Trial Background

"Hier stehe Ich. Ich kann nicht anders."

   The moment Martin Luther said those words has been called one of the greatest moments in the modern history of man. Refusing to admit guilt for what he had repeatedly published over the prior four years, Luther, a German monk, was directly challenging the authority and teachings of Western Christendom and the man believed by Catholics to be the human representative of God on Earth: the Pope, more specifically Pope Leo X. Luther was doing just what his ancestors, the Goths, had done centuries before: challenging the power of Rome. But in the 16th century, Rome was not a symbol of Roman Authority, but of Christ and Christianity. Luther's words and actions would change the course of history.
    In order to finance wars and entice young men to fight, the church began selling "indulgences" around the time of the Crusades. The concept behind an indulgence, a simple sealed letter, was straightforward: Anyone purchasing an indulgence would receive "complete absolution and remission of all sins," and "preferential treatment for future sins." Although the idea or purchasing salvation was appealing to nearly everyone, some questioned the promise the indulgence made and the uses of the money raised. Those concerns and doubts increased as popes began spending more money on art, extravagant churches (like St. Peters in Rome) and what many thought were unnecessary luxuries. The position of pope was not universally worshiped. Anti-papal feeling was high, especially in Germany, a country whose reputation in western Europe was bolstered by the discovery of movable type by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz and by the tremendously powerful Fugger Bank. The abuses by the clergy deeply distressed some leading philosophers, like Erasmus, the Humanist. Even church leaders were critical of their own. One abbot described the behavior of his fellow monks this way:
    "The whole day is spent in filthy talk; their whole time is given to play and gluttoney. They neither fear nor love God, they have not thought of the life to come, preferring their fleshy lusts to the needs of the soul...They scorn the vow of poverty, know not of chastity, revile that of obedience...The smoke of their filth ascends all around."
    Another monk noted that "many convents...differ little from public brothels." Descriptions such as these were far from rare.
    Luther's role began a day before All Saints Day, on October 31, 1517. Luther posted his "Ninety-Five Theses" on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. Luther's argument was simple: selling "pardons" like souvenirs trivialized sin. He criticized the pope for claiming to be able to reach beyond the grave and "spring" a soul from purgatory. Following the posting of the "Ninety-Five Theses" the sale of indulgences plunged outside of Saxony, the region surrounding Wittenburg.. And as word spread across Western Europe, spontaneous demonstrations for or against Luther erupted. According to one historian, "Luther had done the unthinkable - he had flouted the ruler of the universe."
    Various archbishops called for heresy proceedings against Luther to begin immediately. Meanwhile, Luther continued to publish other pamphlets, condemning everything from relics and pilgrimages to the Holy City of Rome and extravagant claims of the powers of the saints. With the advent of movable type, Luther's ideas spread quickly. His confidence grew and so did his isolation. Pope Leo X finally summoned Luther to Rome.
    The Pope insisted Luther issue a public retraction and swear to never again question papal authority. He flatly refused. With the help of the German King Frederick 'the Wise,' Luther escaped Rome and when he returned to Wittenburg, he recorded his encounter with the Pope. The more Luther wrote, the more the Pope knew something needed to be done. The pope issued a Papal Bull (called so because it carried the papal symbol, a bull) excommunicating Luther. Luther burned the papal bull, claiming if the Church was burning his writings (which they were) he would burn theirs.
Although Pope Leo reacted slowly to Luther from the beginning (Leo was deeply distressed over the recent death of his favorite artist, Raphael), Luther was called before the Imperial Diet of Worms in April, 1521. Many believe the birth of the modern world followed.