The Reformer’s Rubbish

[Excerpted from the original article in Der Spiegel for things of archaeological interest, and for the odd bit of particularly gratuitous Medieval stereotyping; 28 October 2008]

Archaeologists Unveil Secrets of Luther’s Life

By Matthias Schulz

Archeologists have uncovered Martin Luther’s household waste, including beer mugs, toy marbles and a child’s crossbow. The find is being shown in a new exhibition that casts the religious reformer’s private life in a new light.

Brother Martin, a stout man, was sitting on the toilet in the Wittenberg Monastery, wearing the black robe of the Augustinian Order, when he was suddenly struck with the fundamental concept of his reformist body of thought.

Martin Luther himself noted, in two after-dinner speeches (Nos. 1681 and 3232b), that Protestantism was born in the sewer: “The spiritus sanctus imparted this creation to me on dis cloaca.”

Nevertheless, historians have warmed to Luther’s own admission, arguing that while the word “cloaca” could be interpreted as “lavatory,” perhaps it was a more general term for “this world.”

But the truth is truly as distasteful as the master once stated. Excavations in the Wittenberg Monastery have uncovered not only the remains of Luther’s old study, but “a small pit latrine with a lid” in the cellar below, as archeologist Mirko Gutjahr reports.

This latest finding is the result of a major archeological dig that began in 2003 and ended a few weeks ago with a final analysis of the site. Architectural historians, ceramics specialists and zoologists have discovered the kitchen waste of the man whose theories changed the world, and who proudly referred to himself as the “doctor above all doctors in the entire papacy.”


The German State Museum of Prehistory will unveil the exhibition of Luther’s personal effects this Friday, to coincide with Reformation Day. The catalogue describes the content of the exhibition as “sensational,” noting that it enables us to reexamine “entire chapters in human life.”

All of this snooping around in the refuse of the founder of their church has not exactly been met with enthusiasm within Germany’s protestant congregations. In their view, the notion that the Luther family tossed dead cats into the household garbage is just as irrelevant, from a religious standpoint, as the suspicion that Luther, as a monk, attached his theses to the castle church with tacks instead of nails.

But the debris from Luther’s household should not be downplayed. Some of it, analyzed using the methods of criminology, relates to the reformer’s intellectual works, and it even reveals that he was not always entirely truthful.


The excavation exposed massive basement vaults and a rear courtyard surrounded by large outbuildings.

It was on this farm that young Martin and his siblings played, surrounded by flocks of geese and chickens. The fragments at the site reveal that they played with crossbows, clay marbles and bowling pins made of beef bones — toys not every family could afford at the time.

The remains of kitchen scraps discovered on the property reveal that the family frequently ate roast goose and the tender meat of young pigs. During Lent, the Luther family ate expensive ocean fish, like herring, codfish and plaice.

Their diet even included figs and grapes, as well as partridges and songbirds, especially robins. The family hunted with clay decoys.

The birds were cooked in gray three-legged pots in a spacious kitchen. The hearth was heated with hot copper cinders from the smelting works, cooled to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit) and brought to the house in wooden carts.


He was constantly examining his inner self. But the deeper he looked, the more he realized that evil lust and hidden desires were staring back at him. The agony of the young novice began to grow, especially since Luther, still completely immersed in the Middle Ages [ … your ed loved this bit … ]

The archeologists have already been hard at work in the old abbey in Wittenberg. They scored a direct hit in the rear courtyard, where they found a waste pit filled with a collection of the family’s refuse.

The find reveals that the doctor worked in a heated room with a view of the Elbe River. He spent his evenings writing in the light of lamps filled with animal fat. The dig contained the bindings of parchment books, several “quill knives” to sharpen goose quills, as well as four writing sets containing sand, ink and styluses.

The educated thinker was tremendously prolific, writing an average of 1,800 pages a year.

His tone became increasingly brusque over the years. He denounced Turks as “devils,” Jews as “liars” and gay priests as “garden brothers who do it with each other.” Rome, he wrote, was surrounded by “pig-theologians.”

After penning such sharp words, the powerfully eloquent reformer ate from faience bowls and drank from magnificent Turkish pitchers. The archeologists found intricate oven tiles decorated with motifs from the Old Testament, as well as more than 1,600 shards from glasses Luther, an avid eater, used to quench his considerable thirst for beer. Luther needed it to numb his emotions. The reformer’s attacks on the apostolic seat had come at the price of depression. He was constantly tempted by sadness.

In moments of remorse, the suffering Luther was convinced that the devil was trying to convince him to revoke his thoughts. His prompt response was to throw inkpots at the devil or resort to the power of his bowels: “But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”

Given his many conflicts with the pope, it is no surprise that the stress took a toll on Luther’s health. He was plagued by rheumatism and urinary stones. He was so weak that he had himself taken to his lectures in a handcart. He also suffered from angina pectoris, which made him anxious. As gout set in, writing became increasingly difficult.

And then there was his obesity. At first, the doctor weighed 100, then 120 and, finally, an estimated 150 kilograms (the estimate is based on an ink drawing made of Luther shortly after his death).

The archeologists also found dozens of small containers, which Luther used to hold the many ointments and medications he bought for himself. […]

[Source: Der Spiegel c/o our new Special Foreign Correspondent Extraordinaire and Secret Archaological Source. If you liked Rubbish, you might also be interested in Bones in the Backyard: German Archaeologists Uncover Long History of Executions. ]

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