Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Burying Money. The Monetary Origins of Luther’s Reformation

By Philipp Robinson Rössner

Idiosyncrasy – the notion of a specific location of people and their ideas in their peculiar contexts of time and space as a guide towards the interpretation of their actions and interactions – has become an increasingly
popular heuristic concept, not only in the historical disciplines, but in other social sciences, as well. With regard to Martin Luther’s Reformation (1517) an authority in the field has recently suggested: “Here are two of the most tantalising questions in Western history: How could the Protestant Reformation take off from a tiny town in the middle of Saxony, which contemporaries regarded as a mudhole? How could a man of humble origins who was deeply scared by the devil become a charismatic leader and convince others that the Pope was the living Antichrist?” The present paper is intended to contribute to this by arguing that a contextualization of Luther’s Reformation of 1517 in its idiosyncratic location of time and space can be further advanced by studying a factor that has been overlooked so far: money. I will argue that the 95 Theses and the early works of Martin Luther should be interpreted against a background of monetary shortage and depression. The argument will be presented in three sections. A first section will challenge the usual notion that Luther’s comments on business ethics and economics, mainly on greed (avarice) and high interest rates (usury) were made in the light of an increase in the price level (I). I will argue instead that the first three decades of the sixteenth century were a period of depression, economic and social crisis in the central German lands where Luther grew up and spent the major part of his life (Eisleben, County of Mansfeld and Wittenberg in the Electoral Lands of Saxony). This economic crisis, marked by a deflationary trend in the general price level, as well as a downward trend in many other economic variables of the time was triggered in a sense by a decline in per capita supplies of silver available in this region (II). I then purport to re-read parts of Luther’s early oeuvre against the background of this deflationary crisis, to see whether we may perhaps gain some additional insights into the man and how his world view developed around 1500, culminating in his 95 Theses (1517) and his early works of the 1520s (III). The conclusion points the way to further research and interpretation (IV).

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