Today we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but what really happened on the 31st October 1517? The popular story of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg is a very powerful image, but is there any truth in it? Perhaps not, in fact there is no substantial evidence for this event. Luther himself never mentions it – this is what he says in his introduction to the first volume of his own collected works, published in 1545.
When in 1517 indulgences were sold (I wanted to say promulgated) in these regions for disgraceful profit, I was a preacher, a young Doctor of Theology, as they say. I began to dissuade the people from lending an ear to the shouts of the indulgence-sellers. I told them that they had better things to do and that I was sure that in these matters I had the pope on my side. I was relying greatly on his trustworthiness, since in his decrees he had very clearly condemned the excesses of the quaestors [name of a treasury official in ancient Rome] as he called the indulgence preachers.
Shortly thereafter I wrote two letters, one to Albert, the archbishop of Mainz, who was getting half the money from the indulgences (the other half was going to the pope, a fact of which I was at the time ignorant),the other to the ordinary of the place, Jerome, bishop of Brandenburg. I begged them to put a stop to the shameless blasphemy of the quaestors, but they despised this poor little brother. Therefore, finding myself despised, I published a list of theses and, at the same time, a sermon in German on indulgences. A little later I published the “Explanations,” in which, in deference to the pope, I maintained that indulgences should not be condemned but that the works of charity should be preferred to them.
What I did toppled heaven and consumed earth by fire. I am denounced to the pope, commanded to go to Rome, and the entire papacy rises up against me alone.
Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545) by Dr. Martin Luther, 1483-1546. Translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB
However a new story emerges in the second volume, published after Luther’s death in 1546. Luther’s friend and colleague Philip Melanchthon introduces the volume with a short biography. When he comes to the significant year of 1517 this is what he says.
When Luther was in this course of study, venal Indulgences were circulated in these regions by Tecelius the Dominican, a most shameless Deceiver. Luther, angered by Tecelius’ impious and execrable debates and, burning with the eagerness of piety, published Propositions concerning Indulgences, which are extant in the first volume of his writings, and he publicly attached these to the Temple, which is next to Witteberg Castle, on the day before the feast of all Saints, 1517 …
These were the beginings of this controversy, in which Luther, as yet suspecting or dreaming nothing about the future change of rites, was not at all completely throwing out indulgences themselves, but only urging moderation. Wherefore they falsely accuse him, who say that he began for a praiseworthy reason, so that afterwards he could change the State and seek power either for himself or for others.
The history of the life and acts of Luther (1547-8) by Philip Melanchthon. Prepared by Dr. Steve Sohmer 1996.
Whatever might actually have happened on 31st October, Luther and Melanchthon agree on the consequences. Luther’s propositions were published: Disputatio D. Martini Luther theologi, pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum [Disputation of Martin Luther Doctor of Theology on the power of indulgences], more well known now as the 95 Theses. This ensured the wide circulation of Luther’s ideas, capturing the attention of eager readers across Europe. It is produced first as a single large sheet, printed probably in Wittenberg then Leipzig and Nuremberg. Very few copies of this broadsheet version have survived, especially outside Germany. Also very rare is the eight page pamphlet version which was printed in Basel a few weeks later. There are just four copies in the UK. If you can’t make it to Manchester, two other copies are currently on display – in Edinburgh at the National Library of Scotland and London at the British Library. Our copy has also been digitised here.