German scientists have reconstructed a detailed picture of the domestic life of Martin Luther, the 16th-century reformer and father of Protestantism, by trawling through his household waste uncovered during archeological digs on sites where he used to live.
Beer tankards, grains of corn, cooking pots, even his toilet are among the finds dug up during the five-year project in the three places in Germany he spent his life. The items include his wife’s golden wedding band, a collection of 250 silver coins and the medicines used to treat his various ailments from angina to constipation.
But some finds have upset the Protestant Church in Wittenberg where the ex-monk lived with his wife, the ex-nun Katharina von Bora and their six children.
The Church has called “religiously irrelevant” the evidence that the peace-loving family used to throw dead cats into the rubbish bin and that the nails Luther used to secure his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg — which led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church and launched the reformation — were in fact drawing pins.
“We’ve been able to reconstruct whole chapters of his life’s history,” said Harald Meller, one of the main researchers.
Protestants from around the world were expected to flock to an exhibition at the history museum in Halle, where the best of the discoveries are to go on display from starting on Friday.
Despite the widespread belief that Luther lived in poverty, evidence suggests he was a well-fed man — weighing a hefty 150kg when he died in 1546 at the age of 63.
A search through the kitchen waste offers proof that the family ate well. There are clues that they regularly dined on roast goose and the tender meat of piglets, while during fasting periods they tucked into expensive fish including herring, cod and plaice. Partridge, and song-birds — particularly robins — which the family hunted with clay whistles — often graced the Luthers’ dinner table.
Even Luther’s claim that he came from humble circumstances have been dismissed.
New evidence has shown that already as a young man, his father owned land and a copper mill and lent money for interest. His mother was born into an upper middle-class family and it is unlikely, as Luther suggested, that she “carried all her wood on her back.”
The discovery in his boyhood home in Mansfeld of a skittles set made out of cow bones and glass marbles also suggests the family was relatively well to do.
The most extensive research carried out at the family home in Wittenberg showed that Luther wrote his celebrated texts with goose quills under lamps lit by animal fat, in a heated room, which overlooked the River Elbe. It obviously suited him because he churned out 1,800 pages a year. It debunks something of the Luther myth to know he wrote the 95 theses on a stone toilet, which was dug up in 2004.