N is for Ninety-Five Theses

October 1517 is remembered in the popular imagination as the moment Luther posted his objections about church practice. Writing soon after Luther’s death, Philipp Melanchthon reminisced about how his colleague had fixed his statements on the church door in Wittenberg. The detail of Melanchthon’s account turns out to be somewhat improbable, but posting up such lists was not unheard of…

In the 1500s, sets of position statements on a topic were a standard academic output. They provided the basis for debate, and debates were an important academic rite-of-passage. A standard list would number somewhere between 80 and 100 items, each interconnected and with a common theme.  And it was fairly standard practice to ‘publish’ the list in advance as a kind of advert for the debate. Wittenbergians might therefore anticipate seeing them on the church doors.

But what were the 95 about?

Luther wrote more than one set of statements, but the famous 95 were about indulgences. What had begun as a way to encourage good works (pilgrimage, supporting institutions like hospitals and churches) was being abused. Those issuing certificates began to suggest contributors would get time off from purgatory–an unheavenly waiting room, where sinners were purified of the last traces of their misdeeds by all manner of pain.

Why are they called theses?

Theses is the plural of thesis, a Latin word indicating a logical statement or opinion to be defended.

In some parts of Europe, the exam at the end of several years’ PhD research is a public affair, where the candidate has to defend what they wrote. This may sound cruel, but in practice the real decision (that the candidate’s work deserves to pass) is normally made before this moment. The public event recalls the kind of debate Luther and colleagues experienced regularly, and it can be an effective way to mark the occasion. The topic of debate is based on the researcher’s findings, normally written up as a thesis.

The 95 theses don’t represent Luther’s final opinion on the subject, just what he had in mind for debate in the autumn of 1517. Naturally, some of the examples he works from represent the worst (and not the best) practice of the church in Luther’s day.

Want to know more?

View a copy of the Latin theses printed in 1517 (courtesy of the Berlin State Library).

An early German translation of Luther’s theses (from Munchen State Library, also transcribed on Wikipedia).

And an English translation.

The image at the head of this article is a detail from a manuscript copy of the Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), a medieval collection of stories based on the Bible. It shows purgatory (or in German, the Fegefeuer). From an original photograph by the University of Heidelberg Library. Used with permission (CC by SA 3.0).