Tuesday 31 October 2017

The Protestant Reformation Anniversary

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences which initiated the break of reformers with the Roman Catholic Church.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in the local newspaper titled Guess why the tiny German town of Wittenberg is expecting two million visitors (Calgary Herald, Eliot Stein, October 14th). Stein comments on the activities the town has organized to celebrate the occasion. You might be able to read it here.

On 31 October 1517 (possibly 21 October on the current Gregorian calendar), according to legend, Luther posted his criticisms on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Copies of the documents were quickly circulated throughout Germany. By that time printing presses were in operation across Europe, no doubt contributing to the rapid dissemination of information and ideas to the masses.

1517 printing of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther

Formation of Protestant churches did not happen immediately but the die was cast and many other activists such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli took up the cause.

The reformation marks the beginning, in many European countries, of accurate recording of births, marriage and deaths. Genealogists celebrate this development every day.

The event, of course, happened during the depth of the Little Ice Age when most of Europe was caught up in devastating climatic conditions that made living harsh. Areas throughout the continent were hard-pressed to take care of their citizens, largely led by the Catholic Church. There was great social unrest as people struggled to find employment and food in order to survive. Local parishes were particularly under siege to fund support programs.

In many regions and countries, governments legislated new rules to prevent people from moving around, bringing even more crowds to some localities unable to even take care of their own. I suspect the new laws concerning recording of births, marriage and burials, in many of the newly-established Protestant regimes was really just a way to get a handle on who lived in their areas and who had the wherewithal to help out through taxes.

Anyway, the world did indeed change in 1517. The revolution in religious thought brought with it a great deal of conflict, between religious groups and with the ruling classes who attempted to maintain order and control. Many family historians will be aware of, and have ancestors who may have been a part of groups that dedicated themselves to change – such as the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) – who were the focus of violence, imprisonment and banishment. One such violent event in France was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre during which thousands lost their lives.
Le massacre de la Saint-Barthelemy, oil on panel by Francois Dubois, ca 1572-84 (original in Musee cantonall des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne)

Protestantism of course started long before the 16th century, but the date of 31 October 1571 was a turning point. Family historians everywhere will recognize how the event changed the lives of many of their ancestors.