It is 500 years to the day since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, and unleashed the Reformation. While Germany celebrates one of its most famous sons – some Germans, that is, for fast swathes of the population spend their time playing computer games or foaming at the mouth over football, and couldn’t care less – it is worth asking whether there is any truth to the legendary deed of Wednesday, October 31, 1517.
Wittenberg never had a cathedral. There is a church attached to the old princely residence, the Schlosskirche, and the street-side entrance, now unapproachable, because it is protected by a barrier, is regarded as the location of the famous nailing. In Luther’s day, the Schlosskirche also served as the university church, and the street side entrance, which was the main portal, was in regular use as a public notice board. The old wooden door is long gone. In its place is a bronze casting which reproduces Luther’s Theses in the original Latin in Gothic Miniscule.
Luther himself never left a record of the deed. Nor did anyone who lived or worked in Wittenberg at the time. The earliest reference comes from Melanchthon, who may have invented it, or embellished it, for his own purposes. In the 1960s, Erwin Iserloh, an expert in Church history, pointed out that on the date in question Luther had written his first letter of protest at the preaching of indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz, and had enclosed the Theses, asking for a considered response. According to Iserloh, it would have been impossible for Luther to make the Theses public before he had allowed time for the official reply. However, a gloss in the hand of Luther’s secretary, Georg Rörer, which surfaced in 2006, restores a certain probability. Rörer writes that Luther put up the Theses on the date in question, but on the doors of all the churches in Wittenberg. This was the practice prescribed by the university statutes for public academic disputations.
But let us assume that it happened according to the legend. On that fateful Wednesday, the wooden door of the Schlosskirche would have bristled with announcements great and small to do with the life of the town and the university. The 95 Theses would have made a long document. It would have taken up a lot of the door. The other notices that were hanging there would have had to be shifted around or removed completely. To protect the document from the wind, and from the groping of passers by, quite a few nails would have been required. There would have been an extended period of hammering, and a crowd of curious onlookers. One or two of them might have needed to be satisfied as to why the door should be commandeered like that. Luther, of course, who was a professor, is unlikely to have gone around putting up notices. There were paid staff for such things. It was probably the university beadle, who may have seen the Theses lying on a desk, assumed they were intended for one of the usual disputations, and put them up without Luther’s knowledge. As for the busybodies with their questions, the beadle, knowing no Latin and no theology, would have told them where they could find Professor Luther.
On 31 October, 1517, it was impossible for Luther, who had only just written to the Archbishop of Mainz, to make his Theses public. But if the beadle had done it, and it was all over the town, it would have been equally impossible for him to deny it.