1617 cartoon showing Luther with a long quill pen, writing on the church door.

Greengrass: “A hill not a stronghold”

EVENT REPORT: On Thursday 12 October, Mark Greengrass, emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield (presently Associate Fellow at the University of Paris, Sorbonne) spoke to the Historical Association’s Sheffield branch. His topic, “The importance of non-events: what happened in Wittenberg in 1517 and its aftermath”. 500 Reformations director, Dr Iona Hine, was in the audience. She reports:

Icons are myth-bearers. That is, when a thing, person or event becomes “iconic”, it comes to hold meanings that belong to some other dimension. This is something I have observed in relation to the 1611 Bible: It is widely referred to as the “Authorized Version” (at least in England). Yet we have no material evidence that the translation commissioned by King James ever received royal authorisation. It was “approved for use in Churches”, but by the Church (or by proxy, Bishops) not the King. And that was a status previously held by two other English versions. For some, this antiquated English text remains the Bible par excellence. An icon.

The mythical aspect of iconic things provided the starting point for Mark Greengrass’s address to Sheffield Historical Association. In speaking about “what happened in Wittenberg in 1517 and its aftermath”, Greengrass’s starting point was to identify the myth. The nailing of 95 theses to the Castle-Church door probably never happened: we have no contemporary evidence, no mention from Luther. The first account arises at Luther’s death, when premiere Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon declared how “on the eve of the Feast of All Saints”, Luther “publically” fixed his arguments to the door.

In 1617, the Jubilee was commemorated by the publication of propaganda: a woodcut showing the dream of Elector Frederick (pictured above). As cartoon-Luther inscribes the first objection onto the door frame, the giant quill-pen pierces Pope Leo (the Lion) and nearly knocks off the Emperor’s tiara.

In retrospect, it was evident that Luther had destabilised the Roman Church. It was equally evident that the Roman Church survived, albeit reshaped and with defined opposition.

For historians today, seeking to peel back the layers of propaganda and examine “what actually happened”, there are details that undermine the modern emphasis on 31 October 1517:

  • The objections to indulgences known as Luther’s “95 theses” were not his only such list. For example, a month earlier, he had debated a similar number of objections (about conventional ways of teaching theology) as part of a student’s PhD exam.
  • Luther wrote the theses in Latin. In his own view their phrasing and structure was obscure and “paradoxical“–not designed for public attention.
  • Others had them translated and printed for circulation. Luther knew about this, but during much of 1518 he seems to have distanced himself from such efforts.
  • Some copies have different numbers. For example, a Leipzig edition has only 87 theses. It may be partly because Erasmus circulated the portioned Basel copy that we now count 95.
  • Rome’s eventual rejection of the theses (without reasoned debate) led a dejected Luther to post a legal document on another church door in the Autumn of 1518, accusing the pope of being uninformed.

In closing, Greengrass posed questions to discomfort the audience: In commemorating Luther, are we thinking…

… of Luther the friar, who in 1517 by no means rejected Catholicism?

… of Luther in 1526, writing against the peasants rebellion, a man who’d deserted the common people?

… of aged Luther in the 1540s, replete with antisemitism?

It is–argued Greengrass–the historian’s duty to ensure we do not abuse history, or make myths our comfort blanket.


The woodcut image of “Göttlicher Schriftmessiger, woldennckwürdiger Traum, welchen der Hochlöbliche…Churfürst Friedrich zu Sachsen…3 mal nacheinander gehabt…” is taken from Wikimedia, and represents a copy held at Erfurt (1914,0209.20).

The title of this post reflects Greengrass’s pedagogic remark and an accidental misspelling of Wittenberg in the pre-event publicity.

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