A Revolutionary Protest

Author’s Note: I wouldn’t normally start with a preface, but this story is quite different from the others Bartered History has covered so far. I hope you’ll all stick with me as we dive into a more obscure and darkly fascinating story. Since images of the period are understandably rare, expect to see about 30 percent more Christoph Waltz acting as a Fair Use representative for events.

ptwo flickr munster cages
The gibbets of St. Lambert’s Church. Photo Credit PTWO, Flickr

To the modern visitor, the city of Münster appears lodged in another age. Red roofs nestle in a sea of green trees, the skyline punctuated only by church steeples. For a city of three hundred thousand it feels more like an oversized university town, and not even the high powered ordinance dropped by Allied bombers in World War II can shake the sense of memory hanging over Münster. Not all of these memories are pleasant ones. In the middle of the old town, past the tree lined promenades marking where the city walls used to be, three iron gibbets hang from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church. They are the most visible reminder of the years 1534 and 1535, when a baker, a merchant, a blacksmith’s son, and a failure led a small but virulent strain of Anabaptist believers to seize power in Münster. Ever since, historians and writers have tried to sift through the fragments to understand just how the revolution happened, and to search for an explanation for the strange events that unfolded inside the city walls.

The story of Anabaptism begins with the rest of Protestantism in 1517, when a little known Friar nailed a list of ninety five problems he had with the Catholic Church to the door of the cathedral in Wittenburg.[1] Martin Luther had never planned on joining the church and had certainly never intended to kickstart an ideological rebellion. He came from a modestly wealthy bourgeois family in Eisleben, and his father had sent him off to receive training as a lawyer. Caught in the midst of a fierce storm, Luther begged God to spare him, promising to become a monk if he survived. Whether the storm passed him over for divine reasons or otherwise, Luther took it as a sign that God did not want yet another lawyer running around.

A sale of indulgences. The sale was sort of an open joke to much of Europe, with authors like Chaucer mocking the concept in his famous work the Canterbury Tales. Photo Credit: Jeorg Breu

Though true to his word, Luther couldn’t help noticing the distinction between what he had read and now ardently believed in, and what he saw the Catholic Church practicing. Now over a thousand years old, it was fair to say that some institutional rot had set in. A particularly egregious practice had been the papacy’s use of indulgences. In exchange for a contribution, a temporal sin was forgiven in the eyes of the Church, reducing the punishment for bad behavior to a financial transaction. The incumbent Pope Leo X recently increased the use of this morally suspect crowdfunding in order to fund the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. While visitors to the Vatican today will certainly agree that it is a nice dome, Luther couldn’t stand for it. Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” or the “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” landed at just the right time to set off a firestorm.

Though an arguer by nature and now almost legendary for his insults,[2][3][4] Luther had hoped to settle his grievances constructively. His conclusions in the Theses read like an earnest plea for a return to better practices, “This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.”[5] Sadly, it only made Pope Leo reach for his smiting hammer. Luther was excommunicated in 1521, but unlike previous reformers, the Catholic Church soon found that it was impossible to contain Luther’s ideas.

Around 1450 a printer named Johannes Gutenberg had come up with a new means of printing. Mobile and utilizing small and interchangeable keys, the printing press had launched an information revolution, comparable to a middle step between the alphabet and the internet. Practically for Luther this meant he could lay low in a castle provided by the sympathetic Elector of Saxony while his ideas spread in pamphlets across the whole of Europe.

“You conduct yourself like one drunk or asleep, belching out your snores, “Yes, No”. –Martin Luther, in all his snark glory. Painting by Luis Cranach

His new home gave Luther a healthy chunk of time to think about his next move. He decided to take his case public since the church wouldn’t listen; and over the next several years passed the time translating the bible for the first time from Ancient Greek (leaping over the newer Church Latin) into modern German. Whether he intended it or not, disseminating the bible in a legible format was revolutionary. The divine truth of the human soul was no longer the secret knowledge of a few, anyone could now thumb through their Bible for answers.

For Luther and many of his ilk, the “Theses” and the subsequent debate were about curbing the excesses of the Catholic Church. When it became clear how fond the Church was of said excesses, then it became about creating a parallel Church that hewed closer to the source material and away from the non-canon fan fiction. This meant less worship of saints, minimal iconography, and a serious dialing back of Mary’s near deific status.[6] Remarkably, Luther also prioritized doing good as a core part of the doctrine, rather than just being spiritually pious. Yet like many revolutions, Luther’s first Protestant foray was soon surpassed by a series of more radical and confrontational figures. For some it would be enough to reform themselves, but for many others, society itself would have to swept aside for the faithful to begin anew.

[1] This may be apocryphal. At the very least Luther sent a copy to the bishop presiding over Wittenberg.

[2]“What good can you lazy, sluggish bullies accomplish?” From Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors

[3] “You have a Priesthood of Satan”. From Concerning the Ministry.

[4] “You pant after the garlic and melons of Egypt and have long suffered from perverted tastes. From Against Latomus.

[5] Luther, M. 1517. The Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Thesis 81

[6] While Luther would mostly devote his energy to writing pamphlets on the topic. Some of his more iconoclastically minded fellows made a point of actually marching into Catholic churches and smashing up the relics they found. Needless to say, it was not an endearing trait to most rulers and Catholics.


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