Luther lived in exciting times, the era of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Copernicus, and Columbus. Even today, the splendor of life at a Renaissance court excites the imagination.

However, the young man and his family were utterly untouched by the era’s larger events. Not a single Luder was aware of Columbus’s voyages. None knew of the glories of Renaissance art and literature until much later. Instead, they endured the harsh realities of life in northern Europe, where violence was part of everyday life.

A local drought, a terribly wet spring, or an early frost could force grain prices up as much as 150 percent over the previous year. Many people were reduced to begging for food.

Peasants often sought recourse for grievances not in the courts but with fists, knives, and clubs. Beggars and the homeless—which included many maimed, insane, and mentally retarded—were so numerous that authorities on the west bank of the Rhine would periodically round them up and drive them over to the east bank. From there, other soldiers would march them deep into the Black Forest and on to central Germany.

The Plague stalked Europe at the time. In Strasbourg, to take one local example, it took the lives of 16,000 of the 25,000 inhabitants and left deserted 300 villages in the region.

If this was an age of death, it was also an age of pilgrimages, saints, and relics. The search for spiritual security colored everything. Christ was often pictured on a throne with a lily (resurrection) coming from one side of his head and a sword (damnation) coming from the other. The burning question was, “How can I avoid the sword and earn the lily?”

Dr. James M. Kittelson is professor of history at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, and author of Luther the Reformer (Augsburg, 1986).