When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg five hundred years ago, he set in motion a series of events that he could never have foreseen. Like most of us, Luther didn’t really know what he was doing. At the time, he was taking issue with an ecclesiastical salesman Johann Tetzel, who was the 16th Century equivalent of a televangelist mixed with an after-life insurance broker. Tetzel was very good at the hard sell, but Luther wasn’t buying. Why not? And how did this lead to a cataclysmic schism in the church in West?
There are so many places to begin and so much to explain that St Anne is as good a place to start as any. If you’re the sort of person who likes the idea of saints, then you could make a case that she is to blame for centuries of upheaval and strife. Or you could make the case that far from taking the blame, she should be taking the credit for the recovery of Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel - although you would not be crediting St Anne with that since she’d died two thousand years earlier.
I should disclose that I fall into the latter pro-Scripture group and must admit that until this year, I had no idea who St Anne was. But Martin Luther did and that’s the main thing. During a thunderstorm on 2 July 1505, he said a prayer to St Anne after a lightning bolt struck the ground too close for comfort. He even made a bargain with her, saying that if she protected him from the electrical storm, he would become a monk. A man of his word, and much to his father’s distress, Luther left a promising legal career and reluctantly entered St. Augustine's Monastery a fortnight later. And so it begins.
Why did he pray to St Anne? Who even is St Anne? Considering this for a moment is a good way of getting our minds a little bit more medieval. St Anne is, according to the Gospel of James, the mother of the Virgin Mary, and therefore Jesus’s grandma. If you’re wondering why you’ve not read about Jesus’s grandma spoiling her grandson rotten in the pages of the New Testament, it is because the Gospel of James is not in the Bible. Also known as the Infancy Gospel of James, it is one of those books written considerably after the rest of the New Testament, deemed to be more akin to spiritual fan fiction. It’s a gospel prequel, Jesus: The Early Years, or a biblical Smallville. It was not altogether popular with the likes of Jerome, who was an early Bible collator and translator. Early popes were not keen on it either.
One thousand five hundred years later, however, St Anne was making a bit of a comeback, partly because of the popularity of the Virgin Mary. The theory went that if Mary was so special, she too must have been born of a Virgin – St Anne – and also be without sin. It’s not clear why this logic doesn’t take you all the way back to Adam and Eve in Eden, but I’m sure they’ve thought of this.
The next year, in 1506, some holy relics of St Anne at Duren in Germany were given the seal of approval from Pope Julius II. But more of him next time. For now, let us note that Luther’s cry for help to St Anne, then, was not unusual. It gives us a window on the world, and a sense of who Luther was a decade before becoming the man responsible for the events of 1517.
St Anne gets a mention in the Relics Song in A Monk's Tale - sung by Frederick The Wise of Saxony (okay, it's Anna in a beard). Why not have a look and see if the show is on near you? Or come and see the show at the Edinburgh Fringe. More info HERE.