There is no evidence that an Augustine monk named Martin Luther, unhappy with a popular fundraising tool of the Catholic Church, actually nailed his list of complaints — the famous "95 Theses" — to the door of the All Saints' Church at Wittenburg exactly 500 years ago. He never claimed to have done so, and the story wasn't circulated until after his death.
We do know that he distributed them in a letter dated Oct. 31, 1517, to the archbishop, listing his 95 criticisms about the enthusiasm with which the church was selling indulgences.
An indulgence was a piece of paper that, for instance, shortened the time that had to be spent in purgatory. The church had been vigorously selling them to raise money to rebuild the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
This bothered Luther a lot, not because he was so liberal, but because he was so pious. He prayed, he fasted, he flagellated himself. Luther was getting to heaven the hard way, and it galled him that a rich man could just loosen his purse strings, dig out a few coins, and cut in line.
"The treasures of indulgences are nets that are now used to fish for the wealth of people," reads thesis No. 66.
|Indulgence issued by Pope Sixtus IV|
The show connects the beginning of the Reformation to the rise of printing, beginning with a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. The publication of a Bible using moveable type, we tend to forget, was itself a radical act, moving the Holy Scriptures from hand-copied, vastly expensive work owned by churches, into mass-produced, less-expensive reading material that could eventually find its way into the hands of regular people, who could then fancy themselves free to not only read it, but to analyze and dispute what was within. Soon those people were printing books of their own, plus pamphlets and broadsheets. Printing and heresy went hand-in-hand.
"They're very closely connected," said David Spadafora, president of the Newberry. "Print right away becomes a very important medium for people like Luther to get their views out to a wider public than could possibly otherwise have received them."
To continue reading, click here.