Martin Luther, sick comic?
Growing up Evangelical, I’d hear about Martin Luther, who led the break with Catholics and founded Protestantism. I’d see images of a German guy in a robe. I had no sense of his personality. In biographies, I’m shocked to find — a comedian? With a very dirty mouth.
From Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet:
He would often joke about sex, even remarking that ‘pious Christ himself’ had committed adultery three times — once with Mary Magdalen and once with the woman at the well, and once with the adulteress whom he let off so lightly.
Scholars are only lately writing about Luther’s humor.
Christianity hadn’t even noticed it, or maybe wanted to. Eric W. Gritsch writes in a 2012 study, “Martin Luther’s Humor”:
Martin Luther (1483–1546) is the only “church father” who incorporated humor into his life and work. He did so by posing as a court jester (an advertised self-image), a quick wit, a facetious wag, and a sit-down comedian with humorous comments in more than five thousand “table talks.”
Luther’s biography, as he told it, can start to feel like a long series of skits and gags by a man who spent his life trying to be provocative. Well-known scenes of his life, as the scholar Risto Saarinen says, seem now to be ‘urban legends’. And these were famous stories.
Luther says that, at age 21, God sent a lightning flash to tell him to become a monk—nearly killing him! In reality, he probably became a monk to get out of an arranged marriage. “Newly discovered archive records show that the father had already married off three of his daughters and one son to the children of wealthy foremen,“ as Björn Schlenker notes.
When Luther became a monk, his dad was deeply furious.
As a monk Luther seems to do little except mope.
He writes a friend: “I should be ardent in spirit, but I am ardent in the flesh, in lust, laziness, effeminacy, and sleepiness.”
Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst, in a famous 1958 book on Luther that popularized the concept of an “identity crisis,” discusses scenes that Christianity hadn’t really liked to talk about: like Luther, in his twenties, being possessed by a demon?
Luther fell on the ground “raving” that “It isn’t me!” or “I am not!” It’s not clear what was going on. As Erikson notes: “In Luther’s fit, his words obviously expressed an overwhelming inner need to deny an accusation.”
Or maybe . . . Luther was just ‘causing a scene’ for laughs.
He finds his voice while sitting on the toilet.
“The elimination is so hard that I’m forced to press with all my strength, even to the point of perspiration,” he writes.
Luther first starts seeming like ‘Luther’ when writing on bowel problems. In a vivid letter, he describes a hemorrhoid “the size of a walnut” growing on his ass. Shitting is easiest, he reports, when stools are firm. “If it was mixed with blood, then there was a relief and almost pleasure in pooing, so that I was often inclined to defecate. And if it was touched with the finger, it itched pleasurably and the blood flowed.”
Over and over, he’ll guide male listeners through weird sexual scenarios—like touching his hemorrhoid while it bleeds, but feels good. The Luther performance becomes: shocking, crude, sensual journeys with the male body.
The story of Luther’s great Protestant insight—that only faith matters, not obeying rules—appears to have occurred on the toilet. Severely constipated, he’s thinking of Romans 1:17. “The righteous will live by faith.”
The Christian tradition had concealed the references, but Erikson put the case together. (The poet W.H. Auden references it in a poem: “Revelation came to / Luther in a privy . . .”)
“The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in the tower,” Luther announces later. “Here I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered Paradise itself through open gates.”
It’s not clear the scene even happened. The “gates of Paradise” opening while he’s trying to evacuate may be Luther toilet humor.
He’s famous for talk of farting, feces, and anal sex.
“Dear Devil … I have shat in my pants and breeches; hang them on your neck and wipe your mouth with them.”
“Have you not had enough, you Devil, so have I also shat and pissed, wipe your mouth on that and take yourself a full bite!”
But these were all lines delivered in public, and must’ve been amusing. He frames himself as a comedian. “I shall for the time being become a court jester,” as he says.
He’s reports his conversation with the devil. Satan comes at him, and Luther counters with his own heavenly posterior. “But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”
In a 1515 sermon he says: “Get lost Satan, eat your own shit!”
The times were certainly more ‘earthy’, but Luther was gross even for then. The English writer Thomas More calls him “this idler in the latrines, with his furies and ravings, befouling and himself befouled with his shit and his dung.”
In a study of Luther’s scatology, “The German Rabelais? Foul words and the Word in Luther,” David Bagchi notes “it could be argued that one of the reasons why scholars have traditionally concentrated on Luther’s early years is the excessively lavatorial nature of his late works.”
But the scat is present, he notes, throughout Luther’s career—delicately managed, censored, by later Christianity, who wrote a new ‘character’ for Luther: earnest, truth-telling, Lutheran hero.
The dark sexual humor was key to Luther’s rise.
He launches a crusade to allow clerics having sex. The Catholics, he argues, could “just as easily have banned shitting.” He accuses them all of being Sodomites. Why else would they avoid women?
The cardinals, he says, are trying “not to keep as many boys in the future” but it’s well known “how openly and shamelessly the pope and cardinals in Rome practice sodomy.”
A pope died recently, he says, “by means of this sin and vice. In fact, he died on the spot.”
Helmut Puff, in Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland 1400–1600, notes: “In pamphlets printed between 1520 and 1555, sodomy became the stock image and consistent tool for vilification.”
For Luther, “anality, illicit sexuality, and Satanism” combine, as Puff notes. “Very few critics have mentioned, let alone analyzed, the Reformers’ frequent invocation of the sins of Sodom in the wider context of the Reformation. Yet suspicions of sodomy were important to the popular acceptance of the Protestant split from Rome.”
“The homosexual slur against the papal legate was the mainstay of Protestant propaganda and certainly continued to be so into the seventeenth century,” notes Winfried Schleiner in a 1994 paper, “‘That Matter Which Ought Not To Be Heard Of’: Homophobic Slurs in Renaissance Cultural Politics.”
For Luther it seemed to be a joke. He calls Pope Paul III “pope fart-ass,” or “Her Sodomitical Hellishness Pope Paula.”
For someone doing ‘low comedy’ he strangely omits women and mockery of female bodies. Indeed, it’s not clear that female bodies really exist for him.
Even his joking about Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene, etc., puts all sexual focus on the male.
Luther’s own sexuality is a bit vague.
“When I was a monk I did not feel much desire,” he recalls later. “I had nocturnal pollutions in response to bodily necessity. I didn’t even look at the women when they made their confession, for I didn’t wish to recognize the faces of those whose confessions I heard.”
It’s his bizarre genius to pelt you with sexual images. As he talks, you’re imagining yourself as a monk having wet dreams, cleaning up, and going to listen to women telling you all about their sins.
Such passages would barely register in Christian treatments, and often not be mentioned. But it is shocking and lurid. Luther holds out the image of himself, a Catholic priest covered in semen, as the female confession are then perceived sexually, to be imagined by male listeners. What did they say?
Luther marries at 42, when a young woman all but proposed to him. He did it, he’d say, to “spite the devil,” and please his father.
“Some marriages were motivated by mere lust, but mere lust is felt even by fleas and lice,” he remarks. “Love begins when we wish to serve others.”
There are “queer” little details. His calls his wife ‘My lord Katie’.
Michelle DeRusha, in a book on the Luther marriage, writes: “Luther admitted that he was neither romantically nor physically attracted to Katharina, though he cared about her. ‘For I feel neither passionate love nor burning for my spouse,’ he confessed, ‘but I cherish her.’”
The Christians, from this difficult material, would have to try and find a narrative of a “godly marriage.” Which is part of the joke?
Luther’s friends hoped the marriage would end the scatology.
Hopefully, they say between themselves, “he will discard the low buffoonery which we have so often censured’,” one writes in 1525, as quoted by David Bagchi.
But Luther doubled down, pushing the scat and attacks on the Catholics as ‘Sodomites’ into epic territory. As in Lectures on Genesis he calls homosexuality a “terrible pollution” brought to Germany from Italy by Catholic monks. “Of course, they were trained and educated in such a praiseworthy manner at Rome.”
In an anti-Catholic screed, Against the Papacy at Rome, Founded by the Devil (1545), Luther went into the beyond. For it he had illustrations made of Catholics shitting and farting. Mark U. Edwards, Jr., a scholar of Luther’s late period, describes one with “the papal church depicted as being expelled from the anus of an enormous she-devil . . .”
What were Luther’s real views on women?
Reading the biographies, I sort of give up trying to find his ‘real’ views on anything. He says nice things about his wife. “Katie, you have married an honest man who loves you; you are an empress.” This is read by a Luther biographer as a wonderfully 20th century, ‘intimate’ marriage.
But Luther was recalled to dismiss his wife’s attempts to speak to him. “Say the Lord’s prayer before you speak,” he tells her. Or on her speech as a representative of female speech: “They are so tedious that one forgets what they are saying before they finish.”
Only scholars with more Catholic sympathies tend to linger on the really weird scenes. In Herbert David Rix’s Martin Luther: The Man and the Image I find the narrative of Luther and the young tutor, Jerome Weller, hired for the six Luther children.
Weller is noted for depression, and Luther writes him letters explaining what works for him. “How often have I grasped my wife and rubbed against her naked body that by arousing sexual desire in this way I might drive away those thoughts that come from Satan.”
In 1546, he’s ready for the show to be over.
“I’m fed up with the world, and it is fed up with me,” go his famous last words. “After all, it’s as I’ve often said: I’m like a ripe stool and the world’s like a gigantic anus, so we’re about to let go of each other.”
And down he goes.