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12 surprising facts you didn't know about Martin Luther

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12 surprising facts you didn't know about Martin Luther
Photo: DPA
16:26 CET+01:00
This month marks 500 years since Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, published his 95 Theses which led to the split in the Catholic Church and the religious revolution known as the Reformation.

Martin Luther was an academic and religious figure who was strongly against the corruption of the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

Around this time, the church was heavily involved in the politics of the Holy Roman Empire and the practice of selling 'indulgences' was becoming increasingly common.

This meant those who felt they had sinned could simply buy a pardon and, in exchange for their money, a prayer would be said or a candle lit to 'absolve' them of their sins. These pardons were essentially religious 'get out of jail free cards' and the more money people paid for them, supposedly the more years were taken off their time in purgatory .

Increasingly resentful of the ways of the Catholic Church, on the 31st of October 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses attacking the corrupt practices of the papacy and essentially sparking the biggest revolution the Christian faith has ever seen.

In light of the 500th anniversary of this huge historic event, here are 12 interesting facts you probably didn't know about Martin Luther.

1. The legend of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church is just that, a legend

The story goes that Luther stormed up to the Castle Church in Wittenburg, hammer in hand, and nailed his incendiary document to the front door. While this is a fittingly forceful image for the start of a religious movement which has violently shaped European history, several scholars have agreed that there is little evidence to suggest this dramatic gesture ever took place.

There were apparently no eye-witnesses and according to the New Yorker, Martin Luther himself seemed unclear on what he actually did to spread his 95 Theses, apart from sending them to the local archbishop.

2. Martin Luther was not originally his name

Statue in Lutherstadt Eisleben. Photo: DPA

The name 'Martin Luther' is known throughout the Christian world, just like that of his namesake, the iconic human rights activist and baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr. But neither Martin Luther, nor Martin Luther King Jr. were born with those names.

The father of Protestantism was in fact born 'Martin Luder' to a family from a coal mining town. It is commonly believed that, in the same year he published his theses, Martin changed his surname from 'Luder' to 'Luther', which some believe was in line with the Greek word 'erleutherios' meaning freedom and liberty.

Meanwhile Martin Luther King Jr was born Michael King Jr. His father changed both their names after being inspired by a tour of various holy sites throughout Europe on which he learned about the huge effect of Martin Luther on the church.

3. A near death experience inspired him to become a monk

'Das Gelübde Luthers im Gewitter' by famous art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi. Photo: DPA

Martin Luther was the eldest of a large family and his father planned for him to study law in order to help with the family business. But it appears Luther had other plans. At age 21 he was caught up in a large storm and the story goes that he prayed to St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, to save his life, promising to become a monk if he survived. Some claim this was a common practice in young people at the time, who did not want to follow in the path chosen for them by their parents. Whatever his reasoning, Luther honoured his promise and was ordained two years later.

4. He had a big influence on Christmas

Nativity play at St. Salvator Chirch in Sachsen. Photo: DPA

Before the reformation, children in Germany often received presents on December 6th, the day of St. Nicholas. Meanwhile Jesus' birth was not specifically celebrated at all, as the Epiphany on January 6th was the main day of celebration as this was the day the three wise men are said to have visited Bethlehem. Luther was against St. Nicholas being so particularly revered, so over time St. Nicholas' day lost more and more of its importance in the Protestant faith. In its place the birth of Christ began to be celebrated which led to the modern celebration of Christmas Eve on December 24th in Germany and many other European countries. 

5. Martin Luther only left the German speaking lands once in his whole life

Coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire. Photo: Wikipedia

It seems odd for someone with such a wide-reaching influence, but according to the New Yorker, Martin Luther only traveled outside of the German speaking lands in Europe once. He was sent to Rome in 1510 in a failed mission to deal with problems in the Augustinian order. 

6. Luther had to be 'kidnapped' by his friend to avoid severe repercussions from the Catholic Church

Scene at the Luther memorial in Heylshofpark depicting the Diet of Worms . Photo: DPA

After publishing his 95 Theses, Luther was called to Rome to answer for his heresy. When he did not comply, he was excommunicated but brazenly burned the paper which announced his excommunication in a pit used by a Wittenburg hospital to burn old rags.

He avoided execution for this because of his huge popularity with the general public, but in 1521 he was called to a Diet in the town of Worms, an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, to explain himself. In Worms, Luther announced he would only retract his criticisms of the church if they could show him sufficient evidence from the holy scripture to support the practices he deemed to be corrupt. As he was travelling back from Worms, Luther's protector, Frederick the Wise, ordered a group of knights to "kidnap" and hide him until the Catholic church had calmed down.

7. He translated the entire New Testament from Greek to German in just 11 weeks

Wartburg Eisenach. Photo: DPA

After being 'kidnapped' and taken to in an isolated castle in Eisenach, he spent 11 weeks of his 10 months in captivity translating the New Testament, which he did single handedly at a blazing rate of 1,800 words a day. Luther then went on to translate the old testament from Hebrew. He wasn't the first person to translate the bible into German but many consider his version to be the most beautifully written and it was certainly the most popular.

8. Martin Luther not only had a huge impact on the church, but also on the German language

Lutherian bible facsimile published by Taschen (2002). Photo: DPA

Luther was a prolific writer and wrote almost 120 works in his lifetime. What's more, he was lucky to have been born just 10 years after the invention of the printing press. This meant his works reached thousands of people at a time when literature was sparse. Most of his writing was in Early New High German and experts credit the widespread use of this dialect to the popularity of Luther's writing, especially his translation of the bible.

3,000 copies of the first edition of Luther's German New Testament were made and each cost the equivalent of a calf. Despite this high price, all 3,000 copies of the bible sold out as soon as they were put on sale. The Lutherian bible also included 128 woodcut illustrations all done by the same artist. In 2002 a beautiful two volume facsimile of Luther's original bible was published by German art book publisher Taschen, which had the drawings in colour. 

9. Martin Luther held violently anti-Semitic views

Portrait of Luther by Cranach (1543). Photo: DPA

Despite his powerful legacy, it is important not to sweep the darker aspects of Martin Luther's life under the mat. Even for the time, Luther's aversion to the Jewish faith was extreme. Earlier in his career he advocated gentle treatment of Jews and criticised the Catholic Church for "treating them like dogs". It appears this criticism was merely because Luther saw the harsh treatment of Jews as the reason they would not convert to Christianity.

However as he got older Luther began to take a much more aggressive stance against what he claimed to be a "false religion." Apparently frustrated by his inability to convert Jews he claimed, “a Jewish heart is as hard as a stick, a stone, as iron, as a devil.”

He proposed seven measures of "sharp mercy" to be taken against the Jewish population in Germany in 1543 which included "setting fire to their synagogues or schools". According to biographer Heinz Schilling, his “hatred, offensive abuse and violent annihilation fantasies” only increased until his death.

10. His wife was the one who proposed

Portraits of Martin Luther and his wife Katharina by Lukas Cranach (1528) hung in the Angermuseum in Erfurt. Photo: DPA

One Catholic tradition Luther opposed was celibacy in priests and in 1525 he married Katharina von Bora, an ex-Cistercian nun. He met her while helping a group of nuns who had recently left a Cistercian convent in light of the reformation. While eleven of the twelve nuns were either returned to their families or found husbands, the 26-year-old Katharina was left.

Though Luther claimed to have not felt any kind of "burning" attraction towards the young woman, she wanted him and proposed marriage, to which he agreed, the New Yorker writes. Katharina managed his huge household which, apart from their large number of children, also included 20 or so students, 8 orphaned children, a large family escaping the plague, various visitors and a small staff. Historians noticed a change in Luther's attitude towards women after his marriage and he appeared to respect his wife a great deal, calling her "the most holy Frau Doctor" in letters. 

11. Several plays have been written about his life

A scene from the play 'Luther - der Anschlag'. Photo: DPA

Inspired by the 500th anniversary of the publication of his 95 Theses, the life of Martin Luther is a common theme in theatre this year. This summer 'Luther - der Anschlag', meaning 'Luther - the Impact', premiered in Bad Hersfeld this summer. 'Martin Luther on Trial', is also a new work which is touring the USA this year. It is a play in which the soul of the revolutionary theologist is put on trial with the devil as prosecutor and witnesses that include Adolph Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope Francis. The most famous play about Martin Luther's life is 'Luther' written by British playwright John Osborne in 1962, which was revived at the turn of this century at the Olivier Theatre in London. 

12. Luther was often shockingly foul mouthed

Photo: DPA

Suprizingly for a man of God, but perhaps unsurprisingly for such a bold revolutionary and someone with such aggressive faith in his convictions, Martin Luther is known to have expressed himself with with crude and sometimes downright vulgar statements. According to historian Erik H. Erikson who wrote the book 'Young Man Luther' (1958), not only did Luther called the Vatican a "whorehouse" but while in a state of depression, he supposedly once said at the dinner table “I am like a ripe s**t and the world is a gigantic a**hole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.”

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