Martin Luther, the man credited with sparking the Protestant Reformation, which would eventually change the course of history in Western and Central Europe, died in the early morning hours of February 18, 1546. He died in the town of his birth, Eisleben, Germany, after traveling there to help resolve a...
Martin Luther, the man credited with sparking the Protestant Reformation, which would eventually change the course of history in Western and Central Europe, died in the early morning hours of February 18, 1546. He died in the town of his birth, Eisleben, Germany, after traveling there to help resolve a conflict involving his extended family. At the time of his death, Luther was over sixty years old, which for the sixteenth century would be considered relatively old age, even in a wealthy or privileged person who had access to adequate food and medicine. His exact cause of death, like that of many notable people of his period, is somewhat up for debate. Knowledge about how human bodies operated was far more limited than it is today, and the idea of an autopsy would not emerge for many centuries. So while accurate medical records, even for someone as well-known as Martin Luther, did not exist in this period, based on the eye-witness accounts of his final days we can come to a conclusion as to his likely cause of death.
Luther travelled to his hometown in January of that year. Travel in the 1500s is almost inconceivable to us today, living in the post-industrial age. Luther would have traveled by horse, a much slower, much less comfortable mode of transportation, exacerbating the medical conditions which already caused him discomfort and stress. Arthritis, cataracts, and kidney stones all plagued Luther throughout his later years. Even though he was only in his early sixties, Luther would have lived his whole life in a world where things we take for granted now, like running water, antibiotics, sanitation, and dentistry, didn’t exist. Life was hard; death came often and early. Losing children in infancy, women in childbirth, and everyone else to common illnesses such as the flu or dysentery, was a common occurrence in all levels of society. So, traveling in the cold weather, over rough roads, would have taken a toll on the aging pastor and theologian.
Luther gave a sermon only a few days before his death, so we can assume his eventual cause of death was relatively sudden. He is said to have complained of chest pains and dizziness shortly before he died, after what is referred to as an apoplectic fit that left him unable to speak. Based on this information, it seems likely that making this trip home in winter in his general ill health, added to the stress of being one of the most polarizing figures in a generation—in all of Western history in a lot of ways—took its toll on Luther and led to a heart attack or stroke. His last words are reported to have been a variation of the traditional Christian prayer of “Into your hands I commend my spirit, O Lord”—fitting for a man who revolutionized the Christian ideas of sin, death, and the afterlife, contributing to the proliferation of new Christian sects across Europe. His ideas and their legacy would contribute to the total reorganization of the social, religious, and political order of Europe for centuries to come.