Martin Luther is best known as the Father of Protestantism, as he was the first to famously break away from the Catholic Church. A simple German monk of peasant background, Luther had as much influence in shaping our modern world as almost anyone who has ever lived. He was a puzzling, yet determined man of extraordinary conviction, determination, and boldness. Few people in history have produced as many interesting stories, both positive and negative, as Martin Luther. He lived to see his teachings put in place by many and inspired Lutheranism, the first of the numerous Protestant faiths that exist today. He was, however, known to be volatile and, especially later in life, a bit irrational. Could that erratic behavior have been the result of endolyphatic hydrops or Meniere’s Disease?
(Click on Martin’s Picture for video that summarizes his life). Martin Luther, born in 1483, was the eldest son of Hans and Margarethe Luder (later changed to Luther) of Eisleben (now Germany). A difficult childhood left a permanent mark on young Martin. Hans and Margarethe (pictured right) used extremely harsh methods of child rearing. One source indicates that on several occasions young Martin had severe nosebleeds as a consequence of their beatings. It is felt by contemporary psychologists that this difficult childhood possibly led to many of his revolutionary ideas. In 1484, the family moved to Mansfeld (now Germany), where his father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters and served as one of four citizen representatives on the local council. The contemporary religious scholar Martin Marty describes Luther’s mother as a hard-working woman of “trading-class stock and middling means.” Hans was ambitious for himself and his family, determined to see Martin, his eldest son, become a lawyer.
He sent young Martin to Latin schools in Mansfield, and then in 1497 to Magdeburg, a school operated by a lay group called the Brethren of the Common Life, and later in Eisenach in 1498. The three schools focused on the so-called “trivium“: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Luther later compared his education in these schools to purgatory and hell. These were difficult years for him and he began to devote himself to religious activities. After nearly dying in a frightening thunderstorm, he resolved to align his life more with God’s teachings. To that end, he abandoned his college education and gave up his plans to study Law. At age 24 he entered the monastery of the Augustine friars, and was ordained into the priesthood in 1507. (St. Augustine is pictured above.)
While profoundly Catholic, he strongly disagreed with several practices of the early Church, such as immoral behavior, poor education of clerics, and the absence of Bishops from their assigned parishes. His anger at the Church of his time would lead evenually to the Protestant Reformation.
Between 1520 and 1530, Luther developed the basic tenets of his new faith. His beliefs rested on four major articles, which differed greatly from the teachings of the Catholic Church. His major assertions were:
- Man is saved by faith alone (“sola fide”).
- The Bible is the sole source of authority in the church (“sola scriptura”).
- The church consists of the entire community of Christian leaders.
- All vocations have equal merit, and every person should serve God according to his individual calling.
Luther was responsible for bringing about both chaos and community to the masses, as he was the first to openly challenge the Catholic Church. Although his “95 Theses” instigated the Reformation, which eventually led to the enlightenment, he was convinced the devil dwelt inside his very own body from time to time.
Luther’s Meniere’s Disease
Throughout his life, Luther suffered from severe constipation, and it is a recorded fact that he received his greatest enlightenment–that it is man’s faith and not his achievements that guarantee his salvation–while he was sitting on the toilet. His diseases are well documented as he discussed them freely in his letters, and a wealth of evidence exists through reports by his friends. Most of his diseases were common and well known to 16th century physicians, who interpreted them correctly as bladder stones, chronic constipation, and hemorrhoids.
The first of his Meniere’s attacks is documented to have occurred on July 6, 1527, when Luther was 43 years of age. It began with a roaring tinnitus in his left ear, which increased dramatically and seemed to occupy the left half of his head. A state of sickness and collapse followed, but he retained, consciousness throughout the whole period. After a night’s rest all his symptoms subsided, except the tinnitus, which continued for the rest of his life with varying intensity.
Similar attacks, with an increase of the tinnitus and vertigo as the leading symptoms, seized Luther at irregular intervals and distressed him extremely. Former investigators of Luther’s diseases interpreted these attacks as manifestations of a psychiatric disorder and a chronic inflammatory disease of the middle ear. According to one study his was a typical case of Menière’s disease of the left ear manifesting itself more than 330 years before Menière’s classical observation.
Luther felt that the devil would whistle and roar in his ears and squeeze his heart; sometimes the spin was so fast in his head that Luther would fall out of his chair. He regarded his severe tinnitus as a Satanic infliction and wrote: “When I try to work, my head becomes filled with all sorts of whizzing, buzzing, thundering noises.” The condition became so severe that he hired a body guard to prevent him from physically hurting anyone during very painful bouts of tinnitus. Modern physicians have speculated that Luther was suffering from Meniere’s disease, which attacks the inner ear, causing serious equilibrium problems. Some feel that his Meniere’s and hallucinations were a result of syphilis, which was rampant in Europe at the time.
Martin Luther in 1529 was not the same Martin Luther of 1519 and earlier. His diseases were taking a toll on his demeanor, writings and speeches. In particular, while earlier in his life, Martin Luther defended the Jews as “God’s people whom the Lord will redeem in time”, by 1529, he wrote awful things about the Jews of his day. He might have been less volatile if there had been treatment for his tinnitus. In 1541 he became deaf, after experiencing bad ear aches and a discharge from his ears. He suffered from extremely high blood pressure, which led to angina pectoris, a heart disease causing spasms of pain in the chest. His diseased heart finally failed, and he lost consciousness and died with his friends shouting questions into his deaf ears. They wanted to know whether his faith in Christ remained steadfast as he approached the end. His last word, spoken to those questioning his faith, was yes. It was February 18, 1546.