Why Luther Went to Rome
Motivation is one of the most difficult things to determine, even for people who are alive, as any therapist will tell you. The shelves of Luther biographies have accumulated more than their fair share of psychoanalysts. And not without reason. Luther’s fervent piety, the intense anxiety he showed over his own salvation, the degree to which he desired—yet constantly failed—to achieve any peace with God, the later demonization of his opponents: all these suggest an extraordinarily rich and complicated character. Why was he in particular so unable to tolerate a theological and ecclesiastical system that plenty of others—even reformers of the past themselves—managed to work within and around?
But all this is yet to come for Luther. In 1510 his motivations were somewhat simpler. That’s why his pilgrimage is easier to recreate than so many of the other bits of his history, tied as they were to words and meetings. The land remains to a greater degree than any of the personalities he interacted with. Luther was sent to Rome by his order. Other motivations would have been quite secondary to his primary obedience.
He was, of course, curious about the land between Erfurt and Rome. Notes from his later conversations at table show a healthy interest in the people, customs, and flora of his journey. More particular was his attention to technical and organizational differences: a mechanical clock in Nuremberg, the foundling house in Florence. Absent seems to be any interest in the visual culture of the Renaissance that would have surrounded him in Bologna or Siena.
And he would have been motivated by the chance to do pious works in Rome—the most holy city of all Christendom (with the possible exception of the difficult-to-reach, Mameluk-controlled Jerusalem). Contrary to popular opinion—created, in all likelihood, by later Reformation polemics—Rome wasn’t thought holy primarily because of the Pope. The papacy was a conflicted institution in 1510; the popes of Luther’s time were respected in public but the subjects of scathing satire and critique by many prominent churchmen for their glaring shortcomings.
No, for Western Christians, Rome was first of all the city of martyrs. When Luther saw the steeples and domes in the distance he reports himself to have descended to his knees and cried, “Be greeted, most holy Rome.” Holy because it was bathed in the blood of what was believed at the time to have been hundreds of thousands of Christians slain by pagan officials for confessing Christ. The merit of these most holy believers was accessible through countless holy acts. Luther surely would have looked forward to these opportunities.
But even this was a secondary purpose. His primary reason—if not motivation—was a rather arcane errand of his order. The Erfurt house and its prior, Johann Nathin, belonged to a reform movement among the Augustinians that sought to expand a more strict observance of the rule. The houses in Nuremberg, Kulmbach, and Erfurt were particularly fervent, and they objected strongly to an effective merger of the reformed with the province at large announced on September 30, 1510—a union forced upon them by Luther’s later friend and influential advisor John Staupitz, who was at the time head of the Saxon congregation.
Union would water down the reforming cause, the strict observants believed. And so an alliance of the strict decided to appeal to the vicar general, Giles (Egidio) of Viterbo, in Rome. There was clearly some urgency about the appeal. It seems likely they wanted to try and get to Rome before the passes of the Alps became completely… well, impassable.
Five years of study and earnest religious life had brought Luther to the attention of his brothers. A combination of his demonstrated potential and vigorous youth made him an ideal candidate for what was sure to be a demanding journey. And so in November of 1510 he left Erfurt. He would not have traveled alone, for such was forbidden by the rule. He was likely accompanied by Anton Kresz, from the observant house in Nuremberg, who is believed to have been the one in charge of the appeal.
As to their mode of transport: they walked. Such was their lot as friars. Horses and carriages belonged to soldiers and nobility. Despite being among the best educated and respected people of the time, walking fit their voluntary lowliness. Suffering and humiliation were part of the program. Pilgrimage was penance, after all.