‘Time is always right.’ -Russian avant-garde motto
On 6 September 1520, Martin Luther wrote an open letter to Pope Leo X that, together with Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian, is regarded as the Western world’s most important piece of writing of that year. Earlier that year, the pope had issued a papal bull against Luther, in which he demanded him to withdraw 41 of his 95 propositions within the next 60 days. After much deliberation, Luther attempted to mitigate the negative consequences of the bull by writing a soothing letter to and text for the pope, which would become known as On the Freedom of a Christian. According to Luther expert Christa Boerke, this letter is decidedly more moderate in tone than Luther’s other writings about the pope. Nevertheless, she does warn the contemporary reader that it might come across as rather harsh by twenty-first century standards, explaining that this harshness was – at least in part – a mere diplomatic convention.(1) The letter is indeed harsh. It is an extensive litany against the untrustworthy, corrupt, godless flatterers of the Curia, against the hot-headed babblers, Sirens and Sodomites who left him no choice but to revolt. The pope himself is, according to Luther, a sheep among wolves, and cannot be blamed. The pope never officially responded to the letter – it is not even clear whether he read it or not – and Luther was excommunicated not much later. On the Freedom of a Christian would become one of the documents that instigated the German Peasants’ War, and is considered a key element of the Reformation.
(1) Martin Luther and Christa Boerke, De vrijheid van een christen (Kampen: Kok, 2003), 19.