Luther’s Reformation |

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Luther’s Reformation

It took just one monk to bring down the most powerful institution in Medieval Europe. Alicea Francis tells the story of the man who dared defy the Catholic Church 500 years ago this month

As darkness descended on the uringian Forest, only the cracking of fallen branches under hoof disturbed the silence. Had you been there that night, you might have crossed paths with a man on horseback, following the winding path through the trees. From his dark robes and shaved scalp, you may well have guessed that this was a holy man; what you may not have guessed was that he was an outlaw: the most wanted man in all the Holy Roman Empire.

What came next happened so quickly that, had you briefly looked away, you would have missed it completely; a rustling of leaves was the only warning. Three hooded horsemen emerged from the shadows of the forest, swords raised and glinting in the moonlight, blocking the solitary rider’s path. The monk lowered his head to the ground, clutched the cross that hung from his neck, and prayed for salvation.



Medieval Germany was a place of desolation and disease. Since the mid-14th century, the Black Death had ravaged much of Europe, and in just 100 years the German population almost halved. For many, there was only one comfort: the promise of heaven. The Catholic Church had grown more powerful than any monarch – and also richer. Not only did it own around a third of the land in Europe, it had also begun to sell ‘indulgences’, which promised to reduce the amount of time the recipient would spend in purgatory (that half-way house between heaven and hell). These indulgences could redeem for anything, and could cost half the annual wage of the average citizen. Those who had dared to question the morality of this practice had been smeared heretics, the punishment for which was a slow and painful death.

When a baby boy was born in Eisleben, Saxony on 10 November 1483, no one could ever have predicted that he would one day defy the odds and revolutionise Christianity forever.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

"From raiders to invades: Medievalist Dr Ryan Lavelle tells the story of how the Vikings dropped their hit-and-run tactics and instead banded together to form a Great Heathen Army, eventually conquering a large part of Britain. Also in the issue, find out how a Lancastrian widow came to marry a Yorkist king during the Wars of the Roses, and what happened when a German monk dared to take on the Pope with a 500-anniversary feature on Martin Luther's Reformation. Plus, inside Hitler's last gamble at the Battle of the Bulge, the spy who tried to kill Lenin and the Atomic Age in pictures."