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Martin Luther's Toilet Unearthed

Ron Ferguson, The Herald (Glasgow), 11 Nov. 2004

The seat of the Reformation has been unearthed - and it turns out to be a toilet seat. German archaeologists have discovered the toilet on which some historians believe Martin Luther wrote the famous 95 Theses that launched the Protestant Reformation. The sixteenth-century Augustinian monk, Catholic priest and university professor is the historical godfather of evangelical Christianity, which is the focus of so much attention today.

Historians have averred for years that the Protestant Reformation's founding father wrote his revolutionary theses while on das klo, as the Germans call it. But they did not know where the object was until archaeologists discovered the stone building after stumbling across the remains of an annexe of his home in Wittenberg, south-west of Berlin.

"This is a great find," Professor Stefan Rhein, director of the Luther Memorial Foundation said,"particularly because we're talking about someone whose texts we have concentrated on for years, while little attention has been paid to anything three-dimensional and human behind them. This is where the birth of the Reformation took place. Luther said himself that he made his reformatory discovery in cloaca Latin for sewer. We just had no idea where this sewer was. Now it's clear what the Reformer meant."

The 450-year-old lavatory, which was very advanced for its time, is made out of stone blocks and, unusually, has a 30cm-sq seat with a hole. Underneath is a cesspit attached to a primitive drain. Father Luther frequently alluded to the fact that he suffered from chronic constipation and that he spent much of his time in contemplation on the lavatory.


Luther's angstful problem was this: how can a sinful human being ever justify his life before a holy God? He went to confession almost every day, sometimes for up to six hours, going over his sins, both real and imagined. At one point, an exasperated confessor told him to go and commit a really spectacular sin, rather than keep coming back with minuscule peccadilloes."Man, God is not angry with you; you are angry with God," he told Luther.

How could he be sure that he had truly confessed all his sins? And how could he be certain he had eternal life? The Catholic Church, which claimed to control such access in the name of God, had become so corrupt that it sold indulgences to parishioners, assuring them that the minute they handed over the cash they could ill afford, their dead relatives would move up a few grades in purgatory. Luther exploded in rage against his Church's mercenary exploitation of people's insecurities.

How was his problem resolved for him? Luther explained it in his brilliant lectures on Saint Paul at the University of Wittenburg, where he was by then professor of biblical studies."Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through an open door into paradise."

Jesus took away Luther's sins but left him with his haemorrhoids. Ach, well. The obstinate, articulate theologian collided with complacent Vatican officials who were too arrogant to bother to read the disturbing European runes. Luther's magnificent translation of the Bible, pouring from Gutenberg's presses, captured the popular imagination. The rest is turbulent history.

Today's evangelical Christians would actually be very uncomfortable with the flesh-and-blood Luther. No proto-Puritan, he was as bawdy as he was brilliant, and his language was scatological. In an impolite time, faecal language was often used to denigrate the devil, such as Luther's:"I shit on the devil." This was probably wishful thinking on the part of a constipated man.