Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, what the Germans call the Thesenanschlang, is one of the most famous events of Western history.
It inaugurated the Protestant Reformation, and has for centuries been a powerful and enduring symbol of religious freedom of conscience, and of righteous protest against the abuse of power - but did it actually really happen?
In the newly published 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation, Professor Peter Marshall, of the University of Warwick’s Department of History, reviews the available evidence, and concludes that, very probably, it did not. Yet he argues that this makes the incident all the more historically significant:
“The Thesenanschlang is an event which most likely never took place”, says Professor Marshall. “Or if it did, it may have occurred at a time other than on 31 October, or in more than one location, and it may not have involved Luther directly at all. Even if it did, in some fashion, ‘happen’, it certainly didn’t mean at the time what most people, over most of the last 500 years, have taken it to mean.”
In 1517, Professor Marshall ranges across those five centuries in order to follow the evolution of what he describes as "modern history’s pre-eminent example of ‘false memory syndrome’" .
His hope is that the story he has to tell “is one which can shed considerable light on how societies construct their understandings of the past, on how those understandings develop and change over time, and on how scholarly and popular views of history co-exist with each other, as well as combine, collude, and occasionally clash”.
In tracing how - and why - a ’non-event’ ended up becoming a defining episode of the modern historical imagination, 1517 explores the multiple ways in which the figure of Martin Luther, and the nature of the Reformation itself, have been remembered and used for their own purposes by subsequent generations of Protestants and others - in Germany, Britain, the United States and elsewhere.
As people in Europe, and across the world, prepare to remember, and celebrate, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the theses, 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation offers a much-needed contribution and corrective. The intention is not to ’debunk’, or to belittle Luther’s achievement, but rather to invite renewed reflection on how the past speaks to the present - and on how, all too often, the present creates the past in its own image and likeness.