How Did the Town of Wittenberg Look at the Time of Luther?

City Of Wittenberg

How Did the Town of Wittenberg Look During the Life of Luther?

How Did the Town of Wittenberg Look at the Time of Luther?[1]

Gottfried Krüger, Wittenberg

Translated by Holger Sonntag

It should be natural for a thoughtful person – whether he be a professional or an amateur historian – to ask himself when he enters a historically significant place: “I wonder how it might have looked here when the great man, who gave this place its significance, lived here?” It is, therefore, for Wittenbergers a local-historical demand to imagine how Wittenberg looked when Luther saw it, where he lived and worked. – One should think that this could not be difficult at all, since, due to the great amounts of ink spent on the description of that notable time, there surely should be numerous detailed accounts of that ancient Wittenberg available. – Yet this is a mistake: The locality as such got short shrift compared to all the people, events, and circumstances. – And even those descriptions of Wittenberg that one does find are not exactly hymns of praise. Melanchthon, e.g., in a letter to Camerarius, calls Wittenberg “a hamlet comprised, not of regular houses, but only of little ones, bad huts, built out of clay and covered with hay and straw.” Luther gets even crasser; he complains: “Here in Wittenberg there’s no more than a miserable corpse; we sit here in Wittenberg as if it were a miserable place.” He must have been very angry when he wrote this; for at another time he speaks more mildly: “Our land is quite sandy and has nothing but rocks, for the soil is not very fertile;” then he continues: “Nonetheless God gives us out of these rocks good wine and delicious grains, but because the miracle happens daily, we despise it.” – Duke George of Saxony (1471-1531), his religious opponent, called it a hole: “that a single monk from a hole should undertake such a reformation, is intolerable.” – And the same attitude is found in a letter from 1523, which Johann Dietenberger (1475-1537) wrote to Johann Cochlaeus (1479-1552). It says, among other things: “the poor, miserable, filthy little town of Wittenberg, compared to Prague not even worth three pennies, isn’t even worthy to be called a town in Germany; it was unknown to the learned and the commoners 20 years ago; an unhealthy, unpleasant piece of land; without vineyards; without parks; without orchards; a peasants’ chamber; rough; half-frozen; joyless; filled with muck. What’s left in Wittenberg, if the castle, monastery, and school were gone? Without a doubt, you’d only see Lutheran, that is, filthy, houses; untidy alleys; all paths, ways, and streets full of mire; a barbarian people which doesn’t do anything but farming and small trade. Their market is without people; their town is without burghers; its inhabitants wear simple garb; there’s great need and poverty of all inhabitants.” And then the conclusion which undermines the credibility of the report also for the layman, because here the tendentious intention of the account becomes clear: “Should now this unworthy town elevate itself in such haughtiness, pride, and blasphemy that it thinks it is to become the new Rome or to give a new faith to the world?” The expert knows the two who exchange their thoughts in this letter. Cochlaeus, who was also known as Dr. Dobeneck from Wendelstein near Nuremberg, was one of the most intense opponents of Luther. Almost yearly between 1521 and 1550 he published a polemical writing against Luther, among them the “seven-headed Luther.”[2] The writer of the above letter, the Dominican Dietenberger, who later became general inquisitor of Mainz and Cologne,[3] was his trusty associate. – No wonder that he looked through the gray-colored glasses of envy when he described Wittenberg, that hated town. – On the other hand, one can assert about another writer that he, for the sake of promoting the town, has put on the rose-colored glasses of forced favorableness in his account. This writer is Andrew Meinhardi or Meinhard, a young instructor at the University of Wittenberg (founded in 1502) and master of the noble arts, who in 1508 – the year when Luther was called to Wittenberg – published a highly interesting book in Latin. The title, which begins with the word Dialogus and fills almost one page, reads in a strongly abbreviated form: “Dialogue which describes the locality, the pleasantness, etc. of the famous and highly glorious town of Albiorene, commonly called Wittenberg.”[4] The little work was commissioned by Martin Pollich from Mellrichstadt (1450-1513)[5] as a promotional text for the new university, with which he intended to get out ahead of his arch-rival, Conrad Wimpina (1465-1531) in Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, who at the time was also promoting his equally new-founded university.[6] Naturally, this book too is utterly tendentious; it strives to show Wittenberg from its most advantageous side, in particular in view of its university and its faculty. But, along with that, it does contain quite a few remarks concerning local circumstances and, at the end, even takes the reader on a tour through town by describing the streets and the public buildings which existed in Wittenberg in 1507/08. This is why a person with some local knowledge can use it to round off his impression of the town. This is what has frequently taken place in the account that follows.

In the short period of its existence since the 12th century, Wittenberg had gone through a relatively rapid development. This was mainly due to the fact that in 1266 it was elevated to be the residence of the dynasty of the Ascanians under Albrecht II (1250-1298), the founder of the duchy of Saxe-Wittenberg. In 1293, Wittenberg received its town privileges from the same ruler, which were another incentive for the citizenry because they provided for some self-government. And one has to admit that the town fathers back then managed to increase the property, the rights and thereby the power of the town continually: by 1422, when the branch of the Ascanians in Electoral Saxony died out, the town owned almost all the land surrounding it, which originally had been the possession of the ducal court. What is more, it also held almost all the electoral privileges – high and low justice; collection of vendor fees; the right to mint coins; freedom from toll; etc.

The transition to the Wettin dynasty in 1423 coincided with a certain loss of significance and developmental momentum, since the first four rules of this dynasty – Fredrick I the Belligerent (1370-1428); Fredrick II the Gentle (1412-1464) and his sons, Ernest (1441-1486) and Albert (1443-1500), who ruled jointly – had no inclination to use Wittenberg as their residence but rather stayed at their beautiful Wettin castles. – This changed first when – after the Leipzig Division of Saxony in 1485 and after the death of his father Ernest – Fredrick III the Wise (1463-1525) received Electoral Saxony and made the decision to make Wittenberg, to which the electoral office was tied, also externally into the worthy capital of his electorate. Most significant, however, also in the local sense, was the establishment of the new university in 1502.

Another aspect that strongly influenced the look of the town was that Wittenberg from early on became a fortified town. Already 13 years after receiving town privileges, Wittenberg entered into a defensive treaty with Aken and Herzberg, and in 1323 the treaty with Zerbst and Köthen was added. Presupposition or result of these treaties was securing one’s own town by means of a stone wall and a wooden parapet; the list of 72 burghers assigned to wall duty from 1332 may serve as a historical proof for this. In 1409 earthen ramparts were added for the first time, just in time to protect the town from destruction during the Hussite wars. In 1430 the construction of a mote surrounding the walls became necessary. All these circumstances transformed Wittenberg into a relatively strong fortress.

This fact made it necessary to establish a mill within the fortifications to be prepared for a siege. This took place probably already during the construction of the first town fortifications under Rudolph I (1284-1356). This is the electoral mill near the castle which exists to this day at the same place, albeit with a changed exterior. – Since, however, there was no real waterpower available in town, it had to be engineered. This was done, in a very circumspect manner, by rerouting two tributary brooks of the Elbe River through the city as mill brooks. Additionally, an arm of the wild Piesteritz coming from Straach was branched off at the New Mill: it was routed through what are today Schatzungsstraße, Grünstraße, and Bachstraße around the north side of town; and, at the east end of the Jüdenstraße, it was brought into town, the so-called “Rische Bach” (quick brook). And to the east of town the drainage of the Abstdorf mill pond, which flowed into the Elbe, was routed toward the area of the Elster Gate on today’s Mittelstraße as the so-called “Fauler Bach” (slow brook). – Later, when the mote was dug out, both brooks had to be channeled across it by means of wooden “arks” resting on high props across it. In town they ran openly up to where they joined close by the town mill. It must have been quite a unique, characteristic sight, these two relatively deep open brooks that cut across both main streets. And it was certainly also dangerous for the beer-happy students who, unlike the honorable mayor, pastor, or council member returning from his evening drink, did not have the civil servant carry a lantern before them on moonless nights. This picturesque image is completed by a few stone bridges at road crossings and several wooden bridges to the doors of houses which in part were first removed in the 19th century.

The tight grip of wall, ramparts, and mote meant, of course, that the core of the city could not expand any further. It always remained limited to the crescent-shaped area between the Collegienstraße and the Schloßstraße on the south and the present Pfaffengasse, Mauerstraße, and Poststraße as the northern boundary. When the number of houses nonetheless grew in this area – from 392 in 1500 to 446 in 1550 – this means that the houses around 1500 were not as densely built as later. The row of houses built along and above the “Fauler Bach” between Collegienstraße and Mittelstraße probably did not even exist around 1500, at least not in its present form. Also, the entire area around town hall and castle must have been populated less densely.

Originally, between the town’s two oldest street corridors – Schloßstraße and Collegienstraße in the south, which corresponded to the ancient trade route between Magdeburg and Dresden on the bluffs along the Elbe River, and the Coswiger Straße and Jüdenstraße to the north – there used to be a quite large, oblong, slightly crescent-shaped area. The town church is located at its center on its highest elevation. The western third of this area was delimited as Market Square when the town hall and a row of four houses, located between Schloßstraße and Coswiger Straße, were built. Its delimitation toward the church in the east was hinted at already in the 14th century by the store building. From this store, a row of small wooden booths, in which bakers, shoemakers, and other craftsmen sold their wares, separated from the store by the tiny Kirchgäßchen, stretched out to the Jüdengasse between town hall and church. First around 1540 these wooden booths became houses which were recorded in the tax records. This made the boundary between Market Square and Church Square a hard fact. However, at the beginning of the age of Reformation, the former was still connected to the Mittelstraße to the east of the church. Yet here, too, an old building indicated the future line of separation: the humble residence of town pastor Simon Heins. On the northwestern corner of the Church Square, where later the old high school was located, stood the ossuary. We have to imagine a wall with two gates on the south bank of the “Rische Bach” located between both, which created a permanent boundary to the north. However, there was no such thing toward what is now the Mittelstraße. The area was called the New Market, perhaps also the Potters’ Market, because there the potters sat with their wares on weekdays. First when Simon Heins rebuilt the parsonage, where Bugenhagen resided later, the Church Square became somewhat closed off also to the east. – This is why Meinhardi, in his 1508 Dialogus, names only the following streets by name: Apollenstraße (named for the Apollensberg), by which he means the Schloßstraße; Coswiger Straße; Ziegenstraße, that is, the Pfaffenstraße which was also called Ritterstraße for a time; Neustraße, by which he means the Marstallstraße which was new at the time; Große and Kleine Brüderstraße, today’s Juristenstraße and Klosterstraße, the latter called Ravennastraße at times for Peter Ravenna who lived here; Bürgermeisterstraße; Jüdenstraße; Töpferstraße; and Kupferstraße and the Elsterende. And then there remains only the Neumarktstraße for the rest of the town. This is precisely the big, wide street, through which the “Faule Bach” flowed, which stretched from the town cemetery to the Elster Gate, and which had not been divided yet by a row of houses into Collegienstraße and Mittelstraße. – In a bill from 1431 this area is called Heiliggeiststraße, and “the long street.” The former was probably located on the east end of the Collegienstraße in the area of the Holy Spirit Hospital, which will be covered later; the latter probably referred to Collegienstraße and Schloßstraße combined.

Mannewitz[7] has thoroughly studied the architecture of the houses. According to him, the narrow craftsman’s house dominated the scene; in it, the shop filled out the entire ground level, first later a narrow hallway developed to the side. The houses of the merchants and the town residences of the nobility from surrounding areas were simple duplications or multiplications of this basic type. The basement was normally made of massive, vaulted masonry; the upper stories certainly also used timber frames filled with bricks or clay. In side alleys there certainly were also clay wall houses, perhaps even with a straw roof; but they for sure were not the rule.

When a steady stream of students and faculty set in after the university was established, there was a greater need for housing. This led to the construction of many houses in Wittenberg, which in 1504 was even prescribed by the authorities: “Whosoever owns an uninhabited lot or inheritance must build within one year.” Doubtlessly, all available lots within the town were built up at the time. The narrow craftsman’s houses as well as the merchant’s and knight’s houses, which were more spacious, were raised. On the spacious courtyards, especially on the Collegienstraße, new wings were built to accommodate the numerous students. At this time certainly also the houses along the “Fauler Bach” were built which made two new streets out of the old one. Their number corresponds roughly to the documented increase of the number of houses from 392 to 446 during the first half of the 16th century. – Already in 1508 Meinhardi describes this building boom with these words: “So large is the renovation of the town and of the castle that they seem to grow almost like trees.” Responding to the question of whether the town has good accommodations – he calls them mansiones, “dwellings” – he states: “Previously, there were only huts; now, however, with the arrival of new burghers and a new age, they have grown into new and good and very big building which are beyond the old structures.” Replying to the surprised question: “New burghers move there?” Meinhard says: “From almost all the parts of the world fortunes come together; and they buy lots and build new buildings on them. And the old burghers build new houses as well, some because of the command of the elector, others following the example of the former.” – And by continuing “Also the spiritual brethren of St. Augustine are building a new monastery with the support of the elector,” he turns to describing the public buildings, to which we now turn as well.

Before we do that, though, a word on the condition of the streets. – One thing is certain, the residents had to ensure that the streets were clean, for in 1510 Balthasar Heyns must pay 2 groschen because he did not sweep the stone path. The town council was responsible for sweeping the market square. In the town budget of 1501 there is an item for one worker who helped “load up muck at the market;” in 1502 two workers are paid who swept the market square and hauled away the dirt. The market square thus does not seem to have been altogether unpaved, as it appeared based on the first remark; possibly, they were already then talking about clearing out the brook. Yet, based on these pieces of information we cannot tell whether it was paved with cobblestones. On the other hand, it is certain that at least the center of the main streets featured cobblestones, which is also mentioned in an old student song. This fact may have played a role already at Luther’s time in fights between students in Wittenberg.

Quite regularly there are expenses noted in the town’s accounts for a paver laying cobblestones. – To be sure, it might not have been very nice beside the cobblestone path during a rainstorm. Even in 1560 the tutor of the young dukes, Ernst Ludwig (1545-1592) and Barnim X of Pomerania (1549-1603), who were studying at Wittenberg, when he was requesting assistance so that they would be able to ride from the monastery where they lived with Martin Luther Jr. (1531-1565) to the castle church in a way that agreed with their rank, commented: “When it rains, it is pretty gross and filthy.” – There is, by the way, a peculiar proof for an at least partial pavement on the streets, which merits being dragged out of oblivion due to its general cultural historical value. Albert Kranz, in his Wandalia,[8] relates the following memorable story, which is said to have taken place in Wittenberg and which is printed on the back of many old pictures of Wittenberg in Latin, German, and French: “Fire had been thrown heinously into several houses. And because of this, an innocent man was arrested in this town. But he swore he was innocent and desired to prove it by means of the common custom of a glowing iron. However, because this ordeal by fire was prohibited by law,[9] the lay judges did not know about this custom, or they, at any rate, despised it. The defendant, however, carried the hot iron for quite a distance in his hand and then threw it away without having burnt his hand. Yet the iron soon disappeared to the great amazement of the people. But after a year, a worker was preparing to put gravel on the street. As he dug around with his hand in the sand, he found the iron and it was still so hot that his hand was burned. Some saw this and were amazed. They brought the matter before the mayor. He soon became suspicious that this man was guilty of the matter which had been blamed on the innocent. So he had him tortured and learned from his confession that he indeed was the arsonist. Consequently, he was justly broken on the wheel after he had been revealed as the perpetrator by divine justice.”

After these general remarks we now turn to individual buildings. – While the Ascanians ruled (1170-1422), there were already several noteworthy buildings in Wittenberg; those belonging to the dynasty of course fell to the House Wettin. – There was, first of all, the old castle, situated on a hill on the western edge of town and surrounded by a mote; it probably goes back to an older castle yet. One can assume that Albrecht II had the remodeling carried out in about 1260, when he was courting and later got engaged with Agnes (c. 1257-1322), one of the “six lovely daughters” of Emperor Rudolph I (1218-1291).[10] His last impoverished descendants, who resided mostly in Lochau or in Schweinitz, then allowed it to decay significantly. This made it easy for Fredrick the Wise to tear down the old castle and to build a new one in its stead, using some of the old material.

The same happened to the chapel belonging to the castle. It too had undergone some architectural changes in the course of time. In 1306 Rudolph I, the son of Albrecht and Agnes, the princely couple mentioned above, named for his grandfather Rudolph, had rebuilt the inconspicuous chapel into a stately church, which was so richly endowed that there was enough income to support six canons of the collegiate chapter who already then answered directly to the pope. The plan of his grandson, Rudolph III (1388-1419), for the church, who intended to erect a grandiose new building outside the Castle Gate, was not executed, even though the pope had granted his permission. – Thus here too Fredrick III could indulge his joy of building by erecting castle and castle church in one building which was destined to outshine on the inside and outside all comparable buildings of his relatives. A person who sees the castle in its present-day atrophy, can barely imagine the splendor that men like Conrad Pflüger as architect and Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and other top artists poured out over this building.

There are several old depictions of the castle which show how attractively the stone walls, which are now barren, were divided by big, beautiful windows; how the roof was surrounded by little gables, electoral-Saxon style; how pleasantly the two massive corner towers rose up, the northern of which was used as steeple of the castle church already at that time.

Meinhardi offers us also a detailed, albeit not entirely clear, description of the interior. We also have documents from the 17th century. It would thus be possible to give a pretty accurate picture of the castle in the age of Luther; but it would go to far afield to undertake this attempt now. Suffice it to point out that the Wittenberg Castle of Frederick the Wise never fulfilled its purpose to be the residence of Electoral Saxony. To be sure, it was used occasionally to accommodate members of the House of Wettin and their princely guests. But it was inhabited by the electoral family, namely, by Sybil (1512-1554), the wife of Johann Fredrick I (1503-1554), and her children only during the Smalcald War (1546/47). During Luther’s life it served administrative purposes; the princely archive was housed in the northern tower; and the empty halls were used from the beginning as welcome auxiliary lecture halls for the fast-growing university.

The castle church was originally planned as a smaller, at least shorter, structure; but already during the building phase, the adjacent part of the castle was added to it to make it longer, a fact that now does a disservice to the acoustics in this building. It was feared that the space envisioned at first would not be sufficient for the constantly growing number of relics collected by Frederick the Wise. – And when the maintenance of the new university was principally based on the income of the endowment of the castle church and the spiritual benefices of the canons by incorporating the All-Saints Chapter into the university or vice versa and by employing the spiritual dignitaries of the castle church as teachers of the university, the original church of castle and chapter was transformed into the church of the academy in which all the academic celebrations took place, and whose wooden door served as the university’s notice board. This is how Luther found it and used it accordingly for the publication of his theses in 1517. It is also here where he found the final resting place owed to him as an academic teacher. – On the outside the church looked hardly different from today’s building. The old walls within which Luther worked are still there. The wooden door was destroyed by a fire in 1760; in 1858 it was replaced by the bronze door designed by Friedrich Drake (1805-1882). The tower was lower and had a slightly different form, which Cranach preserved for us in a rare “drawing of the most holy sanctuary” from 1509. Accordingly, the spire, rising from a walling curb, was not round like today; it was square with the roof sloped inward, topped with a circle of dormers. – It remained this way only till right after Luther’s death, because in 1546 this tower and the steeples of the town church were lowered to create platforms for cannons.

Across from the church, to the north of the Castle Square, next to today’s police station, stood the parsonage belonging to the castle church, the residence of the provost. Luther had to come here when he wanted to visit his friend Justus Jonas. It burned down in 1760 due to shelling during the Seven-Years War. It was replaced by a building which belonged first to the province, now to the town.

We have already mentioned that the electoral mill was established long before Luther. It was always located at the same place, namely, where Coswiger Straße and Schloßstraße came together into the Castle Square. Already back then it was a three-story building and served at the same time as storage facility. It burned down in 1640; then it was a one-story building for a long time; finally, at the end of the 19th century it was rebuilt in its current ugly form.

On the way to his quarters, Luther could admire the biggest house in Wittenberg already in 1508. It is located on the corner of the Elbstraße, which at the time was probably called Schmeerstraße. This house is known today as Lucas-Cranach House. It belonged to the town judge, Kaspar Treuschel, who had built it in 1506 from scratch. In 1513 Cranach bought it from him. As a friend of Cranach, Luther was a frequent guest at this house. – However, the widely held opinion that this building housed the pharmacy since the days of Luther is erroneous. In 1520 Cranach bought the pharmacy from the family of Martin Pollich who was its founder and first owner but who had died in 1513. He had lived in house number four on the Market Square which indeed, along with the pharmacy, was purchased by Cranach. Cranach then bequeathed it to his son-in-law, Caspar Pfreund (1517-1574), who during Cranach’s life managed it as his “journeyman.” Since then the pharmacy remained in this house, and in the Cranach family, for almost 300 years: first in 1799 mayor and pharmacist Dörrfurth relocated it to the corner of the Schloßstraße.

The Cranach House lost its gables during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763); and in 1871 a fire heavily damaged the upper stories. But the ceiling paintings by Cranach’s own hand were in such a bad shape already at the time Dörrfurth took over the property that they could not be preserved in the remodeling that was necessary – quite possibly the art of restoration was not yet known then either.

The other pharmacy building, Market No. 4, is called The Electoral Palace by the people. It does indeed have something noble about its entire execution – at least it had prior to the last remodeling. If there is some historical truth to this name, which has not been corroborated yet, it certainly did not originate from the time of the Wettin dynasty; one would have to go farther back to the Ascanians. But then it would explain quite naturally that Fredrick the Wise was able to give this building as a present to Pollich, his personal physician, when the university was established.

Vis-à-vis this building is still located the town hall. But now it is not the same building that Luther saw when he came to Wittenberg in 1503 [or 1508?] for the first time and that was still there when he returned in 1511. The old town hall, which was mentioned in 1317 for the first time, was smaller and probably stood closer to the market square and held booths of butchers. Even if this circumstance, which might have caused some unpleasantness during the summer due the lack of hygiene at the time, was not the decisive reason, it certainly contributed to showing that the old town hall was insufficient in view of the new situation created by the establishment of the university. At any rate, in 1521 the demolition of the structure began after the butchers, who apparently had a customary right to the booths, were given new places to sell their meat. For this purpose a new street was constructed in the area between the Bürgermeisterstraße and the Juristenstraße, which crossed diagonally through the gardens of the lots there; still today it is called Scharrenstraße.[11] – Behind the old town hall there stood some old hut-like buildings from the days of irregular building; they were condemned, and on the larger space the new town hall was erected between 1523 and 1525/26 in its beautifully simple style which was completely preserved in its latest remodeling. Only one item was missing back then, and Luther himself never got to see it: this richly ornamented stairwell at the main entrance. This was first added in 1573 by Georg Schröder of Torgau, the same artist who two years earlier had created an elaborate gravestone in the town church.

Yet how did the town church look when Luther arrived? – Well, the structure of the actual church building was no different than it is today, only the tower with the spiral staircase by the sacristy door was missing. That was added in 1570 when, on occasion of the necessary repair of the roof above the chancel, the ordinands’ room was added above the sacristy; the outside wall on the east side was raised at the same time so that it fit better with the wall of the nave. – However, what looked significantly different were the towers. During his entire life, Luther only saw the original pyramid-shaped roofs, not the room in the tower underneath it. He also did not know the bridge-like connection between the two towers. For the old situation lasted as long as Luther lived. – In 1546 the town church’s towers suffered the same fate as the towers of the castle and the castle church: they were lowered to form platforms [for cannon]. Between 1556 and 1558 the architect Ludwig Binder, who suffered a fatal accident while working on these towers, created the octagonal steeples with the Renaissance copper spires. Yet the tower Luther knew had one big advantage over one seen today: It featured an artful picture of St. Mary which the Wittenberg painter, Claus Huling, had been commissioned to paint by the town council in 1483, the same year Luther was born, and which radiated far above the low rows of booths along the market square. It must have been a splendid sight especially when the sun set.

Discussing the inside of the town church would lead us far afield. However, it might be pointed out that the current state is much closer to that at Luther’s time than the one before the remodeling.

The Church Square is today much different from the way it once was. The boundaries in the west, east, and north have already been mentioned. The boundary to the south still needs some research. The character of the houses located there also suggests their origin in former vendors’ booths, as it was the case toward the market. – It is, however, documented that the following buildings were located on the church square beside the church:

1. The Corpus Christi Chapel which was built in 1368 by Mayor Wymann. Beginning in 1377 it served as the home base for a lay brotherhood whose purpose it was to support the pastor of the town church by organizing elaborate funerals: the pastor was competing with the monks of the Franciscan monastery who managed to monopolize the town’s funerals and who thereby took away a source of income for the pastor and a source of charitable donations for the church.

2. Not far away from the chapel, between the chapel and the narrow Kirchgäßchen coming from the market, stood two interconnected buildings, the Kantorei and the Boys’ School, both of which also served as residences for the cantor and the rector scholarum. This is said to be the school building which Andrew Carlstadt (1486-1541) changed into a bakery and from which he, in agreement with Rector More, began the iconoclasm in Wittenberg. Unfortunately, both houses had to be torn down in the last decade of the 19th century due to their dilapidated condition. They have been replaced by the back buildings of the bank on the Market Square and of the houses on Collegienstraße number 3 and 4.

3. On the other side of the church, to the northeast, right in front of the parsonage, stood the much smaller Girls’ School which already back then was pretty ramshackle.

Eighteen years after Luther’s death the situation changed insofar as under Mayor Heilinger, the father-in-law of Luther’s son Martin, a new boys’ school was built in the northwestern corner of the church square, thus replacing the old ossuary. It still exists today as the old high school (now Wattrodt’s print shop), not, however, after having undergone many changes. – After this building was finished, the old girls’ school was torn down and moved to the former boys’ school which was called girls’ school from then on. This caused some confusion among researchers who were unaware of this change.

Besides these buildings, the church square was a huge cemetery,[12] in which many of Luther’s contemporaries were laid to rest, e.g., Augustin Schurff (1494-1548), his personal physician, and his wife in front of the superintendent’s residence; Käthe Melanchthon (d. 1557) under the linden tree by the wall of the “Rischen Bach;” three children of the Cranach family in front of the sacristy door; and, finally, also Luther’s son Martin himself, albeit 19 years after the father’s death, in the middle between the northern tower and the houses facing the market.

Continuing from the town’s churchyard across the new market toward the Elster Gate, one first came to the old well from the time of the Ascanians, which exists to this day and which is featured prominently on some very old depictions of the town. Close by, on the far side of the “Fauler Bach,” stood a big house which had been newly built for the university; it was called the Bursa Mercurii. The house served a dual purpose. On the one hand, it occasionally served the law department as a lecture hall; on the other hand, and this is even more important, it served as bursa,[13] that is, as the boarding house for students in which they lived and ate. – This bursa we find in today’s so-called Hamlet House owned by Wittenberg’s Bank Association; unfortunately, the original building was torn down, but the new one at least features the exact reproduction of the old brick gable.

As for the name “Hamlet House,” it is an excellent example of a modern legend in the making. Shakespeare has his legendary prince of Denmark study in Wittenberg because this university was the most famous one at Shakespeare’s own time. There is no historical connection whatsoever. – But it is a historical fact that an exiled king of Denmark, Christian II (1481-1559), the nephew of Fredrick the Wise, spent some time at Wittenberg as a petitioner because his uncle had not permitted him to come to his court at Torgau. Legend has it that he lived in a house near the church where he served regularly as an altar server in order to express his penitence by this humiliation. – These are the elements out of which the legend formed.

Closer by the Elster Gate, equally on the south bank of the “Fauler Bach,” across from the place where today the Neustraße, which did not exist during the age of the Reformation, intersects with the Mittelstraße, Duke John the Constant (1468-1532) had built a second bursa in memory of his early-deceased wife, Sophie (d. 1503), which he called Bursa Sophiae. – According to old notes in the tax records, this building must have been located on the narrow alley between Collegienstraße and Mittelstraße, which is approximately where R. Hirschfeldt’s store is located, the outward appearance of which, however, does no longer betray its former use.

Continuing east, one reaches in the lower [eastern] third of the street the buildings of the university, large parts of which have been preserved in the Fredericianum-Barracks. – In 1502, three houses were purchased at first in order to build the Old College, apparently the rear building of the old university. It was Conrad Pflüger himself, the architect of the castle, who had designed the new university in 1503. And between 1509 and 1511 the electoral architect Anton Nymeck built the New College right on the street. It was more spacious and healthier; it carried the little university steeple on its roof which disappeared later, probably resulting from the shelling in 1813/1814.[14] The Wittenberg student register, beginning the winter semester 1644/1645, preserves a drawing of the university buildings. One sees the two wings, the front wing decorated by small gables which are also seen on the town hall. One sees very clearly that the lecture halls were on the ground floor, while the upper floors served as student housing, 32 rooms and 59 chambers in all. This shows that also the college buildings were bursae. – Between the two houses there was a well in the courtyard exactly like the one on the wood market. Therefore, when there is a third bursa, the Bursa ad Fontem, the Bursa by the Well, mentioned in addition to the Bursa Mercurii and the Bursa Sophiae, there can be no doubt as to which building is referred to.

Now the tour through the town of Luther arrives at the lot which served as Luther’s residence in 1508 and then between 1511 and 1546, the Augustinian Monastery, also called the Black Monastery. – We know that the Augustinians from Herzberg owned a house in Wittenberg already in 1365, which they used as a lodging facility when they came to Wittenberg in order to do their work as mendicant monks. But it is not likely that it stood at the same place where the later monastery was built. At any rate, they received an open lot at the east end of town when Staupitz’s suggestion was accepted and Augustinians became teachers at the new university. It soon became obvious that the lot was too small, and so the order decided – financed by the princes – to buy an adjacent building owned by the town. This was the Holy Spirit Hospital which dated back to the earliest days of the Ascanians; it functioned already before 1300. – The town sold the property under the condition that the Augustinians build a replacement elsewhere. And in 1516 this is indeed recorded as the new Holy Spirit Hospital on the Elbe meadows by the Streng Bridge. – The monks tore down the hospital, located at the eastern corner of today’s Luther House. And with Ernest of Saxony (1464-1513), the brother of Frederick the Wise and archbishop of Magdeburg, himself laying the symbolical foundational stone, they began to build a two-story monastery with dining hall, dormitory, and study cells; but because they chronically suffered from a lack of funding, they were unable to complete it. This is the building in which Luther lived as a monk, as a professor, and as a father, and which was given to him by the elector as a gift.

A chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit had belonged to the old Holy Spirit Hospital. It stood in front of the sick house toward the street, where the yard of the Luther House is today. It was at first left standing, but around it immediately the foundations for the bigger Augustinian church were laid, already also planning for the cloister connecting church and living quarters. But since there was already not enough money available for the living quarters, there was even less for the church building which was less urgently needed. And thus there was for forty years this strange situation that the little church was within the big church, at least in the area marked out for the bigger church by the foundation that was barely sticking out of the ground. Meanwhile the ancient little church, only about 30 feet long and 20 feet wide and “built out of wood and clay held up by supports all around,” became more and more dilapidated. Finally, right before the Smalcald War, the church was torn down and the material, as far as it was still usable, was used to strengthen the fortifications of the city. At any rate, it must have been an unusual sight to the strangers entering the city by the Elster Gate, even more so since the present front building, the Augusteum, did not yet exist and the metal fence allowed visitors to see the entire wide Luther Yard (in which might have grown some trees), remnants of the hospital yard and the churchyard. – On the corners along the street stood two little houses which Luther purchased later: toward the town (west), “Bruno’s house,” and toward the Elster Gate, “Rymer’s house by the gate.”

The area of the Elster Gate requires some explanation too. One who is familiar with the old Fortress Wittenberg, also knows that the inner wings of the gate were located immediately at the eastern corner of the Augusteum. This was different at Luther’s time. The inner city was longer then, it stretched almost to the area of the Luther Oak. The gate of the fortification was located across today’s Sedan Oak; and the area between the monastery lot and the wall was still filled by a double row of small houses. However, when in preparation for the Smalcald War the town was given new fortifications, it became necessary to round off the wall which caused a shortening of the street. This is how the houses located there had to be condemned, torn down, and rebuilt on the outside behind the southern churchyard in the form of the Lange Reihe, (“long row”). This group of houses was also known as “die [sic] Weichenberg” because it had to give way (weichen) to the great bastion at the Elster Gate, also known as “Berg.” At this time Luther was seriously concerned that he too, like the little peasant-burghers, would have to leave because the “demolition crew would take away his little room from which he had assaulted the pope.”

Outside the city wall, just to the left in front of the Elster Gate, was the leper hospital, which also had a small chapel, and right behind it was the place where the contagious clothes of the lepers were burnt. Here Luther burned the papal ban bull along with the codices of canon law. The Luther Oak should actually mark the correct place.

And yet a little bit further downstream, in the old cemetery on the right hand side, was another chapel, Holy Cross Chapel, which belonged to a hospital or sick house of the same name. These buildings stood right by the entrance to the cemetery, while the plague house with the plague cart was located in the back left corner.

So far we have walked straight east from the castle church; now we still need to visit the crescent-shaped northern side of town. – There too are some noteworthy buildings, mainly the stately Franciscan Monastery. It was located right in the middle between Bürgermeisterstraße and Juristenstraße close by the city wall. Already in 1227 there was one Brother Barvot in the retinue of Albrecht I, and already in 1238 there is a branch of this relatively new[15] mendicant order in Wittenberg. It seems that the wife of Albrecht I, Helen (1231-1273), took them under her wings. For she built, as widow and as guardian for her minor son, a spacious monastery church which she chose as court and burial church for herself and her descendants. And, indeed, 27 members of the Ascanian dynasty of Saxony are buried here. Their mortal remains have been transferred to the castle church in1892. The fate of the monastery was determined by the reformation movement. Already in 1527 it was abandoned by its residents. At first, it was remodeled into a hospital and sick house. For the Smalcald War the church was used for grain storage. After that it became a sick house and orphanage, later barracks, and now it is, under the name Stadthaus, an important auxiliary building for the city government. For the sake of completeness, we should also mention the St. Barbara Chapel, called Löffelkirche (Spoon Church) by the people, which stood between the monastery and the wall but has now disappeared. And then there is a fifth chapel, St. Anthony Chapel on the Pfaffengasse. It belonged to the house of the Order of St. Anthony at Lichtenberg Monastery by Prettin. The preceptor of this order, Goswin von Orsoy, must have been an elegant and learned man; otherwise he would not have been called to be the first chancellor of the new university. As such he of course had a great deal of business in Wittenberg; and thus it happened that he remodeled the old lodging house of his order into an elegant residence, without forgetting, as a pious man, to build a chapel; Meinhard mentions as particularly noteworthy the beautiful forged altar railing. – Later this chapel became a prison; and today it serves as shop and residence of a locksmith.

Close by, on the Große Brüderstraße, the construction of a second building for the law department was started already in 1508 but then dragged on for a long time; later, however, it led to a change in the street name to Juristenstraße; and later yet it housed the Wittenberg consistory.

And finally, for completeness’ sake, one might also mention the three big public bath houses. In addition to these public buildings one has to add in one’s mind the numerous new and remodeled private homes, especially on the Schloß- and Collegienstraße, which in many cases were purchased by professors and developed into elegant patrician houses, as, e.g., that of Melanchthon.

Then one will have to admit that Wittenberg at the time of Luther, despite all the negative comments, was essentially different from a little hamlet; it was quite able to provide a worthy setting for the fast growing university.


[1] Originally published in German in Luther: Vierteljahresschrift derLuthergesellschaft 15 (1933): 13-32.

[2] Cf. his Sieben Köpfe Martin Luthers vom hochwürdigen Sacrament des Altars (1529; reprint, Nördlingen: Uhl, 1983); his Sieben kopffe Martin Luthers, von acht hohen sachen des Christlichen glaubens (Dresden, Stöckel, 1529); and his Sieben kopffe Martin Luthers/ von sieben sachen des Christlichen glaubens (Dresden: Stöckel, 1529).

[3] Dietenberger, a co-author of the 1530 papal Confutation of the Augsburg Confession, also wrote an anti-Protestant catechism and authored a German bible translation which became very popular among Catholics in Germany.

[4] Dialogus illustrate ac Augustissime vrbis Albiorene uulgo Vittenberg dicte Situm Amenitatem ac Jllustrationem doceris Tirocinis nobilium artium iacentibus (Leipzig: Landsberg, 1508). An English edition has been prepared by E. C. Reinke, The Dialogus of Andreas Meinhardi (Ann Arbor: Univ. Microfilms, 1976).

[5] The private physician of Fredrick the Wise served as the first rector of the University Leucorea.

[6] The Frankfurt University was established in 1505 by Elector Joachim of Brandenburg; Wimpina, a student of Pollich, served as its first rector.

[7] Paul Mannewitz, Das Wittenberger und Torgauer Bürgerhaus vor dem dreißigjährigen Kriege (Borna-Leipzig: Noske, 1914).

[8] Wandalia in qua de Wandalorum populis et eorum patrio solo, ac in Italiam, Galliam, Hispanias, Aphricam et Dalmatiam migratione; et de eorum regibus ac bellis, domi forisque gestis (Cologne: Soter, 1519).

[9] At the beginning of the 13th century, Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215, ch. 18) prohibited this and other kinds of ordeals.

[10] As archmarshal and therefore one of the four secular electors of the German Empire, Albrecht II cast his vote in favor of Rudolph of Habsburg in 1273. On that day, Rudoph gave him his daughter Agnes as his wife.

[11] Scharren is the German word for booths.

[12] This is by no means an untypical location for a cemetery in a medieval city. To this day, in some areas of Germany, the word Kirchhof (churchyard) is synonymous to Friedhof (cemetery, graveyard). This explains the purpose of the near-by ossuary: since the space on the cemetery was limited and individual grave sites had to be reused before all the bones had decomposed completely, the intact bones were reverently stored in ossuaries like the one in Wittenberg.

[13] Cf. the English words bursary, bursar.

[14] In 1806 the Kingdom of Saxony had been forced to join Napoleon in his Confederation of the Rhine. In 1813 Saxony alone stood by the French emperor who had just been defeated in Russia and was now attacked again by Prussia (and defeated in the 1813 Battle of Leipzig). The fortress Wittenberg fell in 1814. As a consequence of the defeat, Saxony was occupied by Russian troops. Through the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Prussia gained about 40% of the territory, including Wittenberg. Napoleon had closed the university already in 1813. In 1817 it was combined with Halle University in Prussia.

[15] Francis of Assisi’s first rule was approved by the pope in 1209.