In 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. At least, that’s the story: in truth, this is probably a legend put around after the event, and the list of grievances against the governance of the Roman Catholic Church was in the first instance sent only to Luther’s local bishop.
This is significant because, despite the fact that the 95 Theses and 1517 have been enshrined in timelines as the start of the Reformation and of an unprecedented political, religious, cultural and social shift in Europe (with genuinely international repercussions), in 1517 Luther would not have dreamt of a break with Rome. His principal problem was with the practice of indulgences – the method by which people could essentially pay to spend fewer eons of eternity in Purgatory, the place between Heaven and Hell – and it’s possible to imagine an alternative history in which the Church accepted Luther’s suggestions and moved on (potentially to another challenge further down the line).
The concrete nature of dates allows us to forget the contingency of history, or that in 1415, in the period before the printing press and the consequent easier flow of ideas across the continent, the Czech theologian Jan Hus had simply been burned at the stake for saying much the same as Luther would say a century later. If the Reformation changed the world (and it did), there is no particular reason that we should select 1517 as the date It Had To Happen – or, indeed, why it has proven more popular than the arguably more important date of 1521, when at the Diet of Worms the gap between Luther and Rome finally became an unbridgeable chasm.
Historians now write of the ‘Long Reformation’: even if 1517 began the change, in truth the world changed almost by accident … and slowly.