Philological Limits to Knowledge
Luther's Tower Experience

    OUR pathways into the past are meanderings through the interpretations of history writers.  The way becomes difficult when their attitudes are very different from those they are writing about.  Martin Luther often spoke and wrote in language offensive to his biographers and to Reformation scholars.  Here I want to follow one such case.  It shows how each generation must interpret the sources for itself, and the kind of foolishness which can result when we fail to honor David Hume's maxim that is ain't always what it ought to be.
     An unbridgeable and frightening chasm separates what we are from what we know we should be.  “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”--this vast distance which removes filthy temporality from the perfection he envisaged was responsible for some of Luther's most colorful language.  “Oh dear Lord and Father, if I have from time to time used words in a sinfully careless manner, Thou knowest I did not do so with wicked intent, but to drive away the sorrows of my weak flesh.”  Well might he beg forgiveness for his careless way with words.
     Luther's sin had not been so much in “bad” language--although there had been plenty of that--as in his bold figurative attempts to express a religiously motivated contempt for this world.  Such usage made him all but incomprehensible both to the literal-minded and to those who affirm the flesh, into which categories sometimes fall both leaders and mass memberships of organized religion.  One such misunderstood Lutherism has produced a major distortion in Luther biography.  Our day of somewhat freer usage offers an opportune time in which to try to straighten it out.
     The comedy began among those voluminous notes made at Luther's table by his colleagues and soon to become famous and beloved to many generations as his Table Talks.  What has come down to us are not the actual records his companions kept, but at best only copies at one remove.  We can now study them in a superb critical edition by Ernst Kroker, whose careful collations tempt us to reconstruct the atmosphere of the Luther household in our own fancy.  Recurring themes in this great mass of documents from Luther's last fifteen years are the thoughts and concerns of old age.  He knew that his life's work was essentially behind him and that it could not be undone even if--as the devil regularly assured him--it had all been for the worst.  There is much reminiscence on just how it all came about.  Scholars have naturally been inclined to read into the material their own desire to nail down exactly what had happened, where and when, but Luther was really trying to come to terms with his own development and deeds, not to set the record straight.
     On one occasion he admits that if he had it all to do over again he would not be so naive as to offer his Gospel to the crowd, but would reserve it for the troubled in heart.  He was brought to this remark by a memory of the famous negotiations at Augsburg in 1530.  It caused him to recapitulate the thought processes which had finally led him to his Gospel.  Since this is only one of the many times Luther traced these lines, it might be an entirely unremarkable occasion were it not for an ill-fated misinterpretation of his concluding sentence.  Here is Table Talk 1681 in my translation from Georg Rörer, who probably gives us our best version of a transcript made at table by Johann Schlaginhauffen:

These words “just” and “mercy” used to trouble my conscience deeply, for the fear would immediately strike me when I heard them: if God is just, then He will punish us--and so on.  But as I gave more careful thought to the meaning, and to the occurrence of the words, I hit on that passage, “The just shall live by faith,” Hab. ii [4].  That means the justice of God is revealed independently of the Law.  --I began to change my mind.  If we are expected to live by faith, and if the justice of God is for the salvation of everyone who believes, then passages containing the phrase do not frighten sinners.  They offer the greatest comfort.  Thus heartened, I realized that the justice of God is certainly not something whereby sinners are punished, but by which they are made just, and whereby the penitent are saved.

Thus far these remarks are recorded in Latin, and Luther may have spoken them in Latin.  The last sentence shifts to German.  It stresses his great wonder that in this shabby mortality he should have been permitted such a high insight, the Gospel itself, as he concludes:

 The Holy Spirit inspired me with an ability like that, in this sewer (cloaca).

In another copy of Schlaginhauffen's transcript, one by Johann Lindener, the word cloaca is abbreviated Cl, perhaps on the assumption that all who knew Luther would understand what he had said, or maybe for propriety's sake--in the Rörer manuscript a later hand has marked cloaca through and placed in horto above the line ("in his garden").  This misses the point.  Luther is not reporting a sudden insight, much less a particular spot where it occurred; he is thinking about his intellectual development and his gratitude that the Spirit should have granted him "this ability" in our contemptible world.
    Thirty some odd years later (1566) Johann Aurifaber collected, emended, translated, and embroidered on the Table Talks.  When he came to these notes, he simply dismissed the problem of propriety by substituting the word alone: “The Holy Spirit inspired me alone with an ability like that.”  Although in this way Aurifaber suppressed Luther's frequent theme of the unworthiness of the flesh and, in great admiration for Luther, allowed him to appear pretty arrogant, Aurifaber does seem to have recognized cloaca as figurative.  He does not suggest that Luther's theological research was restricted to some particular sewer.  But this is exactly the way one of Luther's good friends did pass on the Schlaginhauffen transcript, much to the confusion of later ages.
     Conrad Cordatus was an old preacher who had trouble getting along with his parishoners and who turned up frequently in the Luther household between jobs.  The only member of the company older than Luther, he claimed that he was the one who first dared take notes at table, a practice soon adopted by several of the younger men.  At the time of the table talk in question, the summer of 1532, Cordatus was pastor at Niemeck, about three German miles (14 English) from Wittenberg.  At such times he copied out the table notes from friends regularly boarding with Luther.  Since Cordatus had the habit of inserting these borrowings by the date of his own receipt of them, we can often make a pretty sound guess as to what he got secondhand.  The passage which concerns us is in a series copied from Schlaginhauffen.
     With respect to just such borrowed material Cordatus causes some trouble.  He was so well acquainted with the Luther household that his many elaborations are by no means worthless.  Furthermore, Cordatus usually recopied his own notes and in doing so sometimes inserted yet more information.  Thus multiple excerpts from Cordatus's notebook may agree with one another, but not with one of Cordatus's own later, revised copies.  The table talk under discussion offers a good example of the kind of problem Cordatus poses.  Our best rendition of Cordatus's own earliest version may be the so-called Khumer Manuscript.  It too is in Latin except for the final sentence.  Here is my translation (and my emphasis):

 These words “just” and “justice of God” were a lightning bolt in my conscience.  On hearing them I was immediately seized by the fear: He is just, therefore he will punish.  But one time when, in this tower, I was thinking about these words, “The just shall live by faith,” “justice of God,” I recognized: If we are supposed to live justified by faith, and the justice of God is intended for the salvation of all who believe, then my soul takes immediate cheer, for it is the justice of God which justifies and saves us. These words became happy words for me.  --The Holy Spirit gave me this ability in this cloaca in the tower.

   Cordatus has by no means lost the substance, but his version would not hold much interest for us if it were not for a funny quirk of scholarship in the early twentieth century.  At that time, Cordatus's interpretation of Luther's insight as a sudden one, and of cloaca as designating a particular compartment in the cloister, was accepted at face value.  Research seemed to indicate that the privy may indeed have been located in a tower overhanging the Elbe River.  There can be no doubt about Cordatus's desire to display his knowledge of the Black Cloister: one version of his notes records that the room was heated!  As for Cordatus's own subsequent copy, here we find Luther saying: “But one time when, in this tower where the secret spot of the monks was located, I was thinking about these words. . ..”  Cordatus's habit of of using the first person throughout, thus putting his own commentary into Luther's mouth, has caused considerable editorial frustration, because the situation is not always so obvious as it is here.
    In this case it seems probable that Luther, as was his frequent wont, concluded a reminiscence on early, crucial deliberations with a figurative expression, calling this world here below a cloaca (or some German equivalent).  According to medieval topoi, the privy is a proper domain of the devil, hence a frequent metaphor for the world and its sinfulness.  In Luther's view the world is the devil's realm, and he “imprints the seal of his ass” on all his work.  Those who govern it are “fart lickers.”  Luther liked to refer to his own physical self as a “maggot bag.”  He sometimes wondered in disgust that mankind has not by now “shit the whole world full, right up to the heavens.”  Luther's scornful condemnation of the flesh in strong, figurative language was not restricted to his later years, although we do encounter such harshness most frequently in the Table Talks.  In his early thirties the young professor had, for example, admonished his students in the lecture hall that spiritual man is ashamed of the external self  “and condemns it as a latrine and sewer [latrina, cloaca].  ...What else is this body?”
     To sum up--Cordatus was not present to hear the remarks concerning justification in summer 1532.  Even if he had taken the notes himself, he might, when recopying , have had difficulty suppressing his good information on the layout of the Black Cloister.  His impression that Luther had been telling about a sudden insight does not agree with Schlaginhauffen, who was present and whose notes he was probably using.  Cordatus's literal interpretation of cloaca is out of line with Luther's usual figurative usage.  Entirely aside from all this, however, we would in any case hesitate to say that we might today, with the help of Cordatus alone, locate the exact spot where Luther was suddenly struck with a most decisive doctrinal insight.
     That is precisely what was claimed in 1911.  Strange to say, the debate which immediately ensued did not at all touch the relative reliability of sources.  Scholars were interested solely in just how that “tower” compartment where the “event” occurred had been used!  As a consequence, the expression “tower experience” entered into the Luther legend, where it remains to this day a well understood term for the crucial turning point in his theology.  It has deeply colored the popular Luther image, as in John Osborne's 1962 drama, Luther, with its important anality motifs, or in the widely read psychological study which may have inspired Osborne, Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther (1958).  Let us leave aside the very dubious question as to whether there really was some decisive turning point in the mature Luther's thinking or, if so, how we might go about documenting it today.  I just want to show how naiveté about philological limits to our knowledge of the past shaped Luther biography in a most remarkable way.
     Even though we are now able to reap earlier editorial labors, the complicated and massive transmission of the Table Talks is not fully clarified and probably never will be.  We are at best able to overview the many manuscripts in a far less confused way than the nineteenth century could.  In those days Aurifaber's very free translation into German was still the standard.  As that century progressed, and the authentic transcripts gradually came to light, the first reaction was indignation that the garrulous Aurifaber could so have duped the pious for three hundred years.  Editors of the new sources were quick to condemn Aurifaber, and inclined to tout the authenticity of their own particular manuscript item.  H. Wrampelmeyer, for example, brought out the Cordatus notes in 1885, and his exaggerated claims were widely accepted at first.  Thus the highly respected St. Louis edition of Luther's works (1887) cast Aurifaber to the winds and gave us the Table Talks according to Cordatus and one other of the table companions whose notebooks had become available, Veit Dietrich.
    It was an age of religious polemic.  Just after the turn of the century the self-confidence of pious Lutheran warriors was seriously undermined by an incredibly vicious and enormously learned four-volume study by the distinguished medievalist, Father Heinrich Denifle.  Not only could Denifle offer overwhelming patristic documentation to refute such foolish claims as that by Luther-Aurifaber that Luther “alone” had formulated the doctrine of justification by faith; Denifle renewed old sixteenth-century charges that Luther was mentally and morally depraved.  He initiated the psychiatric approaches to Luther which became so popular as the century progressed to the insights of Sigmund Freud.
    The first reaction of the Lutherans was skeptical reexamination of their Luther legend, and they were hard put to meet all Denifle's many attacks.  One can imagine their consternation at the appearance in 1911 of yet another multivolume Catholic Luther biography, this time by Father Hartmann Grisar.  Their fears were allayed by an introduction critical of “Catholic excesses.”  Grisar was for his day remarkably balanced and unprejudiced; his work soon became the most widely circulated Luther biography, translated into English, French, and Spanish.  Toward the end of Volume I, Grisar introduced the “tower” into Luther scholarship. His idea was that Luther wished to report the exact physical location of a sudden Gospel insight.  After quoting Conrad Cordatus to that effect, Grisar inserts after the “tower” reference his own words: “[Luther] seems to be pointing with his finger to the very spot.”
     From our vantage, Grisar may seem just a little dramatic, but the reaction he provoked in the Lutheran camp was violent.  Not that they were really seeking sympathy with the distant human being Martin Luther, or trying to understand him.  Both sides were engaged in a skirmish in which the quality of each move was gauged by its impact on the opponent.  We have difficulty today appreciating the horror with which Wilhelminian Lutherans, already demoralized by Denifle's stunning blows, now received the news that the most sublime moment in church history, their moment, had transpired in a stinking unmentionable place.  Within the year an eminent Lutheran, Otto Scheel, had published his lengthy refutation of Grisar: a painful attempt to argue that, since the room was heated, it must have been Luther's study.
     Scheel's Luther biography of 1917 reveals in few words his pious sophistry:

It was the tower of the Gray Cloister in Wittenberg, most probably, if we are permitted to follow the indications in a table talk, Luther's study which was located in the tower.  This reported location, concerning which doubts are not possible, helps decide with some certainty the other question as to the time when the Gospel was discovered.

 Scheel's contention that the room was heated also goes back, as we have seen, to Cordatus's information.  Even the most promising Reformation scholar of that day, Preserved Smith, was taken in--and he had just written a doctoral dissertation (Columbia, 1907) on the Table Talks!  “It is strange, and yet certain,” he wrote in the Harvard Theological Review, “that this revelation was vouchsafed to him in the privy of the Black Cloister, situated in the little tower overlooking the town walls.”  Just to cite one other giant of the era, and to show the perils of pedantry, in the fourth edition of his authoritative Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (1933) Reinhold Seeberg still quotes Cordatus, then asks coyly “whether cloaca is the correct interpretation of transmitted Cl--how would clusa be?”
     Not only was Seeberg representing the sources in a less than candid fashion; he was making excuses which had long since become unnecessary.  In 1919 the editor of the Table Talks, Ernst Kroker, had finally spoken up and said that cloaca had to be taken figuratively.  He had even come forward with a most convincing parallel, Luther's comment on music: “Since in this life into this shithouse our Lord God has placed such a noble gift [as music], what can we expect in that eternal life?” Yet Kroker's article was marred by further debate with Grisar about the interrelationship of the various manuscripts, which Kroker now explained in an unnecessarily complex way--and his parallel was not heeded.  Thus the “tower experience” became an indelible fixture in accounts of Luther's development.
     Lutherans with overly refined sensibilities struggled helplessly. The great Gustav Kawerau lashed out that “Surely Romish Christians are also convinced of the omnipresence of God; Grisar's discovery will not cause Protestants one moment's discomfort.  They walk on hallowed ground wherever God is their companion.”  Even the brilliant Karl Holl became shrill: “Luther's report that the illumination was granted him in the tower of the Wittenberg cloister has to be accepted as a reliable recollection because of its palpable quality . . . I find no cause to discuss Grisar's further determination of the location . . . What kind of company of cynical idiots does Grisar take Luther and his table companions to be!”  A natural corollary of the Germans' traditional idolatry of their great has been that some take mischievous glee in presumed foibles of the great.  This national characteristic gave fertile ground for the myth of Luther in the “tower,” as becomes apparent in the imposing psychological study by Paul Reiter during the Second World War.  With high sobriety Reiter subjects Luther's mental disorders to powerful modern insights.  The facts are clear to him: “In several [of the Table Talks] we have precise data concerning the spot where the event occurred.”  Reiter knew “personally several lyricists to whom the ideas for excellent works occurred while they meditated during the defecation process.”
     Foreign scholarship never seems to have questioned this continental peccadillo.  James MacKinnon and G. Gordon Rupp, to mention only two major authorities from the English-speaking world, follow in Preserved Smith's uncritical footsteps, at best doubting, as MacKinnon, that “his cell in the tower of the Wittenberg Monastery” was really a cloaca.  A wistfully comic chapter in Luther biography might well have been terminated in 1952 when Karl August Meissinger confessed that his own efforts of forty years together with the “infinite exertions of Reformation research” had failed to locate the exact time and place of the so-called “tower experience.”  The two best biographies in English, that by Roland Bainton (1940) and that by John M. Todd (1964), seem to agree with Meissinger that such a quest is vain, and in 1977 Lowell C. Green, an American, reflecting, no doubt, the good sense of Heinrich Bornkamm (1961), suggests that we avoid “the problematical word, ‘tower experience’.” But in Germany the legend has continued strong.  Peter Kawarau’s Luther (1969), while in other respects a sound work with theological emphasis, quotes Cordatus by way of dating the “tower experience.”  Hanns Lilje informs us in his more popular Martin Luther (1964): “Since Luther's study, the scene of this decision, was probably located in the tower of the Black Cloister in Wittenberg, this moment is called the Tower Experience.”
     Every comedy has its moral, and this one may have two.  In the first place, we should probably note that it was begun by learned men who felt they were serving a higher cause than mere learning.  In our own day our work may be largely freed from confessional trammels of the kind weighing on Grisar, Scheel, and the others; yet servitude to other ideals than learning itself, continues to prove obligatory--Reformation studies, already marked by the socialist ethic, now cultivate sensitivity, diversity, and gender awareness.
    Secondly, while Grisar and Scheel may be forgiven their uncritical reliance on Cordatus, it is difficult to understand why none of the others profited by Kroker's edition of the Table Talks (1912-1917).  They seem not to have appreciated how strictly limited is our knowledge of the past by the vagaries of documentation.  Seeberg was a historian, Reiter a psychologist, Kawerau a theologian; none felt obliged to be a philologist as well.  Anyone who wants to impose his opinion must, of course, examine the record.  To those who quite correctly protest that in our age of specialization this is impossible, the Nazarene gave grating answer: “Be ye therefore perfect.”


For your amusement, here is just a little sampling of web links to the "Tower Experience."  One could assemble a similar list for the equally spurious "Stotternheim Experience" and for the "Nailing of the 95 Theses."






http://www.schlosskirche.ch/sonntagsgedanken/turmerlebnis.html                                                                               return