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Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer

Although born in the territory of the Counts of Mansfield, Luther’s connection to Saxony began early. He attended school in Eisenach (1498–1501), located in electoral Saxony, and enrolled in university (1501–1505) and later entered the Augustinian monastery (1505–1508) in Erfurt, an independent city with close economic and political ties to Saxony. Luther’s association with Saxony and its electors, however, was sealed with his 1508 arrival at the University of Wittenberg, followed by his return to Wittenberg in 1511, where he was to reside for the most remainder of his adult life. His relationship with the rulers in Ernestine and Albertine Saxony and their reaction to his reform movement proved fundamental to Luther’s life and career, just as Luther has become inextricably linked to the history of Saxony and Wittenberg. Scholars have concentrated on Luther’s interactions with the elector of Saxony Frederick III, “the Wise” (1463–1525, r. 1486–1525), during the early Reformation. Less scholarly attention has been paid to the relationship between Luther and the electors of Saxony during the reign of Frederick’s brother John the Steadfast (1468–1532, r. 1525–1532) and nephew John Frederick (1503–1554, r. 1532–1547), despite the vital role that these rulers played during the development of the new confessional identity. Discussions of Luther’s interaction with these Saxon electors were featured in 16th-century publications and art as well as early histories of the Reformation and of Saxony. Over the course of subsequent centuries, the relationship between Luther and the Ernestine electors has become central to the story of the Reformation and to Saxon history.

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The German Reformation, sparked by the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, unfolded parallel to another intellectual phenomenon then sweeping centers of higher education throughout western Europe: the development of a new way to read classic literature of the humanities, philosophy, and theology, often called Renaissance humanism. At the University of Wittenberg, this resulted in the development of a sodality of professors in the arts and theology faculties, initially including Andreas Bodenstein (Karlstadt), Nicholas von Amsdorf, Martin Luther, and the court’s university advisor, Georg Spalatin, but quickly spreading to include, by the early 1520s, Philip Melanchthon, Justus Jonas, and Johannes Bugenhagen, among others. Any attempt to understand the early phases of Wittenberg’s Reformation without taking into account this sodality will ultimately fail to catch the breadth of this movement and the commitment of these teachers to one another and to their cause. After an early skirmish over theological method resulted in Karlstadt’s distancing of himself from the university, the other faculty members remained committed to reforming the curricula of the arts and higher faculties at the university along humanist, evangelical lines. This reform influenced the theology and practice of the emerging church in Saxony and elsewhere, witnessed among other places in the 1527–1528 Visitation Articles, and led to a uniquely Wittenberg reform, one that always blended the highest regard for good letters and the most ancient sources with a developing Lutheran theology.