Erziehungswissenschaftliche Fakultät, Philosophische Fakultät, Historisches Seminar

Luther's councilman's writing: The birth of public libraries and municipal schools

16. Apr 2024, 7.00 pm
City Library on Domplatz
City of Erfurt
Professor Kai Brodersen, Professor Andreas Lindner and Frank-Joachim Stewing
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500 years ago, Martin Luther called on the councillors of all cities in the German-speaking world to establish Christian schools. There will be an exhibition and an evening lecture on this topic in April 2024 at the City and Regional Library.

Free education and publicly accessible libraries are an important and indispensable part of everyday social life and an achievement that is taken for granted in Germany today. This was not always the case. At the end of the Middle Ages, large sections of society only had limited access to education. Libraries as repositories of knowledge were only open to a very small circle of users. Even if the framework, which granted free access to contemporary educational opportunities exclusively to elites of high status and social standing, was increasingly weakened in the late Middle Ages, education and the acquisition of knowledge remained a privilege that was difficult to break down due to many social barriers. However, economic innovation and trade at the end of the late Middle Ages meant that education gradually found its way into wider circles.

In addition to the University of Erfurt and the numerous colleges and monastery schools, there were also so-called Winkelschulen, where writing and reading as well as basic Mathematics were taught, institutionally located at the numerous Erfurt parishes. In addition to the traditional libraries that the university and the numerous collegiate foundations and monasteries had at their disposal, small and very small book collections will have existed there, which were also accessible to parishioners to a limited extent.

For Martin Luther, this did not go far enough. For Luther, free access to education and books was a central concern of the Reformation he initiated, from which he derived a general educational mission that included adolescent boys and girls of all classes and social strata equally. With the help of a humanistic school education requiring knowledge of the old languages and German, it should not only be possible for everyone to read and understand the Holy Scriptures themselves.

At the same time, Luther also saw a good education as a necessary educational tool to adequately prepare the individual for their future place in society. Luther saw it as the responsibility of the municipal officials and administrations, who he believed had a duty to implement the educational programme he had formulated. Luther understood this to mean more than just creating the institutional conditions and providing buildings. In particular, the local authorities were to ensure sufficient funding in the medium and long term.

Luther summarised this programme in a pamphlet that had been circulating since the end of February 1524. Addressed to the councillors of all German cities, it is a vehement call to establish secondary schools, which Luther also combined with the demand to create and permanently maintain publicly accessible libraries in the municipalities. The widely received treatise was reprinted several times in the year of publication. Two reprints were published in Erfurt itself, which is an indication that Luther's ideas on educational policy also met with great interest in Erfurt.

Luther's admonishing words, with which he not only spoke to the conscience of the urban elites of his time, but also called them to account, had a trend-setting effect on the school and library system in the German-speaking world for centuries. This influence was not limited to the founding of schools and libraries directly initiated by him. Rather, it was and still is the basic idea, which can be described as an educational mission, that forms the core of Luther's councilman's writing across the ages. It was the prelude to free access to school education, which today includes all social classes, as well as the low-threshold provision of books in the form of public libraries that invite all people to freely and self-determinedly acquire knowledge. It has not lost any of its topicality, combined with a demand aimed directly at local authority decision-makers to always be aware of this obligation in their actions. Free education and freely accessible educational institutions are, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe aptly put it in 1801 with regard to the added value of libraries, an invaluable asset that generates incalculable interest without being noticed.

An exhibition on the ground floor of the main library on Domplatz is dedicated to the publication of Luther's Ratsherrenschrift. The exhibition can be viewed during opening hours. The vernissage will take place on 3 April from 5 pm.

In addition, the Erfurt City and Regional Library invites you to a lecture evening on 16 April 2024 from 7 pm in the main library on Domplatz. At the event, two Erfurt University professors, Kai Brodersen and Andreas Lindner, will shed light on Luther's council writings and Luther's complex relationship with Erfurt. In addition, Frank-Joachim Stewing, Director of the Erfurt City and Regional Library, will offer an insight into Erfurt's library landscape in the early modern period. The event is free of charge. Registration is requested on 0361 655-1590 or by e-mail to .