VI.4 The founding event: a university disputation

VI.4 The founding event: a university disputation

Moreover, the Protestant Reformation also began, not only within a university, but with perhaps the most characteristic activity of the medieval university: a disputation.

The beginning of the Protestant Reformation is traditionally dated from the posting of Luther's Ninety-Five Thesis on 31 October 1517. The story that these theses were nailed to the door of the university church in Wittenberg sounds like a symbolic act of anti-papal defiance; but in fact this was standard practice. The university statutes required that theses for disputation be posted on every church door in Wittenberg, but the first mention of the posting of the Theses, by Philip Melanchthon, only mentioned the door of All Saints' Church. The practice elsewhere was similar: in Oxford, theses for disputation were posted on the doors of the newly built Schools Quadrangle; and before this new facility was opened in the 1620s many disputations had taken place in the University Church itself.

Image 1. In form, Luther's Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum was also commonplace: it simply itemised the 95 theses 'on the efficacy of indulgences' which Luther was proposing to debate. Public posting was necessary in order to give potential opponents the opportunity to prepare. Nor was it unusual for such theses to be printed, for posting in multiple places around the city and for circulation further afield. Luther's theses, however were rapidly reprinted throughout the German lands in 1517 and 1518, providing an unprecedented manifestation of the power of the printing press to circulate dissenting doctrine. This version was printed in Nuremberg in 1517.

Image 2. By the centenary of the German Reformation in 1617, the posting of the Theses had taken on an epic, even prophetic character. This broadsheet, printed in Leipzig, depicts a dream of Duke Friedrich III of Saxony foreseeing Luther's posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg.  As Luther (left) writes ‘Vom Ablass’ (‘On Indulgence’) on a church door, his huge quill pen skewers the ears of a lion and knocks off the tiara of Pope Leo X. This copy of this broadsheet was the subject of one episode in the British Museum's History of the World in 100 Objects.

Image details: Göttlicher Schrifftmessiger, woldenckwürdiger Traum …. (Leipzig, 1617). Source: British Museum no. 1880,0710.299; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Further reading. An English translation of the full text of the theses, together with introduction and commentary, is 
available online in Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide (Minneapolis, 2015). 

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)