Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 is one of the most famous events of Western history. It inaugurated the Protestant Reformation, and has for centuries served as a powerful symbol of freedom of conscience, and of righteous protest against the abuse of power. In 2017, it is the focus of world-wide commemorations and celebrations. But did it really happen?
In this lecture, Peter Marshall reviews the evidence, and concludes it probably did not: Luther’s theses-posting is a myth. Yet if this is so, the incident becomes more not less significant and intriguing. How did a ‘non-event’ end up becoming an iconic episode of the modern historical imagination, as well as the defining moment of what has come to be known as ‘the Reformation’? Ranging across five centuries, and between Europe and North America, Marshall explores what Luther’s theses-posting has meant in different times and places, and the variety of purposes – some benign, some sinister – to which it has been put.
The intention is not to belittle Luther’s significance and achievement, still less to ‘debunk’ the Reformation itself. Rather, the aim is to invite reflection on how history speaks to the present, and a greater awareness of how modern memories of the Reformation are themselves legacies of a bitterly contested past.
Peter Marshall, a native of the Orkney Islands, has since 2006 been Professor of History at the University of Warwick, and is a leading expert in the history of the Reformation and its impact in the British Isles and beyond. He is a winner of the Harold J. Grimm Prize for Reformation History, and has been shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award. He is a frequent reviewer for the TLS, Literary Review, Tablet and other periodicals, and a regular lecturer to school and community groups. He is married with three daughters, and lives in Leamington Spa.