“The Bull and Luther” is not a pub name I’m aware of, but I like it! This title takes us right back to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation: to 31 October 1517, which is regarded as the start of the Reformation in Germany. On that day, the monk and divinity professor Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
There was nothing unusual about this actual procedure; Latin theses to be discussed in academic disputations were posted publicly. It was the topic of Luther’s 95 theses that caused the controversy: “The power and efficacy of indulgences”. An indulgence was a written statement issued by the Church which promised absolution for sins to the person named on the indulgence in return for money: basically, people paid instead of repenting. They even took their indulgences to confession, and presented them to the confessor (the priest who heard their confession) when he came to announce their penance.
In the early 16th century, the Church was in particular need of vast sums of money: wars against the Turks had to be financed, and St Peter’s Basilika in Rome was being built. The trade with indulgences was thriving, and people who could afford it were quite happy to fork out money in order to reduce their time in purgatory.
Luther’s theses forcefully attacked this practice, and as a result, in June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a bull against him. A papal bull is a letter or edict given out by the Pope; the Latin word bulla means a metal seal, and their titles are usually taken from the first couple of words of the text of the bull. This particular one was called Exsurge Domine (’Rise up oh Lord’): it threatened Luther with excommunication if he did not recant 41 of his 95 theses. He didn’t. Instead he produced a reply in the shape of a tract called On the freedom of a Christian. He sent a copy of it to the Pope, and on 10 December publicly burnt the papal bull in Wittenberg. He was subsequently excommunicated.
Luther’s ideas quickly spread to Scotland through printed books and tracts imported from Europe: one of the key points about the Scottish Reformation that we hope this exhibition will show is how strongly Scottish reformers were influenced by Luther before Knox and his colleagues made Calvinist ideas the basis for their new Scottish church.
We are showing a copy of a 1521 German edition of Luther’s tract along with the title page of a 1520 printed copy of the papal bull. Both are on display by kind permission of Lord Crawford. They form part of the Crawford Reformation Tracts Collection.
The Crawford Collections also contain Latin, German and English indulgences which you can consult in the Library.