Time and its passage is one of the things that history marks for us. The job of the historian, then, is to not only mark the passage of time through its narrative history, but also, on some level, interpret those moments that define that passage of time. This does not mean to imply that historians are to interpret events and pass judgement, although that is done as well (too much for my taste), but rather they are to report those events, shed light on what surrounded the event or person, and preserve the spirit of the time in question as best they can for posterity’s sake. For me, it is one of the joys of studying history. I enjoy reading about the great people and great events that have shaped our world and continue to do so each and every day. I am given to wonder about the place in history of world shaping events and their impact. For me, its fun to compare and give thought to them, as much as others would give thought to, say, the greatest football team in history, or comparing athletes from different generations. It passes the time, but may also give rise to peripheral thoughts that concern the topic at hand. With this in mind, I would like to suggest a moment in time that for me, must be considered THE moment in the history of Europe. The effect of that moment not only had far reaching effects for the entire Western world, but resonates to this day. That moment? Here…take a look.

     I’ve watched this video more than once, and I am struck by a few things. First, this event took place in 1521. The event was known as the Diet at Worms. Martin Luther was summoned and confronted with his work by high ranking members of the Catholic church. They intended to quell the outcry against them from the works of Luther. These works were not only critical of the church, but indicted the papacy as well in terms of abusing its power and manipulating the teachings of the church to best benefit the office of the Pope. Luther had been writing about such misdeeds since he first published the Ninety-Five Theses and posted (or maybe not) those theses on a Church door at Wittenburg. Indeed, the papacy (Pope Leo X) gave permission for Johann Tetzel to engage in the sale of indulgences in order to raise money for the building of a cathedral, for the glorification of the Pope rather than the sanctity of the Church. Through his exhaustive study of the Bible due to his position as a monk, Luther slowly began to discover some discrepancies with what was in the Bible and what was being taught by the Church. This discovery, along with his journey to Rome and his subsequent discovery of his perceived debauchery there gave rise to his growing feeling that not only was the papacy wrong in its interpretation of biblical passages, but the Church was wrong in not only the sale of indulgences, but what those indulgences stood for. The very idea that one could buy a piece of paper and the Pope had the power to release relatives from purgatory was, for Luther, a gross misrepresentation of what in the scope of papal power. In addition, he saw it as a gross injustice to the people that purchased said indulgences…namely the poor, whose hopes were wrapped up in a fantasy pushed forward by a corrupt body known as the Church. From 1517 on, Luther published writings detailing what he thought were the issues and problems within the Catholic Church.
     It should be noted that Erasmus of Rotterdam did much the same thing in his criticisms of the Church, but he was never summoned to a Diet. There were a few reasons for this. First, he wrote primarily in Latin. This was acceptable to the Church if one were to write critically as the only people that could really read it at the time were other educated people. Critical writing, then, was confined to those “in the know” and didn’t pose a danger as the common people were kept in the dark with regard to what might be criticized. Second, Erasmus wrote in England when he became critical of the Church, shielded by Henry VIII who welcomed that freedom of expression. Third, Erasmus was a celebrated intellect and as such, was given a certain amount of latitude in expressing his ideas. He was also a staunch defender of the Church, even though critical, therefore he was not seen as to great a threat to the existing order of things. Not so with Martin Luther. Yes, Luther was also shielded from the wrath of the papacy by Frederick the Wise, but he was not only scathing in his accusations toward the Church, he tended to write in the vernacular…the common language of the people. This is what the Church didn’t like. The people would become riled, they would become unruly…they might even develop independent thought! For shame!!!
     Indeed, to us in the free world, the very notion that one could be punished for independent thought is almost comical, but such was not the case in sixteenth century Europe. Then was a time when monarchs and the old order ruled the land, and everyone had their place. To dare challenge the existing order of things was to invite fierce, swift, reprisal. Things were changing in the sixteenth century, but at a snail’s pace. People were shackled by a still existing feudal order in many parts of Europe, still bound to the land, especially in the East, and still had the fear of a god that would punish rather than love. Spirituality, mysticism, and magic were also still in the air. All of this was to play an integral part in the formation of life in the sixteenth century, and gave continued power to the Church. Luther’s writings even initiated a revolt against the government in 1525, which he felt compelled to speak out against in one of my favorite pieces entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants.
     This background, then, should underline why the event that took place at Worms in 1521 was all the more powerful. Luther challenged the existing authority to produce biblical proof that his interpretation was incorrect in that the Pope had not the power to decide by indulgence that people would be released from purgatory simply on the Pope’s word. He insisted that while history was on the side of the papacy, that history alone did not make the past right. He stood, figuratively naked, in front of Charles V, the electors of the Holy Roman Empire, and representatives of the Pope (who were motivated by the preservation of their position), and engaged them, refusing to back away from what he believed was right. He was willing to die for what he believed in not because of some unproven belief, but rather because he felt it was proven through his study of the scripture and his opponents could not challenge it with scriptural proof of their own. There is much more to the story, but the basics are here. What, then, does this say to us? What is the relevance to us?
     That moment in time, which we can “see” through film (above) was a pivotal moment. Had Luther recanted, surely the idea of individual choice of religion would have been dealt a serious blow. To be sure, the very idea of religious choice individually was still a couple of centuries away, but the blow had been struck. By 1530, the Confession of Augsburg outlined Luther’s teachings and what “Lutheranism” stood for, and by 1555, the Holy Roman Empire would have the choice of Lutheranism or Catholicism, essentially recognizing Lutheranism as an alternative to the established order of things. Other alternatives such as Calvanism and Anabaptism would not be officially recognized until later.
     The Diet at Worms in 1521, and that moment when Luther refused to recant, was a seminal moment in the history of the Western world. It was not a battle on the battlefield, but it was a battle nonetheless. That is the moment that I wish I could be transported to if it was possible. There is no doubt that I would be the person in the background yelling, “Yeah!!!”