How Martin Luther went viral

On the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses, a German class examines the fast-moving messaging of the Reformation.

October 26th 2017 | Katie Vaughn
Arts & Humanities
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Outraged at what he perceives as corruption among the powers-that-be, a scholar takes to a burgeoning mode of communication to disseminate a round-up of injustices. His message spreads far and wide, gaining momentum with each share.

His name: Martin Luther. The year: 1517. His medium: the printed page.

Luther’s 95 Theses — a critique of the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences to absolve sins — prompted the Protestant Reformation, one of the greatest religious schisms in history. But Luther’s methods, motivations and the turbulent times in which he took action are what the 18 students enrolled in Sabine Moedersheim’s 300-level German class are exploring.

Sabine Moedersheim, professor of German and director of the Center for Early Modern Studies. She holds a Bible, printed in German in the mid-nineteenth century. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)
Text from Martin Luther's 95 theses in print. (Image courtesy of Sabine Moedersheim)

The Social Media of the Reformation: How Luther Went Viral isn’t a history class. And it’s not a course about religion. It’s intended to give students — undergraduates and graduate students from any discipline — the chance to read, write and discuss entirely in German.

The 500th anniversary of Luther publishing his catalytic theses is the starting point, though, and a powerful one at that. Moedersheim, a professor of German and director of the Center for Early Modern Studies, has guided students away from dates and facts and into a rich investigation of what the early 16th century was like.

“Feudalism is in full force, but early capitalism is starting. Colonialism is beginning,” she says. “Religion comes with this entire mix of other social unrests. It’s a volatile situation.”

Moedersheim draws from a wide range of materials — a globe in which Europe looms large and North America barely exists, digital tools from the Here I Stand exhibition and images of the original 95 Theses, printed in Fraktur, the German font used at the time — to bring the era alive. “I give students an idea of what Europe and the world were like in the time of Luther,” she says.

Student were surprised to learn about the #Luther2017 social media hashtag, which opened their eyes not only to the scholars and institutions around the world celebrating the anniversary, but also to how far the ripple effects of the Reformation reached.

They come in with curiosity. They want to know what’s true. Was it really about faith or was it really about money? Was it a power thing? They’ve been watching Game of Thrones, after all.

A throwback to the past was equally illuminating. Moedersheim explained how Luther and others capitalized on the democratic nature of the printing press, a relatively recent invention at the time. Printed pages and pamphlets were easier and cheaper to disseminate than books and handwritten materials, she says, and woodcut images could accompany text, allowing messages to reach those who couldn’t read. Luther’s decision to both preach and write in German — as opposed to the Latin used by churches and universities — also spoke volumes.

“Could the Reformation have happened, in that form, at that speed, without the printing press?” Moedersheim asks her students.

Questions are at the heart of this course, and Moedersheim carves out space for considering and debating answers. While she ensures discussions are respectful — some students are practicing Lutherans — she also doesn’t shield students from the darker aspects of the Reformation, such as Luther’s anti-Jewish stances.

“They come in with curiosity,” she says of the students. “They want to know what’s true. Was it really about faith or was it really about money? Was it a power thing? They’ve been watching Game of Thrones, after all.”

Moedersheim helps students channel those questions into research topics that ultimately become papers and presentations, all delivered in German, at the end of the semester.

She hopes students leave the course with a new way of looking at history as it’s happening, at what events like the Reformation were like to live through, without the benefit of time to show how things turned out.

“I want them to see how revolutionary it was,” she says. “It was touch and go for more than 100 years.”