Martin Luther and the Monastic World of the later Middle Ages

Eric Leland Saak*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionary


When Martin Luther entered the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine in July of 1505, he entered a world that had been shaped by the diverse and varied monastic culture of the later Middle Ages. Luther became a new man in Christ by donning his monastic habit and very quickly rose to positions of responsibility within the order, first as a doctor of theology and then as district vicar. As professor of the Bible at Wittenberg, Luther was also the pastor of the parish church and, in this context, initiated a pastoral concern with the practice and theology of indulgences that was to set off what has become known as the Reformation. His critique was that of a late medieval Augustinian Hermit. Yet Luther had not been inculcated with the theological or spiritual traditions of his order. Consequently, his early theological development was conditioned by the Franciscan tradition (e.g., Ockham) more than by the Augustinian, even as he eagerly studied the works of Augustine himself. Nevertheless, when Luther came into conflict with the papacy, he remained an obedient friar. The origins of his Reformation, therefore, must be analyzed in the context of his monastic life and the monastic culture of his world.

Unfortunately, scholarship has devoted little attention to the monastic world Luther entered. While there has been much debate for over a century over the extent to which Luther inherited his Augustinian theology from members of his order, the order as such has receded into the background, with the focus being on abstract theological positions. Further research on Luther and the late medieval monastic world has the opportunity to shed new light on the development of Luther’s theology, going beyond the debate over continuity. When Luther stood before Emperor Charles V at Worms in 1521, he did so as Brother Martin Luther, a faithful, obedient, observant Augustinian Hermit. He remained such even as he published his harsh critique of the compulsory nature of monastic vows, while he nevertheless still gave validity to living the monastic life, providing one did so freely. He broke from his monastic past only in 1524 when he finally took off his habit and then, less than a year later, married Katharina von Bora. With Luther’s marriage to Katie, he put his monastic life behind him. To understand Luther’s early development, therefore, we cannot rely on his own later reflections but must return to analyze anew the historical context of that development, and that context was his monastic life and the culture of late medieval monasticism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther
EditorsDerek Nelson , Paul Hinlicky
PublisherOxford University Press (OUP)
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780190461843
Publication statusPublished - 3 Aug 2017

Publication series

NameOxford Research Encyclopedias of Religion
PublisherOxford University Press


  • Martin Luther
  • monasticism
  • Augustinian Hermits
  • Observant Reform
  • theology
  • vows


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