If religion set the tone for the 15th century, extravagance and growing secularism set the tone for the 16th, giving rise to a Renaissance unparalleled in world history. The Italian Renaissance, founded on humanist scholasticism, brought forth a mental transformation, giving power to artistry, math, geometry, science, and reason. Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man and Michaelangelo's Pieta were products of this artistic enlightenment, but it was the British and German philosophers that would formulate the most mental change among Europe's literary elites. Men like John Wycliffe and Johan Hus would question Catholic dogma in the 15th century, leading one particular man, Martin Luther, to carry on where these men left off.
Luther's reformation was a byproduct of growing hedonism in the Catholic Church. Ever since the Investiture Controversy of 1075, the Pope officially broke away from secular control and declared full power over spiritual and temporal matters, thus granting himself Dictatus Papae, or special authorities in place of God. One notable power among these was the right to depose the emperor. Since the 11th century, the pope and emperor would conflict over matters of rule, leading to the Church/State schism . But it was the Catholic Church itself, exempt from taxes and growing more powerful through the selling of indulgences and church offices that brought about the reformation.
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany in 1483 and at age 18 entered into the University of Erfurt to study law to appease his father. He ended up with a degree in Philosophy and spent many years teaching philosophy and theology. After he was ordained into the priesthood, he earned his doctorate of theology at the University of Wittenburg, and spent the rest of his life as a faculty member of the prestigious university. By 1511, Luther took a pilgrimage to Rome and experienced the world of decadence and materialism, overshadowing the spiritual and modest realities of religious life. He was deeply disturbed by his experience in Rome that he shrouded himself in faith alone to save himself from temporal sins.
Luther chose to write candidly about his views on religion and sought not to create a new religion, as had actually been the case, but to reform Catholicism from within. His 95 Theses and Address to the German Nobility were examples of his determination to end the Church's selling of indulgences and promote the idea that 'faith alone shall save all'. This new interpretation of religion brought many into Luther's camp, one person in particular, Frederick III also known as 'the Wise', elector of Saxony, who defended Luther against excommunication and protected him from assassination. Perhaps most notably, were the poor serfs of Germany who rallied behind Luther, championing him as the true "Master" here to free all of them from the chains of their landlords.
Luther never mentioned anything of the sort. Freedom according to Luther could be attained through submission, not revolution and violence. He often times publicly chastised serfs for violent acts including vandalizing church altars. But it was he who gave these serfs the ability to think for themselves. A chance to rise up from their oppression. An advancement from their previous status as powerless and underappreciated workmen.
Luther's reformation was not what he envisioned as a young man. He sought a peaceful life of monasticism and prayer, a true model Catholic. But his calling became one of forseeable change, leading him to strengthen his faith and propose reforms that would defend those who could not defend themselves. After his death, Lutheranism would take shape within and outside of Germany, leading many Europeans to decide their faiths. Whether one agrees with Luther or not, is irrelevant. We can all agree that his largest contribution to mankind was encouraging all who have faith regardless of socio-economic status, to become true agents of their faith.