Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521

By Martin Brecht; James L. Schaaf | Go to book overview

IV

The Scene of Luther's
Real Activity: Wittenberg—
the City and University
in Electoral Saxony1

The transfer from Erfurt to Wittenberg was an important and far-reaching upheaval in the circumstances of Luther's life. He thereby entered the political and social context which became decisive for his potential activity and historical role. Certainly Luther's work and achievements have their deepest roots in his own personality and in his thought, but he was also assigned to an arena, to a forum where the external circumstances were definitely favorable to his work. The historical place of his activity was Wittenberg and Electoral Saxony, and this location had an altogether considerable effect upon the course and character of the Reformation. It is this context which we must now present.

At first glance it appears as if Luther's perspective had now narrowed, and that he had been pushed to the periphery of things. From what was at that time the metropolis of Erfurt, he came to the insignificant, unattractive, poor, small town of Wittenberg, which, including its outlying settlements, numbered about 400 houses and no more than 2,000 to 2,500 inhabitants. According to the reports of contemporaries, with its old, ugly, squat, wooden houses it resembled a village more than a city. One really could not even speak of houses, but only of cabins and village cottages made of mud, roofed with hay and straw. The streets were filthy. In Wittenberg, according to the opinion of professors there, one was located not in the center of the empire, but on the outskirts of the former Slavic colonial territory, at the borders of civilization. It did not appear that one was in a cultivated city, but in a remote, desolate carrion pit (Schindanger)2 which could never become a real city. Thus Luther had to transfer from a well-established, renowned university to one that had existed for only a decade and was still under development. Likewise, the tiny Wittenberg monastery, not yet completed, could hardly compete with the large monastery in Erfurt.

As impressive as the contrast appears between the insignificance of the place and the great events which later originated there, the situation was in

-107-

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