Key Documents of the Early Activity of Martin Luther

Leibniz Association

This exhibition presents 14 objects, which document the beginning and early development of the Wittenberg Reformation that Martin Luther set in motion. These documents were accepted as part of the “Memory of the World” of UNESCO in October 2015. The application was submitted by the Leibniz-Institute for European History in Mainz (IEG), a member of the Leibniz-Association. The documents belong to the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, the Sächsische – Landesbibliothek-Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, the Anhaltische Landesbücherei Dessau, the Staatsbibliothek Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz, the Herzogin Anna Bibliothek – Klassik Stiftung Weimar, the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, the Thüringisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Weimar, the Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt – Lutherhaus Wittenberg, the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, the Stadtbibliothek Worms, and the Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Jena.

In October 2015 fourteen documents of the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther were accepted into the „Memory of the World Programme“ of UNESCO. The writings represent the development of the Reformation that began and proceeded from Luther and Wittenberg and are unique and irreplaceable in regard to their content, their material qualities and their transmission through the ages. They demonstrate how a religious and ecclesiastical impulse developed into a societal and political phenomenon with global impact – rightfully the Reformation is regarded as a threshold to a new epoch and the beginning of the modern era. In a superb manner the manuscripts and printed works give evidence of the transformation of values set in motion through this Reformation and the courageous engagement of a single individual for his convictions. They reveal the personality behind the written works and present the essential in the theology of the Reformation.
The Lectures on the Psalms
Luther’s lectures on the Psalms from 1513-1515 document the beginning of his activities as Professor on the University of Wittenberg, which had been founded in 1502. They give evidence of the practice of the late medieval university lecture course. Luther had had the Psalter printed for himself and his students with broad margins and large spaces between the lines, so that he could comment on the psalms with marginal notes and glosses between the lines. This early lectures are examples of the beginning of the Wittenberg professor’s “evangelical orientation,” which appears already in his interpretation of the Psalms.

This personal copy of Luther is called the “Wolfenbüttel Psalter” because of the location at which it is preserved.

Luther had a text of Psalms published which he himself had enhanced. The left page shows notes from a later owner of the copy (Eilhard Segebade).

Further entries by hand and pictures of Luther were later added to the volume.

The psalter illustrates Luther’s workstyle, which was oriented closely to the biblical text. In his careful handwriting, he wrote countless comments on the margins and between the lines.

The Scholienheft was a kind of notebook, crammed with notes in Luther’s hand, which contains further exegetical observations on the Psalms. Today it is found in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden.

Luther recorded in this “Scholienheft” longer thoughts on the interpretation of the Psalms, for which there was not sufficient room in the printed Psalter.

Originally, Luther had only single sheets stacked together. Binding them together came later.

Part of the sheets were lost in the course of the centuries. The comments on the last twenty-five psalms are missing.

The Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans
The development of Martin Luther’s thinking into a genuine reformational theology can be seen in his lectures on the epistle to the Romans of 1515/1516. It is considered a key document for the new approach to theology that Luther constructed, with the doctrine of justification at its base. The student notes shown here, which the Anhaltische Landesbücherei can count among its precious treasures, are a witness to the reception of this important lecture course. Luther’s own copy, which was originally located in Berlin and long thought to have been lost in World War II, is today held by the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow.

Also for this exegetical lecture course, Luther had the text printed, so that space for extensive comments was present, as these notes from the hand of his student Sigismund Reichenbach demonstrate.

These notes document how Luther was beginning to develop his influence as an academic teacher. Universities and their students served as important disseminators of the Reformation.

Luther’s Copy of the Hebrew Bible
Luther’s personal copy of the edition of the Hebrew Bible produced in 1494 in Brescia represents his recourse to reliable sources and his philological precision in interpreting the Bible and developing his theology. This volume is found today in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Luther used the Hebrew Bible both for his interpretation in his lecture courses and for his translation of the Old Testament.

This copy of the Bible, which belonged to Luther, was printed in Brescia in Italy in 1494. The reformer had purchased it second-hand; from some of its entries it can be deduced that it had changed owners among Jewish scholars at one time.

The initial pages of the biblical books are decorated with calligraphic embellishments.

Luther also entered marginal notes explaining individual passages in the text.

The Ninety-Five Theses
With his criticism of the practice of the indulgences at his time, which he distributed in theses for public disputation, Luther began to extend his impact beyond that of a university professor and biblical interpreter in Wittenberg.The 95 Theses document Luther’s entry into the public sphere, with its serious consequences. These theses called for a public disputation within the framework of a normal academic event. That included their publication by posting them on public bulletin boards. The copy presented here is found in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

The questions whether the 95 Theses were actually attached to the door of the Castle Church, the “bulletin board” of the University, or simply sent to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, remains an open question until today, but plays no role in regard to their significance for the Reformation.

In these theses Martin Luther expressed his thoughts which were characteristic for the Reformation: he contrasted the indulgences won through payment of money or the exercise of pious activities with true remorse in the heart and repentance and thus denounced the dominant practice of indulgences. He also cast doubt on the existence of purgatory because of a lack of biblical evidence for it.

Luther’s theses were spread like wild-fire – at first in manuscript and then in printed form. During the last two months of 1517 at least three editions appeared, in Nuremberg and Leipzig as a poster, in Basel as a pamphlet of seven pages. Here is shown the printing from Nuremberg, one of three extant copies in the world.

A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace
Through their dissemination in print Luther’s new concepts quickly attained a larger readership among scholars. The vehement reaction, which his theses on indulgences aroused, caused Luther to compose a small treatise in the German language for the common people. His Sermon on Indulgences and Grace formulated the evangelical doctrine of justification in its basic premises in twenty brief paragraphs and contrasted it with the practice of indulgences.This little pamphlet, in the copy in the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek – Klassikstiftung Weimar, was Luther’s first great literary success.

The copy of Luther’s treatise that was accepted into the “Memory of the World Programme” comes from the printing shop of Johannes Grunenberg in Wittenberg. Luther’s manuscript has not been preserved so that normally this printed edition is cited.

Within two years more than twenty-five editions of this work appeared in print, in Wittenberg, Leipzig, Nuremberg, Augsburg, Basel, and Breslau. This alone is an indication of the unexpected breadth of the impact of Luther’s reformational ideas.

The Sermon on Indulgences and Grace stands at the beginning of Luther’s successful activity as an author.

The treatise covered only six pages, for the printing of which only a half of one sheet of paper was needed. It could be produced quickly and sold inexpensively.

On the Freedom of a Christian
With Luther’s treatise On the Freedom of a Christian the Reformation continued its dissemination beyond the borders of the German Empire of the time. In a few pages Luther developed a Christian ethic, which was to convey for human life a framework for values and orientation. According to Luther, this took form on the basis of an intact freeing relationship to God and flowed into responsible action in relationship to other human beings. Freedom and responsibility – this summarized the Christian life and was at the same time an expression of the reformational doctrine of justification. The copy shown here is in the collection of the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha of the University of Erfurt.

Luther’s treatise on Christian freedom experienced a tremendous success in print. Just in the six weeks after printing at least ten further editions in German and Latin appeared. Translations in other European vernaculars followed. No other single writing of the Reformer is read as much as this one to the present day. In it Luther gathered, as he himself said, “the entire summary of a Christian life.”

The treatise begins with the famous pair of axioms: “A Christian is a free lord over all things and subject to no one.” “A Christian is an obedient servant of all things and subject to everyone.”

Luther’s Address before the Imperial Diet in Worms
The questioning of the doctrine and form of the Roman church in Luther’s writings led to his excommunication by Pope Leo X in January 1521. The Europe-wide reception of the Wittenberg Reformation was set back for a time by the imposition of the excommunication of the church on Luther since he was regarded as a “declared heretic”, but it was not stopped in its tracks. The popularity of the reformer grew with his courageous appearance before the Emperor and the Estates of the Empire at the imperial diet in Worms in 1521, where the diet was supposed to condemn him as an outlaw. Luther, who was called upon to repudiate what he had written, requested a day to think over that demand. His notes, with which he prepared himself to deliver his statement, is found today in the Thüringisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Weimar.

The draft of Luther’s speech on April 18 before the Imperial Diet, in his own hand, was written down after his first presentation to the Diet, probably on the evening of April 17, 1521. It served as a jog for his memory for the statement, he was required to give the next day in an extemporaneous speech. He summarized briefly the events of the first hearing on that day. However, something must have interrupted him since his notes break off in the middle of a sentence.

Luther’s Letter to Emperor Charles V
Luther composed a letter to Emperor Charles V on April 4, 1521, on his journey from Worms, which ended in the staged kidnapping. Today this letter is in the Lutherhaus Wittenberg – Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt. In it he reacted to the memorable events in Worms, in the course of which he had refused to retract what he had written and appealed to his conscience over the established law and political coercion. Luther emphasized again that he had placed the Bible as his only valid authority in all his actions and his statements of his beliefs.

The letter did not reach the Emperor. On the envelope Georg Spalatin, court chaplain and a trusted advisor of Elector Frederick the Wise, noted that no one in Charles’ entourage wanted to accept the letter. It was, however, translated into German, reformulated as an address to the Estates of the Empire, and immediately distributed in print. With this action – perhaps so intended by Luther – a depiction of what he had experienced in Worms from his own pen won recognition.

The original of the letter made its way through various private collections until in 1911 it reached the auction block. It was sold to the American magnate J. Pierpont Morgan for the record sum of 102,000 Gold Marks. He gave it as a gift to Emperor Wilhelm II, who in turn gave it to the Lutherhaus, called at that time Lutherhalle. Today it is in the possession of the Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt.

A look into Luther’s Room at the Wartburg, Eisenach.

The New Testament in German
Luther’s theology was based on the exclusive authority of Holy Scripture. Thus, his translation of the Bible, beginning with the New Testament, takes on immense importance. Apart from its contribution to spreading the Reformation, it had a large impact through its significance for the development of a standard for the German language. In addition, it shaped the everyday piety of Protestants. Luther most likely took up the work on the translation in December 1521 at the Wartburg castle. By the end of February 1522 he had completed it. The copy that has been entered into the UNESCO “Memory of the World Register” belongs to the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel.

The volume was printed, and enhanced by twenty-one full-page woodcuts by Lucas Cranach. It was available at the Leipzig autumn fair in an edition of 3,000 copies. Therefore, it is called the “September Testament.” Within two months, it was necessary to print a new edition. We see here an illustration for Revelation 13 and 14.

The beginning of each book was adorned with a particularly elaborate initial letter. In the first letter, a “D”, the Evangelist Matthew is depicted with is symbol, an angel, who is dictating the Word of God into his pen.

The Revelation of John, chapter 17, begins with the illustration pictured here. In this chapter, the appearance of the whore of Babylon on a seven-headed animal at the end of time is predicted. Luther identified the whore of Babylon with the papacy, as it had fallen into ruin over the centuries. Therefore, she is wearing the papal tiara in Cranach’s illustration.

“Now Rejoice, you Christian People”
Printing carried reformational ideas in all directions and into all levels of society. People read, or they heard others reading. Even more effective was the song or hymn. Singing became a practice, which proclaimed reformational content and implanted it in minds and hearts. The hymn “Now Rejoice, You Christian People,” was first distributed as a pamphlet. It offered a highly concentrated summary of reformation teaching. The only extant copy of this sheet with the hymn on it is found in the collection of the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

Luther himself composed a number of hymns and urged friends to do the same. Along with rhyming versions of some psalms and translations of medieval hymns used in worship, the catechetical hymns and the narrative hymns carried the evangelical message to many. Notes were added. Beginning in 1524, reformational hymns were combined into small hymnals.

To the Councillors of all Towns
With its commitment to education and schooling the Reformation made an impact on the lives of all. In his treatise To the Councillors of all Towns in the German Territory, That They Should establish and Maintain Christian Schools Luther set forth the theological and social-political arguments for the establishment of new schools for boys and girls and for the transformation of those that already existed. The copy which has been accepted into the “Memory of the World Register” of UNESCO is found in the Stadtbibliothek Worms.

It was Luther’s concern that instruction should convey the necessary tools for understanding the Holy Scripture. Therefore, he repudiated streams of thought opposed to general education, both those who wanted to retain schooling only for the spiritual elite, or those who generally deprecated education. The goal of instruction should also be the education of learned people with a consciousness of their public responsibilities, for leadership in the state and society. With this appeal to those responsible for political leadership, Luther laid a foundation for a new order in the system of education.

That the Stadtbibliothek Worms is today in possession of a copy of this widely distributed publication is due to a context which is typical for the acquisition and preservation of the heritage of the Reformation. In the course of the destruction of Worms during the War of Palatinate Succession in 1689, the entire holdings of the city library were lost. In the 19th century, a financially well-off magnate collected some five hundred printings of works by Luther. With his donation he laid the foundations for the current collection of the library, in which is found a copy of Luther’ treatise.

The German Mass
Relatively late (1525/1526) Luther created a new liturgical order in German with his German Mass. He regarded rites and ceremonies as externals, and was willing to permit local reformulations. Therefore, he could tolerate the traditional liturgical heritage and new forms alongside each other for quite a while. It was important for him that the liturgical action took place in a language that all people could understand, so that it would be freed from magical understandings. Here we see the copy of the Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Jena.

Luther’s “German Mass” served not only to unify reformational liturgical practice, but also made it clear that reading, singing, sermon and prayer should not be limited to ritual action but should serve the active, understandable participation of individuals on what happens in worship. To this day, Lutheran spirituality is shaped by the German Mass.

The entire Bible in German
Luther continued to work on his translation of the Bible until his death. At his side was a circle of scholarly helpers. Nevertheless, the translation remained fundamentally his work. After several translations of individual books or parts of the Old Testament had appeared in print, the entire Bible in German reached the public for the first time in 1534. The copy accepted into the UNESCO “Memory of the World Register” belongs to the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek – Klassik Stiftung Weimar; it could be saved from the flames during the great fire in the library in 2004.

The first complete Luther Bible in German was adorned with lavish woodcuts for title pages and initial letters. The edition was supplied with a copyright privilege from Elector Johann Friedrich I of Saxony on the title page. His coat of arms was depicted on banners held by little angels in armour. The Weimar copy is graced with rich coloration and golden and engraved decorations on the edge of the pages.

Table of contents of the books of the Old Testament.

Initial letters at the beginning of the story of Creation in Genesis 1.

Full-page illustration of the story of creation. In many woodcuts the several phases of a biblical story are depicted. The illustrations thus take on a narrative character.

Illustration of the Flood (Genesis 7)

Depiction of God’s covenant with Noah and Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9)

Depiction of the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha: Lot is saved, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19).

Abraham’s temptation: Abraham leads Isaac to a mountain in order to sacrifice him. An angel prevents the sacrifice (Genesis 22).

Repeatedly, revised editions of the translation of the Bible were published. The final that appeared before Luther’s death was the Bible of 1545. Its text was used, almost with change, into the twentieth century. Only then did newer revisions of the translation appear.
The Bible was and is a bestseller. Up to Luther’s death in 1546 the total production of his translation of the Bible may have reached a million copies in High German and Low German. It became a model for translations of the Bible in other European languages.

An exhibition of the Leibniz-Institute for European History Mainz, a member of the Leibniz Association.
For further reading:
Irene Dingel/Henning P. Jürgens (Hg.): Meilensteine der Reformation. Schlüsseldokumente der frühen Wirksamkeit Martin Luthers, Gütersloh 2014, ISBN: 978-3-579-08170-0.
Luther-Dokumente im UNESCO-Register Memory of the world
Credits: Story

An exhibition of the Leibniz-Institute for European History Mainz, a member of the Leibniz Association.

Production: Irene Dingel/Henning P. Jürgens (content), Hanno Dannenfeldt, buerominimalBerlin (design), Robert Kolb, St. Louis, USA (translation)

Luther-Dokumente im Weltdokumentenerbe der UNESCO „Memory of the world“

Luthers Psalter-Vorlesung 1513/15 Psalterdruck mit Marginalien und Glossen, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Signatur: 71.4 Theol. 4°

Luthers Psalter-Vorlesung 1513/15 Scholienheft, Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, Signatur: Mscr. Dresd. A 138

Luthers Römerbrief-Vorlesung 1515/16; Studentische Mitschrift, Anhaltische Landesbücherei Dessau, Signatur: Georg 1049a

Handexemplar Luthers der Hebräischen Bibelausgabe, Brescia 1494, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Signatur: Inc. 2840

Plakatdruck der 95 Ablassthesen (Nürnberg, Hieronymus Höltzel, vor Ende 1517), Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Signatur: gr. 2° Luth. 54

Luthers Schrift „Ein Sermon von Ablass und Gnade“, (Wittenberg, Johann Grunenberg,1518), Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek – Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Signatur: Auth. Luth. 1518 (9)

Luthers Schrift „Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen“ (Wittenberg, Johannes Grunenberg, 1520), Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, Signatur: Theol. 4° 00224/08 (08)

Eigenhändiger Entwurf Martin Luthers für seine Rede am 18. April 1521 vor dem Reichstag in Worms, 17./18. April 1521, Thüringisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Weimar, Ernestinisches Gesamtarchiv, Signatur: Reg. E 81

Eigenhändiger Brief Luthers an Karl V., 28. 4. 1521, Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt, Lutherhaus Wittenberg, Signatur: I5/1387

Das Newe Testament Deutzsch, Wittenberg, Melchior Lotter, 1522, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Signatur: Bibel-S. 4° 257

Lied-Einblattdruck „Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein“, Augsburg, Philipp Ulhart, 1524, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Signatur: Cod. Pal. Germ. 793

Luthers Schrift „An die Radherrn aller stedte deutsches lands: das sie Christliche schulen auffrichten vnd hallten sollen“, Wittenberg, Lukas Cranach und Christian Döring, 1524, Stadtbibliothek Worms, Signatur: Mag- LB 181

Luthers Schrift „Deudsche Messe vnd ordnung Gottis diensts“, Wittenberg, Michael Lotter, 1526, Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Jena, Signatur: 4 Bud. Var. 635 (8).

Biblia das ist die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch. Mart. Luth., Wittenberg, Hans Lufft, 1534, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek – Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Signatur: Cl I : 58 (b)

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