Reformation 500: Part 1

On this day 500 years ago, Oct 31, 1517, an unlikely man created a spark of history. When this spark fell on the tinder of renaissance Europe, the conflagration changed the world like few other events before or after. The man was the Augustine monk Martin Luther, and the spark he made were his “95 theses” that began the Reformation and led the fundament for the Protestant faith. Since this breathtaking event merits some broader inspection, I’ll examine it in two parts. In this first part, I’ll have lay out the context and the roots of the Reformation (including one game set during this era) and give you an overview of Luther’s life and the establishment of Protestantism. Lastly, I’ll also have a look at the various games published to commemorate Luther. The second part of this article which contains some more analysis of the Reformation and some games that put you at the helm of the historical forces yourself is here.

The Context of the Reformation

The Reformation is a child of the Middle ages. Contrary to the common conception of the Middle Ages as a socially static era, some important developments had taken place in the centuries prior to the Reformation: The notion of “church” was under constant debate during the entire Middle Ages with the ideas of a papal church, a conciliar church (that is, run by the councils of bishops), and a royal church under the influence of a temporal ruler competing. In addition to this political-institutional dimension of the church, the genuinely religious people of Europe also demanded that the church see to their spiritual needs. Lastly, since the Late Middle Ages, a new urban middle class of craftsmen and merchants grew outside the traditional social structure of dependent peasants and their temporal and clerical lords.

Luther as a Monk.jpg

Martin Luther as an Augustine monk. Copper engraving by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520.

Luther was born in 1483 to parents who belonged to this middle class. He was to become a lawyer but chose to join an Augustine cloister (to the dismay of his father). In his early years, he searched intensely for spiritual salvation. According to Catholic doctrine, a person’s righteous works must outweigh their sins for salvation. However, the church sold “indulgences” as the equivalents of the excess righteous works of the saints to sinners who felt in need of some help for their salvation (or that of their deceased relatives). Much of the money raised in this way financed the rebuilding of St Peter’s basilica in Rome.

Mea Culpa Cover.jpg

Cover image of Mea Culpa (© Zoch). Take a look at the paper in the lower left – “litterae veniarum” (letters of mercy, the Latin term for indulgences).

This is where Mea Culpa (Zoch, Rüdiger Kopf/Klaus Zoch) sets in. It is a pre-reformation game in which the players are local businesspeople who want to go to heaven. Whoever amasses the least sins on their moral balance sheet at the end of the game will gain not only eternal salvation, but also win the game. Now, everybody sins here and there, so you need to receive indulgences from the church to erase them, for which the church will require some compensation in money or goods. These, however, are much easier to acquire if you do not shy away from sinning a bit (for example, displaying greed in your commercial activities). Indulgences can be acquired directly, but also be gained for contributions to the construction of a Cathedral – think of the financing of St Peter’s in Rome, just that here the relation is turned upside down: You contribute to the construction to gain an indulgence, whereas in real history you’d have bought the indulgence and thereby also contributed to the construction. Of course Mea Culpa is no simulation of history, but it offers a humorous take of indulgence trade and the sinners’ quest for spiritual salvation.

The 95 Theses and the Establishment of the Reformation

For Luther, the matter was more serious. He agonized over his salvation, until his Bible studies for his lecturer position at the university of Wittenberg convinced him that the church doctrine differed from Christ’s teaching and man would be justified not by righteous works, but faith alone (sola fide) and through God’s grace alone (sola gratia). Inspired by this personal revelation, the selling of indulgences seemed an outrage to him. Luther sent a letter to the archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Brandenburg, and affixed his written ideas in the form of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg on Oct 31, 1517.

When the papal curia reacted to his theses, he was tried in front of church authorities in Augsburg the next year. Luther demanded that his theses be contradicted by biblical Scripture, not only church tradition and authority. This would be a central issue in the break from the Catholic church. Shortly afterwards, Luther stood against the theologian Johannes Eck in a public debate, or disputation. Eck shifted the debate to the matter of papal authority to brand Luther a heretic. Luther, however, did not shy away from openly breaking with the papacy – which only increased the attractivity of his position to new followers.

Finally, Luther was summoned to the imperial Diet of Worms[1] by the new emperor, Charles V of Hapsburg. This was another tremendous opportunity for Luther to present his position to the princes of the many small territories of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther was asked to recant, but he denied. Later, his words were (famously, but incorrectly) recounted as “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” As he did not recant, the emperor outlawed him, but let him go because of his promise of safe conduct under which Luther had come to Worms. Before Luther could be attacked by his enemies, he was benevolently abducted by sympathizers to his cause and incognito brought to the Wartburg castle. There he undertook the major project of translating the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into German, so every literate person could make their own sense of it.

Luther’s teachings did not only resonate with the princes at the Diet of Worms. His non-hierarchical theology of universal priesthood and his resistance to the papal and imperial authorities struck a chord with the peasants as well. While they had already suffered from communal land increasingly being declared the feudal lord’s private property, the beginning Reformation inspired them rise up against their lords. Luther tried to mediate between the peasants and the lords, but when hostilities began, he denounced the peasants as robbers and murderers. They were crushed by the princes’ armies shortly after. The Reformation had survived, but was now a project of the princes. Afterwards Luther focused on his pastoral duties and kept a lower profile until his death in 1546. He did, however, still record one of the very first rap songs:

Commemorating Luther with Board Games

Martin Luther - Das Quiz

Cover image of Martin Luther – Das Quiz (© Huch!). Based on the portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529.

The 500 year anniversary of the Reformation has made quite a splash, especially in Germany. Every church and public institution has their own little calendar of commemorative events and analytical projects about the anniversary. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that various board games have been launched as well on this occasion. Those specifically aimed at the German market focus on commemoration and education:

Luther - Das Kartenspiel Cover.jpg

Box of Luther – Das Kartenspiel (© Ninirc Games).

If you want to broaden or refresh your knowledge of the Reformation, these games are fine, but they offer little in terms of immersive experience or understanding of the historical forces. While they all have the Luther towering over them in terms of naming, none of them depicts him as a historical agent. Obviously, he only features as the subject of many questions in the trivia quiz. The Card Game begins after Luther’s death and puts the players in the shoes of his followers who cope with the grief by writing down his life and deeds. Luther: The Game has the players coexist with Luther in time and space, but they get no closer to him than putting together the pieces of his portrait. I don’t know why these games shy away from the depiction of the historical process, but I suspect it has to do with them being mainly targeted at the German market, both for the wish not to offend either Protestant or Catholic believers (each of which group accounts for close to 30% of the German population) and for the German tradition of making conflict-averse games – which is difficult in a closer rendering of the Reformation as a very bitter and multi-dimensional conflict.

Luther - Das Spiel Cover

Cover image of Luther – Das Spiel (© Kosmos). Once more, based on Cranach’s portrait that also plays an important role in the game.

So much for now. After this rather narrative post, Part 2 of my take on Reformation 500 will focus a bit more on the analysis – how Luther could pull off this amazing feat, what the further ramifications of the Reformation were and which games let you recreate this moment in history in depth.

Games Referenced

Mea Culpa (Zoch, Rüdiger Kopf/Klaus Zoch)
Martin Luther: Das Quiz (HUCH!, Peter Neugebauer)
Luther: Das Kartenspiel (Ninirc Games, Domonkos Bence)
Luther: Das Spiel (Kosmos, Martin Schlegel/Erika Schlegel)

Further Reading

There are many Luther biographies. A recent treatment in English is Lull, Timothy F./Nelson, Derek R.: Resilient Reformer. The Life and Thought of Martin Luther, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, Minneapolis, MN 2015.
If you don’t mind to read an older book that might not be up to date with recent scholarship, you can find an engagingly written treatment in Bainton, Roland: Here I Stand. A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon, Nashville, TN 1950, which you can also find online here.
In case you read German and are interested in the hot debates of current Reformation scholarship, Volker Leppin’s Martin Luther, 3rd edition, Philipp von Zabern, Darmstadt 2017 argues that Luther was heavily influenced by the mysticism of the Middle Ages and that the change he brought was a transformation rather than a sharp break. The contrarian position – that Luther’s Reformation was a revolutionary undertaking that turned a medieval world into a modern one is in Kaufmann, Thomas: Martin Luther, 4th edition, Beck, Munich 2016.


1. Diet of Worms sounds like a horrible way to lose weight, but the Diet (Reichstag) was actually a legislative and deliberative political institution in the Holy Roman Empire that represented the princes and cities in the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore, it also acted as a counter-weight to the centralize power of the emperor. In the 16th century, the cities in which the Diets were held varied, one of them being the old imperial palatinate of Worms.

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