Luther's political encounters
DAVID M. WHITFORD
In 1517, Martin Luther did not intend to start a revolution, but start one he most certainly did. By the time of his death, the religious, social, and political map of Europe was unalterably changed. Luther erupted on to the scene at a decisive moment. The Holy Roman Empire in the early sixteenth century was a society in flux; old orders were giving way to a yet-to-be determined new order. Economically, northern Europe was recoveringfrom the decimation of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its recovery, however, was dramatically different from what had preceded it. It was now more urban than rural, more based in manufacturingthan agriculture. Politically, the greater nobles and the Free Imperial cities tried to stave off attempts at centralization by the emperor, while lesser nobles and rural towns tried to maintain their status as the economic world changed around them and thus marginalized them. Socially, the urbanization brought both a new middle class and at the same time a more entrenched poverty. Meanwhile, peasants had been chafing under the bit of serfdom for more than a century and a half. They were in search of justice and desperate for hope. Religiously, people both resented and depended upon the church. They resented the church because it controlled so much of the land and took too much in tax. They, however, depended on the church as the only avenue to salvation. It is little wonder, then, why Luther's religious message struck chords on many levels. Many people heard the religious message, but could not miss its social and political import.
For the great lords and the imperial cities the reformation was linked, by virtue of its fight against the centralized religious authority of the pope, to the fight against centralization politically. At the same time, the peasants heard in Luther an exaltation of Christian freedom, a sharp criticism of the church, and a nationalism that fed their desires and became a political manifesto.
In 1996, Bernhard Lohse wondered (only half in jest) if the Luther presented by some scholars would recognize the Luther described by others. 1 This would be especially difficult when trying to recognize the“political”