Halloween is a time of superstition, going back to simpler times when it was believed one could ward or pay off demons and ghosts by leaving out food on the doorstep. It is associated with ghosts, witches, zombies, and suchlike. But in 1517, Martin Luther put out his 95 Thesis against the Catholic Church, and birthed the beginning of the Reformation.
To fully understand what happened that cold October day in Germany, one must first have a little background about the period. Luther appeared on the scene in the Renaissance. Humanism (pursuit of intellectual learning and scholarship) was very popular among the European monarchs and scholars. Wealthier households could speak, read, and write in Latin, which was a universal language used for diplomacy in foreign courts. Scriptures were also taught and shared in Latin, which meant the peasants could not understand, nor read the Latin Bible for themselves. It was believed that preserving scripture in its original ancient language was respectful to the source material; but this meant that most of the lower class received scriptural translations through priests. (Many nobles were fluent in Latin, as it was the universal language of diplomacy.)
Over time, many pagan influences had crept into the Catholic Church, adding traditions on to the scriptures; some of the Popes saw the illiteracy of the masses as a way to expand the finances of the Church, through offering “indulgences” for a price (knowing that many could not read scripture and find the flaws in such teachings for themselves). These papal indulgences gave the impression that the Pope had everlasting say over the souls of men; if one wanted saved from hell, one had to pay for it. These indulgences and the collecting and showing off of religious artifacts (pieces of the cross, the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, and other holy relics) was a lucrative business (one could gaze at a relic, say a prayer, put a coin in the coffer, and get one’s Purgatory sentence shortened by a few hundred years).
A fearful man by nature, Luther carried his fears about damnation into his career as a monk. In an attempt to help him, his supervisor in the monastery sent him to university to learn and read scripture for himself. Once there, Martin discovered Romans 1:17: “The just shall live by faith.” Martin saw this as a means of justification (declared not guilty and seen as righteous) before God only by faith (putting his trust in Jesus Christ as his savior), not by works or papal approval. He was so relieved and filled with joy that he began to teach this to others. The more he taught and studied, the more at odds he became with the official teachings of the Catholic Church. Martin believed the church leadership had merely slipped into error, and that through discussion and debate, they would correct themselves.
His 95 Thesis, therefore, was an attempt to ignite scholarly debate; it was written in Latin and directed at the church leaders. Many Church leaders, and the Pope, either ignored or refuted it, but others saw what Martin was doing, and agreed with it; they translated it into German, printed it in tracts, and distributed it to the populace. By January of 1518 it had been translated into multiple languages and shared throughout Europe. Seeing the futility in arguing purely with the Pope and the Cardinals, Martin wrote more tracts and books about scripture and started a German translation of the Bible.
Germany was under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain) and the Pope demanded a hearing and called Martin to defend himself. Before Charles and the church and civil leaders of Germany, he refused to recant his writings, and was declared a heretic and an outlaw. Martin only escaped death because Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, became his secret protector and whisked him away to safety.
Many began to look to scripture alone as the authority for their beliefs, and rejected the teachings of the Pope and the Church. Martin saw the overthrowing of all Church doctrine as dangerous, and saw many of his new followers as radical troublemakers. He encouraged the suppression of teachings that “went too far” and was far less radical than many who followed in his footsteps. His Thesis and subsequent writings led the way, and soon other Europeans followed in his footsteps, translating the scripture into new languages; the Catholic governments tried suppression, to no avail. Despite much persecution, the Protestant faith survived and has shaped the world ever since. And it all started because one Halloween over five hundred years ago, a German monk decided to spark an intellectual and theological debate with his fellow scholars.
As I am rewriting my novel about Katharine of Aragon, I have found myself studying not only Martin Luther, but his contemporary scholars, philosophers, and theologians, ranging from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More and Juan Luis Vives. I have a book four inches thick on the Medieval Catholic Church and its traditions. Not only am I being relieved of some of my wrongful assumptions about the Church in that period, I was surprised at the extent of which my Reformation history was rusty, and how much of it is based on not knowing the “whole story” from both sides. Writing a novel arguing positions I do not always hold (and some that I do) has been a spiritually growing exercise, as well as has increased the fondness I have always had for the Catholic Church.
Something that caught me off guard was William Tyndale not having produced the first English translation of the Bible. He did bring an English translation into England in the mid 1520’s, but English Bibles existed already in that period, though they were rare and hand-painted. The violent backlash and protest of his translation was not that it was in English, but that it was an ‘unauthorized’ translation (no Church or Papal involvement) and that he had changed some of the wording to avoid Catholic inferences (Church became Congregation, as one example). Individuals such as Thomas More reasoned that if he changed that, what else might he have tampered with? By this point in time, the Catholic Church had been in charge of ‘preserving’ scripture for 1500 years and some (like More) were afraid that if one unauthorized Bible translation was in circulation, others would soon follow, and there would be no theological consistency, since no one would have checked each translation to ensure that it was correct to the original manuscripts.
Though most Bibles were not in English, there were Latin Bibles available in most churches for laymen to read if they could speak or read the language, and most of the wealthier nobles had their own Bibles and prayer books (often containing the Psalms) … so, Katharine of Aragon would have had her own Bible. It was common for children to learn Latin by copying out scriptures and translating them into their own language and back again as practice. Her daughter Mary did this for one of the gospels by the age of twelve, revealing that she had access to scripture and could read it for herself. This was a HUGE breakthrough emotionally for me, because I thought Katharine had only papal interpretations and no deep understanding of scripture (having bought into the myth that Catholics from this period were prohibited from owning or reading the gospels); but being as pious and devout as she was, she would know it as well as I do. She had complete access to it, at all times.
Mass was said in Latin, and if you could not speak it, you could not understand a word of it, which meant that Luther was correct in that the poor and uneducated had no idea what scripture said, what the prayers meant, etc. In this total ignorance, it was very easy for priests and cardinals and church authorities to mislead, misdirect, misinterpret, and so on. So what Luther did was fundamentally important, because his defiance of Papal authority meant that at last, those common people could hear scripture in a language they could understand. It was not that his was the ‘first’ translation, but that his defiance and the combination of the invention of the printing press in the same period made it so anyone could own a Bible, instead of just the wealthy. (Prior to the printing press, Bibles were costly and time consuming to make, since everything had to be hand-copied.)
Education was a major theme of that period; with the “intellectuals” vying for the common man to be educated, and thus brought up to a higher understanding. Had the Bible been translated into English through the “proper channels,” the great humanists may have been supportive of the movement (Erasmus’ Bible translations from the original Latin and Greek predate Luther’s, and Luther may have used them when writing his German Bible); if not, they would have solved the problem instead by educating the masses so that they could read the Latin scriptures for themselves. There was also a feeling among some that Latin, since it was not a common language on the street, was more ‘respectful’ (rather like some people today insisting the King James Translation is more ‘holy’ because the language is not common — people would not swear using that vernacular), which contributed to the resentment in the modern translations.
These humanists also believed the Church had deviated from its original format and was corrupt in some ways, but thought that it could be saved from within rather than abandoned; Martin Luther shared their views at first (his Thesis was to provoke dialogue among Church leaders, not start a revolution) but believed that the Church was refusing sound doctrine to protect themselves / their positions / their money-making false heresies, and he began to attack it on all fronts and any who defended it. In the end, those who at first shared some of his beliefs (including Erasmus and More) abandoned him as being too “radical,” and some, in the case of More, even debated theology heavily with him, via published tracts and books. In a different time, given the chance to sit down around a table and discuss these things, it would have been interesting to see whether the divisions of the period would remain intact or if these men might have found common ground.