Remembering Luther (1): the ninety-five theses

The old stories are the best ones: a monk, a rainy night, a church door, a lot of theses and a few nails. In fact, the question of whether Luther actually nailed the theses is a hoary historical debate. Many have denied it as an anachronism on the basis that no contemporary chronicle refers to it. The version that has come down through history is based on Philipp Melanchthon’s Vita Lutheri of 1548, produced after Luther died. The first English translation of this work, by Henry Bennet in 1561, mistranslated ‘the day before the feast of All Saints’ as ‘the day after’, a mistake repeated by John Foxe in his Actes and Monuments. Melanchthon nevertheless wrote that Luther ‘publicly attached these Propositions concerning indulgences to the church attached to Wittenberg Castle’. The occasion, if so, was less defiant revolution than university business: the Castle Church served as the University lecture rooms at the time, and the door was the notice board. In any event, a printed broadsheet of the ninety-five theses was published during November, and by repute was known throughout Germany within a fortnight. This chronicle by Johann Carion (1499-1537), known as the Chronicon Carionis, a chronicle of ecclesiastical events beginning in the ancient world, and culminating in a Protestant account of the post-Reformation era, was begun in the 1530s. The present English translation appears to have been made from the edition of Goulart’s French translation published in 1595. It is one of the earliest English references to the theses being fixed to a door: ‘The disputation was fastened vnto the Churches gate, which toucheth the Castle of Wittemberg, the last day of October’. It even got the date right. BC

Johann Carion, ‘Chronicon’ (c.1600), fo. 347v.

LPL: MS Sion L40.2/E49

Further reading

Peter Marshall, 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation (Oxford, 2017).

C. Scott Dixon, ‘Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Origins of the Reformation Narrative’, English Historical Review (2017),

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