To the Christian nobility of the German nation about the improvement of the Christian class

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Title page of the print by Melchior Lotter, Wittenberg 1520
Title page of the nobility writing, reprint by Valentin Schumann, Leipzig 1520. The motif of this Leipzig print, a wreathed knight in an open landscape, is a focus on the nobility as addressees of Luther's writing.

To the Christian nobility of the German nation of the Christian state betterment ( To the Christian nobility of the German nation of the Christian state betterment ) is a reform writing by Martin Luther , written in early New High German in 1520. Its significance lies in the fact that Luther clearly included in this writing the Roman Catholic Church collapsed. He referred to the Pope (specifically: Leo X from the Medici family ) as an Antichrist and formulated the principle of the priesthood of all baptized . The division of Christianity into clergy and lay people was thus abandoned. Nobility and emperors, but also the municipal magistrates and, ultimately, all Christians were asked to initiate reforms of the church. Luther, on the verge of being excluded from the official church as a heretic, also acted as a provocateur: with the nobility writing "he confirmed that he had to be excluded at the very moment when this happened."

Written within a few weeks, the aristocratic publication appeared on August 5, 1520 in a relatively large print run of 4,000 copies. In quick succession, 14 reprints followed, which, in addition to Wittenberg, also appeared in Augsburg, Basel, Leipzig, Munich and Strasbourg. The widespread effect achieved in this way remained short-term because the further escalation of Luther's conflict with the official church drew the interest of contemporaries.

The summary of the nobility writing with the treatise On the Freedom of a Christian Man and the writing On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church , sometimes also with the writing From the Good Works to a group of "Reformation main writings" does not come from Luther himself, but was only published in the 19th century. Century made.

Origin and addressees

Martin Luther as an Augustinian hermit (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston )

A letter from Luther to Georg Spalatin in early June 1520 mentions the plan to write a pamphlet to the newly elected Emperor Charles V and the nobility. While Luther was working on the text To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, he found out about the outcome of his heretic trial in Rome in mid-July, and almost at the same time he finished the sermon of the New Testament , which Grunenberg was printing while he was copying the nobility writing to the people from Leipzig Wittenberg awarded the printer Melchior Lotter . Nothing is known of an external cause of the nobility writing, on the other hand Luther's stressful life situation in anticipation of the heretic judgment forms the background of the composition. He dedicated the work to a colleague at the Wittenberg University, Nikolaus von Amsdorf .

Luther Ulrich von Hutten owed an impetus for the sharp papal criticism of the nobility writing . In 1517 he had published a work by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla , in which he proved that the Constantinian donation , a document from which the secular power of the popes was established, was a forgery. Luther read Hutten's edition of this book in early 1520 and was thereby reinforced in his suspicion that the Pope was the Antichrist. Research has indicated that Luther's contacts with the Imperial Knighthood had intensified since the spring of 1520, except with Hutten, Luther was in contact with Franz von Sickingen and Hans von Taubenheim . From this side he received expressions of solidarity, but the nobility writing (according to Kaufmann) is not directly prompted by this.

Another historical background is the decree Pastor aeternus gregem of 1516, with which the Fifth Lateran Council repealed the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges . Many contemporaries, including Luther, interpreted it as if the decisions of the Basel Council and with them the successes of conciliarism had been reversed by the papal party. However, as the Catholic church historian Bernward Schmidt explains, this is incorrect insofar as the Fifth Lateran Council did not recognize the Rump Council of Basel as legitimate; the resolutions passed by it were thus also obsolete.

The text shows traces of quick completion, so the author has not corrected it completely. The first edition was published in Wittenberg on August 5, 1520. The 4,000 copies were sold out after three days. A total of fifteen editions were published in German and two in Italian; the Protestant church historian Martin H. Jung estimates the total circulation at 68,000 copies. Despite the fleeting drafting, the aristocratic script has linguistic and stylistic subtleties such as climax , anaphora , and chains of synonyms.

The first reactions to To the Christian nobility came from Luther's monastic environment. The provocative tone shocked; Johannes Lang called the book a "war trumpet". Luther wrote to Lang and Wenzeslaus Linck in mid-August explaining that he had written the scripture with prophetic radicalism, without taking any consideration. Literary replies from Luther's opponents followed soon after the publication of the nobility book: in October 1520 by Johannes Eck , soon afterwards also by Thomas Murner and Hieronymus Emser . Emser submitted a commentary on the entire text of Luther's nobility writing.


Pope Leo X with two cardinals, painting by Raffaelo Sanzio , around 1518/1519 ( Uffizi )

Luther, who introduces himself as a monk and doctor of theology, wants to address grievances like a jester . He had the privilege of being able to present sharp criticism with impunity.

The literarily inconsistent text can be divided into three main parts:

  1. Three walls that the "Romanists" put around them to make reforms impossible;
  2. Agenda for a future council;
  3. 26 (or 27) reform articles.

Three walls of the "Romanists"

In the first main part, Luther argues with the image of a wall ring, as was customary for cities or castles of his time. At the same time he alludes to the biblical account of the walls of Jericho, which collapsed at the sound of the trumpets (Jos 6). With a triple protective wall, the "Romanists" have so far protected themselves against changes, so to speak walled in:

  1. the spiritual status is above the worldly,
  2. only the Pope may interpret the Bible,
  3. only the Pope is allowed to convene a council and has the additional right to confirm the decisions of a council or to refuse to confirm them.

“Romanists” is one of several names used by Luther for the opposing party. In the nobility writing, he specified that these were “Bapst, Bischoff, Pfaff, munch odder learned.” At this early stage of the dispute, the word, like “Papists”, does not yet have a denominational meaning. Not the simple believers are meant, but partisans of the Pope, such as Thomas Murner , who responded promptly to the designation as a Romanist.

Luther's plan is to bring down the three walls. The first wall is removed by the principle of the priesthood of all baptized: "Then all Christians are truly geystical ... so we are all ordained to priests through baptism, as St. Peter i Petii says ..." Laying down of the 2nd wall: all the baptized can interpret the Bible, and the 3rd wall: secular Christian authorities have the right to call councils.

According to the Catholic church historian Thomas Prügl , Luther was less motivated by anti-clericalism , criticism of the sacrament of the Mass or the sacrament of ordination in the context of the nobility writing - here he was primarily concerned with the financial conduct of the curia, and Luther wanted to remove possible scruples from the secular authorities, to intervene in the privileges of the clergy.

Luther cited arguments from the Bible, but also from church and theological history. As with the Leipzig disputation , he asserted that popes had erred several times; the First Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 not by the Pope but by the Emperor. The canon Si papa of the Decretum Gratiani plays a special role in Luther's argument : a pope cannot be judged by anyone for morally bad behavior and a bad way of life, but he can if he represents a heresy ( nisi a fide devius ). Then he was in principle deductible. Luther quoted the Si papa canon , but omitted this heresy clause. Contrary to the tradition of interpretation, he understood the canon as a kind of blank check of papal immunity and vehemently rejected it as the work of the devil.

Agenda for a future council

Luther's reform ideas have a long tradition. He followed up on the Gravamina of the German nation , which had been recited again and again since the middle of the 15th century, and with this book presented himself to the reader as a conciliarist . If he had expressed criticism of the Council of Constance during the Leipzig disputation in 1519 , he put his doubts as to the correctness of council decisions in the aristocratic writing back and expected solutions to the pressing problems from a future council.

Luther suggested that the papal administrative apparatus be greatly reduced and, in particular, that the outflow of funds from Germany to Rome be prevented. The widespread belief in Luther's time that no nation was burdened as much by papal financial conduct as the German was, however, according to Prügl, a "phantom pain": France covered most of the papal money needs, followed by Spain and then first the kingdom. For France and Spain, however, it paid off in a certain way through lobbying at the papal court, while German lobbyists hardly appeared there. So the impression that Rome was being exploited solidified.

On the one hand, the Pope was identified by Luther as an Antichrist, on the other hand, Luther believed that a papacy would continue to be possible if the Pope saw himself primarily as a prayer.

Reform article

Majolica plate: Depiction of Leo X being carried in a procession, around 1516 ( Victoria and Albert Museum )
  1. Like the Basel Council , Luther called for the annates , which were an essential source of finance for the papal court, to be deleted without replacement .
  2. The papal occupation of ecclesiastical offices in German territory with foreign clerics who did not perform their duties on site should be ended.
  3. Bishops should no longer be confirmed by Rome. Following the example of the old church, a bishop should be confirmed by two neighboring bishops or the archbishop.
  4. Secular legal cases should no longer be tried in Rome.
  5. The reservatio pectoralis should be abolished. It enabled the Pope to take back the benefice that had already been promised to an applicant and to give it to a competitor who paid more for it.
  6. The casus reservati should be abolished. In the sacrament of penance , the issuance of certain church punishments was reserved for the Pope or the bishops.
  7. The papal court should no longer devote itself to representation, but to study and prayer.
  8. The oaths that bishops had to take to the Pope (Bulle Significasti ) were to be repealed.
  9. The Pope should no longer have sovereignty over the emperor, except to anoint and crown him; the emperor's gestures of humility towards the pope were to be omitted. Luther rejects the chapter Solite , with which the superiority of the pope over the emperor was established. In this context, Luther branded the Donation of Constantine as a lie.
  10. The Pope should not be feudal lord of the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily .
  11. The personality cult around the Pope should be ended. The Pope should no longer allow himself to be kissed on the feet, as Gregory VII had demanded in the Dictatus Papae . He could ride or drive himself, instead of being carried around in a litter "like an abot ".
  12. The pilgrimage to Rome should be abolished or restricted. At least a pilgrim should get permission from his local priest before leaving. The pilgrimage is not an important religious act, but a very insignificant one with dubious consequences: "They say: whoever goes to Rome for the first time is looking for a scarf , on the other hand he finds yhn, the third time he brings you out with him." Pilgrims spent their wealth on the trip and left their families in need.
  13. The monastic system should be reformed and monasteries merged in order to secure their livelihood. The original purpose of monasteries was to serve as schools: "Dan what his is and monastery has been different, school the Christian, because one learns to write and discipline according to Christian weysze, and teaches people to rule and preach?"
  14. The pastors' compulsory celibacy should be lifted, so that many simple priests who lived with wives and children would be helped. The fact that clerics were married was common in the ancient Church and continues to be the case in the Greek Church . The local congregation should choose and appoint a congregation member as pastor or bishop itself.
  15. Religious should be able to choose their confessor themselves.
  16. Soul masses should be reformed.
  17. The penalties of canon law should be abolished, especially the interdict .
  18. The number of church holidays should be reduced; it would be best to abolish the feasts of Mary and saints or to move them to Sunday .
  19. A papal dispensation prior to the marriage in the case of certain degrees of kinship or godparent relationships of the bride and groom should no longer be necessary. The dispensation, which is bought dearly in Rome, can be given by any local pastor. Observance of the fasting period should be voluntary.
  20. Pilgrimage to the Beautiful Madonna of Regensburg, Michael Ostendorfer around 1520 (Veste Coburg Art Collection)
    The Wunderblutkirche in Wilsnack , the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Sternberg in Mecklenburg , the Holy Rock in Trier, the Marian shrines in Grimmenthal and Regensburg are the ghost of the devil. That already shows the ecstatic piety of the people who flocked there en masse. It is not necessary to make a pilgrimage to such places of grace, because everything important is available in your own parish church: "Here you can find baptism, sacrament, preaching and your loved ones ..."
  21. Begging should be abolished. Every city should provide for the poor among its population and turn away foreign beggars, including pilgrims and monks. For this it would have to be determined who is in need and needs help. Mendicant orders could not build such large churches and monasteries without the income from begging, but Luther does not consider this necessary either: “Whoever wants to be poor shouldn't be rich, but if he wants to be rich, he grabs the hand plow, and seek yhm out of the ground yourself. "
  22. No more masses should be donated. But Luther admits that reading the Mass secures a livelihood for many clerics. Thorough reform and reorganization are necessary here. So-called altarists were paid from pious foundations , who read silent masses for the salvation of the founders . The Protestant church historian Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen describes it as a “priestly proletariat that contributed to the bad reputation of the church”, especially since many beneficiaries were represented as pastors by an altarist.
  23. Letters of indulgence and the like should no longer exist. The popes had done a lot of damage to Christianity, among other things they were the main culprits in the conflict with the Hussites: Hus was broken the promised freedom of conduct on the grounds that it did not have to be kept to a heretic. Heretics should be overcome by argument, not by burning.
  24. Luther sees a need for reform at the universities. The logic, poetics and rhetoric of the works of Aristotle should continue to be taught, but the dominance of Aristotelianism in the university curriculum should cease. Among the faculties, Luther singled out the jurists and the theologians: spiritual law and especially the decretals should be dismissed; secular law is in need of reform, but far better. In theology, scholasticism should be replaced by the study of the Bible.
  25. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation had to be reorganized, since the Emperor waived essential powers over the Pope.
  26. A whole bundle of reform ideas is devoted to social life. Luxury in clothing and meals should be prevented, as should the interest business. The economic dominance of the Fugger should be ended.
  27. The city authorities should close the women's shelters .

Impact history

The Protestant church historian Thomas Kaufmann describes the aristocratic writing as the “Manifesto of the Reformation”; here, and not with the posting of the theses in 1517, Luther presented a draft for the reorganization of church and society. However, this writing from the year 1520 was not something like the blueprint for the later construction of Evangelical Lutheran churches. In its openness and indeterminacy, the nobility script offers points of contact for different types of Reformation: “urban or rural community reformations; Council reforms; chivalric reformations; territorial princely and royal reformations (in Scandinavia or England). ”The principle of the priesthood of all baptized has repeatedly stimulated new beginnings in the spectrum of the Protestant churches (examples: synodal constitution, ordination of women ) and at the same time remains a disruptive factor in ecumenical discussions with Roman Catholic theologians.

When the BILD newspaper after the election of Benedict XVI. on April 20, 2005 headlined: “We are Pope!”, stated Robert Leicht , that this (unconsciously) quoted Luther's aristocratic writing: “because what has crept out of baptism can boast that it has already become a priest, bishop or be ordained Pope ... "

Work editions


  • Albrecht Beutel , Uta Wiggermann: Luther. Reformation main writings of the year 1520 (= study series Luther . Volume 12). Luther-Verlag, Bielefeld 2017. ISBN 978-3-7858-0712-5 .
  • Martin H. Jung : Luther's appeal “To the Christian nobility” (1520) and its consequences. In: Olga Weckenbrock (ed.): Knighthood and Reformation. The lower nobility in Central Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2018. ISBN 978-3-647-57067-9 . Pp. 57-74.

Individual evidence

  1. Thomas Kaufmann: The beginning of the Reformation. Studies on the contextuality of theology, journalism and staging of Luther and the Reformation movement. 2nd, revised and corrected edition. Mohr, Tübingen 2018, ISBN 3-16-156327-1 , p. 519.
  2. a b c Thomas Kaufmann: Luther's Copernican turn. In: FAZ, October 27, 2013.
  3. Martin H. Jung: Luther's appeal “To the Christian Adel” (1520) and its consequences. Göttingen 2018, pp. 65–66.
  4. Thomas Kaufmann: To the Christian nobility of the German nation of the Christian class improvement. Tübingen 2014, pp. 12-13.
  5. Bernward Schmidt: The Councils and the Pope: From Pisa (1409) to the Second Vatican Council. Herder, Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 2013, p. 131. 156 f.
  6. a b Martin H. Jung: Luther's appeal “To the Christian nobility” (1520) and its consequences. Göttingen 2018, p. 58.
  7. ^ Herbert Walz: Martin Luther . In: Stephan Füssel (ed.): German poets of the early modern times (1450-1600): Ihr Leben und Werk , Berlin 2013, p. 332 f.
  8. Thomas Kaufmann: To the Christian nobility of the German nation of the Christian class improvement. Tübingen 2014, p. 7.
  9. Thomas Kaufmann: To the Christian nobility of the German nation of the Christian class improvement. Tübingen 2014, p. 10.
  10. ^ Bent Jörgensen: Denominational self and external names. On the terminology of religious parties in the 16th century . Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2014, p. 68 f.
  11. WA 6, 407, 13f., 22f.
  12. Thomas Prügl: Papal criticism and alienation from the moment . Freiburg et al. 2017, p. 61.
  13. Martin H. Jung: Luther's appeal “To the Christian Adel” (1520) and its consequences. Göttingen 2018, p. 60.
  14. Thomas Prügl: Papal criticism and alienation from the moment . Freiburg et al. 2017, pp. 61–64.
  15. Thomas Prügl: Papal criticism and alienation from the moment . Freiburg et al. 2017, p. 60.
  16. Thomas Prügl: Papal criticism and alienation from the moment . Freiburg et al. 2017, pp. 73–74.
  17. Martin H. Jung: Luther's appeal “To the Christian Adel” (1520) and its consequences. Göttingen 2018, p. 61.
  18. In fact a resolution of the Synod of Sardica in 343, but adopted into canon law as a resolution of Nicaea.
  19. ^ Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen: Reformation and Counter-Reformation . Volume 1, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999, p. 15.
  20. ^ Bull Significasti : Corpus Iuris Canonici , Decretals of Gregory IX. , lib. 1 tit. 6 cap. 4th
  21. ^ Decretals of Gregory IX., Lib. 1 tit. 33 cap. 6th
  22. ^ Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen: Reformation and Counter-Reformation . Volume 1, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999, p. 14.
  23. Robert Leicht: We are Pope! But we don't have one. The Protestant and the visibility of his church . In: Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 103/2 (June 2006), pp. 306–318, here p. 306.