederick. Although every effort was made to induce Luther to recant, in the end the discussions failed over his refusal to repudiate a single sentence from the 41 cited in the papal bull. But behind that stood the charge that Luther, a single individual, presumed to challenge 1,500 years of Christian theological consensus. On April 26 Luther hurriedly left Worms, and on May 8 Charles drew up an edict against him. Charles undertook one more unsuccessful effort to obtain the support of the estates, which continued to fear that Luther’s condemnation would incite rebellion among the commoners. The Diet then officially adjourned. On May 25, after the elector Joachim Brandenburg assured the emperor of the support of the few rulers who remained in Worms, Charles signed the edict against Luther.

The document enumerated Luther’s errors along the lines of Exsurge Domine, declared Luther and his followers (some of whom were identified by name) to be political outlaws, and ordered his writings to be burned. Thus, the causa Lutheri was considered closed. It was enormously important, however, that doubts about the propriety of the edict were voiced at once. Its claim to represent the “unanimous consent of the estates” was plainly incorrect, since by the end of May most of the rulers had long since left Worms. Meanwhile, on his journey back to Wittenberg, Luther was “kidnapped” by soldiers of Frederick and taken secretly to Wartburg Castle, near the town of Eisenach, where he remained in hiding for the better part of a year. During this period few people knew of Luther’s whereabouts; most thought he was dead.

During his stay in the Wartburg, Luther began work on what proved to be one of his foremost achievements—the translation of the New Testament into the German vernacular. This task was an obvious ramification of his insistence that the Bible alone is the source of Christian truth and his related belief that everyone is capable of understanding the biblical message. Luther’s translation profoundly affected the development of the written German language. The precedent he set was followed by other scholars, whose work made the Bible widely available in the vernacular and contributed significantly to the emergence of national languages.

The indulgences controversy » Controversies after the Diet of Worms
Attempts to carry out the Edict of Worms were largely unsuccessful. Although Roman Catholic rulers sought determinedly to suppress Luther and his followers, within two years it had become obvious that the movement for reform was too strong. By March 1522, when Luther returned to Wittenberg, the effort to put reform into practice had generated riots and popular protests that threatened to undermine law and order.

Luther’s attitude toward these developments was conservative. He did not believe that change should occur hurriedly. In accordance with his notion of “making haste slowly,” he managed to control the course of reform in Wittenberg, where his influence continued to be strong. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Luther’s significance as a public figure began to decline after 1522. This is not to say that he did not play a crucial role in the continuing course of events—for he did. Nor is this to say that his influence may not be discerned after 1522—for it can. After the Edict of Worms, however, the cause of reform, of whatever sort, became a legal and political struggle rather than a theological one. The crucial decisions were now made in the halls of government and not in the studies of the theologians. Moreover, by 1523 various other reformers, including Thomas Müntzer, Huldrych Zwingli, and Martin Bucer, had arisen to challenge Luther’s primacy of place and to put forward a more radical vision of reform in church and society.

Beginning in the summer of 1524, large numbers of peasants in southwestern Germany staged a series of uprisings that were partly inspired by Luther’s reform proposals, though they also addressed long-standing economic and political grievances. By the spring of 1525 the rebellion, known as the Peasants’ War, had spread to much of central Germany. The peasants, who were supported by the reformer Müntzer, published their grievances in a manifesto titled The Twelve Articles of the Peasants; the document is notable for its declaration that the rightness of the peasants’ demands should be judged by the Word of God, a notion derived directly from Luther’s teaching that the Bible is the sole guide in matters of morality and belief. Luther wrote two responses—Admonition to Peace Concerning the Twelve Articles of the Peasants, which expressed sympathy for the peasants, and Against the Murderous and Robbing Hordes of the Peasants, which vehemently denounced them. Both works represented a shift away from his earlier vision of reform as encompassing societal as well as religious issues. It is likely that they helped to alienate the peasants from Luther’s cause.

Luther faced other challenges in the mid-1520s. His literary feud with the great Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus came to an unfortunate conclusion when the two failed to find common ground. Their theological dispute concerned the issue of whether humans were free to contribute to and participate in their own salvation. Erasmus, who took the affirmative view, argued that Luther’s insistence on the radical priority of grace undermined all human ethical effort. Luther insisted that Erasmus’s position reduced the great soteriological drama of the Incarnation and the cross to shallow moral concepts.

In 1525 Luther was isolated from various other reformers in a controversy over the meaning of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. The dispute concerned the proper interpretation of Jesus’ words of institution when he said, “This is my body…This is my blood.” Whereas Zwingli argued that these words had to be understood symbolically, as “This symbolizes my body…This symbolizes my blood,” Luther argued strenuously for a literal interpretation. Accordingly, Zwingli held that Jesus was spiritually but not physically present in the communion host, whereas Luther taught that Jesus was really and bodily present. The theological disagreement was initially pursued by several southern German reformers, such as Johann Brenz, but after 1527 Luther and Zwingli confronted each other directly, with increasing rancour and vehemence, particularly from Luther. As far as he was concerned, Zwingli was an “enthusiast” who did not take the plain words of Scripture seriously. Thus, the reform movement became a house that was publicly divided.

In the view of some, notably Landgrave Philip of Hesse, this division had serious political implications. There was no doubt that the emperor and the princes of the Catholic territories were determined to suppress the new Lutheran heresy, if necessary by force. The disagreement over communion precluded one strategy of dealing with this ominous Catholic threat, namely by establishing a united Protestant political (and military) front. Whereas Luther, in his wonderful otherworldliness, gravely doubted the wisdom of any effort to protect the gospel by military means, Zwingli envisioned a comprehensive anti-Catholic political front that would reach from Zurich to Denmark. When Philip first entertained the notion of a colloquy between Zwingli, Luther, and a number of other reformers, he was prompted by his desire to create the basis of a Protestant political alliance. Luther was initially reluctant and had to be persuaded to attend the meeting, which was held in Marburg on Oct. 1–4, 1529 (see Marburg, Colloquy of). From the outset Luther made it clear that he would not change his views: he took a piece of chalk and wrote the Latin version of the words of institution, “Hoc est corpus meum” (“this is my body”), on the table. In the end the two sides managed to fashion a contorted agreement, but the deep division within Protestantism remained.

On June 13, 1525, Luther married Katherine of Bora, a former nun. Katherine had fled her convent together with eight other nuns and was staying in the house of the Wittenberg town secretary. While the other nuns soon returned to their families or married, Katherine remained without support. Luther was likewise at the time the only remaining resident in what had been the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg; the other monks had either thrown off the habit or moved to a staunchly Catholic area. Luther’s decision to marry Katherine was the result of a number of factors. Understandably, he felt responsible for her plight, since it was his preaching that had prompted her to flee the convent. Moreover, he had repeatedly written, most significantly in 1523, that marriage is an honourable order of creation, and he regarded the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on clerical celibacy as the work of the Devil. Finally, he believed that the unrest in Germany, epitomized in the bloody Peasants’ War, was a manifestation of God’s wrath and a sign that the end of the world was at hand. He thus conceived his marriage as a vindication, in these last days, of God’s true order for humankind.

While Luther’s enemies indulged themselves in sarcastic pronouncements upon his matrimony—Erasmus remarked that what had begun as tragedy had turned into comedy—his friends and supporters were chagrined over what they took to be the poor timing of his decision. (It is noteworthy that Luther was not the first of the reformers to marry.) Katherine of Bora proved to be a splendid helpmate for Luther. Table Talks, a collection of Luther’s comments at the dinner table as recorded by one of his student boarders, pays tribute to “Dr. Katie” as a skillful household manager and as a partner in theological conversations. The couple had five children: Johannes, Magdalene, Martin, Paul, and Margarete. Luther’s letters to his children, as well as his deep sadness at the loss of his daughter Magdalene—who died in his arms in September 1542—are indicative of the warm relationships that characterized his family and marriage.

Later years
As a declared heretic and public outlaw, Luther was forced to stay out of the political and religious struggle over the enforcement of the Edict of Worms. Sympathetic rulers and city councils became the protagonists for Luther’s cause and the cause of reform. When Charles V convened a Diet to meet at Augsburg in 1530 to address unresolved religious issues, Luther himself could not be present, though he managed to travel as far south as Coburg—still some 100 miles north of Augsburg—to follow developments at the Diet. In Augsburg it fell to Luther’s young Wittenberg colleague Philipp Melanchthon to represent the Protestants. Melanchthon’s summary of the reformers’ beliefs, the Augsburg Confession, quickly became the guiding theological document for the emerging Lutheran tradition.

Luther’s role in the Reformation after 1525 was that of theologian, adviser, and facilitator but not that of a man of action. Biographies of Luther accordingly have a tendency to end their story with his marriage in 1525. Such accounts gallantly omit the last 20 years of his life, during which much happened. The problem is not just that the cause of the new Protestant churches that Luther had helped to establish was essentially pursued without his direct involvement, but also that the Luther of these later years appears less attractive, less winsome, less appealing than the earlier Luther who defiantly faced emperor and empire at Worms. Repeatedly drawn into fierce controversies during the last decade of his life, Luther emerges as a different figure—irascible, dogmatic, and insecure. His tone became strident and shrill, whether in comments about the Anabaptists, the pope, or the Jews. In each instance his pronouncements were virulent: the Anabaptists should be hanged as seditionists, the pope was the Antichrist, the Jews should be expelled and their synagogues burned. Such were hardly irenic words from a minister of the gospel, and none of the explanations that have been offered—his deteriorating health and chronic pain, his expectation of the imminent end of the world, his deep disappointment over the failure of true religious reform—seem satisfactory.

In 1539 Luther became embroiled in a scandal surrounding the bigamy of Landgrave Philip. Like many other crowned heads, Philip lived in a dynastically arranged marriage with a wife for whom he had no affection. Engaging in extramarital relationships disturbed his conscience, however, so that for years he felt unworthy to receive communion. His eyes fell on one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, who insisted on marriage. Philip turned to Luther and the Wittenberg theologians for advice. In his response, which he amply augmented with biblical references, Luther noted that the patriarchs of the Old Testament had been married to more than one wife and that, as a special dispensation, polygamy was still possible. Philip accordingly entered into a second marriage secretly, but before long it became known—as did Luther’s role in bringing it about.

From the mid-1530s Luther was plagued by kidney stones and an obvious coronary condition. Somewhat sheepishly, he attributed his poor health to the severity of his life in the monastery. He nevertheless continued his academic teaching—from 1535 to 1545 he lectured on the Book of Genesis, one of his most insightful biblical expositions—and preached regularly at the city church until his colleague Johannes Bugenhagen assumed that responsibility. Even then, Luther continued to preach in the Augustinian monastery. After the death of one of his oldest friends, Nikolaus Hausmann, in 1538 and that of his daughter Magdalene four years later, references to death became increasingly abundant in Luther’s correspondence. Thus he wrote in a June 1543 letter to a friend:

I desire that there be given me a good little hour when I can move onward to God. I have had enough. I am tired. I have become nothing. Do pray earnestly for me so that the Lord may take my soul in peace.

In February 1546 Luther journeyed, despite his failing health, to Eisleben, the town where he was born. He set out to mediate an embarrassing quarrel between two young and arrogant noblemen, the counts Albrecht and Gebhard of Mansfeld. He was successful, and he so informed his wife in what proved to be his last letter. One day later, on February 18, death came. His body was interred in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Martin Luther is assuredly one of the most influential figures in Western civilization during the last millennium. He was the catalyst for the division of Western Christendom into several churches, but he also left a host of cultural legacies, such as the emphasis on vernacular language. He was primarily a theologian, and there is a great wealth of insights in his writings, which in their definitive scholarly edition (the so-called Weimar Edition) comprise more than 100 folio volumes. But he was not a systematic theological thinker. Much like St. Augustine in late antiquity, Luther was what might be called a polemical theologian. Most of his writings —such as Bondage of the Will against Erasmus and That These Words ‘This Is My Body’ Still Stand Against all Enthusiasts against Zwingli—were forged in the heat of controversy and were inescapably given to one-sided pronouncements, which are not easy to reconcile with positions he took in other writings. It is, therefore, not easy to find agreement on the elements of Luther’s theology.

Moreover, the assessment of Luther’s theological significance was for centuries altogether dependent on the ecclesiastical orientation of the critic. Protestant scholars viewed him as the most stunning exponent of the authentic Christian faith since the time of the Apostles, while Catholics viewed him as the epitome of theological ignorance and personal immorality. These embarrassingly partisan perspectives have changed in recent decades, and a less confessionally oriented picture of Luther has emerged.

Certain key tenets of Luther’s theology have shaped Protestant Christianity since the 16th century. They include his insistence on the Bible, the Word of God, as the only source of religious authority; his emphasis on the centrality of grace, appropriated by faith, as the sole means of human salvation; and his understanding of the church as a community of the faithful—a priesthood of all believers—rather than as a hierarchical structure with a prominent division between clergy and laity. Luther was not the first to express these notions, and indeed recent scholarship on the 15th century has shown that much of what was traditionally considered Luther’s revolutionary innovation had striking antecedents. Nevertheless, the vigour and centrality that these ideas received in Luther’s thought made them in important respects dramatically new. Certain corollaries of Luther’s central teachings also made his achievement new and noteworthy. His insistence, for example, that sacred Scripture be available to commoners prompted him not only to translate the Bible into German but also to compose hymns and to advocate the establishment of schools in the cities.

Recent interpreters of Luther have attempted to understand his thought in terms of his struggle against the overpowering reality of the Devil or in terms of his intense fear of a death that would permanently separate him from God. Although there is evidence to support both views, neither quite captures Luther’s spiritual essence. What seems to characterize him more than anything else is an almost childlike trust in God’s overarching forgiveness and acceptance. Luther talked much about his tentationes (“temptations”), by which he meant his doubts about whether this divine forgiveness was real. But he overcame these doubts, and his life thereafter was one of joyous and spontaneous trust in God’s love and goodness toward him and all sinners. Luther called this “Christian freedom.”

The centre of scholarly attention in Luther studies in the late 20th century was Luther’s understanding of the proper role of the Christian in society and politics. According to many scholars, Luther’s disavowal of the German peasants in 1525 and his notion that, as he once put it, “the Gospel has nothing to do with politics” facilitated a tendency toward political passivity among Protestant Christians in Germany. Likewise, his strident pronouncements against the Jews, especially toward the end of his life, have raised the question of whether Luther significantly encouraged the development of German anti-Semitism. Although many scholars have taken this view, this perspective puts far too much emphasis on Luther and not enough on the larger peculiarities of German history.

Luther’s notions developed in opposition to the belief developed by the medieval Catholic Church that all of society wore a Christian mantle. The notion of a “Christian” politics or a “Christian” economics was anathema to Luther. However, this did not mean that the public realm had no principles that needed to be honoured. What Luther rejected was the notion that there was a uniquely “Christian” approach to these realms; uniquely Christian, Luther insisted, was only that which pertained to Jesus’ salvational work of redemption.

Hans J. Hillerbrand

The Baroque

The political and social consequences of the Reformation reached with devastating effect into the 17th and early 18th centuries. German literature of the Baroque period (c. 1600–1720) suffers equally from the miseries of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), in which the various tensions set in place by the religious divisions were fought out, and from Germany’s dependence on foreign cultural models—particularly on the French model.

It was an age of contradictions and extremes: A wealthy, sophisticated, overly ornate court society coexisted with political chaos and destructive warfare. A courtly literature of sublime, chivalric ideals and romances that were played out in utopian landscapes thrived opposite a court drama obsessed with violence, intrigue, murder, and betrayal. Sensual lyric poetry with Petrarchan-Platonic strains of ideal love was matched by poems exhibiting a preoccupation with death, mutability, the corruption of the flesh, and the illusory nature of life (“Life is a dream” was a prominent motif of Baroque literature). Extremes of worldliness met extremes of religiosity.

The period produced one major work that quintessentially expressed the chaotic extravagance and deep wretchedness of life in Germany in the 17th century: the novel Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1669; The Adventurous Simplicissimus) by Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen. It is a bildungsroman, or “novel of education,” with many parallels to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. After his putative father disappears in a marauding episode of the Thirty Years’ War, the young hero sets out into the world as a simple fool, knowing nothing yet often wiser than the experienced fools he encounters. His crazy-quilt career takes him through one role after another: a fool, a woman, an officer’s adjutant, a Robin Hood ("The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood") - like highwayman, an army officer, a prisoner of war, a pilgrim, a nobleman, and a snake-oil salesman. Erotic adventures in Paris leave him with a disfiguring disease. He makes visits to utopian communities. One of them is populated by mermen and mermaids and located at the bottom of a lake in the Black Forest. The only controlling logic of the work is unpredictability. There is no development of character, no movement toward an ethical goal, only the changing of masks. At each point where a stable life could develop, some unpredictable catastrophe interferes, often brought about by the war. In the end, the fool-hero abandons the treacherous world and retreats to the forest, where he lives as a religious hermit.

Alongside Grimmelshausen, other Baroque writers who deserve mention are the poet and poetic theorist Martin Opitz, who introduced foreign literary models and rules into German poetry, and the lyric poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, who wrote sonnets and tragedies imbued with a deep Christian faith.

Baroque-era efforts to form a German literary culture in the popular theatre and in the Sprachgesellschaften (“language societies”)—established to further the use of the German language and the development of German literary activity—were small currents in the chaotic tide of pessimism, fear, cynicism, and despair that swept Germany in the 17th century.

C. Stephen Jaeger


Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen

born 1621/22, Gelnhausen, near Frankfurt am Main
died August 17, 1676, Renchen, Strasbourg

German novelist, whose Simplicissimus series is one of the masterworks of his country’s literature. Satiric and partially autobiographical, it is a matchless social picture of the often grotesque Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).

Apparently the son of an innkeeper of noble descent, Grimmelshausen was orphaned at an early age. While still a child, he was drawn (or kidnapped) into the Thirty Years’ War by Hessian and Croatian troops. He served as a musketeer, formally joined the imperial army, and in 1639 became secretary to Reinhard von Schauenburg, commandant at Offenburg. After the war, as steward for the Schauenburg family, Grimmelshausen collected taxes from peasants, dragged defaulters into court, and served as host at a Schauenburg tavern. To supplement his income, he sold horses. He left in 1660 when it was found that he had bought land with money belonging to the family. Afterward he was successively a steward for a wealthy physician and art lover, Johannes Rüffen of Strasbourg; a tavernkeeper at Gaisbach; and a bailiff at Renchen, where he survived an invasion.

Grimmelshausen, who had begun writing in his army days, published two minor satires (in 1658 and 1660) and then (in 1669) the first part of Simplicissimus (full title Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch [“The Adventurous Simplicissimus Teutsch”]). Grimmelshausen’s authorship, however, was not established until 1837 from the initials HJCVG, which he used in a sequel to identify himself merely as editor.

Modeled on the 16th-century Spanish picaresque novel, Simplicissimus tells the story of an innocent child brought into contact with life through his experiences of the Thirty Years’ War. The novel traces the development of a human soul against the depraved background of a Germany riven by war, depopulation, cruelty, and fear. Simplicissimus gives full rein to Grimmelshausen’s power of narration, eye for realistic detail, coarse humour, social criticism, and gift for creating convincing characters.

Grimmelshausen’s continuations of Simplicissimus include Die Lanstörtzerin Courage (1669; Courage, the Adventuress)—which inspired Bertolt Brecht’s play Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and Her Children)—and Das wunderbarliche Vogelnest (1672; “The Magical Bird’s Nest”). One part of the latter, translated as The False Messiah (1964), is about an adventurer whose pose as the messiah enables him to steal a wealthy Jew’s money and daughter; it is a satire on gullibility and avarice.



Martin Opitz

in full Martin Opitz von Boberfeld

born Dec. 23, 1597, Bunzlau, Silesia [now Bolesławiec, Pol.]
died Aug. 20, 1639, Danzig [now Gdańsk, Pol.]

German poet and literary theorist who introduced foreign literary models into German poetry and who was a pioneer in establishing a national German literature.

Opitz studied at universities in Frankfurt an der Oder, Heidelberg, and Leiden, where he met the Dutch poet Daniël Heinsius. He led a wandering life in the service of various territorial nobles. In 1625, as a reward for a requiem poem on the death of Charles Joseph of Austria, he was crowned laureate by the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand II, who later ennobled him. In 1629 he was elected to the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, the most important of the literary societies that aimed to reform the German language. He went to Paris in 1630, where he made the acquaintance of the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. He lived from 1635 until his death at Danzig (Gdańsk), where Władysław IV of Poland made him his historiographer and secretary.

Opitz was the head of the so-called First Silesian school of poets and during his life was regarded as the greatest German poet. He was the “father of German poetry,” at least in respect to its form. His Aristarchus sive de Contemptu Linguae Teutonicae (1617) asserted the suitability of the German language for poetry. His influential Buch von der deutschen Poeterey, written in 1624, established long-standing rules for the “purity” of language, style, verse, and rhyme. It insisted upon word stress rather than syllable counting as the basis of German verse and recommended the alexandrine. The scholarly, stilted, and courtly style introduced by Opitz dominated German poetry until the middle of the 18th century. Opitz’s poems follow his own rigorous rules and are mostly didactic and descriptive—formal elaborations of carefully considered themes.

In retrospect, Opitz’s activities as an aesthetic educator and translator have assumed much importance. He translated from Heinsius, Grotius, Seneca, and Sophocles; he partly translated from the text by O. Rinuccini the libretto of Dafne, the first opera in German; he introduced the political novel (John Barclay’s Argenis) into Germany; and he edited (1638) the German version of Sir Philip Sidney’s prose romance Arcadia and the 11th-century poem Annolied. Opitz’s Opera Poetica appeared in 1646.




Andreas Gryphius

born Oct. 2, 1616, Glogau, Silesia [now Głogów, Pol.]
died July 16, 1664, Glogau

lyric poet and dramatist, one of Germany’s leading writers in the 17th century.

Gryphius (the family name Greif was latinized after the fashion of the times) was orphaned early in life, and the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War soon cast a shadow over his unsettled childhood. A refugee from his native town, he was educated in various places, revealing himself in the process as a brilliant scholar. Crowned poeta laureatus by Count Georg von Schönborn, whose sons he tutored, Gryphius went to Leiden and stayed there six years, as both student and teacher. After extensive travels in Holland, France, and Italy, he finally returned to Silesia in 1647 and, in 1650, took up the important administrative post of syndic in Glogau, a post he filled until his death.

Gryphius’ literary reputation has increased enormously during the 20th century. His plays are distinguished by a deep sense of melancholy and pessimism and are threaded through with a fervent religious strain which, faced with the transitoriness of earthly things and the fight for survival in the ravaged Germany of the time, borders on despair. He wrote five tragedies: Leo Armenius (1646), Catharina von Georgien, Carolus Stuardus, and Cardenio und Celinde (all printed 1657), and Papinianus (1659). These plays deal with the themes of stoicism and religious constancy unto martyrdom, of the Christian ruler and the Machiavellian tyrant, and of illusion and reality, a theme that is used with telling effect in the middle-class background of Cardenio und Celinde. The theme of illusion and reality is a fundamental one in his three comedies, the best of which are Die geliebte Dornrose (1660; The Beloved Hedgerose) and Herr Peter Squentz (1663).

Gryphius’ lyric poetry covers a wide range of verse forms and is characterized by a technical mastery and assurance and a portrayal of human emotions in adversity, the sincerity and compulsive power of which stamp him, particularly in his sonnets, as a great poet.





Christian, baron von Wolff

German philosopher
Wolff also spelled Wolf
born Jan. 24, 1679, Breslau, Silesia [now Wrocław, Pol.]
died April 9, 1754, Halle, Prussia [now in Germany]

philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who worked in many subjects but who is best known as the German spokesman of the Enlightenment, the 18th-century philosophical movement characterized by Rationalism.

Wolff was educated at the universities of Breslau, Jena, and Leipzig and was a pupil of the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. On the recommendation of Leibniz he was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Halle in 1707, but he was banished in 1723 as a result of theological disputes with Pietists, who were followers of the German movement for an increase of piety in Lutheran churches. He became professor of mathematics and philosophy at the University of Marburg, Hesse (1723–40), and, as science adviser to Peter the Great (1716–25), he helped found the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in Russia. After returning to the University of Halle, at the request of the king of Prussia, Frederick II the Great, he became chancellor (1741–54).

Wolff wrote numerous works in philosophy, theology, psychology, botany, and physics. His series of essays all beginning under the title Vernünftige Gedanken (“Rational Ideas”) covered many subjects and expounded Leibniz’s theories in popular form. Wolff emphasized that every occurrence must have an adequate reason for happening or there arises the impossible alternative that something might come out of nothing. He applied the rational thought of the Anglo-French Enlightenment and of Leibniz and René Descartes in the development of his own philosophical system, the Wolffian philosophy. Rationalism and mathematical methodology formed the essence of this system, which was an important force in the development of German philosophical thought.




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