Findings shed new light on life of Luther

Study of artefacts discovered at the birthplace of the father of Protestantism disputes his claim of a humble background.

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BERLIN // German archaeologists say the history of Martin Luther, the 16th-century monk who transformed western civilisation by triggering the Protestant Reformation, will have to be rewritten after they discovered evidence in his family's household rubbish that refutes his claim to have grown up in poverty.

The rubbish, located in a pit during building work in the house where he spent his childhood, contains expensive brass fixtures as well as kitchen waste that show Luther came from a wealthy family, said the archaeologist Björn Schlenker, the curator of a new exhibition of artefacts found at various sites where Luther lived. "The discarded animal bones we analysed showed that the family ate types of food that were expensive at the time such as the tender meat of young pigs and geese, as well as a wide variety of fish, such as herring and cod. It all amounts to clear evidence that Luther's family wasn't poor," Mr Schlenker said.

Luther's own claim to have come from a humble background may have been intended to reinforce his standing as he challenged the authority of the pope and fought corruption in the church, historians say. Historical records say the church reformer who lived from 1483 to 1546 claimed his father, Hans Luder, was a lowly miner and that his mother "had to carry all her wood home on her back. That is how they brought us up", Luther is on record as having said in a conversation with students and colleagues. "They suffered hardship such as the world today would not want to suffer."

Little had been known about Luther's everyday private life before the finds were made at excavations by the State Heritage Office of the state of Saxony-Anhalt in eastern Germany at Luther's birth place in Eisleben, his parental home at Mansfeld and his family estate in Wittenberg over the past five years. The objects retrieved, which also show his wealth in later life, went on display at the Museum of Prehistory in the eastern city of Halle this month. They include toys such as marbles, skittles made of cow bone and part of a crossbow Luther is believed to have played with as a child, and vessels for medicines that indicate he suffered from digestive problems in old age.

The exhibition has won praise from critics and drawn large crowds of visitors in recent weeks. "In a certain way, this brilliantly devised presentation delivers something akin to a sublimely ironic commentary on this figure who had already been elevated into the higher spheres of a sacrosanct timelessness while he was alive," wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung, a leading newspaper. The rubbish tip, in a cavern next to the house in Mansfeld where Luther lived until he was 14, was filled with two decades of kitchen waste from the Luther household. Among thousands of animal bones, Mr Schlenker and his team found 300 silver coins believed to have been thrown away along with a host of other household items after two of Luther's brothers died of plague in 1505.

"The best explanation is that everything the brothers had come into contact with was burned and thrown away," said Mr Schlenker. He said the excavations in Mansfeld had shown the building was part of a far bigger estate than previously thought. Fresh research had also shown that the father did not just run copper mines and smelters but owned 80 hectares of land, had a farming business and even lent money to the local lord at five per cent interest.

Spectacular finds were also made at Luther's house in Wittenberg, where he lived with his wife and six children and famously nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg castle church door in 1517 criticising the papal practice of selling indulgences that freed Christians of their sins. That act is widely credited with having triggered the Protestant Reformation, the split in the Christian church between Catholics and Protestants. Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, declared an outcast and went into hiding. He later returned to Wittenberg.

Excavations around a part-demolished tower adjoining the Wittenberg estate revealed it to have been the site of Luther's study where he devised his ground-breaking ideas on church reform. The basement of the tower was found to contain Luther's lavatory, still intact, and countless discarded objects were unearthed in a tip nearby, providing fresh insights into Luther's life as an adult. The expensive glasses and exotic Venetian and Ottoman crockery betrayed an opulent lifestyle that was on a par with that of the aristocracy of the day. It is borne out by his voracious appetite - when Luther died aged 62, he weighed 150 kilograms.

Colourful glazed tiles were found that belonged to a sumptuous tiled stove that, intriguingly, was identical to a stove owned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, one of Luther's most vociferous opponents. The Wittenberg find reveals that Luther worked in a heated room with a view of the Elbe River. He would spend his evenings writing by the light of lamps filled with animal fat. The archaeologists found the bindings of parchment books, special knives to sharpen goose quills, as well as writing sets containing sand, ink and styluses.

It seems astounding that such a rich trove of archaeological evidence on the life of a German national hero who had such impact on the course of European history has only been found now, half a millennium later. Part of the reason is that archaeology has only recently focused on the Middle Ages, said Mr Schlenker. In western Germany, it has only been going on for the past quarter of a century, and in eastern Germany, where Luther spent his life, there had been virtually no archaeological excavation during communist times.

German unification in 1990 prompted fresh research into historical sites that had been locked away behind the Iron Curtain. But Mr Schlenker said he was surprised at the lack of interest shown so far by Protestant theologians in the findings that cast the father of their church in a new light. "Theologians and church historians appear to have no interest in finding out about Luther's wealthy background. The idea that he was the son of a poor man suited them well," Mr Schlenker said. "When I started digging in Mansfeld five years ago I thought surely the Protestants will start coming up to me soon, but so far they haven't, there's been zero interest.

"It was surprising, not even the local priest in Mansfeld bothered to take a look at what we were up to." Mr Schlenker said he hoped the findings would eventually prompt church theologians and historians to sift through historical records and re-examine the documentary evidence about Luther's childhood. Much comes from accounts of Luther's statements written down by students. "Even though there's not much interest from the church so far, I think that will change with all the media coverage we've been getting and with the popularity of the exhibition. We had 3,000 people on the day after the opening," Mr Schlenker said.