The Diet of Worms, 1521
The word “diet” means simply a government assembly (from the Latin “dies” meaning “day”, although diets could last a lot longer than a single day). This particular one met in the city of Worms in south-western Germany. Although diets in the Holy Roman Empire were supposedly legislative gatherings, they were in reality echo chambers for the Emperor, whose word was law.
The Holy Roman Emperor was the governor of an association of states in Northern Europe, nominally sanctioned by the Pope in Rome. At the time this was Charles V, who wielded absolute power over his territories despite only being 21 years old.
The Diet of Worms had been convened as a form of trial for a German monk who had dared to defy the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, namely Martin Luther.
In October 1517 Luther had published his “Ninety-Five Theses” which were points of dispute with the Church, especially over what Luther regarded as its corrupt practices. These were challenged by the Pope and other theologians, leading to Luther being accused of heresy. When he refused to recant his views he was summoned to Worms to explain himself.
A Courageous Appearance
Martin Luther saw no reason to try to avoid the summons, given that he was more than keen to defend and expound his opinions regarding the sorry state of the Roman Catholic Church. He was warned by friends that – if found guilty of heresy – his life could well be in jeopardy. His reply was: “I am resolved to enter Worms although as many devils should set upon me as there are tiles on the rooftops”.
It was the case, however, that Luther had been assured by the Emperor of his safe conduct. Of course, Charles was perfectly capable of changing his mind but Luther was prepared to trust his good word.
Conflict of Arguments
Luther was appalled by the corruption in Rome and certain of his own principles. He refused to accept the absolute authority of the Church, preferring to rely on “scripture and plain reason”.
Emperor Charles’s counter argument was that “a single monk, deluded by his own judgment”, was in no position to conclude that “all Christians up till now are wrong”.
There was no chance that Luther would win his case, which he concluded by saying: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise”.
The net result was that Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Church, having been condemned as a heretic. However, Charles was an honourable man and he refused to allow Luther to be seized and punished.
After the Diet
The date 18th April 1521 is regarded by many as the true date of the start of the Reformation, because the genie of reform was henceforth out of the bottle and it could not be put back.
Martin Luther would spend the remaining 25 years of his life preaching for reform in Germany, while Charles V would oppose the trend – with limited success - for the 37 years that remained to him.