Throughout the 15th century the north was preoccupied with death, judgement and hell fire, and an abiding pessimism about man's fate runs through its prose and poetry. A peculiarly macabre dance fashion cropped up, performed by men with skeletons. The dance was intended to remind watchers of their mortality and their equality before the relentless scythe of time. In art, morbid undertones took on a bizarre realism. Hieronymus Bosch's strange sermons in paint are inhabited by wild, nightmarish creatures. Even Durer, the realist, flanks his righteous Christian knight on his way to a "city on a hill" with a figure of death with an hourglass, and a monstrous devil - half wolf, half pig.
Martin Luther believed deeply in the reality and power of Satan and his demons. From the time of the Plague, through wars, famines and civil wars, there had been no guarantee against the onset of disaster. A high level of death-consciousness was fertile soil for the Reformation, and offers insight into Luther's persistent concern about salvation. For it was the terror of death that sent him into an Augustinian monastery.
In the monastery his earlier terror of death became a fearfulness and trembling before God. He underwent vigorous austerities to make himself holier, and could not find assurance. An errand to Rome shook him further.
He did not notice the glories of the Renaissance or the reminders of antiquity; instead, he saw the worldliness and levity of the clergy, both high and low. He climbed the Scala Sancta, 28 stairs, with a paternoster and a kiss on each, in order to release a soul from purgatory, and at the top he found his faith in the indulgence clouded by doubt. His doubt redoubled on his return.
Luther concentrated on the inner meaning and underlying unity of the Scriptures. The Reformation, we could say now, occurred because a brilliant professor was doing his job - preparing thoughtful and original lectures.
Luther's thoughts tumbled out of the classroom into the market-place in 1517, when plenary indulgences were being hawked by a Dominican, Johann Tetzel, near Wittenberg. For one-fourth of a florin, buyers were assured that "as soon as the coin the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs".
Faithful to academic custom, Luther nailed 95 propositions (or theses) in Latin on the door of the castle church as an open invitation to a debate on their merits.
They began with a popular attack on the venality of Rome, passed through doubts as to the Pope's right to remit punishment inflicted by God, and finished by asserting that nothing but contrition could remit spiritual guilt. Luther's doubts about the extent of the Pope's power to indulge were, indeed, legitimate, for the question had never been definitively settled. Beyond that, however, he had implied an unorthodox way to salvation, and had begun the Reformation.
The press quickly turned his appeal for a debate into an appeal to the people. And, as the debate over indulgences waxed, Luther grew progressively bolder and his criticisms of the Church became more and more fundamental. Finally - after he had been excommunicated - Luther declared that he could not recognise the authority of popes and councils because they had often contradicted each other. He staked his faith and, indeed, his life on scripture and reason. "Here stand I," he said at the Diet of Worms in 1521, "I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Luther must be considered as a consummate theological politician. His concerns were inner, yet he had to take a political stand to protect the Reformation he desired.
His siding with princes was a frank recognition that it was only in their support that the Reformation had any chance of success. Man was such that he needed the civil sword to contain him in order and tranquillity. So Luther preached absolute, unconditional obedience. Lutheranism exchanged obedience to the Pope for abject obedience to the state.