A story for the German National Tourism Board by Matt Shiffler
When you stroll through the medieval towns of Eisenach, Erfurt and Weimar, it’s impossible to miss his fingerprints. The area drips with German old town charm, and its background as home of the legendary Martin Luther only amplifies this allure. Welcome to Thuringia.
The region is steeped in Reformation history, focused on the legacy of the enigmatic religious revolutionary, Martin Luther. A man, who Erfurt historian Mattias Gose says that no one knows the exact truth about—not even Martin Luther himself.
Starting with the town of Eisenach, to which Luther said “No other town knows me better,” one can visit where a young Luther studied, lived and preached by touring St George’s Church and LutherHaus. History tells of an impoverished teenage Luther going house to house singing and begging for money or bread, which often left him humiliated and defeated. He eventually came upon Ursula Cotta’s townhouse, and Luther proceeded to sing. Amazed at the beauty of his voice, Ursula invited the despairing Luther inside and asked him to live with her family, not charging the boy a penny for rent. This invitation touched Luther who for the first time witnessed compassion of the human spirit and the love of God.
It wasn’t until many years later Luther returned to Eisenach, and under grim circumstances. After publishing his revolutionary work, the “95 Theses,” which condemned the Catholic church and its sale of indulgences, Luther firmly established himself as an enemy of many religious reformers. He was excommunicated by Pope Leo X, and after defiantly defending his work at the Diet of Worms, he was named an outlaw.
Luther’s life was clearly in jeopardy.
His friend, Frederick the Wise, “kidnapped” Martin Luther and took him to Eisenach for his own safety.
Disguised as “Squire George,” Luther arrived at the imposing Wartburg Castle. His new home, which sits precariously on a cliff, towers over Eisenach below.
The UNESCO recognized castle as the site of his greatest achievement; the translation of the New Testament from Greek into German, which Luther completed in only ten weeks. His translation made the Bible the most read book in Germany and set the tone for the German language.
The castle remains the most fascinating part of any visit to Eisenach. You can even stand in the room where Luther conducted his history changing work with the Bible.
From Eisenach, follow the Luther trail to Erfurt, a city Luther once labeled as “situated in the best location.” While the town’s scenery and atmosphere alone exemplify his characterization, Erfurt is also considered Luther’s spiritual home. It is where he attended university, graduating with studies in the liberal arts, theology, and law.
Soon thereafter, a dramatic incident changed the course of Martin Luther’s life. The famous legend states that Luther was caught in a horrible storm and was possibly even struck by lightning. In return for his safety through the storm, he took monastic vows and knocked at the door of Erfurt’s Augustinian Monastery to become a monk.
While a great story and an oft-repeated story, historian Gose notes that Luther was a great storyteller and stories can often change with time. Gose surmises other reasons of why Luther may have become a monk. For one, Luther was fearful of dying, especially during the dark period of the Black Death, and was also afraid of an unmerciful Lord. One way to avoid Hell, in Luther’s mind, was to become a better man and become “worthy” in the eyes of the Lord by becoming a monk.
No matter what story you choose to believe, something drove Martin Luther to the Augustinian monastery, where he worked his way up and was eventually ordained as a priest at Erfurt Cathedral. Guests can even experience this chapter of Luther’s life for themselves by choosing to stay the night at the stunning monastery to live like Luther did!
After wrapping up in Erfurt, finish your trip in Weimar, which served as a regular stop for Luther during the early Reformation days. In a letter to his wife, Luther once said of Weimar, “I’m doing well here. I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German, thanks be to God for this. Amen.”
You can certainly relive this aspect of Luther’s life in Weimar in between stops at the city’s historic sights.
In Weimar, visit the City Church of St. Peter and Paul, where Luther often preached, and then the astounding Anna Amalia Duchess Library. The library is a masterpiece of Rococo (late Baroque) architecture, with painted portraits and sculptures of famous Germans adorning the library walls. The centerpiece of the collection is a Luther Bible dated from 1534.
Between its wonderful food and drink and important landmarks, Weimar serves as an idyllic final stop in a pilgrimage following some of the key sites in Martin Luther’s distinguished life and career.