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The Diet of Worms (German: Reichstag zu Worms, [ˈʁaɪçstaːk tsuː ˈvoɐms]) was a general assembly of the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in 1521 at Worms, a small town on the Rhine River located in what is now Germany. It was conducted from 28 January to 25 May 1521, with Emperor Charles V presiding. Although other issues were dealt with at the Diet of Worms, it is most memorable for the Edict of Worms (Wormser Edikt), which addressed Martin Luther and the effects of the Protestant Reformation.
The previous year, Pope Leo X had issued the Papal bull Exsurge Domine, outlining forty-one purported errors found in Martin Luther's 95 theses and other writings related to or written by him. Luther was summoned by the emperor. Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony obtained an agreement that if Luther appeared he would be promised safe passage to and from the meeting. Such a guarantee was essential after the treatment of Jan Hus, who was tried and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415 despite a safe conduct pass.
Emperor Charles V commenced the Imperial Diet of Worms on 28 January 1521. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views. When he appeared before the assembly on 16 April, Johann Eck, an assistant of the Archbishop of Trier (Richard Greiffenklau zu Vollraths at that time), acted as spokesman for the emperor.
The main events of the Diet of Worms relating to Luther took place from April 16 to 18, 1521.
- April 16: Luther arrived in Worms. The Reichsmarschall Ulrich von Pappenheim told Luther to appear the following day before the Diet at 4 p.m. Dr. Jeromee Schurff, Wittenberg professor in Canon Law, was to act as Luther's lawyer before the Diet.
- April 17: The Imperial Herald Sturm and Pappenheim came for Luther. Pappenheim reminded Luther that he should speak only in answer to direct questions from the presiding officer, Johann von Eck (not the professor from Ingolstadt). Eck asked if a collection of books was Luther's and if he was ready to revoke their heresies. Dr. Schurff said, “Please have the titles read.” There were 25 of them, probably including The 95 Theses, Resolutions Concerning the 95 Theses, On the Papacy at Rome, Address to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian, all of which had been written prior to the Diet of Worms. Luther requested more time for a proper answer, so he was given until the next day at 4 p.m.
- April 18: Luther prayed for long hours, consulted with friends and mediators, and presented himself before the Diet the next day. A larger crowd assembled than the previous day. Luther was a changed man, no longer in awe or feeling timid. He had probably memorized his speech. When the counselor put the same questions to him, Luther began, “The Most Serene Lord Emperor, Illustrious Princes, most clement Lords, etc.” He stated that he lacked the etiquette of the court. "They are all mine, but as for the second question, they are not all of one sort." Luther went on to place the writings into three categories: (1) Works which were well received by even his enemies: those he would not reject. These affected the Protestant Reformation. (2) Books which attacked the abuses, lies and desolation of the Christian world and the papacy: those, Luther believed, could not safely be rejected without encouraging abuses to continue. To retract them would be to open the door to further oppression. (Oberman, 39) “If I now recant these, then, I would be doing nothing but strengthening tyranny” (Oberman). (3) Attacks on individuals: he apologized for the harsh tone of these writings but did not reject the substance of what he taught in them; if he could be shown from the Scriptures that he was in error, Luther continued, he would reject them.
According to tradition, Luther is said to have spoken these words: "Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht Anders tun. Gott hilfe mir. Amen." ("Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.") However, there is no indication in the transcripts of the Diet that he ever said this, and most scholars now doubt these words were spoken. Indeed, the full sentence first appears years later in an account by Philipp Melanchthon, one of Luther's most ardent supporters, but only the last four words are recorded in the first hand account by Johannes Cochlaeus.
According to the Weimar Edition of Luther's works, the full text of Luther's final speech is as follows: "Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason (for I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen" (E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times, 504f.).
Private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. Before a decision was reached, Luther fled. During his return to Wittenberg, he disappeared.
Edict of Worms
The Edict of Worms was a decree issued on 25 May 1521 by Emperor Charles V, declaring, "For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work."
The Papal nuncio at the diet, Girolamo Aleandro, drew up and proposed the denunciations of Luther that were embodied in the Edict of Worms, promulgated on 25 May. The Edict declared Luther to be an obstinate heretic and banned the reading or possession of his writings.
Despite the agreement that he could return home safely, it was privately understood that Luther would soon be arrested and punished. To protect him from this fate, Prince Frederick seized him on his way home and hid him in Wartburg Castle. It was during his time in Wartburg that Luther began his German translation of the Bible. The edict was temporarily suspended at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 but then reinstated in 1529.
When Luther eventually reemerged from the Wartburg, the emperor, distracted with other matters, did not press for Luther's arrest. Ultimately, because of rising public support for Luther among the German people and the protection of certain German princes, the Edict of Worms was never enforced in Germany. However, in the Low Countries (comprising modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), the Edict was initially enforced against Luther's most active supporters. This could be done because these countries were under the direct reign of the Emperor Charles V himself. In December, 1521, Jacob Probst, prior of the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp, was the first Luther-supporter to be prosecuted under the terms of the Worms Edict. In February 1522, Probst was compelled to make public recantation and repudiation of Luther's teachings. Later that year, additional arrests were made among the Augustinians in Antwerp. Two monks, Johannes van Esschen and Kenet Millur, refused to recant and so on 1 July 1523, they were burned at the stake in Brussels.
Other diets of Worms
Other Imperial diets at Worms were convened in the years 829, 926, 1076, 1122, 1495, and 1545. Unqualified mentions of a Diet of Worms usually refer to the 1521 assembly.
- Translation of the Edict of Worms (1521) — Language of the Edict of Worms issued by Charles V after deliberations by the Diet of Worms. The text giving half the seized property to the accuser is an interesting (typical) example between the mindsets prevalent in justice during the Late Middle Ages and Modern Times.
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