He forged a new concept of marriage and the family.

When his daughter magdalena died, Martin Luther’s reaction was surprising, yet strange. He knew God had blessed him, but he could not be grateful. “How strange it is,” he said, “to know that she is at peace and all is well, and yet to be so sorrowful!”

Luther appears to have been puzzled at his inability to put aside the “natural” human sorrow at the death of a child. At the same time we are struck by the fact that he believed he should be able to put his feelings aside. The explanation for this apparent anomaly lies in the fact that Luther was influential in creating a new set of attitudes and ideals about marriage and the family. Although he was to a very great degree the creator of these new attitudes, their very novelty caused him to be unsure of his own feelings at times.

As a young man, Luther’s views had been shaped by a medieval formulation much different from the one he developed later in life. He had, of course, begun his career as an Augustinian monk, sworn to a life of celibacy, free from the cares and worldly concerns of family life. Twenty-five years before 14-year-old Magdalena died, Luther had been a celibate monk with no thoughts of family or children for himself. In ultimately rejecting celibacy for the clergy he not only set in motion a revolution in his own life but one for the Western world as well.

To understand the depths of the revolution, we need to know something about medieval attitudes toward marriage, sexual relations, and the family. While the material on these attitudes is rich and complex, manuals for confessors composed in the late Middle Ages provide some striking illustrations. In these manuals, ...

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