1483-1516

Birth of Martin Luther

November 10, 1483 – A son was born to Hans and Margarethe Luder (or Ludher, later Luther) in Eisleben, in what is now the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. His parents had recently moved there from the Luder ancestral town of Möhra near Eisenach in Thuringia, where Boniface first preached the gospel to the Germans in the 8th century.

Restored birthplace of Martin Luther in Lutherstadt Eisleben. It was turned into a public museum as early as 1693. The actual house no longer exists; it was largely destroyed when a fire swept through the town in 1689. The town council acquired the property in 1693 and restored it to its original floor plan as a memorial to the town's favorite son. It is now a museum, one of the oldest in the German-speaking world.


Martin Luther's parents, Hans and Margarethe, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

November 11, 1483 - The morning after the birth of his son Hans took him a short distance away to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul to be baptized by the parish priest, Bartholomew Rennebrecher. It was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours and, per custom, the newborn was given the name Martinus or Martin in his honor. Hans acted sensibly in an age when infant mortality was 60 percent or more and everyone feared that unbaptized children who died might not go to heaven.

Saint Peter and Paul Church

Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Eisleben, where Luther was baptized.

Vaulted interior of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Eisleben, with font (left) used to baptize Martin Luther, and modern font in the floor for full-immersion baptisms. The "Luther font" was restored to the church after it was rediscovered in the garden of a local home.

Eisleben town square

1484 (age -1) – Less than a year after Martin's birth, the Luder family moved 6 miles northwest of Eisleben to the mining center of Mansfeld, the largest town in the territory, ruled by the four Counts of Mansfeld. The region was rich in mineral ore and extensively covered with mines. Martin roamed these streets until he was 13 years of age when he left to further his education. His parents stayed in Mansfeld for the rest of their lives.

Later in life Luther stated that he was the son of an "ore digger" who toiled away in the mines at Mansfeld, and that "my mother carried all her wood home on her back." Luther also said, "I am the son of a peasant. My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all true peasants."

However, two articles, one titled "Findings Shed New Light on Luther" published in The National on November 20, 2008, and another titled "Archaeologists Unveil Secrets of Luther's Life" in Spiegel Online dated October 28, 2008, state that a 2003 archaeological investigation of the former Luder family home in Mansfeld revealed that Martin was not always truthful about his parents' social standing.

Newly discovered records indicate that Luther's father didn't begin as a poor miner when he arrived in Mansfeld. He came there with enough money to build a business and he quickly became a successful foreman. The Counts of Mansfeld granted franchises to entrepreneurs like Hans entitling them to operate smelters, small furnaces, called "herrenfeuer," for melting ore before separating the silver and copper. Hans was a "huttenmeister," a smelter-master who supervised the copper-smelting process. It is likely that he was assisted by Margaretha's uncle Antonius Lindemann who, prior to 1500, was a prosperous smelter-master in Eisleben and was able to advise him on how to obtain his own smelting franchise.

Hans also owned 198 acres of land and loaned money at 5 percent interest to a local lord. By 1491 the Luders were among the most respected members of the community and, in 1492, Hans became a "fiermeister," one of four citizens who represented others before the town council, an office for which ownership of a house was a prerequisite.

Eventually Hans became a "schauherr" (a mining inspector), one of the area's five senior mining officials. By the early 16th century he was managing seven smelters and employing some 200 workers in partnerships with others, which made him one of the bigger operators in Mansfeld.

After the death of Hans Luder in 1530, his son Jakob (with whom Martin was very close) inherited his father's mining and smelting businesses, and he followed in his father's footsteps.

The 2003 excavation further revealed the size of the Luder house was in keeping with their economic and social standing. The large estate originally consisted of two plots of land. The front of the house on the street side was 82 feet wide (the house seen by visitors today is one third the size of the original). It had a wide entrance through which a horse-drawn could pass, a big barn and stables for horses. A massive cellar under the house and a four-sided courtyard, supplemented by a garden, also were revealed. The house was adjacent to the city gate with immediate access to the mines. Here the young Martin lived with his parents, his three or four brothers, four sisters, paternal grandmother and servants.


Luder home in Mansfeld. To provide an account of Martin's childhood and his parent's lives in Mansfeld, the "Museum Luthers Elternhaus" was built across the street.

It was here that young Martin and his siblings played, surrounded by flocks of geese and chickens. Fragments at the site reveal that they played with crossbows, clay marbles and bowling pins made of beef bones — toys not every family could afford at the time.

More Mansfeld artifacts

Above, artifacts from the Luder home: a set of roses sown onto a woman's clothing; a pair of pendants from the sleeves of a woman's garment; beef bone filled with metal used as a bowling pin; a beautiful "D" with leather remains indicating it was added to the end of a belt. One of Luther's sisters was named Dorthea, maybe it was hers?

The remains of kitchen scraps discovered on the property indicate that the family frequently ate roast goose and the meat of young pigs. During Lent, the family ate expensive ocean fish, like herring, codfish and plaice (flatfish). Their meals, prepared in a large kitchen, included figs, grapes, partridges and songbirds such as robins. The birds were cooked in grey three-legged pots. The hearth was heated with copper cinders from the smelters, taken to the home in carts.

In the courtyard of the Luder's Mansfeld house excavators made a serendipitous and spectacular discovery, a stairwell filled with two decades of kitchen waste and other garbage dating to the time of Martin's childhood. Among rusty nails, eggshells and thousands of animal bones, they found 300 silver coins believed to have been thrown away along with a host of other household items after two of Luther's brothers died of the plague in 1506 or 1507. The best explanation is that everything the brothers came into contact with was burned and discarded to hopefully prevent the spread of the disease to others.

Above, more artifacts discovered in the Luder home in Mansfeld: left to right: whistle in the shape of a bird. The user partially filled it with water then blew into the tail to make a warbling sound like a bird; sewing thimble (possibly used by Margarethe Luder) and six marbles (made of clay and fired in an oven).

Above, pilgrim's horn (only a small piece of this type of horn was found in the Luder's garbage). It indicated that Hans went at least once on a pilgrimage to Aachen, the western-most city in Germany (and where the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned), to view four relics displayed in the cathedral: the swaddling clothes of Jesus, the loincloth Jesus wore on the cross, the cloth that held John the Baptist's head after he was beheaded and the robe Mary wore on the night of Jesus' birth. In the middle-ages the journey was the equivalent of traveling to Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela.

The golden Shrine of the Virgin Mary in the Cathedral of Aachen was completed in 1238. The relics kept there are shown to the public every 7 years.

It is well-known that the Luders, like other Germans, were superstitious and believed in witches and the devil. Margarethe took steps to appease her neighbor, a witch whose spells she blamed for the death of one of her children.

Hans ruled his son with an iron hand. Martin later recalled, "my father once whipped me so hard I ran away. I hated him until he finally managed to win me back." Margarethe also was a harsh disciplinarian. Martin recalled "[that] for the sake of stealing a nut, my mother once beat me until the blood flowed."

March 12, 1491 (age 7) - Hans Luder was determined to see his son ascend to civil service and bring greater honor to the family. To that end he sent young Martin to the Mansfeld Latin School, which taught the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the grammar of Donatus and the parts of the Bible used in church services, all in Latin.

Later in life Martin reflected unkindly on the harsh discipline his teachers inflicted on him and his fellow students attempting to learn a new language. One student, called a wolf, was appointed to spy on the others and report lapses into speaking German. Every month the poorest scholar in the class was made to wear a donkey mask until he caught anther speaking German. Luther related that one morning he was beaten with 15 strokes of a cane for neglecting to learn his lesson. His image of God was shaped by his experiences:

From early childhood I was accustomed to turn pale and tremble whenever I heard the name of Christ mentioned, for I was taught to look upon him as a stern and wrathful judge.

October 12, 1492 - Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas. The explorer believed he had reached East Asia.

1493 - Emperor Frederick III died. For the last ten years he ruled jointly with his eldest son Maximilian I, who then became sole Holy Roman Emperor.

1497 (age 13) - From Mansfeld Luther moved to Magdeburg, one the great cities of the region, with about 30,000 inhabitants. He boarded with the Brothers of the Common Life, who stressed Bible reading and simple living. As at Mansfeld everything was taught in Latin, the language of the church. But few understood it.

Magdeburg Cathedral

Today Magdeburg is the capital city and second largest city in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Like Wittenberg it is situated on the Elbe River.

1497 (age 13) - Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, sailed up the east coast of Africa and crossed the Indian Ocean, solving the major problem of the time: how to sail directly to the East from Europe.

1498 (age 14) - A year later Luther began attending the parish school of St. George in Eisenach, a much smaller, but still important town. Initially, he stayed with relatives. The following year he moved in with Heinrich Schalbe, father of one of his classmates and one of the leading men of the city. Luther called Eisenach "my beloved town."

Entrance to Eisenach's Old Town.

Young Luther earned extra money as a singing student in a chorus that performed for weddings and funerals. Ursula Cotta, wife of a wealthy burgher, took a special liking to him
when she noticed him among a group of boys singing outside her house. Accounts tell us he had a beautiful tenor voice, ranging into alto. Mrs. Cotta, whose son Luther tutored, offered him free lodging enabling him to devote time to his studies. Luther called Mrs. Cotta his "adopted mother." He developed a love for music and art. It was during this time that he learned to play the lute, a difficult 15-string instrument.

The half-timber style Cotta home in Eisenach

1501 (age 17) - Upon completion of his early schooling Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt. Reputedly one of the best schools of its time it had approximately one thousand students and four colleges: Theology, Liberal Arts, Medicine and Law. As part of his studies he read the Psalms, 15 per day. Every ten days he started over again, a practice he kept up the rest of his life until he knew all 150 by heart.

September 29, 1502 (age 18) - Luther received his Baccalaureate degree and began studying for his Masters.

October 18, 1502 (age 18) - Elector Frederick the Wise founded a university in the small town of Wittenberg on the Elbe River in Saxony.

September 22, 1503 (age 19)- Francisco Todeschini Piccolomini was elected Pope; he took the name Pius III

October 18, 1503 (age 19) - Pope Pius III died (one of the shortest pontificates in history).

November 1, 1503 (age 19) - Guliano Della Rovere was elected Pope; he took the name Julius II. He was nicknamed "The Fearsome Pope" and "The Warrior Pope" and personally led his troops into battle on at least two occasions.

January 1505 (age 21) - Luther received his Masters degree. His father gave him a copy of Corpus Iuris (or Juris) Civilis ("Body of Civil Law") and arranged for his entry into law school.

Spring and early summer 1505 - A terrible time at Erfurt. The plague broke out and some of the students died. Most of the others left town in a panic.

May 19, 1505 (age 21) - Luther entered law school at the University of Erfurt and began his studies by memorizing the titles of laws. But something soon happened that changed the direction of is life.

July 2, 1505 (age 21) - Later in life Martin stated that while returning to Erfurt from his parents' home in Mansfeld, he was near Stotternheim, when he was caught in a bad thunderstorm and nearly struck by lightening. He used the word, Anfechtung, "a grasping dread," to describe what he felt. He vowed to become a monk if St. Anne saved him. (St. Anne was the patron saint of miners).

But it seems the story of a sign from above coming to Luther in the form of a lightning strike is greatly exaggerated. In truth Luther, who was 21 at the time, was fleeing from an impending forced marriage. Newly discovered archive records show that his father Hans had already married off three of his daughters and one son to the children of the mining elite in Mansfeld as a way of cementing his position in Mansfeld society. Apparently it was now Martin's turn.

Monkery

July 16, 1505 (age 21) - Rather than submit to his father's will, Luther decided to enter the Augustinian Black Monastery in Erfurt. He invited some friends, including "honorable matrons and maidens," to a lavish supper, during which he told his shocked companions about his decision to become a monk. The next day, July 17, he entered the monastery.

His reception as a would-be brother was a solemn occasion. The young Luther fell down at the feet of the prior and he was asked what he wanted. He replied, "God's mercy and yours." He was instructed on the hardships and the duties of the life he had chosen. Then he was placed under the care of an older brother for a year of probation. During this period he learned the rules of the order and was obliged to do the most menial service, like sweeping and cleaning.

September 1506 - Luther's novitiate ended and he took the monk's vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Luther and his fellow monks at the monastery wore black robes and circular tonsures. They rose at two in the morning for the first Divine Office and prayed five times a day. Devout, earnest, self-critical, relentlessly self-disciplined and intelligent, his only goal as a monk was to earn his way into heaven. His spartan quarters consisted of an unheated cell furnished only with a table and chair. He performed his share of manual labor and begged in the city with other monks. He was constantly in the confessional where, according to one monk, he even confessed to the most minor of offences.

I kept the rule of my order so strictly that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.

At least once, Luther spent six hours confessing to his superior, Johann Von Staupitz. He later wrote:

I was myself more than once driven to the very depths of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him! ... I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.

Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

1506 (age 22) - Pope Julius II ordered the old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, dating from the time of Constantine (4th century), torn down and commissioned a new St. Peter's Basilica designed by Donato Bramante, the father of high renaissance architecture.

1507 (age 23) - Johann Staupitz recognized his problems and his gifts and took him off menial duties in the monastery. He told him that "God was not angry with him, but he with God." Luther had shown a particular aptitude for biblical studies and Staupitz ordered him to study theology at the University of Erfurt.

April 3, 1507 (age 23) - Luther was ordained to the priesthood.

May 2, 1507 (age 23) - Luther celebrated his first mass, a great occasion, to which he invited his kinsman Conrad Hutter and his friend, the parish priest from Eisenach. His father Hans, who seems to have been partially reconciled, also came and gave his son a handsome present. In accordance with the usual ritual he placed himself face down on the floor, then raised himself to his knees. Church officials placed their hands on his head and spoke the words of ordination. He then went behind the altar and began the Mass. But the familiar words he spoke left him terrified. He stumbled, sure that a sinner like him had no business speaking such sacred text. After completing the ritual his father blurted a statement that showed his doubts about his son's calling:

I hope it was God and not the devil that called you.

Winter 1508 (age 24) - After three years at the monastery, Staupitz sent Luther on a temporary teaching assignment at the fledgling university in Wittenberg, which opened five years earlier.

1508 (age 24) - Pope Julius II commissioned 33-year-old Michelangelo to paint frescoes on the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (completed October 31, 1512).

1509 (age 25) - Luther earned his bachelor's degree in the Four Books of Sentences by Peter Lombard, (the main theology textbook of the time).

Martin Luther's handwritten margin notes in his theology textbook, the Book of Sentences by Peter Lombard.

October 1, 1509 (age 25) - Luther recalled to Erfurt from Wittenberg, perhaps to assist his old Augustinian theology teacher, Johannes Nathin, instruct novitiates.

1510 (age 26) - Pope Julius II authorized the sale of indulgences to finance construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Pilgrimage to Rome

Autumn 1510 (age 26) - Martin was offered an escape from his cloistered life and, hopefully, relief from his attempts to earn his salvation. He and Anton Kresz, another Augustinian from Nuremberg, were sent by Johann Von Staupitz on an 850-mile journey to Rome to handle a dispute over a new set of rules for the Augustinian order. At issue was a decree by Pope Julius II that merged the observant and the non-observant houses of the order. Luther was assigned to represent the observant German Augustinian monasteries before the Pope. It was also hoped that a visit to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church would ease Luther's spiritual struggles.

Martin and Kresz were given ten gold florins to take care of their needs. They traveled on foot and found food and lodging in monasteries along the way. They probably stayed in Ulm, then went through the Sempter Pass in Switzerland to Milan, Italy. They visited the Convent of San Gallo, the Convent of Santo Spirito in Florence and the Convent of Santa Maria della Misericordia in Bologna. In Rome they stayed with the Augustinian community at Santa Maria del Popolo.

Luther became ill en route and feared he would die; he was saddened that he might perish in a foreign country. He became despondent for a time, but his health returned and he continued the journey.

At his first glimpse of Rome Martin knelt on the ground with the words "Be greeted holy Rome, holy because of the holy martyrs dripping with their blood."

During the month-long stay, he did all the things any devout pilgrim would do. He visited many churches and the Catacombs. On his knees he ascended the marble steps of the Scala Sancta, a large staircase that legend holds was the actual stairs of Pontius Pilate's residence in Jerusalem, which Jesus walked after being condemned. Legend says it had been transported to Rome by angels. Martin said an "Our Father" on each the 28 steps to free his grandfather from purgatory. Also during his stay Martin learned some Hebrew from a Jewish Rabbi and took Greek lessons from a refugee from Constantinople. But the more Martin saw of the city, the more his reverence for Rome turned to loathing. He was shocked by the immorality and lack of piety of the local clergy and by the luxurious lifestyle of Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, who was known for his expensive tastes and his fondness for hunting, gambling and carnivals.

Martin went to Rome with innocence and naiveté and returned to Erfurt wiser and sadder, with seeds of disillusionment planted in his mind. He still was very much a Catholic who believed that all that was needed was a strong reform-minded Pope to put an end to abuses and corruption. But Leo X liked the status quo. In his later writings he recalled his great disappointment with the "holy city:"

It is almost incredible what infamous actions are committed at Rome; one should see it and hear it in order to believe it. It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from which all sins proceed.

Doctor Luther

1511 (age 27) - Johann Staupitz, Martin's Augustinian superior, also the dean of the theology faculty at Wittenberg University, transferred him back to Wittenberg to teach theology and work on his doctorate.

Martin moved into the newly constructed Augustinian Black Cloister (above), named for the monk's black habits.



1511 (age 27) - Martin began his second teaching stint at the University of Wittenberg (above), which opened October 18, 1502. It was called Leucorea, the Greek translation of Wittenberg (leukos white; oros mountain).

October 19, 1512 (age 28) - Martin was awarded a Doctorate of Theology.

February 21, 1513 - Pope Julius II died of fever and was succeeded on March 9, 1513 by Giovanni dei Lorenzo de Medici, the second son of Lorenzo de Medici. He took the name Pope Leo X.

August 16, 1513 (age 29) - Martin began lectures on the Psalms. One university student stated that professor Martin was a good lecturer with a voice that was easy to listen to.

He spoke neither too quickly nor to slowly, but at an even pace, without hesitation and very clearly, and in such fitting order that every part.

August 31, 1513 (age 29) - Albert (Albrecht in German) of Brandenburg was elected archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of the Diocese of Halberstadt. He was 23 years old.

A year later, he bribed a rival to obtain the vacant Archbishopric of Mainz, which also made him one of the group of seven electors (archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, the king of Bohemia, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count Palantine of the Rhine and the Duke of Saxony) whose responsibility it was to elect the Holy Roman Emperor should the need arise. It was a most prestigious position, as well as a lucrative one because others paid bribes to influence his vote. It was a real power play by Albert.

But, there were several problems. First, Albert was too young. Second, it was against canon law to hold multiple high church offices. Third, Albrecht also violated a church law which stated that it was illegal to buy a church office, a practice call simony (the selling of sacred things, named for Simon Magus, a magician rebuked by Simon Peter for attempting to buy the power of transmitting the Holy Spirit; see Acts 8:9-24).

So Albert, with his funds depleted, sought help from the Fuggers, an enormously rich family of merchants from Augsburg, who agreed to lend him the money to bribe Pope Leo to confirm his three bishoprics. Representatives of both parties met to discuss the amount of the bribe. The Pope's men wanted 12,000 ducats; Albert's people offered 7,000 ducats. They settled on 10,000 ducats. To guarantee that the obligation was met, the pope granted Albert the right to sell indulgences, a kind of promissory note that reduced time in Purgatory. They were to be sold on a sliding scale of amounts adjusted to a purchaser's station in life, income and the level of his/her sin. Half the collected funds went to Rome, the other half went Albert.

Pope Leo X got what he wanted: money for himself and money to build Saint Peter's Basilica. Albert got what he wanted: money to pay off his debt and gain control of the German church. The German people got what they didn't want or need: indulgences!

1514 (age 30) - Martin was named priest for Wittenberg's Stadtkirche St. Marien (city church of St. Mary, named for Mary Magdalene) in addition to his university duties.


Wittenberg town square with the twin towers of the Marienkirche, where Martin Luther regularly preached; known later as the mother church of the Reformation.

1515 (age 31) - Martin's workload increased when he was appointed Augustinian vicar for Meissen and Thuringia, which gave him charge over ten (later eleven) area monasteries. Describing his workload at Wittenberg, Martin wrote to his friend Joann Lang at the Augustinian priory in Erfurt:

I could use two secretaries. I do almost nothing during the day but write letters. I am a preacher, a reader at meals, director of studies ... overseer of the fish pond at Litzkau, referee of the squabble at Torgau, lecturer on Paul, collector of material on the Psalms ... I rarely have time for canonical hours and for saying mass, not to mention my own temptations with the world, the flesh and the devil. See how lazy I am.

May 1515 (age 31) - Martin began year of lectures on Romans.

Hall at Wittenberg University where Luther often gave his lectures.

Luther's "Tower Experience"

When Martin had his key revelation, his so-called "tower experience," is a matter of debate. It most likely took place late in 1516. Martin himself tells us that the major turning-point in his life took place in his study in the tower of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg.

Tower of the Augustinian monastery where Martin had his study.

On that particular day his Bible was open to Paul's letter to the Romans. Romans 1:17 caught his eye: "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written [Habakkuk 2:4], "The righteous will live by faith." Reading further, he came to Romans 3:22: "...This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe."

He must have read those passages in Romans many times in preparation for his lectures. But, he once hated Romans 1:17 because he always read it in the sense in which it was preached by Catholic theologians at the time: God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. As a monk, he viewed the gospel as an extension of the law, not a way to find freedom from the curse of the law.

At that moment a light went on revealing the answer to the dilemma that drove him to enter the monastery some 10 years earlier. As he re-read the passages, he saw that his fasting and confession, all the self-injury he did to earn salvation for his soul, meant nothing. Those passages in Romans showed him that salvation was a gift from God. They became his Damascus road. Martin stated:

I felt I was altogether born again ...That place in Paul was truly my gate to paradise.

1516 (age 32) - Plague struck Wittenberg. Martin's friends encouraged him to leave the city, but he would not abandon his duties.

October 27, 1516 (age 32) - Martin began a year of lectures on Galatians.

Galatians was a Luther's favorite biblical book. Years later he said in one of his Table Talks: "The Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am as it were in wedlock. It is my Katherina" (referring to his wife Katie). Much later when a friend of his was preparing an edition of all his Latin works, he remarked: "If I had my way about it they would republish only those of my books which have doctrine, my [commentary on] Galatians, for instance."

If I had my way about it they would republish only those of my books which have doctrine, my [commentary on] Galatians, for instance.

December 1516 (age 33) - Martin published Theologia Germanica (German Theology), a mystical treatise believed to have been written around 1350 by an anonymous author. Martin added his own preface and claimed he learned more from this manuscript than any other source except the Bible and the writings of Augustine. Theologia Germanica proposed that God and humanity can be wholly united by following a path of perfection, as exemplified by the life of Christ, renouncing sin and selfishness.

Luther the Reformer>>