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Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic and Outlaw

An overview of the early Reformation after Martin Luther's posting of his Ninety-five Theses using items from the Library's collections


Theodor Knesing, Martin Luther, engraving ca. 1880 based on a picture by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Prints and Photographs Division.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. Barely four years later the Catholic Church would brand him a heretic and the Holy Roman Empire would condemn him as an outlaw. These were the early years of the Reformation, a turning point in history that would transform not only the Christian faith, but also the politics and society of all of Europe,

The clash between Luther and the Catholic Church in Rome was also history's first "media event." Johannes Gutenberg's development of the moveable-type printing press about eighty years earlier had a profound impact on the spread of Luther's thought. Although they began as a scholarly inquiry into the practice of selling papal indulgences, the theses soon gained a popular momentum, spread through print, that surprised even Luther himself. In the conflict with Rome which soon followed, Luther's supporters in Germany's vibrant print industry made many of his works the first "bestsellers" in history and Luther himself among the most famous men in Europe.

The following selections of Luther's and other Reformation-era works at the Library of Congress document not only the progress of Luther's thought as the conflict with Rome took shape, but also how printing in Germany blossomed into a mass medium as public interest in the controversy grew.