Thursday, December 01, 2005

Julius Kostlin: Luther's Father was not a Murderer

Extract from: Julius Kostlin, Life of Luther (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911), pp.3-5.[source]


What brought Hans to Eisleben was the copper mining, which here, and especially in the county of Mansfeld, to which Eisleben belonged, had prospered to an extent never known around Mohra, and was even then in full swing of activity. At Eisleben, the miners' settlements soon formed two new quarters of the town. Hans had, as we know, two brothers, and very possibly there were more of the family, so that the paternal inheritance had to be divided. He was evidently the eldest of the brothers, of whom one, Heinz, or Henry, who owned a farm of his own, was still living in 1540, ten years after the death of Hans. But at Mohra the law of primogeniture, which vests the possession of the land in the eldest son, was not recognised; either the property was equally divided, or, as was customary in other parts of the country, the estate fell to the share of the youngest. This custom was referred to in after years by Luther in his remark that in this world, according to civil law, the youngest son is the heir of his father's house.

We must not omit to notice the other reasons which have been assigned for his leaving his old home. It has been repeatedly asserted, in recent times, and even by Protestant writers, that the father of our great Reformer had sought to escape the consequences of a crime committed by him at Mohra. The matter stands thus: In Luther's lifetime his Catholic opponent Witzel happened to call out to Jonas, a friend of Luther's, in the heat of a quarrel, 'I might call the father of your Luther a murderer.' Twenty years later the anonymous author of a polemical work
which appeared at Paris actually calls the Reformer 'the son of the Mohra assassin.' With these exceptions, not a trace of any story of this kind, in the writings of either friend or foe, can be found in that or in the following century.

It was at the beginning of the eighteenth century,in an official report on mining at Mohra, that the story, evidently based on oral tradition, assumed all at once a more definite shape; the statement being that Luther's father had accidentally killed a peasant, who was minding some horses grazing. This story has been told to travellers in our own time by people of Mohra, who have gone so far as to point out the fatal meadow. We are forced to notice it, not, indeed, as being in the least authenticated, but simply on account of the authority recently claimed for the tradition. For it is plain that what is now a matter of hearsay at Mohra was a story wholly unknown there not many years ago, was first introduced by strangers, and has since met with several variations at their hands. The idea of a criminal flying from Mohra to Mansfeld, which was only a few miles off,and was equally subject to the Elector of Saxony, is absurd, and in this case is strangely inconsistent with the honourable position soon attained, as we shall see, by Hans Luther himself at Mansfeld. Moreover, the very fact that Witzel's spiteful remark was long known to Luther's enemies, coupled with the fact that they never turned it to account, shows plainly how little they ventured to make it a matter of serious reproach. Luther during his lifetime had to hear from them that his father was a Bohemian heretic, his mother a loosjpiroman, employed at the baths, and he himself a changeling, born of his mother and the Devil. How triumphantly would they have talked about the murder or manslaughter committed by his father, had the charge admitted of proof! Whatever occurrence may have given rise to such a story, we have no right to ascribe it either to any fault or any crime of the father. More on this subject it is needless to add; the two strange statements we have mentioned do not attempt to establish any definite connection between the supposed crime and the removal to
Eisleben.

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