Martin Luther: A Brief Introduction to His Life and Works

By Paul R. Waibel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Martin Luther, 1483–1546

In 1483, the Holy Roman Empire, or “the Empire” as it is commonly referred to by historians, was a loose confederation of more than 300 autonomous political entities, both secular and ecclesiastical. At the time of the Reformation, there was one king (the king of Bohemia), four archbishops, forty-six bishops, eighty-three other ecclesiastical lords, twenty-four secular princes, 145 counts and other secular lords, and eighty-three imperial free cities. If one includes the so-called “knights of the Empire,” who acknowledged no overlord except the emperor, and who ruled over estates averaging not more than 100 acres, then the number of sovereign political entities within the Empire could reach as high as 2,000.

This crazy-quilt empire was presided over by an emperor elected since 1356 by seven electors—three ecclesiastical (the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne) and four secular (the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, the count palatine of the Rhine, and the king of Bohemia). The powers of the emperor were negotiated anew at each election. In practice, the emperor's authority was limited to whatever loyalty his diverse subjects were willing to grant him.

The Holy Roman Empire was Roman in the sense that it was believed to be the successor of the Roman Empire of antiquity and thus kept alive the vision of a universal state. It was considered holy in that it was the secular counterpart of that other medieval universal empire, the Roman Catholic church, ruled over by the pope (bishop of Rome), considered to be the Successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ on Earth. The average German of the fifteenth century lived in the church, not the state. It was the priest with whom the

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