Did Luther actually nail his 95 Theses to a church door?

Added about 3 weeks ago by Barbara Greig

On this day five hundred years ago Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

Or did he?

GUEST BLOG by Barbara Greig

There can be no doubt about Martin Luther’s role as the catalyst for the momentous schism in the sixteenth-century Church, but there is no hard evidence (yet) that he published his 95 Theses by nailing it to a door. He could well have done – it was the traditional manner of inviting discussion in the days before academic journals – but we can’t be certain.

The impact of the Theses was immediate. Written in Latin, they were quickly translated into German and, via the new printing presses, circulated throughout the Holy Roman Empire. This huge, fragmented area was the perfect nursery for ideas attacking the Church. Luther’s points were discussed in taverns and market places as well was in the universities and the cloisters. Wittenberg became the centre of Lutheranism and many students became evangelical preachers.

However, this blog post is neither about Luther, nor about the reasons for the spread of Lutheranism and its repercussions. Readers will be spoilt for choice if they want to know more about the Reformation – new biographies of Luther, television documentaries, and academic articles abound in this anniversary year, all produced by historians more skilled than me.

On this day, I wanted to mark how studying and then teaching about the Reformation influenced my novel Secret Lives.

Through a fictitious story I explored how the religious changes might affect people on both sides of the doctrinal divide with a plot which encompassed extremism and martyrdom, clerical marriage and betrayal, as well as the acquiescent majority who did as they were told, or didn’t but kept their heads down.

The following extract is taken from the second part of my novel and is the imagined conversation between a printer and his wife...


 

London, April 1554

Secret Lives. Have you heard the secret?Christopher Talbot, a man of precise habit, folded his clothes and placed them carefully on top of the chest. Then he padded across the worn floor boards, shielding his candle as he went. He placed it in exactly the same spot, on the rough-hewn table, as he had done for the last thirty years. His wife, Anne, was already abed, her faded blonde curls almost hidden by her nightcap except for one or two rebellious tendrils which had escaped.

‘Hurry Husband, it is cold,’ she said, as she did most nights except during the summer months. Cold it was, for there was no fire in their small bedchamber to combat the evening chill. Christopher blew out the candle and climbed into bed quickly, glad as he always was that his ample wife had already warmed the bed. He turned on his side towards Anne, pulled the blankets up high around his shoulders, and said quietly, ‘Thomas Wyatt’s head has been stolen.’

He felt rather than saw his wife flinch.

‘Stolen his head?’

‘Yes, it has been taken from the pole at Tyburn. It is gone, just like Sir Thomas More all those years ago.’

‘What about the other parts of his body?’ Anne asked into the darkness.

‘I don’t know. I heard they have displayed the quarters in different places. William saw one when he was in Southwark the other day and I think Miles Fletcher said that another part of the body was at Mile End Green.’

Anne shuddered with distaste. Christopher placed a hand on her thigh, felt the solid comfort of it, and tried not to think about rotting flesh.

‘Let’s not think on it, Wife.’

‘You spoke of it first, Husband.’

‘Yes, that is true, but I have been uneasy for some time.’

‘What about, Christopher?’

‘Our newest worker. I need to know where his allegiance lies.’

‘He has been with us for two months and now you mention it.’

‘There was safety in ignorance.’

Anne propped herself up on her elbow.

‘For whom?’

‘Don’t do that. You are letting the cold air in.’

Anne flopped back on the bolster.

‘Why do you mention that now?’

Christopher spoke very quietly, even though there was nobody to hear them.

‘I have been approached to print some pamphlets which condemn Queen Mary’s religious changes.’

Anne experienced a shiver of dread.

‘Why?’

‘All of the big printing shops linked to reformist ideas are being closed. Grafton’s business has been given to Robert Caly. You can’t get a more committed Catholic than him. It is punishment for Grafton printing Edward’s new prayer book. Whitchurch’s bible-printing shop has been shut and his presses are now in the hands of John Wayland. It is up to us—the small print shops—to keep writing against the changes.’

‘But it is too dangerous. The Royal Injunctions last month ordered the suppression of any reformist opinions.’

‘It is dangerous, but if we are careful. . .’

Anne was not convinced and cut him short.

‘I think it is too much of a risk.’

‘Not if we have loyal workers. That is why I must talk to Richard Weaver. If my instincts are correct, he is one of us. The more I think about it, I feel he came to London with Sir Thomas Wyatt.’

‘You do?’

‘Yes I do. He came asking for work the day after Wyatt surrendered. Wyatt’s men were turned back at Ludgate and marched back along Fleet Street. What if Weaver decided the rebellion had failed and struck out on his own? He could have hidden in any of the alleys around here overnight and turned up on our doorstep, an honest man seeking work.


 

Sacred Lives by Barbara Greig is available now to ship worldwide. Get free delivery when you buy both volumes!

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