Saturday, October 31, 2009

31 October: Reformation Day

For Americans, October 31 is just Halloween. For Protestant Germans, though, it is Reformation Day—the anniversary of the date on which, by tradition, Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The only problem is: the story perhaps never happened that way. For over four decades, scholars have been debating the issue. (Even official town and museum websites have taken conflicting stances over the years.)

To be sure, Luther dated the document 31 October, but there is no hard evidence that he actually nailed the theses to the door—though this was the common practice for scholarly disputations. In any case, any door to which Luther might have nailed anything is long gone: the church was destroyed by cannon fire in 160, during the Seven Years' War, and the building we see today therefore dates from only 1770, with additional restorations from the end of the nineteenth century. The bronze doors that now bear the text of the Theses were created only in 1858.

Regardless of whether Luther actually nailed his abstruse Latin Theses to the door, they immediately attracted attention, as supporters reproduced and circulated them. He soon saw the advantage of addressing a wider public, and the sermon on grace and indulgences of 1518, which presented the ideas of the Theses in popular form, went through 25 printings in two years. Henceforth, both proponents and opponents of the Reformation fought their battles in print as well as in the pulpits and streets. In particular, they found that the cheap, small, brochure (sometimes illustrated) was the ideal weapon. 9000 German pamphlets appeared in the first three decades of the sixteenth century. The share of vernacular texts in the market increased by a factor of seven between 1519 and 1522 alone. In a profound sense then, Luther's ability to grasp the power of the press and the new medium of print was analogous to or anticipatory of the revolutionary development of blogging and social networking in our own day.

Illustration: the unveiling of biblical truth by the Reformation, bronze commemorative medal marking the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, Weimar, 1817

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Some Germans nowadays celebrate Halloween in the American style, but the date retains its traditional religious significance: German Catholics still celebrate November 1 and 2 as the traditional Allerheiligen and Allerseelen (All Saints Day and All Souls). Protestants commemorate the dead on Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead, sometimes translated as Mourning Sunday; also Ewigkeitssonntag: literally, Sunday of Eternity ) on the last Sunday before Advent.

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