One of the stranger bits of history is that there is no certainty about when Luther was born. Luther himself said 1484, but documentary examination puts the year of his birth as either 1482 or more likely 1483. His baptism certificate indicates that Martin was his given name, after St. Martin of Tours, the third century Roman soldier and pacifist who defied a command to engage in active combat. Nearly executed, the third century Martin went on to engage in monastic life. There is no little irony in the fact that the saint made his solemn declaration of Christian pacifism in a Germanic town which in Martin Luther’s day was called Worms. In 1521, over a millennium hence at the famous Diet [or Assembly] of Worms, Luther would one day declare “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
Luther’s family name was Luder or Ludher. At some point in his college years Martin changed his last name to Luther. The best guess is that like many young Renaissance intellectuals engrossed in the ancient classics, Luther took for himself a classical last name, Eleutherius, and shortened it. Given that his friends would include Desiderius Erasmus, Philipp Melanchthon, and Johann Oecolampadius (who probably should have shortened his name), this explanation may have some merit. When Ludher/Luther became famous, his parents took the same last name for themselves.
Luther was not born into poverty. His father, Johannes or Hans, owned mining and smelting interests and developed rich veins of copper in the family’s residence, Eisleben, in the German region of Saxony. The family took its Catholicism seriously, including intense devotion to St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and the patron saint of miners; in late medieval thinking, both Anne’s and Mary’s wombs had borne jewels of eternal treasures, which made them fitting protectoresses of men who mined the riches of the earth. Speaking of mining, archaeologists have discovered that the diet of the Ludher family was rich in the better meats of the time, such as pork. In 2008 more household items were found, including cooking ware of such high value that it was often mentioned in wills.
Luther and his family lived during a serious decline of the papacy. The six popes of Luther’s youth and early adulthood were of such poor character that the twentieth century author Barbara Tuchman discusses them as a group in her 1984 work, The March of Folly. In truth, the identity of the reigning pontiff was not known, or of little interest, to Catholics of Luther’s time, as church life was highly localized with many variations of devotion and rite. Later, as a traveling young monk/priest, Luther was unable to offer Mass in Milan because he was unfamiliar with the Ambrosian rite of the Mass.
Much has been made of Luther’s relationship with his father, particularly after the 1958 work Young Man Luther, an attempt by the noted psychoanalyst Erik Erikson to pry into Luther’s inner motivations. Erikson maintained that Luther conflated a grim, judging God with his own father, resulting in an “Oedipal spasm” that tore the Church apart. (Metaxas, pp. 13-14) Historical analyses of discovered documentation since 1958 provides much evidence that Luther loved his father, to the degree that their relationship survived Martin’s later entry into monastic life, much against his father’s wishes that he enter the legal profession and assume the family’s copper mining interests. One needs to look elsewhere for Luther’s psychological crisis with religion, which more accurately accounts for Luther’s thinking and preaching after 1517.
For a window on Luther’s school day experiences we are indebted to several volumes of his story telling to students and boarders in his home, an unedited collection written by his young admirers in the 1530’s and 1540’s when Luther was getting on in years. Metaxas summarizes Luther’s recollections: “One gets the general impression that childhood for an exceedingly sensitive and intelligent boy such as the young Martin Luther must have been an endless, fear-filled trial from which he could hardly wait to escape.” (p. 15) In the Renaissance era the Latin language was promoted in the homes of the rich and cultured. Luther’s father never learned the language, and thus Martin went to school—where Latin was the only permitted language—with a pronounced disadvantage.
Luther would recall later that his fear of authority would become chronic throughout his life. In his teen years he came to suspect that that the physical and psychological punishments of his school might be a cause for the irrational fear of a good God, which in turn poisoned both the academic and pastoral dimensions of the Church. Scholars do underscore the difficulties of sorting out Luther’s old man remembrances from his actual thoughts at, say, age 16. But it is certain that in his college years at Eisenach Luther learned of an elderly Franciscan monk named Johannes Hilten, at that time imprisoned in the Eisenach monastery for his pronounced criticisms of the Church. Hilten died imprisoned in 1500 when Luther was 16. Hilten was something of a mystery to Luther as a Franciscan advocating reform; it is not certain if Luther recognized him as a successor to medieval reformers John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, both of whom came to bad ends in official Church conclaves. [Later Luther would read Hus’s work in a monastery library, even though the Czechoslovakian’s works were officially banned.]
Luther’s father continued to prosper, and by the time Martin Luther was ready for college at age 17, his father was able to afford to send his son to the University of Erfurt, to major in law. But now Luther found himself submerged in Renaissance Humanism, with the opportunity to study both classical pagan authors and the earliest Christian writings. He must have found this environment stimulating and fascinating, for at Erfurt his own considerable scholarly talents began to break their bonds.