Martin Luther’s Illnesses, with Andrew Pettegree

Anyone who has read DET for an extended period of time knows that I have a soft spot for the theology and theologians of the Protestant reformation. And very often it is the complicated humanity of these figures that most draws me. I wrote a post on John Calvin’s humanity back in 2010 in which I – among other things – briefly discussed some of his illnesses. It is time now to address this topic with reference to Martin Luther.

The passage below comes from Andrew Pettegree’s excellent and relatively recent book: Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2015). It is a fascinating study of the symbiosis between Luther’s reforming achievement and the printing industry that, in addition to being a real scholarly contribution, is well written (and printed) itself. I can’t say enough nice things about it. Go buy it.

Anyway, Pettegree properly situates his discussion within its broader context, including Luther’s biography. And a portion of that biographical discussion, rendered below, jumped out at me. It’s simultaneously the most concise and comprehensive description of Luther’s health issues that I’ve ever encountered, and it serves to further humanize an already very human historical figure. So here’s the passage to tide you over until you get your own copy of the book. Bold is mine as usual.

Luther had always suffered problems with his digestion. The letters from the Wartburg in 1521 offer an obsessive and at times all too detailed narrative of his battles with constipation. The pleasures of a settled home and Katharina’s market garden helped to some extent in this respect, but as Luther lost some of his physical vitality other problems intervened. In 1527 he collapsed in the pulpit while preaching, the first of many dizzy spells that troubled and disoriented him thereafter; these attacks could also leave a residue of ringing in the ears that persisted for months. Luther also began about this time to experience the first symptoms of angina; in December 1536 he would suffer a severe heart attack. From 1533 Luther also had to deal with the dreadful and debilitating pain of kidney stones. This was a common condition in the sixteenth century, particularly among those who ate a richer diet; Luther, who loved the pleasures of the table, was always a likely victim. The result was frequent, incapacitating pain, which only exacerbated Luther’s problems with his digestion. In 1537, while at an assembly of the Protestant League in Schmalkalden, Luther suffered a urinary blockage so severe that his friends feared for his life. An operation was considered, but without anesthetic the chances of survival were grim, and Luther was in any case too weak for this to be contemplated. The crisis passed, but recovery was slow. In 1538 his entire family was struck with dysentery; in 1541 he developed a painful abscess in the neck and suffered a perforated eardrum.

Luther was by this point an old man, in almost constant pain, dosed by doctors, tended by an anxious wife, but beset always by constant work, the press of problems humdrum or acute that would inevitably be referred to him so long as he drew breath. So if during these last years his judgment or his temper failed, we must bear in mind that like many in this era he lived his life in a constant state of low-level illness or debility, flaring up into acute episodes in which the agony was unbearable.


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