Martin Luther spent just under a year at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach against his will. Going incognito under the false name of Junker Jörg, he translated the New Testament into German everyone could understand, making an important contribution not only to theology but also to the development of a standard national language.
Outlawed and unrecognised at Wartburg Castle
“We are on the main square of the Wartburg. It is flanked by buildings from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries. Of great importance is the main building belonging to the Staufer era castle, this is the Palas, which has fortunately survived and is in the best condition of any Romanesque secular building north of the Alps. It was constructed from 1155 to around 1170. But if we turn around we can also see buildings styled on the Middle Ages, built during what is known as the restoration of Wartburg in the second half of the nineteenth century.”
That is, the Wartburg we see keeping watch over the Thuringian town of Eisenach today has only looked like that for 150 years, says castellan Günter Schuchardt. The impetus for the restauration of the badly dilapidated construction came from the German Burschenschaften (student fraternities). They held their first Wartburg festival in October 1817.
“The Wartburg Festival took place in 1817 to mark the 300th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, when Luther nailed his theses to the Church door at Wittenberg. It was then that the owners, the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, realised, if they hadn’t already, that the Wartburg is, above all, an historical site connected to Martin Luther. And that prompted something of a renaissance. Grand Duke Karl Alexander planned to erect a monument to the Reformation at the Wartburg – in the castellany where Luther lived in 1521 and ’22.”
The history of the Wartburg has more to offer than just Luther
Originally the lord of the castle even wanted to have the large castle keep transformed into a Luther tower. The tower’s highest chamber was to house a library so that the spirit of Luther could hover over the Thuringian Forest, says castellan Schuchardt, not without a trace of irony. For the thousand-year history of the Wartburg does not just belong to the reformer who spent no more than a year at the fortress.
“Since 1859 we’ve had a three-metre golden Christian cross in the keep as a symbol of both confessions. The medieval Palas was dedicated to Saint Elisabeth and Catholicism, and the outer bailey, with its central Luther room, was meant to be the monument to the Reformation.”
Luther’s stay from May 1521 to March 1522 is however the pre-eminent event precisely at the mid-point between the Wartburg’s legendary minstrel contest, the activities of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia and the German national movement in the nineteenth century. “It’s also about the development of a single German language. That should not be overlooked amidst all the theology. With the translation he wrote here, Luther actually gave the Germans their language, the one we still speak today, and you of course are reminded of this again and again here. For us, that remains the most important event, 4 May 1521, when he arrived in the evening. That’s when the Wartburg entered world history a little – we’re proud of that and we celebrate it every year with new exhibitions, church services and the like.”
World Heritage Site
And due to its outstanding cultural-historical significance the Wartburg was awarded the title of “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO in 1999. As many as half a million people make the steep climb every year. They want to know how the reformer translated the Bible in his tiny room, where the devil tormented him so much he threw his inkpot at him. The first pilgrimages to the Wartburg took place as early as the sixteenth century. The Protestant pilgrims and relic hunters immortalised themselves in the well-preserved wooden walls of Luther’s room:
“We are now standing in the most important room in the Wartburg, the world-renowned Luther room. A modest room, a timbered room with a tiled stove these days – when Luther lived here it was an open fireplace. There is a whale vertebra on the floor that Luther used as a footstool, probably from the same whale from which two ribs were kept in the Castle Church at Wittenberg, in the relic collection of Frederick the Wise. The table belonged to the Luther family, a box table commonly used in the sixteenth century as a writing desk.”
The original desk on which Martin Luther translated the New Testament is said to have disappeared splinter by splinter into the pockets of pilgrims until it collapsed. “People even thought you could cure toothache if you put a shaving from it in your mouth. But it is proven that it belonged to Luther’s relatives. And the stool in front of it is a replica of what they call a Luther chair, from Katzwang by Nuremberg. Today we can say that Luther did not live in quite such confined conditions. When he was here he didn’t just live in this room, but also in the upper castellany chamber we have just walked through. The upper castellany chamber was a room without an exit, so Luther actually had a very comfortable two-room apartment here at the Wartburg.”
One of the other legendary sights is of course the ink stain, unavoidable for a real Luther site. It is supposed to have been situated around head height between the fireplace and his desk. Today it the plaster here is hollowed out. It can be seen clearly in prints from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. “There is evidence it was here between 1650, so well over 100 years after Martin Luther stayed here, until the mid-nineteenth century. So it was preserved for quite a long time, 200 years, and was replaced time and again by the travel guides each time the visitors scratched off a piece of plaster and somehow took it home with them.”
“Of course the ink stain isn’t authentic”
Luther is also said to have chased the devil with his inkpot at the fortress of Coburg and in Wittenberg. Not surprising, if one imagines the lonely theologian bent over original Greek documents translating the Gospels into German by candlelight. And all within a few weeks. “Luther was indeed superstitious too. He had a lot of enemies. Then there is the legend that the devil appeared to him as a dog and he threw him out of the window, or the devil was behind the fireplace and threw nuts at him. These are things that don’t come until after Luther’s death, legends that are simply repeated. Of course the ink stain isn’t authentic.” What is clear is that Luther’s situation at the Wartburg was anything but pleasant. He wasn’t short of care and support, but just the circumstances of the kidnap arranged by Frederick the Wise may have shaken him. He was captured near Eisenach in today’s Luthergrund by troopers of the Grand Duchy as he returned from Worms and was taken to the Wartburg. Frederick pulled off this coup to protect his subject from outlawry. At the Diet of Worms, in the presence of Emperor Charles V, Luther had refused to recant his reformist views. He had already been condemned as a heretic and excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church.
The diet was particularly concerned about the treatises Luther had written following the Leipzig Debate, in which he questioned the primacy of the Pope. It was inevitable he would be banished from the empire. Luther was declared an outlaw, but unlike Jan Hus 100 years before him he was not burnt as a heretic. The danger of being killed was by no means over however after he left Worms. His great supporter, Electoral Prince Frederick the Great, had established safe conduct for him, according to the historian Jochen Birkenmeier, director of the Stiftung Lutherhaus Eisenach (Eisenach Luther House Foundation). “And the rumour was spread that Luther had been murdered. Dürer laments it greatly, saying that this great man of God has been betrayed and murdered in such disgraceful fashion. So that is what they wanted to put out there, that Luther was probably dead or had disappeared somewhere, so that he was out of the way for a while.”
Problems acclimatising at the Wartburg
Late in the evening of 4 March 1521 Luther arrived at the Wartburg, under the pseudonym Junker Jörg. Only a few people were in on the secret. For Prince Frederick it was a masterstroke that meant he did not have to oppose the emperor directly and won him time. Luther was able to continue to work on his reformist ideas without the threat of the Roman Curia and imperial jurisdiction. However, as an Augustian monk, he was not at all enthusiastic about the Wartburg, says castellan Schuchardt, although Eisenach was home territory for him.
“First and foremost, he had to let his tonsure grow and grow a beard. He never wore a beard again. He wasn’t happy about it. But he did have freedom of movement here. Indeed he writes of a hunt he participated in; he didn’t like that they chased hares. He tried to hide a hare in his coat, but the dogs came and bit it to death through the material. It took some weeks for him to come to terms with his fate here – he did have the reference library he needed to work here. He kept regular correspondence, even if he could not reveal where he was writing from.”
Luther only left the Wartburg once, shortly before Christmas in 1521. He travelled secretly to Wittenberg in order to encourage the iconoclasts there to act more moderately. He was able to persuade them not to topple the entire religious framework of the Roman Catholic Church. Upon returning to Eisenach he began one of his most intensive and consequential creative phases, translating the Bible into German that could be understood by everyone.
This contribution was broadcast on 6 January 2015 by Deutschlandfunk and appears on www.luther2017.de by kind permission of the broadcaster.
Keywords: Martin Luther, Wartburg Castle, Reformation, New Testament, Eisenach,