Rev. Donavon Riley
After four years at the university in Erfurt, Luther had become “magister atrium“, which is what we know as a Master of Liberal Arts. He finished second amongst seventeen students who were candidates to receive a degree that year. By the time young Martin was prepared to test for his degree, he’d devoted four years of study primarily to the classic Greek philosopher, Aristotle and all his works on metaphysics, politics, ethics, and economics.
An exciting part of a student’s education at that time happened during the last two years at university. Students learned how to interpret and debate important topics, usually from the works of Aristotle. They also were expected to devote more time to the “quadrivium”—music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.
University was intense for any student. Administration and faculty set high expectations for learning and academic achievement. To make sure everyone was focused on their studies, students lived together in what we call “dorms” under strict supervision. Free time or taking a break from studies was not considered to be a part of a student’s daily routine. In fact, university life was very much based on a monastic style of life.
But, since life was so difficult during the late Middle Ages, why would anyone want to attend university? Why go through such a strict curriculum—one which many students could not complete? What was the upside to a university education and degree during such dark, apocalyptic times?
The simple answer is because there was an opportunity to become a theologian, lawyer, or doctor. Rulers and authorities always needed lawyers, especially as feudalism continued to crumble and capitalism began to capture peoples’ imaginations. More and more, daily life in city, town, and village was run by bureaucrats rather than dukes, earls, and lords.
In the field of medicine, Germany lagged far behind more medically advanced countries like Italy and England. A town doctor in Germany at the turn of the sixteenth century was, to put the best construction on things, one step above the local butcher for skill and usefulness. And often, it was the butcher who was the town doctor and dentist! But, there was a push to write new, up-to-date medical books and improve the quality of medical faculties at universities, and that meant a demand for more gifted young doctors.
Finally, skilled theologians were much sought after by the growing university faculties of Europe. Theological studies were, after all, considered “the queen of the faculties.”
To sum up, a university degree meant status, money, and a better life, not just for an individual, but possibly for his whole family.
After Luther’s success with the Master of Arts exam, his father, Hans, gifted his son with a sum of money so Martin could buy the necessary books to continue his law studies. However, several weeks later, young Martin returned the books unused to the bookseller in Gotha. He didn’t need them anymore, he said. He’d made a decision not to pursue a law degree. Martin had decided to enter the monastery instead, stunning both family and friends.
That’s why, after throwing a “going away” party, of sorts for his friends, Martin then entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on July 16, 1505. Later, when he reflected on this decision at his dinner table at the “Black Cloister” in Wittenberg, Luther remarked that his decision to ignore his father’s authority, to disregard everything Hans had suffered and sacrificed so his son could enjoy a better life than he, was a sin. Luther said that he had made his decision to enter the monastery out of fear. “But how much good the merciful Lord has allowed to come of it!” he said.
Next week we will read about what motivated Luther to give up his law studies and enter a monastery. It was a big decision for Martin, and a decision that ended up affecting not just church history, but world history.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.