Martin Luther: A Brief Introduction to His Life and Works

By Paul R. Waibel | Go to book overview

Foreword

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a period of transition in the history of Western Civilization. Some historians have chosen to see it as the waning of the Middle Ages, while others see it as the birth of the modern world. However understood, it was an era during which the universal, yet very provincial, world of medieval Christendom was giving way to a wider world in which the individual was shaping a new world order. Like the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, during which the new world order begun in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave way to the global village, it was an exciting time in which to live.

Medieval civilization was a synthesis of classical humanism and Judeo-Christianity. The Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic church kept alive the classical notion of a politically and religiously unified world. The individual lived in an orderly universe created by God. Each thing God created, including the individual, was assigned a place in the great chain of being. Humans were above plants and animals but below the angels and heavenly hosts in an ascending order of purity. So too were those created as rulers above those created as workers in an agricultural economy. God, it was believed, had created some to govern, some to pray, and some to labor. The individual possessed rights, but they were the rights of the estate to which he or she belonged. A peasant or a burgher, for example, enjoyed certain rights and privileges, as well as obligations, by virtue of being a peasant or burgher. The concept of inalienable and natural rights belonging to the individual was foreign to the Middle Ages.

This very secure hierarchy of the Middle Age world in which everything had its place and function, was forever shattered in 1543 by the Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus. By asserting that the sun did not revolve around the earth (the medieval model of the universe), but the reverse,

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