Our topic today is Martin Luther, or rather his aptitude for insults. We know him from history class as the man who “stuck it to the Catholic Church” by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and his teaching was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This post is going to be brief so we’re not going to go too deep into Martin Luther’s life or the effect he had on the Church and the people of Germany and elsewhere; another time perhaps.
Early in his life, Luther was intrigued by the monastic way of life as a result of his schooling from the Brethren of the Common Life. His father, however, did not want him to enter religious life and instead wanted his son to earn a degree in law. So Luther was shipped off to a new school to pursue an education in the practice of law and was taught the liberal arts of the age: arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and philosophy. One day toward the end of his schooling, he was caught in a fierce thunderstorm in which he was nearly struck by lightning. In his fear, he sought comfort in God and vowed that if God delivered him unharmed from this storm, he would become a monk. And so it was; after he emerged, he went directly to an Augustinian monastery and joined up with them. Luther rose through the ranks and eventually earned a doctorate degree in theology and became a professor of Biblical studies.
For many different reasons, Martin Luther disagreed with, and eventually came to despise, the Catholic Church and all within it. Again, these are topics for another time. The bit of history we are focusing on here is the defense of the faith by King Henry VIII from Martin Luther’s attacks.
If you thought to yourself, “Wait, I thought King Henry the Eighth was that one guy who cut ties from Rome so he could divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon,” you would be correct. Before the whole bit about his wives, the English King actually had somewhat of a soft spot for the Catholic Church. While he was reading Martin Luther’s attack on indulgences, he composed a counter argument called the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, or The Defence of the Seven Sacraments. King Henry dedicated his work to Pope Leo X who awarded Henry the title of “Defender of the Faith”. Martin Luther did not care so much for King Henry’s remarks, so he expressed his feelings by saying that Henry was
“a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face… a lubberly ass… a frantic madman,” and had afterwards said to him, “you lie, you stupid and sacrilegious King.”
Wow! Those are some intense words. These types of insults were actually fairly common in Luther’s writings and in fact, there are so many of these recorded insults, that there is a website that you can visit where Martin Luther insults you over and over again at the press of a button – it is worth having a look at here.
Let’s go back for a moment and unpack Martin Luther’s “royal insult”. It is, I suppose, undesirable to be “a pig”, although I think they have an undeservedly negative reputation. Merriam-Webster defines “ass” in two ways. First as, “any of several hardy gregarious African or Asian perissodactyl mammals (genus Equus) smaller than the horse and having long ears; especially: an African mammal (E. asinus) that is the ancestor of the donkey”. And second as, “a stupid, obstinate, or perverse person”. I’ll leave that open to interpretation by the reader. “A dunghill” is exactly what it sounds like: a hill of dung, and in case you are unfamiliar with the word “dung”, congratulations, you have avoided being insulted by this comment.
An “adder” is a small venomous snake that has “the most highly developed venom injecting mechanism of all snakes”, whatever that means, and is, in fact, the only venomous snake native to Great Britain. According to European legend, a “basilisk” is a legendary reptile reputed to be “King of serpents” and said to have the power to cause death with a single glance. I suppose all these snake references are meant to compare King Henry to the serpent from the Garden of Eden since Luther frequently likens the people with whom he disagrees to Satan in all forms and manifestations imaginable.
A “buffoon” is a ridiculous, but amusing person such as a clown, which may not be so bad; at least a buffoon is interesting. Plus, he gets to wear king’s robes. Now here comes the whopper: “a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face”. To me, saying someone has a frothy mouth means that they are so blindingly enraged about something that they foam at the mouth like a rabid animal. Of the two, I would be tempted to say that Luther is a bit more frothy-mouthed than Henry given the vigor with which Luther writes. I’m not so sure about the “whorish face” bit; I may leave that up for debate. I’ll just slip in a picture of King Henry VIII’s face for the reader to consider its lewd and provocative nature.
I don’t know… Maybe.
Back for its second appearance is “ass” accompanied by the adjective “lubberly”. If you’re like me, you read this as “lubber-y” and took it to mean the same thing as “blubbery”, as in fat or gelatinous. No, just me? Okay. In any event, the actual word is “lubberly” and means clumsy uncoordinated person. In actuality, King Henry was a fit and strapping young lad in his youth, and was a qualified sportsman in the fields of jousting and hunting.
Though King Henry VIII suffered all of these insults and more at the hands of Marin Luther in defense of Catholicism, he did not hold to this conviction forever. Shortly after he published Defence of the Seven Sacraments, Henry sought the Pope’s approval to get his marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, annulled. He believed that since Catherine could not bear him any children, his marriage to her was against God’s will citing Leviticus 20:22 which says, “If there is a man who takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They will be childless.” He thought that he was living in sin by being betrothed to Catherine and he desired to make things “right” the way he saw it.
Unfortunately, King Henry was angered at the Pope’s denial of his request and formed the Church of England to allow himself to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn. This rejection of the Church and of Papal authority was a huge blow to Catholicism in England, and its effects are still felt today. Another topic for the future – my list is getting pretty long.
So anyway, although King Henry VIII has a bad reputation, I thought it was worth highlighting the fact that once, he was given the title of “Defender of the Faith” for the just cause of defending the sacraments of the Church from the attacks of Martin Luther.