Episode 2: Meet the Parents
Episode II: Meet the Parents
Last time, we started with the “why” of this podcast, and what we are going to do here. As I mentioned, we’ll not only be covering Luther’s life, the posting of the 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, but also a great deal of the people, the events, inventions, philosophies, and other detours about the era and anything else that might seem of interest.
The man known to us as Martin Luther was born to Johann and Margarette Luder, in Eisleben, Saxony, which at that time was part of the Holy Roman Empire. As is the case with most mortals, it is highly unlikely that anyone knew the import this life would have on the whole of the European peoples, the western civilization and the practice of Christianity.
First, some clarification of his name itself. Luder, I thought it was Luther? Well, the fact is that his last name was originally, Luder, in English spelled L-U-D-E-R or sometimes L-U-D-H-E-R. The best explanation I have found thus far, is that this was the original local pronunciation of their surname, which was changed by Martin sometime later. Likely, it is thought, to present a more formal or learned sounding air.
With regard to his background and lineage, Martin would claim his entire life, that his parents, Johann (who was called Hans) and Margerette (who likely went by Hanna), were peasants with humble origins. This was something Martin would wear as a self deprecating badge of honor throughout the fame he experienced. The problem is that this may not be accurate, and there is much which casts this peasant upbringing in doubt.
His father, Hans, hailed from a farm near or in Möhra, and the Luders are referenced as being well respected in this geographical sphere. Given the vast majority of the populace of the time, there is little doubt that an agrarian family would likely have had humble origins, at least at some point. However, there are some clues which suggest that by the time of Martin’s birth, the family had moved beyond a mere subsistence livelihood, toward one of some relative economic security.
Part and parcel with this claim of a humble birth, is a mystery which hasn’t made much sense, and goes toward the answer about Luther’s true family backstory. The mystery has been the fact that Hans and Hanna were both literate, and for that time and that place, this in and of itself places the Luders a different social strata.
It is funny that in doing research for this program, I have already stumbled onto some pretty obscure research done on seemingly obscure data points. As exhibit A is staying up past 1:00 a.m. reading about mining practices in the Middle Ages. Riveting, I can tell you… But more on that later!
Turning back to literacy, one such obscure data point is the literacy rate in Medieval Europe. Not surprisingly, throughout all of Luther’s life, the Germanic peoples were mostly illiterate. In 1475, it is estimated that approximately 10%, of the populace was functionally literate. By 1550, this number had risen to a whopping 16%. Even if this number is conservatively low, it still means that significant numbers of people could not read and write. Ostensibly, mostly the nobility, the clergy, the landed wealthy, and the burgeoning middle class would be anticipated to have been able to read and write, or at least have the opportunity to learn this skill. The simple truth is that the majority of the populace were considered peasants, and It is highly unlikely that very many of these peasants would have been literate. So, it does standout that both of Martin’s parents were literate.
With regard to Martin’s mother, Hanna, there has also been a significant debate among biographers through the centuries, as to where she was from, and even her family name. The question came down to whether she was a Lindemann or a Ziegler. While this seems a fairly arcane debate, it is relevant as it relates to the educational background of Hanna, her relationship with Martin, and his relationship with the extended family. Did she belong to the Ziegler family and thereby from Mörha, or was she a Lindemann, who haled from Eisenach. Either way, it appears that she would have likely come from a family of some means.
In research done in the early part of the 20th Century, the Zieglers were found to be prosperous farmers. The Lindemanns, on the other hand, were educated folk who were professionals and leaders within their town.
In the book, Luther and his Mother, Ian Siggins describes the differences between the families:
“For the Zieglers and the Lindemanns were very different sorts of families. The Zieglers were a farm family in the village of Mörha-not cottagers from the landless ranks of poor peasant laborers, but well-to-do landholders enjoying the inherited tax advantages. “
Mr. Siggins identified research which discovered that by 1536, the Zieglers and the Luders were both large, fairly prosperous families from the area of Mörha, who were very similar.
Turning to the Lindemanns, before Luther’s birth and throughout the 1400’s, several were educated at university and were leaders within the ranks of people in Eisenach. There is at least one mayor and one city counselor among the ranks of this family. Their prestige and service continued, and among Luther’s generation and those immediately afterward, the Lindemanns continued to be city leaders, who were often well educated professionals.
Siggins notes that among Luther’s first cousins, for instance, one was a doctor of civil and cannon law, and became a councilor at the court of Saxony. Another, Casper Lindemann was highly educated, became a medical doctor, and interestingly to the entire story, was the personal physician of both Frederick the Wise and John of Saxony. He later became the chair of medicine at Wittenberg, until his death in 1536.
Of Luther’s maternal cousins, and their progeny, there were two pastors, two lawyers, a physician, two schoolmasters, a university docent, and at least three were public officials. (Siigins @ 46.)
Thus far, it doesn’t line up to show a peasant background from mother or father. Martin’s mother was either from a prosperous farming family in Mörha, or an educated professional class from Eisenach. His father was from a landed farming family as well.
By the early 20th Century, biographers had lined up on one side or another, Lindemann or Ziegler. In 1934 and 35, German researchers reconstructed Luther’s family tree, and definitively established the Lindemann family as Luther’s maternal lineage. Simply, the best evidence is that Hanna Luder was a Lindemann, who’s father was Johann Lindemann, a burgher in Eisenach.
OK, to step back a moment, what was a burgher, and why is this important to the story? To answer the second question first, it is important to understand the societal constructs in that era. Although it is clear that his family had more means than a good slice of the population, the status of his family explains several aspects of Martin’s educational opportunities and his development. It also explains several of the attitudes he held as an adult.
As to the first question, what is a burgher? While every town and city had a different take on who and what a burgher was, in general and in that time frame, a burgher was a citizen of a town, often making a living from a trade or craft, and sometimes even a professional. Generally speaking, in order to start such a business, the man had to ask for permission to open shop, have two other men testify as to his credibility and reliability before becoming a citizen of the town. If made a citizen, and only then, was he given permission to ply the trade, craft or profession.
According to an article by Christina Linsboth:
“Owning assets and having the status of a burgher was closely linked to access to political office. The upper echelons of the burgher class of a town represented only a tiny minority of the total number of its inhabitants. Having the status of a burgher meant belonging to the urban upper class. It was linked to the right to vote and the right to be elected to political office. “
If you were not a burgher you were considered a mere resident or even categorized as a “stranger.” Simple wage earners, apprentices and journeymen were not burghers.
There were other criteria associated with whether one could be a burgher, and again, these varied from town to town. Often, these included: being been born in wedlock, over eighteen years of age, and not being an unfree person such as a serf. One often had to be married or having the prospect of getting married.
In order to be a burgher, one either bought the right, or the right was granted. Usually, only the sons of burghers did not have to pay the fee. Largely, because of the time needed to administrate a governmental office, only the wealthiest of the burghers held political office, since there was usually no pay for holding the office.
So, the fact that Hanna’s father was a burgher meant they were from a different social stratum.
In the end, what does this seemingly small point, Ziegler or Lindemann, mean 500 years plus? Why is it important?
As Mr. Siggins states as part of his thesis:
“The fact that Hanna Luder was not a Ziegler but a Lindemann thus strikingly changes our picture of the dynamics within the Luder household, both socially and psychologically. Rather than a marriage between two rural villagers who then had to struggle in hardship to make their way in the alien mining district of Mansfeld, we find that Hans Luder (with characteristic resourcefulness) made an excellent marriage into a prominent family of the nearby market town Eisenach.”
As we will see in a bit, this explains some things that biographers seem gloss over. The “why and how” of Hans and Hanna moving first to Eisleben and then to Mansfeld. The “why and how” Hans goes into mining, and then to owning several mines and smelting operations, and the “why and how” that Hans in a relative short time, was able to become a member of the civic administration in Mansfeld on the “committee of four.”
Returning to Martin’s father, Hans was born on a farm in the Möhra around 1459. As Hans was not the youngest, he was not in line to inherit his father’s lands, and as such, when his father died he would have to either live and work for his youngest brother, or make his own way in the world. This is certainly a different take on what most of our assumptions of the rights of succession in feudal Europe, or even from different cultures throughout time and throughout the globe.
Most of the world, has a history of primogeniture, which is the right under the law or custom for the legitimate firstborn son to inherit his father’s estate. A lessor known order of inheritance, though, is ultimogentiture, where the preference is to the youngest son. The concept behind the succession of the youngest was that this heir would have been the one to have been assigned the task of “keeping the hearth.” That is, tending to his parents’ needs as they grew older and more infirmed. This was practiced in some limited parts of Medieval England, and was known as “Borough English”, and limited parts of Germany, as we see here in Saxony.
So Hans, not being the oldest, would have the decision to work for his younger brother, or to move on. We don’t necessarily know how or specifically when, but by the time of the family’s move from Eisleben to Mansfeld, Hans took up mining. He was striking out on his own. As it turns out, this was an astute move on his part.
Often, Eisleben is just mentioned as Luther’s birthplace, without any context. At the time of their move, Hanna’s oldest brother, was a burgher in Eisleben. This brother was the father of the men mentioned before, Johan and Casper Lindemann, who were to become involved in the court at Saxony, one as a doctor of the law and another as a medical doctor. This connection to an established relative appears to be the reason the Luders were in the Eisleben-Mansfeld area.
In the central states of what is now Germany, the area the Luders haled from, and particularly the area around these towns of Eisleben and Mansfeld, the mining of silver, copper, lead and iron had became a significant portion of the economy.
Although mining in this era is considered much more hazardous than the present age (which seems amazing since mining is so very dangerous), if one could survive the harsh conditions, it could be a lucrative occupation.
Despite the hazards, Hans learned mining, and in relatively short time came to own several mines and smelting operations. This is where many biographers leave it. Hans went into mining, eventually owned several mines and smelting operations, and then sent Martin to school. Without the Lindemann connection, this decision to strike out always seemed a stark decision, but with the family connections we have discussed, this makes much more sense; there is a predicate for the decision.
For Hans, why mining and why in this part of Germany? And how did this come about?
Part of the answer as to how this came about, stems again from the Lindemann family, since as well respected burghers, they had connections to local businessmen who were engaged in the industry. There is strong evidence that he came under the tutelage of one such local businessman in large measure because of those connections: mining and “smelting” master, Hans Lüttich in Eisleben. So it was with Hans’ drive and extremely hard work, but also with his family connections, that helped establish a path.
To answer the “why” of mining itself, it is important to look into what was going on in the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period relating to mining and the importance of metals.
All biographers of any age agree Hans was a miner, and then relatively quickly, the owner of several shafts and smelting operations. While most biographies seem to agree Hans was involved in copper mining and smelting, a few suggest he was a silver miner.
First, let’s look at copper. As a refresher course, archeologists and historians consider that copper was one of the first metals known to be used by some of the earliest civilizations, somewhere around 10,000 years ago. The only known metals to have been used before copper were gold and meteoric iron, so truly, copper is one of the most foundational metals in the development of society.
Copper was likely first discovered and used in the Middle East somewhere around 9,000 BCE. This dating comes from the discovery of a copper pendant in that region, and which has been carbon dated to 8,700 BCE. As happens in the course of progress, and as humans became more advanced in using metals in general, and copper specifically, demand increased and new ways were discovered to mine and produce base metals from the raw ore.
Smelting, one such process and the most common practice in Luther’s Europe, is the method by which impurities are extracted from ore, thereby leaving the specifically desired metal behind. The process requires significantly more heat than ordinarily generated from campfires, and it is believed that pottery kilns may have been the erstwhile beginning of this type of metallurgy. While the smelting of tin and lead were likely invented first, the smelting of copper likely began around 5500 to 5000 BCE, in what is present day Serbia.
Peoples at some point discovered that combining metals and elements could have the effect of creating alloys which were much stronger than the base metal itself. This development meant stronger implements of all types, particularly stronger implements of war. The combination of copper and arsenic was likely the first type of bronze, since arsenic is often in copper ore. The earliest known artifact using this type of bronze was discovered in Asia Minor, dating from 4,200 BCE.
The major advance in bronze came with the discovery of combining tin with copper, to form the bronze which is associated with the artifacts of what is truly considered the Bronze Age. The usually accepted period for the Bronze Age in Europe is 3,200 to 600 BCE. This marriage of copper and tin provided stronger and yet more durable implements than the initial arsenic bronze.
Even with the transition in the hundreds of years from the use of bronze to iron, copper was still extremely popular as currency and particularly for durable architectural materials in Luther’s time. In addition, copper was used extensively for house goods and hardware. And, as the Renaissance took hold, much artwork called for copper.
Brass is also a copper product. Instead of combing tin, zinc is added to copper to form brass. Also, brass was very popular in its own right for use in ornamentation, certain household goods and eventually, for musical instruments.
To the extent silver was also mined in Germany at the time, it is quite possible Hans could have had a hand in silver production. While gold was the original precious metal, used for currency and ornamentation from ancient times, with the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, came the decline in its mining and its use as a means of currency. With gold’s decline, came the increased use of silver in the early to late medieval period.
Eventually, a mammoth ore vein was discovered in what we now call central Germany, which is essentially the geographic center of our story. This vein contained silver, lead and copper, and this ore-body was so extensive that the mine continued operation from 938 until 1988; closing down after its 1,050th anniversary. (Article: “Gold, Silver in Medieval Europe”, by Jade Davenport, Mining Weekly, August 24, 2012) The expansion of production was further fueled by the discoveries of other veins of ore, which led to the further explosion of mining and smelting operations.
It is believed that the wealth generated, and the expertise needed for this work, helped lead in large measure from the prior feudal system, to the broader concept of nation states with monarchical governments. Miners and smelters were respected for their knowledge, and were often allowed to form their own societies and were coveted for their ability to bring wealth into a territory.
In an era before heavy machinery using steam or internal combustion engine, how did our ancestors actually extract ore? The original method of mining was to dig horizontally to reach easily accessible veins of ore. By the 14th century, though, easily reached ore was becoming hard to find, and new methods of obtaining raw materials became necessary. Vertical shafts were called for, and new means by which to extract water were developed. Water wheels and horse power were used to run pumps, and deeper and deeper vertical shafts were possible. Yet, even with the use of animal, human or water power, flooding and collapses were a constant and ever present danger.
Despite the ever present hazards, Hans’ hard work and thriftiness paid off. By the time Martin was 25, Hans and his partners owned six mine shafts and two copper mines. (Luther the Reformer, James M. Kittelson, 1986)
Down the the years, Hans is often seen as a hard, driven man, with lofty goals and expectations of his children, especially young Martin. One wonders whether he has gotten fair treatment by biographers, though, for he does appear remarkable for the age. He was driven to make sure his first born son was well educated and successful. At some point, Han’s vision for first born son was that Martin should become studied in the law.
Most of the latter day biographers stop short there, painting the picture of an unyielding father. There is the picture of a wall of separation which descends over the relationship between father and son. Thus establishing the caricature of Hans as unduly harsh and unbending. There are stories Luther told about whippings from her father or his mother, in particular one he received as a child from his mother for stealing a nut. The sense from these stories is that he was scarred by the treatment of his parents. It is something we will explore in more depth later, for there is some information which suggests reliance on these anecdotal stories from Luther may be a bit overblown.
Even if we allow that he had a difficult upbringing, understanding the societal issues of the day helps put in perspective the wishes of the father for his son. As an example, we now know that any youngest son he and Hanna would have would go on to likely inherit the mining operations and Han’s property. What would Martin do? This societal construct now makes sense of the “why” of his drive for Martin. As a counselor, and possible a counsellor at court, like the Lindemann relatives, Martin could likely earn more wealth, security and prestige for himself, and by extension, for the Luder family. Again, we’ll leave that or further discussion in a later episode.
Getting back to the family itself, it is believed that the Luders had eight children in all, six of whom appear to have survived. These children were, Martin, Barbara, Dorothy, Margaret, Elisabeth and Jacob. There may have been at least two others who didn’t survive or to whom the names are lost to history. And there is some evidence to suggest that there was at least one other son born before Martin. If so, he likely died shortly before or shortly after Martin came into the world.
A lot of this sketchiness goes to the fact, that even for a man of the fame of Martin Luther, details from this era are often nonexistent or incomplete. This is due in large measure to record keeping itself, but also from the vagaries of calamities such as fire, war and disease. We know for instance that the records from Luther’s baptism were likely burned in a fire.
The generally accepted date of Martin’s birth is November 10, 1483, however, there is some confusion as to the date, and unfortunately, some of the confusion comes from Luther himself.
For instance, Luther often gave the date as 1483, and the place as Eisleben. However, in another chronology of his life, Luther himself gave the date as 1484 and even claimed to have been born in Mansfeld, the town where it is usually accepted his parents had moved when he was very young.
Again, 1483 was a date, Martin also used from time to time, and a date his friend, Phillip Melanchthon, reported in a biographical sketch based on interviews with Luther’s close relatives after his death. The 1493 date is accepted as a firm date by most biographers, since it was established by several of Martin’s close relatives shortly after his death.
While the specific date is rather insignificant in the overall scheme of things, this confusion provides a warning beacon about accepting at face value some of the lore about Luther’s early life. Even lore from Martin himself.
In the generally accepted account of his life, then, Martin was born November 10, 1483, and was baptized in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul the very next morning on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, and he was named after that French Saint.
Given the tentative nature of life, and the infant mortality rate (which was as high as 60%), it seems appropriate that parents would have wanted the baby baptized soon after the birth. In the Roman Catholic church, it is still the principle to baptize a child in the first few weeks after birth. It just seems odd to us in the 21st century that it would have been so very soon, especially since Margarette didn’t attend. After all, this ceremony was just a few hours after giving birth.
Was the speed of baptism because there was concern over the health of the child? Does it offer any proof that Martin was sickly at birth? Is it proof that the Luders had a history of the loss of other children at childbirth, and wanted to cover their spiritual bases? We’ll never know for certain.
Well, this seems like a good place to leave Martin for this week. He is born, and has been baptized. His young parents are striving for a dignified and prosperous life, and as parents of any age, want better things for their children.
Next week, I believe we will take a detour of sorts, and switch gears to talk about the Holy Roman Empire, and the status of the so called German states at that time. There are oddities of the political map and the way in which power was being wielded which aid in understanding the story as a whole.
After that detour, and likely in episode 4, we’ll look at Martin’s early life, his education, and more about the relationship with his parents and extended family.
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