Martin Luther and Childhood Disability in 16th Century Germany: What did he write? What did he say?

Revised and extended version of a paper that was first published with copyright by The Haworth Press, Inc., Binghampton, NY 13904-1580, in the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health (2001), vol. 5 (4) pp. 5-36, and is here reproduced with permission. Martin Luther’s ideas and theological writings on deaf or disabled children and adults, and his personal and practical experiences in this field are shown. Textual evidence gives a different picture from what is commonly believed, and is interesting both for Luther’s own times and the modern world. Internet publication URL:

M. Miles (West Midlands, UK)


Martin Luther's views on disability have been widely misapprehended and caricatured on the basis of a few items in a dubious edition of shorthand notes of conversations. His written and spoken arguments across 30 years (1517-1546) concerned with childbirth and infancy, devils, superstitions, changelings, prodigies, folly, disablement, deafness, participation in Christian sacraments, and exegesis of Biblical texts on disabled people, give a more reliable and interesting guide to his views, in the context of Luther's personal involvement with sickness, disability and practical care. Historically, European social and religious developments contained a broader range of views on disability than is commonly supposed, with some challenges for 21st century thought and practice.

[Revision Notes]

[This Web version, revised after four years, includes further explanatory material and discussion in the hyper-linked "revision end-notes". The original text remains virtually intact. A few short insertions appear in square brackets [ ]. Numbers in square brackets refer to "revision end-notes". (The original paper had no end-notes). If anyone wishes to cite or quote the text that was originally journal-printed, it is easy to do so. Everything that has been added is in square brackets or in end-notes; except that the Reference list now includes all the references for both text and end-notes, without differentiation.]

KEY WORDS: Martin Luther, disability, deafness, children, changeling, beliefs, history, 16th century, Reformation, Christian church, sacrament.





-- The Plague

-- Turk or Torture

-- Infant and Child Care



-- Changelings





-- The Assistant

-- The Worthy and Unworthy Poor









In recent decades the introductory paragraphs of various papers or chapters concerned with disability have given a lightning tour of key points in their authors' beliefs about European disability history. Typically the practice of exposing impaired infants in ancient Greece has been visited, followed by a quick call on Martin Luther supposedly advising a ruler to throw a severely disabled boy into the river. The latter is sometimes taken to sum up a well-known period of 'medieval' horrors in which Church officials devoted much of their energy to burning heretics, torturing witches, terrifying illiterate congregations with hellfire sermons, then milking them of their pitiful earnings by selling indulgences. The tour of atrocities may conclude with reference to the rise of institutional care in the 19th century and a denunciatory mot from Michel Foucault, before reaching home in the blissful light of the late 20th century.

From such fleeting and derogatory glimpses as this, what Martin Luther wrote and said about disablement, especially in children with severe congenital impairments, has widely been assumed to be nasty, brutish and short. Authors have often added their own little creative flourishes far beyond any actual evidence. For example, in an advocacy book on the rights of disabled persons, one author proclaims that

"Hitler was not the first to advocate getting rid of disabled people: in medieval Germany Martin Luther strongly endorsed the killing of disabled babies as 'incarnations of the devil'." (Coleridge, 1993, pp. 45-46)

Citing at third or fourth hand a single case where Luther is alleged to have suggested killing a supposed changeling, many more authors slip quietly into the plural, e.g. "If these children lived, Luther recommended killing them" (Barnes, 1991, p. 12, italics added). Views attributed to Luther were cited in a 20th century German debate about the 'legal killing' of neonates [1], but his actual writings in this area have had curiously little detailed study. In anglophone countries, Luther's views on disablement are practically unknown beyond the caricature mentioned above, based on a few remarks reported or misreported by dining companions and students. [2]

A brief essay by David Colón (1989) aims to go a little deeper into the question and to introduce further evidence from Luther's life and writings. Colón does succeed in pointing out the narrow and misguided focus of the complainants, and the one-sided account by some defenders of Luther. He also indicates that Luther's views on baptism and suicide cast alternative light on how he regarded the devil's influences. Unfortunately Colón refers repeatedly to Luther's "attitude towards mentally retarded children" and supposedly brutal views on "killing of retarded children". It is almost as if 'mentally retarded children' were a single species embracing children with any sort of impairment, developmental delay or abnormal behaviour, and Luther knew them well and had a single attitude and policy toward them, like a man who hated cats and kicked any cat that he met. No evidence is offered for Colón's titular "attitudes toward mentally retarded children in Sixteenth Century Germany" beyond a few quotations from Luther, almost all of which come from an edition of the translated "Table Talk", without any apparent awareness of the flaws in that source.

To pretend to assess Luther's views on the basis of a few much-edited scraps of hearsay evidence would be ludicrous, given that a vast annotated edition exists of his written exegetical, pastoral and political works in German and Latin, much of it also translated and published in English. Material below is quoted or cited mostly from the 55-volume English translation Luther's Works (1955-1986) (hereafter: LW). Some passages from the 100+ volumes of the Weimar critical edition (1883- ) entitled D. Martin Luthers Werke are referenced under the standard abbreviation WA, (with WA Br for correspondence, WA TR for Table Talk). The present paper by no means exhausts the question of what Luther wrote or said with pertinence to disabled children, let alone what he thought and meant. It does aim to open up these questions and to review significant parts of the available evidence. To do so intelligibly also requires consideration of the context of thought, practice and innovation in the world into which Luther was born, grew up, and acted as a man.


The period of Luther's life (1483-1546) now appears pivotal in European social and religious history because of the Reformation initiated by Luther when (supposedly) he nailed up his 95 debating theses at Wittenberg in 1517. It was also a period of other highly significant changes of thought and practice, which began to have increasing effects on how people perceived one another and the world in which they lived. Patterns of thought that now tend to be summarised dismissively as 'medieval', i.e. pre-scientific, pre-printing, narrow, inflexible, dominated by hierarchical religion and supposedly all-embracing doctrine, characterised by superstition, credulity and dependence on translated and packaged knowledge from ancient authorities, had already begun to be subjected to deep if usually covert criticism in some urban centres of humanist learning long before Luther began his strident public challenges and rebukes to Papal authority. Outside the cloister and academy the challenge to Rome may have been less an issue of doctrine or heresy than one of deep-rooted private scepticism or indifference to Christian teaching and morality, a secularisation of the mind in a growing number of urban people who were finding room to think for themselves as individuals.

The church historian Kenneth Latourette (1953, p. 641) remarked that by 1500, "Western Europe, partially Christianized by the advances of the previous centuries, was being de-Christianized." The past half century has produced more nuanced views, with vigorous debate about the extent or limitations of private piety and the growing mechanisation of ecclesiastical responses with prolific use of the new weapon of printing. Whatever may have been the inward alienation, however, it was always prudent not to make it too public. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1526) counselled his hypothetical Prince that it was good to be "pious, faithful, humane, religious, sincere", and even better to appear to possess such qualities. Best of all was to be able to throw them off and act brutally when the occasion required, before resuming the mask of piety (Machiavelli, 1532, transl. 1903, pp. 70-71).

The Plague

Rapid death from the bubonic plague (later called the Black Death) had been a recurrent threat since it first scythed through the European population in 1347, with subsequent widespread socio-economic disruption. The Roman Church was also shaken and weakened during the 14th & 15th centuries by manifest corruption among senior clergy, and by many external factors such as the work of Reformation forerunners John Wycliffe (c. 1329-1384) and John Hus (c. 1369-1415). In Germany people noticed the clergy becoming bubonic no less than the ordinary 'sinful masses', a fact contributing to some further slackening of the Church's grip (Ziegler, 1982, pp. 85-87). The plague returned periodically into the 16th century, hitting Germany in 1527, 1535 and 1539 during Luther's ministry. When it arrived in 1527, Luther composed an open letter encouraging fellow-believers to stand fast and tend the sick as he himself did in Wittenberg city and in his own extended household, rather than heading for the hills (LW 43: 113-138). Luther gave his opinion that all such epidemics were "spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath". Yet this was also "God's decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives" as Christ had done (LW 43: 127).

Luther as an earnest young cleric has been characterised piquantly as "humble but forthright, always willing to give annoying advice" (Marius, 1999, p. 148). He also had plenty of counsel to offer to city officers or individuals on public and private measures for reducing plague dangers. His proposals followed shortly after De Subventione Pauperum, the detailed recommendations of 1526 to the city officers of Bruges by Juan Luis Vivés, for relief of poor and infirm people (in: Salter, transl. 1926, pp. 4-31), a landmark in the embryonic movement for civic responsibility to which Luther made energetic contributions (Geremek, 1994, pp. 180-191). Luther considered that a failure to take sensible health precautions would also be a dereliction of religious duty (LW 43: 131-133). The precise roles and responsibilities of God, angels and devils, and the recommended state of mind of the believer in standing fast and submitting to punishment while taking steps to mitigate its effects, were not entirely coherent or logical (cf. LW 54: 157 & 172; No.s 1559 & 2829), but displayed some of Luther's pragmatism. He was less concerned to work out a systematic universal theology than to offer practical advice on Christian conduct in society and in private. Luther was also realistic in recognising that one might easily be "overcome by horror and repugnance" when confronted by a person dying of the plague. He assured his readers that it was the devil "who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing"; thus they should care for their sick neighbour not only to please God, but also for the pleasure of spitting in the devil's eye! (LW 43: 127-128).

Turk or Torture

A further major threat from the East, after the fall of Byzantium in 1453, was the Turkish expansion under Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566). After swallowing Syria and Egypt in 1516-17, the Turks added Belgrade to the Ottoman empire in 1521, and threatened Vienna in 1529. The Turk, the Pope, the Jew and sometimes even the German Peasant, recurred in Luther's shooting gallery of 'demonic' forces used or permitted by God to chastise the erring populace. Among them all, the Turkish Muslims were the ones with the serious fighting forces. From Belgrade through Vienna, a straight line of march for Suleiman's troops would have passed remarkably close to Wittenberg -- however unlikely such a route might have been had Vienna fallen. Meanwhile, if the Turk held off, there were more personal threats to Luther from successive Popes, through their local representatives and the German (Holy Roman) Emperors. For over 25 years Luther lived his life under some threat of being seized, tortured and burnt at the stake as a condemned heretic (Marius, 1999, pp. 5, 163-165). From five centuries later, Luther's life seems to flow forward like an irresistible force; but within his own time he clearly had very little assurance of how things would turn out, or whether his defiance of Rome would end for him in the customary penalty of ferocious torture and agonizing death, an end earnestly wished for him by thousands of powerful people across Europe from around 1520 onward. It is not therefore surprising that Luther's writings about his adversaries, and about all that he considered demonic, were often hasty and vitriolic as well as hilariously scatological. [3] This uncompromising characteristic set him at odds with the critical thinker and writer whose work had prepared much of the ground for Luther's stand, the formidable Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) who preferred to work for the renewal of the Church from within by scholarly persuasion rather than by uproar and denunciation.

Spanish ships reached the Caribbean in 1492 while Luther was a child, and not long afterwards Europeans confronted the Aztec civilisation. Meanwhile, Portuguese adventurers had discovered the southern route to India, breaking Arab control of trade between Europe and the East, and incidentally initiating a lingering death for traditional tales of "monsters in the East". By 1500 the freshly imported (or newly resurgent) syphilis was roaring across Europe, followed by the births of more infants with substantial congenital impairments. Strong currents were sweeping through medical knowledge, one of the major sources that could provide an alternative perspective to that of theology. Renaissance scholars had begun the interrogation of classical Greek and Roman medical sources direct, rather than through the partly flawed Arabic translations. Some like Luther's contemporary, the medical freethinker Theophrast von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (c. 1493-1542), became radically disenchanted with the heritage of antiquity, however transmitted. In June 1527, "taking his cue from Luther", Paracelsus burnt in public a copy of the Qanun of the great medical systematiser Abu Sina, "along with various Galenic texts" (Porter, 1997, pp. 202-203). The age of scientific 'seeing for oneself' was dawning, heralded by illustrators such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who brought new powers of observation to bear on the body. Nicholas Copernicus had also seen for himself how the planetary orbits worked, before teaching a heliocentric system in the 1530s. Luther thought this a typical piece of academic triviality (LW 54: 358-359, No. 4638; Brecht, 1999, p. 118).

Infant and Child Care

Medical advances began to move faster as printed editions spread across medical schools and practitioners, and as the availability of printed texts motivated an expansion of literacy. By 1513 these currents had brought in the first printed vernacular textbook for midwives and expectant mothers, the influential Rosengarten by Eucharius Rösslin, a gynaecologist and paediatrician of Frankfurt and Worms. Rösslin's descriptions of childbirth were "utterly frank, usually graphically realistic", and entirely free of "traditional prayers and appeals to saints for women in labour". His recommendations on childhood problems included treatments for epilepsy, eye defects, and impaired motor abilities (Ozment, 1983, pp. 102, 110, 125-126). Whether these sources of advice had any early effect on public and private practice is harder to demonstrate. There is evidence that the population grew substantially during the first sixty years of the 16th century, despite a mortality toll in which one third of all infants died in some parts of Germany (Pfister, 1995, p. 51) and "barely half of those born reached adulthood" (Jütte, 1995, p. 347). A consequence of the rapid population rise, without corresponding improvements in agriculture or trade, was that nutrition deteriorated, which probably also reinforced the ailments and infirmities that were normal companions throughout the life stages in Luther's Germany. [4]

Assessing the extent of childhood impairments in early modern times is very difficult. When infant and child mortality reached from 30 to 50 per cent, it is reasonable to suppose that children with severe or multiple impairments were preferentially represented in this toll (see e.g. Volpe, 1986, p. 427) as they are still in the few nations that continue to suffer extreme under-five mortality rates. Some would very probably have been helped on their way to an early death by parental neglect or by deprivation of adequate nutrition or care. For others, over-protection and some degree of concealment would have been likely, together with visits to saints' shrines where miraculous cures were believed possible [see e.g. Moody, 1992]. Those with a strange appearance, facial disfigurement, 'animal' features or severe epileptic fits might suffer disproportionate rejection or oppressive treatment, with the implication that their peculiarity arose from the devil's intervention. However, congenital impairment touched the rich and powerful as well as the masses. For example, the succession of the mentally incompetent Duke Friedrich of Saxony was a matter of some religious and political moment to Luther in the late 1530s (Midelfort, 1994, pp. 53-55, 174). Luther's own contribution to epidemiology arose while praising God for showing more mercy than wrath, since one could see "a hundred thousand healthy people for every ailing, blind, deaf, paralytic, or leprous person." (LW 24: 73) Without denying Luther's thesis, twenty healthy people might have been a closer estimate.

In some geographical areas, higher levels of odd appearance and even 'monstrosity' might be commonplace. Europeans were not confined to imagining curious beings far away on the Eastern margins of the world, as detailed by Rudolf Wittkower (1942). Considerable numbers of Alpine children and adults suffered what are now known as Iodine Deficiency Disorders, manifest in goitres and severe cretinism (Merke, 1984, pp. 67-69, 132-135, 206-207). They were described by Jacques de Vitry (c. 1165 - 1240) at the close of a catalogue of Indian monsters (Bongars, 1611, pp. 1112-13); but the Alpine cretins were near at hand, and the descriptions accurate. Their appearance could later provoke even hard-boiled scientific observers to describe them as "scarcely human", and "little better than senseless beasts" (von Haller, 1763, vol. 5, bk 17, p. 570). Later, the physicist Horace-Bénédicte de Saussure (1803, vol.4, pp. 127, 264) reported having the terrifying impression that a group of grossly deformed Alpine villagers had been transformed by an evil spirit into monstrous caricatures of humanity. Large endemic goitre areas on the routes to and from Rome (Kelly & Snedden, 1960, p. 72, fig. 3) were crossed on foot by Martin Luther, who probably saw many goitrous and cretinous villagers during his journeys.


Responses to disability and disabled people during the first 15 centuries of Church history seem to have been an odd mixture of doctrinal problematics and exclusions, practical kindliness, and rather grim-faced care, the balance often being tipped heavily towards one side or another. The extent of Christian involvement, whether felt positively or negatively on the receiving end, is also very hard to quantify. The Church inherited the Jewish scriptures, which provided some basis for both exclusion and inclusion -- e.g. the Levitical prescription that the priest, in the public role of representing the people before God, should not visibly be blemished; yet the same man was entitled to his benefits as a member of the priestly clan, regardless of any disability. The Western Church did not inherit the detailed Rabbinical discussions and interpretations of scriptural texts concerned with disability, which developed over centuries and slowly affected Jewish attitudes and practices (Abrams, 1998). Instead, it had to absorb the accounts of Jesus healing chronically sick or disabled people, sometimes by command, sometimes by touch, sometimes at distance, sometimes by prescribed treatment, sometimes instantaneously, sometimes by stages, often 'out of compassion', sometimes recorded as part of a theological discourse, sometimes with apparent ease, sometimes with difficulty in the face of disbelief, often linked with exorcism of demons, sometimes without mention of these. The range and variety of such reports, with some extension in the lives of the saints, was sufficient that almost anything could be demonstrated from them, and almost anything could be allegorized into or out of them. Luther made some contribution to such interpretations.

A pertinent feature growing during Luther's lifetime was the ecclesiastical interest in 'monsters' and their alleged origin or association with witchcraft and demonic activity. Luther was a young child when the Dominicans Henricus Institor (Kramer) and Jacob Sprenger produced their Malleus Maleficarum [probably 1487] claiming to give a detailed account of how witches worked in the service of the devil, with the (temporary) permission of God, and how they should be pursued and eradicated, starting with Northern Germany. The Malleus appears to open in unexpectedly enlightened style, setting out various doubts as to whether anyone is obliged to believe in witches or in their power to effect real harm. Unfortunately these and the many subsequent questions were set up only in order for them to be hammered down as "heretical errors", using wordy arguments that would probably convince anyone who was ready to be convinced, or who found it more prudent to appear convinced than to require the help of stretching racks and red-hot tongs in reaching the Theologically Correct opinion. In more recent times, the denunciatory thrust of the Malleus has often been taken as representative of 16th century thought; yet its pattern of question and answer, or proposition and attempted refutation, actually suggests that there were a good many questions and doubts about the whole business in the minds of at least the educated public in late 15th century Germany. [5]

More specifically pertinent are various references to witches and impairments in children. For example, in the Malleus Part I, Qn.1, a Canon is cited that

"clearly says that creatures can be made by witches, although they necessarily must be very imperfect creatures, and probably in some way deformed." (Kramer & Sprenger, transl. Summers, 1928/1971, p. 45)

Part I, Qn 18, discusses whether afflictions necessarily come through witchcraft. The questioners

"submit that they are similar to natural infirmities and defects, and may therefore be caused by a natural defect. For it may happen through some natural defect that a man becomes lame, or blind, or loses his reason, or even dies; wherefore such things cannot confidently be ascribed to witches." (Ibid., p. 197)

That argument is duly dismissed. In Part II, Qn.1., Ch.11, doubt is again raised, for

"although greater difficulty may be felt in believing that witches are able to cause leprosy or epilepsy, since these diseases generally arise from some long-standing physical predisposition or defect, none the less it has sometimes been found that even these have been caused by witchcraft." (Ibid., p. 297)

Several pages of examples are then given to bolster the hypothesis that witchcraft caused disease or disability. (Elsewhere, it is noted that some witches "seem able only to heal, that is, to take away injuries", Ibid., p. 150). It is interesting that, along with proof texts from the Hebrew and Greek scriptures of the Church and their interpretation and extension by the Early Fathers, Kramer and Sprenger enlisted Muslim sources such as Abu Sina and Al-Ghazali to hammer home their points (e.g. Ibid., pp. 54, 55). Even the Carthaginian comedy writer Terence was wheeled in to lend his authority to the view that "Women are intellectually like children" (p. 117) and similar misogynisms.

Witchcraft studies continue to be a growth industry in modern European academia and many earlier productions are now being subjected to a more critical treatment, as reviewed for example by Wolfgang Behringer (1996) in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The exposure by Norman Cohn (1993) of widespread and serious flaws in earlier scholarship has underlined the fact that academics seldom start from an entirely neutral position when they study witchcraft or discuss the ideas supposedly held by earlier populations about devils and their intervention in human life. Steven Ozment has usefully deployed a wide variety of original personal sources, such as the 16th century diaries of Hermann Weinsburg, to challenge some modern scholarly hypotheses about earlier families. Weinsburg incidentally presented an alternative perspective on witchcraft at Cologne in the 1530s, when "his mother's false belief that she had been bewitched brought a new fear into the family." Herman and his father, wishing to disabuse her of this notion, devised a well-conceived and ultimately successful strategy to convince her that "her ailment was the result of overwork", and that she should "cut back on her household chores. Much to the relief of all, the pains subsided", and no more was said about witchcraft (Ozment, 1983, pp. 130-131).

Biases and doubtful generalisations also exist in modern studies of ideas about mental disabilities in earlier populations. H.C. Erik Midelfort (1999, p. 19) notes that modern readers commonly assume

"that the Middle Ages saw all mental illnesses as demonic in origin, but this was far from the case. Medieval and early modern thinkers regularly distinguished mental disorders of organic origin from those based on moral, spiritual, or demonic influence."

He remarks on the case of Duke Philipp of Mecklenburg (1514-1557), whose possible early backwardness was exacerbated by a lance blow to his head when a young man. Many therapeutic efforts were made over 20 years to cope with this situation, but "As staunch Lutherans, no one at court suggested pilgrimage or exorcism." (Midelfort, 1994, p. 52) However, Midelfort does find evidence for a pervasive process from the mid-sixteenth century in Germany and elsewhere, of the "growing demonization of the world" (Midelfort, 1999, p. 53), with the vicissitudes of life attributed increasingly to demonic action, which an earlier generation would have seen as merely consequences of human folly. Luther himself was both influenced by, and had some influence upon, the earliest years of this trend, with frequent denunciations of his adversaries as agents of the devil; yet Midelfort (1999, p. 71, ftn 139) points out that when dealing with people in the flesh, Luther could be more moderate in his attitude. The devil was "a frequent figure in everyday speech, in slogans, curses, epithets, and aphorisms" (Ibid., p. 55). Such familiarity does not necessarily betoken a strong belief in the devil's actual power and immediacy; indeed, the reverse might be suspected. Luther, recovering a little after a lengthy illness in 1541, reported that he could sleep and eat reasonably well, adding ironically that "Perhaps Satan is in his bath for a time", {"Forte Sathan est in balneo suo ad tempus."} (Currie, 1908, p. 399; WA Br 9: 390.) This not only conjures up a wonderful cartoon image but provides some counterbalance to the idea that Luther was obsessed with the devil. [6]


Children who appeared to learn very little and very slowly from infancy, and whose behaviour was far behind the informal norms for their age, or was seriously unacceptable to their families or neighbourhood, puzzled early modern Germany no less than they have puzzled many other societies before and since. [7] Were they simply at one end of the natural spectrum of ability, or were they so different as to be signs of God's displeasure or a demon's joke? St Augustine (354-430) allowed congenitally disabled infants, including the 'born fool', a brief appearance in a gloomy argument for original sin:

"Indeed, if nothing deserving punishment passes from parents to infants, who could bear to see the image of God, which is, you say, adorned with the gift of innocence, sometimes born feeble-minded, since this touches the soul itself?" (Augustine, transl. 1957, p. 115)

Augustine then quoted Ecclesiasticus chapter 22 to confirm that feeble-mindedness was an evil to be long lamented. In a different debate however he cited a simpleton who revered Christ and could bear no insult to the holy name, though indifferent to injuries to himself. This example Augustine used to refute believers in reincarnation who thought all feeble-minded persons had been especially sinful in previous lives (Augustine, transl. 1872, IV {1} 32-33).

Conflicting Aristotelian and Augustinian patterns of interpretation have been traced through two millennia of developing thoughts about 'signs and prodigies', in the seminal work of Jean Céard (1977), but for reasons of space must here be confined to those parts represented around the turning point of 1500. The famous allegorical Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant (1494) was widely translated and disseminated across Europe, belabouring the culpable follies of society at large. While adult follies clearly had very little to do with children having unusually weak cognitive abilities, the latter or their parents were inevitably smeared by the association that whatever folly preachers denounced in society was a result of sin. Erasmus, from the opposite extreme of the intellectual spectrum, could perhaps afford to be more relaxed and forgiving about folly, in his work of 1509, the Encomium Moriae (transl. 1941 as Praise of Folly).

"Unlike Brant, who assumes that man's folly is ridiculous indeed but sinful too, and absolved only through divine grace, Erasmus takes man's situation with gaiety and assumes that he has sufficient vitality himself to digest all his experience eventually into some usable form." (Swain, 1932, p. 8)

Luther's pastoral writings tend towards the gloomy view of folly while his reported coarse jokes and personal relationships suggest a more tolerant view, as might be expected in a man of bipolar oscillations who regarded his monastery years as an extended period of folly.

Some of the Augustinian themes were developed to more positive ends by Paracelsus, in what Paul Cranefield and Walter Federn (1967, p. 56) considered "One of the most remarkable documents in the history of mental deficiency", De Generatione Stultorum (On the Begetting of Fools), written c. 1530 but not published until 1567. Paracelsus clearly derived the origins of congenital disabilities from the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise (Ibid., pp. 61-62). The actual making of fools he considered to be "only the result of heavenly apprentices and immature master craftsmen" (pp. 63, 165-167), who made a poor job of modelling the foetus. In a fallen world we should expect nothing else, and "must suffer what nature makes out of us, be it crooked, crippled, blind, fools, dolts, and none the less praise God that it turned out thus" (p. 65). Yet he went beyond mere resignation, recalling that the prophets of God were considered fools (p. 71), and that "the fools and simpletons have not been scorned by God, but rather it is found that they do great things" (pp. 73, 172-173), had we the wit to perceive it. Further, Paracelsus asserted that, "Even if the nature went wrong, yet nothing has been wrong with the soul and with the spirit" (pp. 74, 174).

Such views indicate a remarkable leap of the imagination, for although the 'Holy Fool' was well known, particularly in the Eastern Church, he or she was understood to wear an outward folly as a cover for inward holiness. Such saints became something like little children, not because their wits were no more developed than those of infants, but by an effort of renunciation and self-abasement. Paracelsus perhaps saw further into the Judaeo-Christian potential for elevating the humble and reversing the 'natural order' of social value, than did his learned contemporaries Erasmus and Thomas More. Certainly, Erasmus (transl. 1941, p. 84) cited the preference shown by Christ for the innocence of the nepios, i.e. the young child or fool [Bertram, 1967]. Yet the scholar's satirical work gives a strong impression of valuing the wisdom of himself and his friend More, notwithstanding any pretence to the contrary. Thomas More, in his sketch c. 1515 of an ideal state Utopia (transl. Lattimer n.d., p. 70), provided merely a niche in which fools should amuse the public -- an idea that had incidentally been enshrined in Irish law from many centuries earlier [Ancient Laws of Ireland, 1865, I: 137, 139]. These scholars in their philosophical discourses may have become distanced from the reality of the average 'village idiot'. Luther, writing in 1522 about marriage, made some use of the phrase "Auffs narrn seyll furet", where the narrenseil was "originally the rope with which a fool formerly was bound and so led about, like a monkey on a leash." (LW 45: 21, ftn 4)

The amusement, or at least the relief of melancholy, provided by court jesters, oddities and fools, with even the lending and borrowing of fools among depressed nobility in 16th century Germany, has recently been reviewed in detail by Midelfort (1999, pp. 228-276). Records of their functioning and activities may have undergone some burnishing in the interests of good taste, to tidy up for posterity some of the 'posterior' humour and horseplay. Perhaps as Midelfort suggests (after Norbert Elias) the strain of maintaining courtierly correct behaviour needed to be relieved by the licensed misbehaviour of fools and the irregular gait and appearance of disabled people. One famous fool was Claus Narr (d. 1515; Narr = Fool), who seems to have been congenitally backward, and who lived up to or down to adult expectations of silly tricks and naive pronouncements (Midelfort, 1999, pp. 254-265). Claus's life was known to Luther, who reportedly enjoyed his capacity for childish frivolity (LW 54: 334, No. 4364). Luther also suspected that there was something more to it: "Claus Narr was not only a natural fool {natura fuit stolidus}, but he also had a little spirit {ein geistlein gehabet}", the latter being the origin of Claus's alleged clairvoyance (WA TR 3: 141, No. 3018b). From so keen a denouncer of devils and dealers in the occult, this comment of Luther's was remarkably restrained -- possibly because he and Claus could be deemed to belong to the same guild, the 'Court Jesters' (Gritsch, 1983; LW 44: 123).


Before considering further what Luther himself wrote on some of the topics noted above, something must be said about 'changelings'. The idea that malevolent spirits might have taken away a family's 'normal' baby and left a strange and defective being in its place was portrayed by Carl Haffter (1968) as "an attitude towards the deformed child which was widespread in Europe from the Middle Ages down to the Enlightenment". However, like sorcery and witchcraft, the changeling may turn out to be another notion that is due for some shrinkage, at least until stronger evidence is presented on its prevalence in communities and for which sorts of impairment it was most likely to be considered responsible. Certainly such notions do appear in witchcraft literature, e.g. the Malleus, Part II, Qn. 2, Ch. 8:

"Another terrible thing which God permits to happen to men is when their own children are taken away from women, and strange children are put in their place by devils." (Kramer & Sprenger, transl. 1928/1971, p. 406)

There were believed to be three sorts of these beings known as Wechselkinder (changelings).

"For some are always ailing and crying, and yet the milk of four women is not enough to satisfy them."

The second kind were supposedly generated, with some difficulty, by an artificial insemination team of devils, while the third kind were actually devils disguised as young children. All three sorts had in common that

"though they are very heavy, they are always ailing and do not grow, and cannot receive enough milk to satisfy them, and are often reported to have vanished away."

According to the Malleus, God permitted these curious events for two reasons. First, "when the parents dote upon their children too much", it was for their own good that they undergo divine punishment (a point, incidentally, that escaped those modern historians convinced of the indifference of parents toward their children in earlier ages). The second reason was that such things happened to women who were "very superstitious, and are in many other ways seduced by devils." (Ibid., p. 406) With such explanations, Kramer and Sprenger did little to enhance their credibility as authorities on the topic.

Haffter's paper was well argued for the 1960s, when academic studies of witchcraft were still a happy hunting ground for the capture of historical data reinforcing current psycho-ideologies; but his assertions were documented imprecisely and uncritically, and there is some evidence that he muddled together quotations from different contexts, or used sources that had done so. His materials from Luther's Table Talk will be considered below. With the 'demonisation' of European life supposedly gathering pace through the 16th century, one might anticipate that devilish intervention would appear more prominently in theories of congenital folly. Yet no trace of such an idea occurs in the detailed account of mental retardation by the papal physician Paulus Zacchias published in 1621, which cited or quoted over 30 authorities on this topic from antiquity up to his own times (Cranefield & Federn, 1970). Of course, in a medical work such ideas might well be thought beneath consideration. Haffter himself noted the distaste of physicians in 1455 (Hartleib) and 1563 (Johan Weyer), and of the theologian August Lercheimer in 1585, for changeling hypotheses. Yet Bartholomaeus Metlinger's innovative paediatric manual of 1473, Ein Regiment der junger Kinder, described a hydrocephalic child as 'Wechselbalg' or 'changeling' (quoted by Metzler, 1999, pp. 25-26), apparently based on the Persian al-Razi (865-925). [8]

Indifference towards supernatural explanations was noticed by Richard Neugebauer (1996, p. 31) in careful studies of government officials assessing the capacities of people with mental impairment in Early Modern England. German nobles, as noted above, were entertained by 'born fools' apparently without fearing that they had invited live devils into their presence. The public at large paid to see 'monsters' exhibited, as for example the conjoined twins recorded at Florence in 1507 (Benivieni, transl. 1954, p. 209), without insisting that they be done away with as devilish beings. The fact that changeling stories have existed in folklore across Europe, Asia and Africa is hardly in dispute (see e.g. Hartland, 1891, pp. 93-134; MacCulloch, 1910); what is lacking is evidence about whether few, some, many or most of any specific population actually gave credence to their local version of such tales, and how far such beliefs co-existed with contrary explanations. [9]


One Luther biography plunges into the cauldron by sketching in 150 words what "the typical, educated reader know{s} about Martin Luther", and remarking that all of this may be false and most of it almost certainly is false; but none of it can be proved or disproved from contemporary sources -- even though "No man's life has been more thoroughly documented by contemporaries than was Martin Luther's" (Haile, 1981, p. 1). So after some remarks above calling for a more nuanced and critical view of evidence, the sources of Luther's views require closer inspection. The critical edition of Luther's works can be roughly estimated to contain well over 30 million words, unfortunately without a unified and published index. A scholar proficient in Latin and German, reading 40,000 words per day, with some time for note-taking and cross-checking, might be able to finish them in about three years by working 250 days per year and skipping a lot of footnotes and repetitive material. [10] To begin to understand Luther's meanings in context by reading the relevant contemporary and earlier theological and social literature would certainly double or triple the time required, supposing that all these texts were reasonably straightforward, which they are not. Productions from the subsequent academic 'Luther Industry' would multiply the required effort several more times. Much of Luther's 'own writing' consists of transcriptions of lecture notes in shorthand, assembled later by students and scholars, with or without Luther's collaboration, and then printed (sometimes with minimal proof-reading), reaching us several revisions, editions and translations down the line (LW 21: XX-XXI). Deliberate tampering began as early as the 1520s, e.g. Martin Bucer's insertions (Bornkamm, 1983, pp. 524-526). Luther was far from satisfied with the publication and reprinting of some of his more formal works from lecture notes, and also dismissed much of his early writing as immature and weak (Brecht, 1999, pp. 136, 142, 406-407). Some of the lecture notes pleased him, so that he could say of his lectures on Galatians, "I recognize that all the thoughts set down by the brethren with such care in this book are my own." (LW 26: ix-x)

An accessible source for what Luther 'really thought' might seem to be the Tischreden, often translated 'Table Talk(s)', though in fact some of it would have been casual conversation anywhere in house or garden, rather than a formal discourse intended 'for the record'. However, detailed textual comparison of manuscript notebooks has revealed some serious editorial interference here. In particular, the 1566 edition by John Aurifaber, "for centuries among the best-loved books in the German household" (Haile, 1981, p. 239) was heavily dependent on the notes of earlier companions of Luther. Furthermore, Aurifaber aimed to organise and augment his material for certain effects, sometimes changing what Luther said, as shown in the introduction by Theodore Tappert to his translation of the Table Talk (LW 54: ix-xxiii). Certainly the Table Talk remains a valuable source; yet before insisting that Luther said or thought this or that about any topic, it is useful to find substantial confirmation in other sources. Still more caution is required in building an argument on Luther's reported words in English translation. Haile (1977) has provided a comic exposé of "The Great Martin Luther Spoof" based on philological indiscretions by scholars poking around in the cloacae of reformation history. Luther would have enjoyed the comedy. He once joked that after his death he would come back as a ghost "and pester the bishops, priests and godless monks", and no doubt the over-solemn academics too (LW 54: 151, No. 1442).


In 1532, among Luther's remarks collected in 'Table Talk', he reportedly stated his belief that

"in all grave illnesses the devil is present as the author and cause. First, he is the author of death. Second, Peter says in Acts that those who were oppressed by the devil were healed by Christ. (cf. Acts 10:38) Moreover, Christ cured not only the oppressed but also the paralytics, the blind etc. (cf. Mark 3: 4-12; 8: 22-25). Generally speaking, therefore, I think that all dangerous diseases are blows of the devil. For this, however, he employs the instruments of nature." (LW 54: 53, No. 360).

Luther argued that God gave the means to preserve health, e.g. sleep, food and drink; also physicians and medicines to mend the body. The devil used various means to injure the body. Indeed, if the devil were not restrained by God and the angels, "we would not remain alive for a single moment" (LW 3: 271-272). Luther could find devils lurking under the bed or busy in dark corners as well as any child. Commenting on the desolate wilderness in Isaiah 34, he found "male and female demons who cause nightmares; goblins, devils of all kinds that lie in wait for us during the night" (LW 16: 297). Yet the terror was somewhat mitigated as Luther conceded that the names of beasts and demons in that passage could not properly be translated because their precise nature was unknown. Thus, for "There shall the night hag alight. I have translated it 'porcupine'" (!) In fact, Luther had already in 1523 made an equally imaginative leap when producing a scurrilous pamphlet with Philipp Melanchthon, in which Pope and monks had been 'translated' into the likeness of animals born with deformities and hailed as 'prodigies' (Park & Daston, 1981, pp. 26-29; WA 11: 370-85). This politicisation of monsters, and their enlistment for vituperative purposes, could be seen as bringing them into disrepute (Céard, 1977, pp. 83-84).

Luther engaged in preaching and polemics rather more than systematic theology. Like a Galilean rabbi, he was always ready to vary the mood with a proverb or anecdote, and he had a stock of moral tales about devils and demons (e.g. LW 5: 310; 21: 271; 22: 106), in some of which the believer by faith (alone) managed to spit in the devil's face. Luther was even ready to find God present in the devil, since the devil occupied some space, and God was everywhere (LW 54: 32-33, No. 240). On occasion, he could concede that his demonology was imperfectly worked out. John Schlaginhaufen recorded a discussion in which he found a contradiction in Luther's views about whether the devil acted by the permission of God, or by the command of God (LW 54: 128-129, No. 1252). Sometimes Luther omitted the devil's agency, and wrote directly of God making someone disabled. He noted that what Jesus called "eunuchs from birth" (Matthew 19: 12) could not obey the ordinance "be fruitful and multiply"; and in the same way "when God creates a person crippled or blind, that person is not obligated to talk or see, because he cannot." (LW 45: 20)

Luther's apparently strong convictions about the devil had the corollary, which might seem paradoxical, of a strong scepticism and antipathy toward astrology, superstitions, sorcery and charms. These all broke the first commandment of the Mosaic decalogue (LW 43: 17). Certainly, sorcery or witchcraft existed in the sense that people seemed to cast spells, and damage resulted. Luther recalled witchcraft from his boyhood and also cited St Paul on the existence of witchcraft (LW 26: 190; 27: 90; 54: 188). He was prepared to condemn witches to be burnt (LW 41: 172), though he does not seem to have participated directly in such persecution. In fact, Luther ascribed all harm to the devil, while considering that in the light of the Gospel the illusions of the devil were deprived of their power. Men and women should no longer let themselves be deceived by these games. They certainly should not indulge in them to the extent that they "write the words 'In the beginning was the Word' on a slip of paper, incase this in a quill or some other container, and hang it around one's neck ... as a protective charm" (LW 22: 106-107).

Luther differed sharply from Melanchthon, whom he considered "very much deluded" by belief in astrology (LW 54: 219-220, No. 3520). Melanchthon "devoted much attention to this business, but he has never been able to persuade me to accept it" (LW 54: 173, 458-459; No.s 2834b, 5573). Spectres, poltergeists, miracles and monsters were all to be treated with some scepticism, for behind the apparition one could detect the devil (LW 21: 272; 54: 241, 258, 279, 332, 475; No.s 3601, 3694, 3814, 4355, 5674). In a sermon concerning the Magi (LW 52: 159-169), Luther ranged across a variety of knowledge and pretended knowledge, recognising that there was some deep and honest knowledge of natural phenomena, "formerly known as magic and now referred to as physiology" (!) On the other hand there were tall stories taking advantage of situations where "verification is impossible, and so refutation is also not possible" (p. 165).

Luther also adverted to the issue of infant mortality, noting that some died through careless treatment by mothers and maidservants. Further,

"Often mothers and midwives abandon infants who are born unexpectedly and might become horrible monstrosities. It does no harm, therefore, to keep these women in fear, lest they thoughtlessly let the children die. There are enough accidents without these. Consequently we say and we warn that children be brought promptly for baptism." (LW 54: 58, No. 365)

Could this be merely a random blast against feckless or superstitious women? Brecht (1999, p. 257) points out that Luther did have unusual sources of information and claimed that one woman "had confessed to him that she had murdered her child", and he had absolved her. At the same period of 1532, Luther reportedly discussed strange births such as the fetus said to be "like a mouse when it was born".

"When somebody asked whether monstrosities of this kind ought to be baptized he replied, "No, because I hold that they are only animal life." Later somebody else asked whether they have souls, and he responded, "I don't know. I haven't asked God about it." (LW 54: 44-45, No.323)

This occurred in the decade starting in 1526, during which Luther slowly acquired more first-hand paternal experience of watching and enjoying the early development of babies and small children. Perhaps subsequently he did ask God about it, or thought more carefully about the issue, or heard the views of his wife, 'Lord Katy'.

By 1539 Luther was ready to tell a questioner that changelings should indeed be baptised, because during the first year one could not tell that they were changelings (WA TR 4: 358, No. 4513. This passage also relates one of the more difficult methods by which wechselkinder are obtained: girls are pulled into the river, impregnated by the devil, then kept until they deliver). More generally, Ozment (1983, p. 138) suggests that in sixteenth century German families, a child was "not believed to be truly human by birthright; he was a creature in search of humanity -- unpredictable, capable of animal indolence, selfishness and savagery", who must be brought to humanity by parental vigilance. At the same time, both Ozment (p. 177) and Robert Jütte (1995, p. 343) strongly rebut the view that parents in medieval and early modern Germany were indifferent toward their children. Gerald Strauss (1976) has shown the opposing classical roots that led to apparently "contradictory sets of convictions about the child's essential nature" among the reformers.

Luther probably had a good muddle of the conventional views and his own experience. He saw well enough that the Kingdom of God belonged to little children (LW 54: 55 & 120; No.s 365 & 660); yet had no doubt that the root of sin was in the same children, who needed careful teaching and direction and (moderate) punishment so as to learn the right way of living (LW 54: 234-235 & 457; No.s 3566a & 5571). When Luther, displeased with his little Hans, informed the household that he would rather have a dead son than a disobedient one (WA TR 5: 489, No. 6102), they did not seriously fear for the boy's life; [11] yet Luther was ever concerned that he might fail in his own duty as a teacher, father and admonisher, whether to Hans or to the German nation. A child that ultimately defied its parents in their legitimate requests and instructions would have been a disaster, a complete failure of the older generation to 'bring it to humanity' (LW 45: 353; 9: 211-212).


While writings on Galatians in 1519, (LW 27: 247-249), Luther tackled the question whether deaf people, physically unable to 'hear' the gospel, could become Christians -- since St. Paul had asked (though not of deaf people) "How are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?" (Rom. 10:14) The issue had been examined much earlier by St. Jerome, whom Luther quoted on the subject. Luther argued that the physical defect of hearing was no barrier to the Word of God; nor was infancy any barrier. All were spiritually 'deaf' until God's Spirit spoke to them; but "to the Word of God nothing is deaf" if only the inward 'ears' are willing to hear (p. 249). A year earlier Luther had preached a sermon on John 9: 1-38, where a congenitally blind man had his sight restored by Jesus (LW 51: 35-43). The disciples had asked whether the man was born blind for his own or his parents' sins. Jesus rejected both views. Here too, Luther spiritualised the story, as indeed the gospel writer seems to have done, the central point being the lack of spiritual insight by the religious teachers, and the dangers of such blindness in the Church.

Writing on the prophet Malachi (LW 18: 396-397) in 1526, Luther mentioned Leviticus 21: 16-23, the prohibition against people with disabilities taking public roles in Jewish rituals. Luther was not concerned with the question whether disabled adults should be excluded from such roles, but was preoccupied with a spiritual interpretation applicable to the Christian Church:

"Also a pure sacrifice requires a pure sacrificer. This is what God intended when He prohibited the blind, the lame, and those having any defect at all from ministering at the altar, etc. This is a new kingdom which God is promising to establish here. The people in it are not of the flesh, but they are spiritual." (p. 397)

Luther went on to note that "Christians do not offer a worthless, blind, lame, or false sacrifice but a faithful and pleasing one" (p. 397). This seems to refer to the Levitical ban on presenting defective animals for sacrifice. Modern interpreters might feel that Luther's allegorisations provided a convenient cover for indifference toward the exclusion of disabled Levites from their ritual roles. Yet elsewhere such a thought was contradicted:

"A question was put to the doctor {Martin Luther}. 'There is a chaplain who can't baptize because his left hand is shaky or because he can't use it for other reasons.' He {Luther} was asked whether the chaplain could have the verger hold the child and pour water with his other hand, which he could use."

Luther's response was that this could be done, provided the chaplain's preaching ministry was good, and "especially if the common people are not offended" by the procedure (LW 54: 460, No. 5588).

Epilepsy, the disease or condition that in many cultures and ages has been associated with possession by a spirit, seems not to have had quite that connotation for Luther, yet he still managed to find some horror in it. Lecturing on Genesis, he compared epilepsy with more common conditions in which people lose control of themselves or have no idea what is going on, i.e. infancy, sleep, orgasm and death. He wrote with something of a layman's exaggeration, e.g. because a person with epilepsy might during a fit seem to be unaware of falling into fire or water, "epileptics are dead even though they are alive" (LW 7: 295), or are bracketed with madmen or babies (LW 8: 316-317). Luther clearly enjoyed sexual intercourse with his beloved Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), but regretted that this fell short of the original bliss of union in Paradise, for "we cannot make use of woman without the horrible passion of lust and, so to speak, without epilepsy" (LW 1: 119). Late in life (1539) he could speak of epilepsy as "a kind of spasm in the brain" (LW 54: 346, No. 4479); but the semi-scientific explanation by no means replaced the thought that some witchcraft might be the reason for such a spasm occurring in this rather than that person's brain.

Remarks such as those noted above may have represented an average mix of enlightenment and prejudice in their time, but would hardly constitute a 'correct attitude' for the 21st century. Yet Luther could go much further on occasion. In his treatise of 1520 on the holy mass, he addressed the question whether deaf people, and those with other disabilities, were eligible to participate in the sacrament. Such questions were in fact noted in earlier manuals of Catholic confessional practice, as for example the much reprinted Summa Angelica of Angelus {Carletus} De Clavasio (first published c. 1486). The 1511 version of that manual states that "Mutus per signa potest petere sacramenta et ei sunt danda" (fol. CCLIII). [12] Luther affirmed this right of deaf people to seek the sacrament by signs and to receive it. He repudiated vigorously the abuse that had grown up, by which some priests "practice a pious fraud on them and think they should be given unblessed wafers." (LW 35: 110) Apparently this had arisen from the benevolent wish to give the appearance of 'including' deaf people, yet without the belief that they could participate with genuine understanding. This pretence Luther would not tolerate. He had no doubt that God could make Christians of deaf people as well as anyone else, and asserted that he knew this from personal experience.

"They deserve the same things that we do. Therefore if they are rational and can show by indubitable signs that they desire it in true Christian devotion, as I have often seen {wie ich offt gesehen habe}, we should leave to the Holy Spirit what is his work and not refuse him what he demands." (LW 35: 110; WA 6: 377) [13]

He followed up with a large-spirited recognition that as Christ had welcomed children and had made himself accessible to deaf, blind and lame people,

"It may be that inwardly they {deaf people} have a better understanding and faith than we {Es mag sein, das sie inwendig hoeher vorstandt und glauben haben denn wir}; and this no one should maliciously oppose" (LW 35: 110-111; WA 6: 377).

Drawing attention to Luther's remarks about deaf people's faith, the German theologian Rudolf Mau (1983) quite reasonably concludes that

"the idea that a person, because of a disability, regardless of what kind, would be denied his God-given human worth has no place in the thought of Luther."

Elsewhere Luther sounds like a modern Disability Rights advocate when denouncing such ecclesiastical impediments to marriage as "defective eyesight and hearing". This was another sacrament that, from the early days of the Reformation, he believed should be open to people with disabilities.

"It is a dirty rotten business that a bishop should forbid me a wife or specify the times when I may marry, or that a blind and dumb person should not be allowed to enter into wedlock." (LW 45: 30; WA 10{ii} 287)


What the learned theologian wrote in the privacy of his study, or preached in the local pulpit, is a matter of interest; but modern readers may also wish to learn whether Luther had any practical, everyday involvement with disability and disabled people. Certainly Luther's letters contain many references to chronic, disabling ailments such as his own ear infections, tinnitus, giddiness, headaches, kidney stones and bowel disorders, which periodically rendered him incapable of work, or reduced his extraordinary work rate (Gritsch, 1983, pp. 154-158). [14] His correspondents occasionally received news such as that in February 1540 his wife Katy had narrowly escaped death and was learning to walk again "creeping round the tables and chairs with her hands"; or that in September 1540, "In my house alone ten are lying dangerously ill" (Currie, 1908, pp. 383-384, 391). For some months in 1537 the Electress Elizabeth of Brandenburg lay sick in Luther's house, being "out of her mind at least some of the time" (Brecht, 1999, p. 239). [15] Some evidence also exists of his long-term close relationship with a mildly disabled man, the personal assistant named Wolfgang ("Wolf") Seberger or Sieberger, who joined Luther's household in 1519 and continued there after Luther's death in 1546 (LW 49: 158).

The Assistant

Not a great deal is known about Wolf -- one commentator even suggests that Seberger and Sieberger were two different men (Bornkamm, 1983, p. 411). The confusion is increased by Haile (1981, pp. 83, 112) referring to Luther's "faithful old servant Wolf Seburg" and "lazy old amanuensis, Wolf Seberger"; but he and others mean only one and the same man, with variant spellings. One of Wolf's prominent characteristics was inertia, not in the sense of a refusal to work but that his natural state was idleness, he was not a 'self-starter' or pro-active in service. Such help as he gave was often of very modest competence (LW 49: 158; WA TR 2: 155; Brecht, 1999, 20). One editor and translator of Luther's correspondence went so far as to label Wolf 'weak-minded' and 'half-witted' (Currie, 1908, pp. 300, 481). Another editor thought Wolf was 'perhaps even lame' (LW 49: 158). Luther well knew these weaknesses and commented on them in his correspondence with good-humoured tolerance and irony. He seems to have had no thought of removing Wolf in favour of someone more capable; indeed he may have regarded Wolf as a 'family dependent' as much as a 'living-in assistant' (LW 54: 22, ftn. 57). In April 1535 Luther wrote to pastor Augustin Himmel at Colditz expressing his pleasure that an official allowance to Wolf had been increased, and suggesting that

"I should like a little house to be bought for my good Wolf, into which he might retire after my death, as he has a weak arm, and needs a roof of his own, so that he may not have to seek refuge in an institution, poor and forsaken." (Currie, 1908, p. 309)

The phrase about the 'weak arm' ("incipit morbo brachii laborare", WA Br 7: 171) would suggest an adventitious impairment, supposing that Luther was not being ironic about Wolf's inertial tendencies.

There is substantial evidence that throughout the last three decades of his life Luther chronically overworked himself, suffering a series of debilitating illnesses, and consequently being often in a situation where he could have benefitted if he had had far greater and more competent assistance of many sorts. Yet it is not hard to see in his various asides and letters mentioning Wolf, that Luther did more than merely extending forbearance towards his idle and weak-armed assistant, more than merely offering a dutiful but exasperated 'Christian love'. Luther clearly had a genuine affection for Wolf and enjoyed having him around and having a joke with him, as in the spoof 'Letter from the Birds' (WA 38: 290-291). There was usually no shortage of learned and pious younger men around Luther, on whom he could rely for assistance when learning or piety was required; but he had also the experience of seeing some of those men leave the household to set up in opposition to him. From 1525 he had his 'Lord Katy' to manage his affairs -- and to grumble about the servants' disobedience (LW 54: 270, No. 3771). Presumably Wolf played other roles in Luther's life. One role quite possibly included something of the court jester or fool, the subordinate / intimate who was a figure of fun but who traded on this to take liberties and to speak with a child's directness. Luther delighted in the natural, jesting play of children, and also of adult comics who retained something of the child within them (LW 54: 334, No. 4364).

The Worthy and Unworthy Poor

Luther was also actively involved in the relief of 'deserving' poor individuals, whether by the hospitality of his own extended household or by using his influence to obtain provision for larger numbers when there were grain shortages and artificial price increases at Wittenberg (LW 54: 344-345, No. 4472). At the same time, he was active in denouncing the idle and 'undeserving' poor, i.e. the sturdy beggars who had many tricks for appearing to be sick or disabled in order to obtain money from the gullible. As Brian Pullan (1994, VI: 5) notes on similar developments in Italy, "The problem of the falsely crippled and the spuriously blind was no recent discovery or invention" -- it had been noted at Bologna in the 13th century. It was also familiar much earlier throughout the Arab world (Boswell, 1976, I: 36-47, 84-85, 110). Across Europe citizens with a civic conscience, like Luther, were grappling with similar problems. However, the vigour of Luther's denunciation of the tricksters was apparently matched by his capacity for being taken in by their games (Brecht, 1999, pp. 239-240). [16]


Commenting on Genesis 30: 37-39 (LW 5: 379-382), around 1542, Luther took up the idea that mental images in the mind of an expectant mother strongly affect the fetus. This seems to have been commonly believed in Luther's time, and the belief survived into the 20th century in many parts of the world. [17] Luther gave examples, including that of a pregnant woman

"so terrified by the sudden meeting and sight of the dormouse that the fetus in her womb degenerated into the shape of the little beast. Such examples are all too common..." (LW 5: 381-382)

Luther drew the lesson that

"there should be no joking with pregnant women, but they should receive careful attention because of the fetus. For there are countless dangers of miscarriages, monsters, and various deformities." (Ibid. p. 381)

He denounced as "murderers and parricides" those men who not only failed to protect their pregnant wives, but actually physically abused them (p. 382).

Luther's concern for the welfare of pregnant women also appeared in what he wrote on "Comfort for Women who have had a Miscarriage", appended to Bugenhagen's commentary on Psalm 29, published 1542 (LW 43: 245-250). He noted that miscarriages, still-births and neonatal deaths often occurred, causing great misery to mothers, not least because there was often no chance for the baby to be baptised before it died.

"One ought not to frighten or sadden such mothers by harsh words because it was not due to their carelessness or neglect that the birth of the child went off badly. ... They should be confident that God is not angry with them or with others who are involved." (p. 247)

Luther argued strongly that the mother's heartfelt prayers on behalf of the baby would be granted, in the sense that God was not bound by the fact of whether the baby was baptised or not, but could exercise mercy as He chose. As examples of the efficacy of a parent's prayer, Luther noted that Christ

"freed the little daughter of the Canaanite woman from the demon through the faith of the mother apart from her daughter's faith. (Matt. 15: 22-28). The same was true of the paralytic and many others..." (p. 250)

His solicitude in these areas, which goes unmentioned by Luther's modern demonisers, presumably derived from pastoral experience as well as the six occasions when his own wife gave birth at home. Not without reason did he suggest that "Even if a child is unattractive when it is born, we nevertheless love it." (LW 54: 158, No. 1607). He and Katy knew personally the sad embarrassment of failing to pacify their bawling infant [Martin, junior] amidst a household of [mostly] adults (LW 54: 177, No. 2867b). They also knew the long-lasting grief and remorse of parents losing one child in infancy (Elizabeth, d. 1528), another in her teens (Magdalene, d. 1542).


In 1540 came the notorious reported discussion about a strange 12-year-old boy at Dessau, who was said to do nothing but eat voraciously and to excrete. [18]

"Luther suggested that he be suffocated. Somebody asked, "For what reason?" He {Luther} replied, "Because I think he's simply a mass of flesh without a soul. Couldn't the devil have done this, inasmuch as he gives such shape to the body and mind even of those who have reason that in their obsession they hear, see, and feel nothing? The devil is himself their soul. The power of the devil is great when in this way he holds the minds of all men captive, but he doesn't dare give full vent to the power on account of the angels." (LW 54: 397, No. 5207)

Much caution is needed in studying this report. The editor adds a footnote about a later version, in which John Aurifaber

"elaborated on the original by stating that Luther had himself seen and touched the boy and that he advised the prince of Anhalt to have the boy drowned. What had at first been the private expression of an opinion here became a formal recommendation to a ruler." (Ibid.)

The idea of changelings being called back into the water by devils, or being thrown back to them, while crossing a bridge, was present in various stories (e.g. WA TR 4: 357-358, No. 4513).

Could Luther have suggested suffocating the boy on the grounds that there was really no boy there at all, but only a devil in the shape of a child? Apparently Luther did sometimes credit such stories, as he wrote in his second commentary on Galatians (1535), explaining the craft of the devil:

"Through his witches, therefore, he is able to do harm to children, to give them heart trouble, to blind them, to steal them, or even to remove a child completely and put himself into the cradle in place of the stolen child. I have heard that in Saxony there was such a boy. He was suckled by five women and still could not be satisfied. There are many similar instances." (LW 26: 190)

Luther then warned that so-called healings were similarly engineered by the devil, who first created in people's minds the illusion of disability, then faked a repair (see also LW 24: 74-75). In his earlier work on Galatians (1519) he had referred to an infantile ailment "in which we see infants wasting away, growing thin, and being miserably tormented, sometimes wailing and crying incessantly." (LW 3: 244) In that case he attributed the harm to the 'evil eye' cast by "jealous and spiteful old hags", and considered that witches "are really able to harm little infants" (LW 3: 245), something he had seen since he was a boy (LW 27: 90). Luther does seem to have shared the widespread apprehension about the powers of older women, especially those having sharp tongues, unattractive appearance and perhaps some deformity (Cohn, 1993, p. 227).

From an inspection of these and many further examples it emerges, as mentioned earlier, that Luther did not have a fully worked out and consistent theory of the harmful activities of the devil or his human assistants, covering the various sorts of evidence and biblical texts, anecdotes he had heard, and his own cumulative experiences concerning infant and childhood infirmities. A fully worked out and single-minded solution he did have, i.e. the grace of God in Christ, received by faith. Within that overarching framework, there was an infinity of ways in which the devil was permitted to obscure, confuse, deceive, tempt and harm. Luther did sometimes speculate aloud about these devilish contrivances, and debated them with companions who might agree or disagree with his impromptu opinions. Two further contemporary experiences might have had some influence in this particular discussion: that adults with apparently severe disabilities could sometimes be faking their condition to elicit alms; and that a child resolutely and continuously defying its parents could hardly be understood as a human child (cf. LW 9: 211-212, on Deuteronomy 21: 18-21).

Supposing then that Luther did discuss the case of the strange boy at Dessau, it is quite possible that he did make either a casual or a more purposeful suggestion that this 'being' should be suffocated, as a body in which no human person resided. Such a view would certainly seem strange to contemplate nowadays, despite the popularity of 'science fiction' media in which non-human and malevolent beings are commonplace, and the nascent discussion about the possibility of 'cloning' humans (whose 'personhood' would be of an unprecedented nature). Luther, if given a forward glimpse, might also have found it strange that in the hospitals of 21st century civilisations, bodies in which a human person is no longer considered to reside are 'switched off' and detached from their support machines, every day of the year; while 'proto-bodies' in which a human person is deemed not yet to reside are sucked from their mothers' wombs and flushed away, in very considerable numbers, within the knowledge and regretful acquiescence of most members of their societies. These modern events undoubtedly happen -- they are not merely a dubious suggestion reported from a discussion over dinner centuries ago. The people involved in such events are, in most societies, very much concerned that their actions should not be construed as suggesting that any diseased, infirm, impaired or disabled bodies in which a human person gives any trace of occupancy should be switched off, sucked away or suffocated. Their protestations to this effect could reasonably be tested by observation of their broad behaviour towards disabled people and the sum of their writing about disablement and allied topics. Such tests may reasonably be applied also to Martin Luther, in so far as the evidence allows it to be done retrospectively.


Without embarking on a full-scale study of Luther's thoughts and writings, the brief notes above give some well-attested background and some published evidence on which it would be reasonable for impartial observers to form an opinion. Luther lived in times and places where people with all sorts of impairments and disabilities, serious diseases, injuries from battles or judicial punishments, were a familiar sight in public, whether as beggars, or plying various trades, or going about their daily tasks. Infant and child mortality was very high; among the survivors, many had significant congenital or adventitious impairments. The threat of disabling accidents and diseases was never far away, and remedies were primitive. Ordinary people could not invest in health insurance, pension scheme or advanced medical technology. They tried home remedies, local healers, saints' bones, and put their faith in God, at least when they were in trouble and could see no other help.

Clearly, some of Luther's written views on illness, disability and the devil's intervention are not the received wisdom in Europe now, though most of them continue to be held by some Europeans, and by millions of other people around the world. On the other hand, there is evidence in Luther's writings, in his personal conduct as observed by contemporaries, and in the social changes for which he campaigned, that he was keenly concerned for both the spiritual and temporal welfare of pregnant mothers, new-born babies, infants and for human beings of all sorts and conditions.

So far as concerns his alleged remarks as originally reported, they would be consistent with some reported beliefs about 'changelings', i.e. that the 'real' child had been removed by evil spirits and a 'false' child substituted. Such beliefs continued to be reported in 20th century Europe, though rather few people hold them now. Luther himself, while he may well have thrown off a verbal opinion to his companions as stated, did not have clear convictions about whether very strange children had souls. Apparently he recognised that God had not given him a clear understanding of the whole picture. [19] As for the 'elaboration' of Luther's spoken comments, Luther's biographers have studied Aurifaber's methods. Haile (1981, p. 369) speaks of Aurifaber's

"usual habit of supplying additional information (often covering his tracks by putting his addenda into Luther's own mouth)".

It appears that this was without malicious intent, since

"Aurifaber's falsification of Luther occurred in a sincere attempt to adapt his beloved teacher's words to a later audience." (Ibid., p. 240)

There seems to be no question here of serious biographers covering up awkward points in Luther's discourse. That sort of game has certainly been played in the past, but is hardly encouraged by the prying and peeping proclivities of modern academia. Those who wish to pillory Luther have ample ammunition in some of his writings against Jews for example, as reviewed recently by Marius (1999, 332-380) and Brecht (1999, 334-351); or in his responses to the Peasants' Rising. Aurifaber himself did not set out to blacken his teacher. Others later seized on Aurifaber's apparent elaboration, in order to claim that Luther advocated the killing of severely disabled infants in general -- either because they themselves wish to advocate it, or because they wish to portray the Church as murderously intolerant, or from the common impulse to denigrate famous leaders, or for some other reason. Such motivations do not require the critic to examine and weigh the available evidence. Impartial observers cannot avoid doing so.


We cannot reasonably form an opinion on Luther's views without a careful reading of a cross-section of his extant writings and reported remarks, among which those noted above are pertinent to disability and disabled infants. These strongly suggest that throughout his career as a religious and social reformer, Luther repeatedly made written and spoken comments in which children and adults with disabilities [or deafness] were understood to have full human value and were considered worthy members of the Church. Such an attitude was borne out in Luther's long, amicable relationship with his mildly disabled personal assistant, and his solicitude for that man's welfare after Luther's death. As against this, Luther had some beliefs and some doubts in the area of devilry, changelings and witchcraft. Sometimes he seemed to suggest that supposedly non-human 'changelings' did exist, and he may actually have made the reported remark that one of these 'demonic counterfeits' should be killed. The balance of Luther's published writings in which adults and children with disabilities were treated with respect in various practical ways, as against some written and reported prejudicial comments, appears to be weighted strongly towards the positive. Yet there can be no final proof, because we cannot replay and review a 40-year film of all Luther's adult words and deeds, let alone his thoughts. That judgement remains with God. It is not the purpose of the present paper to convince anyone of the correct verdict; the aim has been to show that substantial evidence exists, which concerned people may 'see for themselves' and thereby form a carefully considered opinion.



[1] In a footnote to the report by Mathesius of Luther's comments on the strange boy at Dessau (LW 54: 396-397), the editor-translator Theodore Tappert mentions Luther being cited in 1964 as an advocate of euthanasia, citing: Erwin Mühlhaupt (1964) 'Spiegel', 'Stern' und Luther. Luther: Zeitschrift der Luther-Gesellschaft, 35: 81-88.

[2] Not very much German(-language) work has been found on Luther and disability. For the original article, one brief paper by Rudolf Mau was cited, with a positive view of Luther's thoughts. Herman Meininger then helpfully drew my attention to work by Dietfried Gewalt (1974) in which issues of Luther and disability are discussed. That led to further papers by Dr. Gewalt involving the stance of Luther (and later, Lutherans) toward deaf people, referred to below; also to Winfried Schleiner (1985) on Luther's practical 'psychotherapy' for people with mental illness. Anne Waldschmidt kindly mentioned work by Christian Mürner (1996), a disability activist who denounces the usual catalogue of supposed Luther-crimes, i.e. wanting to kill disabled children, rebellious peasants and Jews, with focus on the strange boy at Dessau. That work hardly aims for a balanced view of Luther and disabled people in historical context; yet it does discuss some primary Luther texts, and quotes a few more writers in German on allied topics.

Several works giving a broader account of Luther's changing status in the past century cast indirect light on the Luther-and-disability puzzle. George von der Lippe (1996) displays literary evidence depicting the "metamorphosis of a national symbol", i.e. Luther, in successive decades of the 20th century, with even a glimpse of two "extremely divergent characterizations" back in 1806 and 1810. These offered opposing paradigms for 20th century German interpretations, from sanctification to vilification, with eventual exhaustion. Late 20th century German depictions of Luther might be more pertinent, since 'disability' has attracted social and political interest mainly in the past 30 years. Von der Lippe finds "the most controversial and iconoclastic literary depiction of Luther and the Reformation of the twentieth century" in a book by Dieter Forte in 1971, which the literary community received as "brilliant exposé/satire" while theologians and historians dismissed it as "malicious fabrication" (Von der Lippe, pp. 95-105). The 1983 Lutherjahr was celebrated amidst growing postmodern scepticism toward all inflated personality cults.

With this background and in a context of much vaster global problems and challenges, Luther's views on disability might simply not look like an attractive topic for study. The superficial impression, found in some disability literature and on the internet, tends to suggest that nothing interesting could emerge, but only some 'barbaric, medieval' embarrassment. Yet it remains possible that some further, evidence-based research has been published in German, or will be done. The researcher with German as mother tongue is likely to have a considerable advantage in understanding, and perhaps enjoying, the subtleties and stridencies of Luther's lively style.

[3] Heiko Oberman (1988) discusses Luther's scatological comments in public discourse, which modern readers find surprising. Oberman suggests that the coarse words were a carefully chosen feature of Luther's religious discourse throughout his preaching life. He cites Luther's graphic remarks on "Teufels Dreck" and on chewing "the excrements of other people" in a solemn, ceremonial sermon of 1515 against slander or backbiting (WA 1.50, 12-14), after which Luther was elected to a senior post in the monastic order. If his hearers felt disgust at the imagery, Luther believed this was precisely the correct response to a person who chewed over the alleged sins of anyone else. This illustrates what Dickens (1974, 107) called "the antinomies between Luther's massive commonsense and his hasty injustices, between his brutal invective and his delicate spiritual perceptions."

[4] Maybe this sad spectacle motivated the "many people who do not want to have children" in Luther's time, especially among the nobility, "who often refrain from marriage for this one single reason, that they might have no offspring". Luther, c. 1535, denounced the abstainers for "this callousness and inhuman attitude, which is worse than barbarous" (LW 1: 118). As a monk, Luther too had opted for celibacy. His later experiences apparently promoted a higher view of procreation as a human duty; yet in 1533 he was keenly aware of the hazards of family life, "...of the ways of women, of the bawling of infants, of the upkeep of a home and of the annoyance of bad neighbours", that could deter any thinking man from matrimony (WA TR No. 2867b; Bainton, 1964, 73). On the other hand, the disease and disability burden had become heavier through the spread of syphilis, which Ross (1995) suggests may also have contributed to misogyny and the later "witch craze". This factor could have weighed in favour of finding a virgin wife and eschewing other sexual contacts (cf. LW 54: 335, No. 4368).

[5] The translator, Montague Summers, stated (Kramer & Sprenger, 1928/1971, p. 20) that the first edition of the Malleus probably appeared in 1486, and gave a bibliographical note (pp. 25-28) of early editions and their failings. Hans Peter Broedel (2003), in a detailed Malleus study, suggests 1487 for the earliest edition and is critical of the Summers' translation for reliance on "very late Latin editions, which differed substantially from the original". Broedel also suggests that it was probably to acquire prestige that the first section of the Malleus was deliberately structured as "Scholastic" argumentation, "intended to mimic the forms of Thomist disputation" (pp. 21-22), with proposition, refutation, and solutions to any further objections. He notes that the 15th century authors had some trouble nailing down all the questions they had raised.

[6] The "balneum diaboli" was a learned phrase normally understood as a heavy dose of melancholy and depression, in which the devil could immerse any human soul (an experience that Luther periodically suffered). It is not quite clear whether Luther's thought was, "I'm feeling better; maybe now it's Satan who's in the dumps"; or "I'm feeling better; the devil must be off duty, relaxing in his bath". Either way, a diabolical jest.

[7] Components of a society's concept of 'congenital foolishness' (or call it mental retardation, intellectual impairment, imbecility, idiocy etc) are likely to include (i) some categorisation of the range of 'intelligence' (e.g. high, middling, low), in terms of apparent speed and agility of mind, ability to learn and benefit from education; (ii) some definition of mental competence and incompetence for legal purposes (e.g. transfer from 'child' to 'adult' status, capacity to be a witness, to represent oneself in a court, to manage one's own or family property without prodigality and without soon being cheated out of it; to take part effectively in contracts, including marriage); and some norms of conducting oneself with sufficient responsiveness to one's family, neighbours and community as to avoid attracting terms like the Indian jada and variants (meaning: fool, stupid, dull, deaf, cold, frigid, impotent, benumbed, inert). Such components are amply recorded, with a wide vocabulary, for example in the literature of South Asian civilisations between about 1500 BC and Luther's time, c. 1500 CE.

In medieval Europe the fields of law, medicine, and theology have been particularly rich for studying "folly" in general, with the 'natural' fool and the developmentally retarded person taking their place (Fritz, 1992, 371). The theologian Aquinas (1225-1274) provided material for a substantial catalogue of fools and their characteristic activities, recently assembled by Jean Lauand: "Asyneti, cataplex, credulus, fatuus, grossus, hebes, idiota, imbecillus, inanis, incrassatus, inexpertus, insensatus, insipiens, nescius, rusticus, stolidus, stultus, stupidus, tardus, turpis, vacuus, and vecors." Such a list could be matched from the contemporary 13th century Islamic civilisation by terms such as ahmaq, ghabiyy, sadhij, safih, balih, mat`uh, naqis al `aql, as well as akhraq, balid, ma'iq, mamrur, mukhabbal or makhbul, makhtabil, mamsus, raqi, and people who were ahwaj, anwak, `arha, awlaq, buha, mustahtir, malih, habnaqa, or otherwise confused, idiotic or reckless (see Dols, 1992; also Zakharia, 1995, on the 12th century writer Al-Gawzi who compiled "Stories about Idiots and Sots", and differentiated idiocy, as a permanent, innate condition, from madness and folly).

[8] Al-Razi's Chapter 3, "On enlargement of the heads of children", translated by Samuel Radbill (1971, p. 372) is an interesting clinical description, free from superstitious or mythical beliefs, though the proposals for a 'cure' seem unlikely to have been effective.

[9] The French ecclesiastical historian Baudouin de Gaiffier (1967) traced stories of baby substitution back to the 10th or 11th centuries in Southern Europe, with both manuscript and artistic representation. One tells of the birth of St. Stephen, son of Antiochus and Perpetua, at Cana of Galilee in the time of Caesar Augustus. The baby was supposedly stolen by Satan, and a substitute placed in its cot ("ydolum in eius lectulo colocavit", p. 182); but the evil was overcome by the end of the tale. (See also Schmitt, 1983, 74-80).

Widespread historical traditions involving babies 'stolen' and 'substituted' may originate primarily within the intimate and little-recorded world of mothers, grandmothers, midwives, aunts and sisters, where watchful eyes have noticed that an infant, who was thriving and progressing through the traditionally expected sounds and movements of early childhood, has changed to one with indifferent colour, lack of response to stimuli, faltering progress, inconsolable cries. Sometimes the change is dramatic, within hours; in other cases, a week or two passes before one woman glances meaningfully at another and a question is raised. A paediatric researcher might now measure temperature, test blood and urine, identify the virulent infection that raised a high fever and left permanent cerebral damage, or other biological mechanism; but in much of the world's domestic history the thriving infant has clearly been taken away and replaced by a crying, sickly ghost. The casting of an evil eye, the fall of moonlight on the babe's unprotected head, the action of elves in changing the loved child for an unlovable thing, are possible explanations. In the 'modern, scientific' world, parents still report that, e.g. "We took him for his second immunisation, and that night he was unsettled. Next morning, he was a different child." Explanation of the process may be very different, but the parents may still feel their child was stolen.

[10] Does anyone (even among the minority proficient in Latin and German...) still bother to read the full corpus even once, in face of the vast distractions of modern life and the trend to ever-narrowing specialisation? Commenting on an over-emphasis on the "Young" Luther, Oberman (1988) found the neglect of later primary texts so great that Luther scholars should carry a knife to "open the uncut pages of the later volumes in the Weimar edition" in libraries across the western world. The past 17 years seem likely to have strengthened the neglect of primary sources.

[11] Christian Mürner (1996), weaving together sources out of context, seems to suggest that little Hans really was in danger: in disciplining his children, supposedly Luther "would not even shrink from murder" (quoting Carl-Heinz Mallet, "nicht einmal vor einem Mord zurückgeschreckt"). This is supported by Luther's 'threat' that "Ich wollt lieber einem toten denn einen ungezogenen Sohn haben", with an unspecified Biblical saying that the Parents' will is God's will, and one should kill disobedient children ("Er beruft sich auf die Bibel, 'der Eltern Diener, under der Eltern Wille is Gottes Wille. Der heisst under gebeut, dass man ungehorsame Kinder töten soll.'") The latter could perhaps refer to the Torah provision, that parents might bring their son before the city elders and accuse him of being stubborn and rebellious, profligate, drunken and leading a riotous life. If proven, the community could stone the delinquent (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21); though in practice, such a penalty was not carried out without serious warnings and community action to correct the behaviour problems (Hertz, 1952, pp. 841-842, 845). One can apply this kind of rhetoric to Luther only by imagining that he was a wild, crazy man in his home, liable to break out and attack his own small children with axe or hammer. Luther's many students and companions, friends and guests, who saw and recorded his everyday behaviour, somehow never met this homicidal maniac.

[12] Over three centuries earlier, in July 1198, Pope Innocent III had regularised the marriage position of deaf people, with a ruling titled "Mutus et surdus, et omnes, qui non prohibentur, matrimonium contrahere possunt." (Decretales Gregorii IX, Liber IV, 1, Cap. XXIII f.) It was further ruled in 1205 that "Furiosus matrimonium contrahere non potest" (ibid., Cap. XXIV). Then in 1206, a ruling clarified that consent to marriage was normally proven by an audible expression; "vel alia signa aequipollentia": the consent could equally be indicated otherwise. "Nam surdi et muti possunt contrahere matrimonium per consensum mutuum sine verbis" (ibid., Cap. XXV). This apparently recognised deaf people's capacity to take part with understanding in the sacrament of matrimony (while the mad person was prohibited, for lack of present understanding), and to give valid consent by their signs, rather than spoken words. Thus there seems to have been no reason why they should be barred from another holy sacrament of the Church if they signalled their wish to take part with understanding. Doubtless there were many times and places where Innocent III's rulings were unknown, forgotten or circumvented, with local custom and prejudice preventing deaf people from participating in the sacraments; yet the papal rulings were certainly on record, and continued to be cited in handbooks like the Summa Angelica.

[13] The identity is known of at least one deaf person at Eisenach, the daughter of Christian Cotta, whose personal example influenced Luther, as recalled in 1564 by Sebastian Bötius (1515-1573) and recorded later by a church official at Hamburg, Georg Dedeken (Georgius Dedekennus, 1564-1628): "Memini tamen Isenaci esse puellam, filiam Christiani Cottae, admissam ad communionem ex consilio D. Lutheri. Ipse ego audivi Lutherum respondentem in illo casu: Si adsunt desiderii, non reiiciatur ab altari. Et postea ea saepius communicavit." (Dedekennus, 1623, vol. I, part II). Bötius had studied under Luther and Melanchthon, and was school rector for several years at Eisenach, from 1536. Luther is known to have maintained cordial relations with the Cotta family of Eisenach, long after the death (in 1511) of Ursula Schalbe Cotta, who had made him welcome in the Cotta home when he was a schoolboy (WA TR 5: 95; 6: 265; No.s 5362, 6910; Köstlin, 1905, 13-14). The identity and dates of Christian Cotta and his deaf daughter have not been more precisely established, but Luther's advice, noted by Bötius, is consistent with his comments in 1520 on admitting deaf people to communion.

Luther's views about deaf or mute people have been examined in detail by Dietfried Gewalt (1970), who also finds a further useful text in LW 38: 108-109 (WA 30: 604) from 1530, in which the non-hearing believer should be present at holy communion and receive the sacrament. A paper by Gewalt and Krause (1972), with substantial referencing, makes available an 'expert legal opinion' (also collected by Dedeken, 1623) from the Lutheran pastor Andreas Hyperius (1511-1564), on the same question, whether deaf and dumb persons could take part in holy communion, with the same positive outcome. The writings of Melanchthon (Corpus Reformatorum, Philippi Melanthonis Opera, III: 229 {No. 1512} and IX: 152-153 {No. 6245}) also refer to the issue in 1536 and 1557, giving the case of a deaf person at Gotha who clearly indicated his understanding of the Christian message, and was welcomed to take part in Communion.

[14] Luther's frequent mention of physical and mental or spiritual symptoms, in correspondence with his friends, has attracted some medical analysis, including diagnoses such as Menière's disease (Feldman, 1989) that consolidate various complaints. John Wilkinson (2001, pp. 7-50), after working as a physician in African conditions probably nearer to late medieval than modern Germany, reviews earlier medical verdicts on Luther and gives a cautious and non-dogmatic view. Luther's reports of ill-health tally with his often poorly balanced diet, long-term work pressures, stress and anxiety, lack of regular exercise later in life, the primitive state of medical knowledge, and the absence of public health measures (e.g. clean water supply, sewage removal, and hygienic food preparation) now regarded as basic necessities. Luther did well to reach his 63rd year, with a weakened heart, agonizing renal stones, chronic bowel problems, headaches and tinnitus, gout and arthritis in various joints, and loss of sight in one eye, according to the available evidence.

By contrast, the attempted construction of Luther's "psycho-history", as in Erik Erikson's "Young Man Luther", is seriously lacking in evidence, and apparently can take any direction according to the creative imagination of the writer. Few historians have been impressed by the guesses, since the evidence about Luther's childhood and youth is meagre but well known, and sounds like that of hundreds of thousands of other youths who went on to live ordinary lives (Grimm, 1960, p. 109b; Strohl, 2001, pp. 135-136).

[15] Literary analysis by Winfried Schleiner (1985) suggests the rather enlightened nature, in its time, of Luther's personal approach to severe mental illness. In several reported situations, he suggested or offered a kind of "compassionate reintegration" of the sufferer, taking seriously (up to a point) the unbalanced or distorted perspective, while bringing the sufferer persuasively into the everyday realities of life in ordinary human company. It is interesting to see these points from a scholar outside the medical and theological fields, and who quotes in full the sources in German.

[16] Academic battles continue on the interpretation of "poor relief" across 16th century Europe, e.g. whether these movements should be seen as worthy humanitarian responses or as cynical palliative manoeuvres in ongoing class struggles (or perhaps both). Carter Lindberg (1977) wearily remarked that "...the earliest forms of Protestant poor relief through 1522 did not characterize poverty and unemployment as personal guilt, the inscrutable decree of God, or a preparation for a large, cheap labor pool."

[17] The idea that mental images affect conception might be found in the curious, apparently colour-coded, breeding stratagem used by the patriarch Jacob with his father-in-law Laban's flocks, in Genesis 30: 25-43, and 31: 1-13. The passage has considerable obscurity in the Hebrew (Spurrell, 1887, pp. 237-242; Westermann, 1985, pp. 478-484), but quite possibly does reflect techniques known to animal breeders whose family livelihood depended on such knowledge. Some modern interpreters suggest that the 'maternal impression' theme was not intended, e.g. if the freshly peeled parts of the 'rods' had an aphrodisiac scent, and were used to promote selective mating between animals with a recessive gene more likely to produce speckled offspring. Luther had varying thoughts on the incident. In 1522, he found Jacob to have some deep knowledge of nature, revealed by God, comparable to the useful knowledge of physicians, which enabled him to obtain the desired result with the flocks (LW 52: 161). Twenty years on, revisiting Genesis 30-31 in detail, Luther was indignant at Laban's trickery, and saw God revealing to Jacob a "special artifice", or "an ingenious philosophy or magic art" to overcome the injustice; yet he also saw that the art might have been learnt from earlier wise men; and went on to state that the maternal impression theme was "an established fact", quoting ancient and current experience (LW 5: 379-384). If Luther had been writing for a sceptical academic readership, he might have separated the theological, the folk traditional, and the 'new scientific' strands in his arguments; but his commentaries were oral teaching and preaching, recorded by note-takers, published often against Luther's protests, and thus requiring careful scrutiny when used as historical evidence (see Brecht, 1999, 136-137).

[18] The Dessau boy may have had Prader-Willi syndrome, or some comparable condition, with the characteristic that a body mechanism, which normally lowers appetite after eating, is faulty or absent. People with the syndrome may feel continuous appetite and eat hugely, with consequent obesity and other ill effects. There are often behavioural problems and adverse social reactions. In favourable situations, some people with the syndrome may learn enough to manage their symptoms and live a life with less difficulties.

[19] In work published at about the same time as the original (Miles, 2001) paper, C. Goodey & T. Stainton (2001) discuss some sources and origins of ideas about 'changelings', and possible confusion with ideas of intellectual disability. Evidence on changelings in the Malleus, and in Luther's Tischreden, is quoted at various points. The latter material is treated with caution, differentiating the account by Mathesius (who was present) from the apparent later embroidery by Aurifaber, and making some defence of Luther against the usual accusations. Their defence becomes odd when discussing the phrase "mass of flesh" (for the boy at Dessau) in an Augustinian sense of 'sinful', 'worldly'. Goodey & Stainton deny its possible reference to the boy being non-human, insisting that "in Lutheran terms [it] affirmed his humanity" (p. 231). The exchange reported by Mathesius (and quoted in English by Goodey & Stainton, from Tappert in LW 54: 396-397, No. 5207) included the phrase "a mass of flesh without a soul". In WA TR 5: 9, from Math.L.352(32b), it runs: "[Lutherus...] Respondit: Quia ego simpliciter puto esse massam carnis sine (Math.L.(33)) anima. An non hoc posset Diabolus...? " (Italics added).

In several recorded discussions, Luther apparently did entertain a real possibility that Satan could produce an illusory, non-human entity of flesh without soul, though he had some doubt about it actually happening, or how to detect it. Reportedly, Luther reiterated that he had no clear understanding of the matter; so it seems better, 450 years later, not to claim to know what he thought, "against the text". Elsewhere, indeed, Luther admitted, "I do not know whether we Germans are not really devils instead of human beings." (LW 43: 133) Here one might more reasonably be dogmatic: Luther did not think that all his fellow-Germans were really devils! He was being ironic, to awaken his readers -- just as he was being ironic when he suggested that one might be provoked to curse the day on which one was born, so as "to wake up our Lord God with such words" (LW 54: 30, No. 228)!



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