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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

Built of wood plastered over with clay


The

town of Wittenberg was more like a large village than the capital of a principality. In 1513 it only contained 3000 inhabitants and 356 rateable houses. The houses were for the most part mean wooden dwellings, roughly plastered with clay. The town lay in the very centre of Germany, but it was far from any of the great trade routes; the inhabitants had a good deal of Wendish blood in their veins, and were inclined to be sluggish and intemperate. The environs were not picturesque, and the surrounding country had a poor soil. Altogether it was scarcely the place for a University. Imperial privileges were obtained from the Emperor Maximilian, and the University was opened on the 18th of October 1502.

One or two eminent teachers had been induced to come to the new University. Staupitz collected promising young monks from many convents of his Order and enrolled them as students, and the University entered 416 names on its books during its first year. This success seems to have been somewhat artificial, for the numbers gradually declined to 56 in the summer session of 1505. Staupitz, however, encouraged Frederick to persevere.

It was in the interests of the young University that Luther and a band of brother monks were sent from Erfurt to the Wittenberg convent. There he was set to teach the Dialectic and Physics of Aristotle,--a hateful task,--but whether to the monks in the convent or in the University it is impossible

to say. All the while Staupitz urged him to study theology in order to teach it. It was then that Luther began his systematic study of Augustine. He also began to preach. His first sermons were delivered in an old chapel, 30 feet long and 20 feet wide, built of wood plastered over with clay. He preached to the monks. Dr. Pollich, the Rector, went sometimes to hear him, and spoke to the Elector of the young monk with piercing eyes and strange fancies in his head.

His work was interrupted by a command to go to Rome on business of his Order (autumn 1511). His selection was a great honour, and Luther felt it to be so; but it may be questioned whether he did not think more of the fact that he would visit the Holy City as a devout pilgrim, and be able to avail himself of the spiritual privileges which he believed were to be found there. When he got to the end of his journey and first caught a glimpse of the city, he raised his hands in an ecstasy, exclaiming, "I greet thee, thou Holy Rome, thrice holy from the blood of the martyrs."

When his official work was done he set about seeing the Holy City with the devotion of a pilgrim. He visited all the famous shrines, especially those to which Indulgences were attached. He listened reverently to all the accounts given of the relics which were exhibited to the pilgrims, and believed in all the tales told him. He thought that if his parents had been dead he could have assured them against Purgatory by saying Masses in certain chapels. Only once, it is said, his soul showed revolt. He was slowly climbing on his knees the _Scala Santa_ (really a mediaeval staircase), said to have been the stone steps leading up to Pilate's house in Jerusalem, once trodden by the feet of our Lord; when half-way up the thought came into his mind, _The just shall live by his faith_; he stood upright and walked slowly down. He saw, as thousands of pious German pilgrims had done before his time, the moral corruptions which disgraced the Holy City--infidel priests who scoffed at the sacred mysteries they performed, and princes of the Church who lived in open sin. He saw and loathed the moral degradation, and the scenes imprinted themselves on his memory; but his home and cloister training enabled him, for the time being, in spite of the loathing, to revel in the memorials of the old heroic martyrs, and to look on their relics as storehouses of divine grace. In later days it was the memories of the vices of the Roman Court that helped him to harden his heart against the sentiment which surrounded the Holy City.


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