This October 31st marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg to protest of the sale of indulgences. Though earlier movements for reform within the Church had existed before Luther, such as the Hussites in Bohemia, the posting of his 95 Theses traditionally mark the start of what historians consider the Reformation, lasting from 1517 until 1648, which marks the end of the Great Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westaphalia.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The Reformation came at time of great social and political change in Europe, including the several populist uprisings such as the German Peasants’ War. This period makes for fascinating historical reading because of the sweeping social changes and technological developments that occurred during this period. One of the surprising and positive consequences was an increase in literacy throughout Europe because of both the invention of the printing press and the emphasis on reading the Bible and interpreting it yourself popularized by reformers like Luther.
If you are interested in learning more about this revolutionary period of European history, check out one of the titles below:
This is largely considered the definitive historical work on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. MacCulloch provides an overview of this complicated period of history that involved several factions of reformers in different countries, such as Swiss Anabaptist leader Huldrych Zwingli or Geneva pastor and theologian John Calvin. MacCulloch breaks down the effects of the Reformation in Europe by country and regions.
This title chronicles the 11 months that Luther spent in seclusion at Wartburg Castle after being ex-communicated from the Church and decried as a heretic by Charles V (virtually a death sentence). This was a pivotal period for the development of Luther’s theology as well as a turning point in the early stages of the Reformation.
The Reformation started during the High Renaissance period of the Italian Renaissance. The two movements seem extremely different. The Renaissance was focused on secular humanism and brought about great achievements in arts and sciences. Meanwhile, the Reformation was centered on religious theology and overthrowing corrupt leaders. However, both movements overlap in time and place, occurring during a period of rapid scientific discovery and exploration of new continents. Cahill explores the similarities between these two movements and how they influenced the development of what we think of as “Modern” post-Enlightenment Europe. This book is part of Cahill’s Hinges of History series which highlights turning points in Western Civilization.
Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper
Martin Luther was a complicated man and a divisive historical figure. His theology was revolutionary and he wasn’t afraid to risk his life to take a stand against the Church practices he disagreed with, yet he was reactionary and sided with the aristocracy when it came to social upheavals like the German Peasants’ War. Some of his most dubious writings are anti-Semitic and he’s thought to have helped spread anti-Semitism in Germany. Roper’s biography explores both the good and ugly sides to Luther’s personality and his pivotal role in history.