The Devil apparently went out of his way to pester and distract Martin Luther. He would throw nuts at the ceiling and make casks tumble down staircases. On one occasion, Luther found a strange dog lounging in his room and, assuming this was a diabolical manifestation, threw the poor creature out of the window.
When Luther was deep in his studies one evening, “the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage cupboard”, so Luther packed up his books and went off to bed. Not that this guaranteed relief. “Almost every night when I wake up,” Luther complained, “the Devil is there, itching to argue with me.” Luther meant this quite literally, claiming that lengthy theological discussions about sin were regular ordeals.
Make what you will of such tales, but Luther believed and reported them. The same cannot be said about the most celebrated incident of all. Generations of tourists to the Wartburg Castle were shown the spot where an infuriated Luther allegedly threw an inkwell at the Devil. This, at least, was pure concoction, and that’s the thing about Luther: the layers of myth and uncertainty run deep.
It’s a proven fact, for instance, that he wrote his 95 Theses in 1517, sent them to the Bishop of Brandenburg and the Archbishop of Mainz, and provoked quite the kerfuffle. But did he, as we always used to think, angrily nail a copy of the theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg? No one who was in town at the time reported the fact and Luther, a voluble chap, never mentioned the deed. Perhaps it happened; perhaps it did not. At least we know that, at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther uttered his defiant words: “Here I stand: I can do no other.” Well, no; we can’t be sure. The phrase was later included in a printed account of events but that proves little.
And then there is the toilet story. Luther agonised over finding some way to explain how wretched, sinful human beings could possibly merit salvation. He came to the conclusion that this had to be an unmerited gift from God; that, as he later wrote, “faith alone, without works, justifies, frees and saves”. Countless schoolchildren have giggled at the suggestion that the revelation occurred when Luther, a long-time sufferer from constipation, was languishing on the loo one day. The curious notion derives from Luther writing, in his recollections, about being in the cloaca, a Latin word which can be translated in the modern idiom as toilet. As it happens, he was probably referring to his study being in the tower that housed the cloaca; or possibly he was using cloaca as a term for a mental state of degradation and vulnerability. The sundering of Christendom did not come down to a stubborn bowel movement.
All of which leads us to the most resilient misconception of all: that from the outset Martin Luther was set on unleashing a Reformation. There is no doubting that Luther wanted change and his invectives against the status quo were ferocious. By 1520 he was declaring that the court of Rome “has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell”.
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