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THE REFORMATION AND ITS ESTABLISHMENT IN AUSTRIA

The legend tells that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther (*1483, +1546), a Catholic priest and Professor of Theology nailed his theses against trade in pardons (so-called “Ablasshandel”) at the door of  the city of Wittenberg´s castle  church. In his role as priest, Luther had noticed that the number of believers who had come to confess at Wittenberg´s city church was constantly decreasing.  They preferred to go to neighbouring counties like Brandenburg and Anhalt as they could buy indulgencies there. But Luther stood up against any kind of trades like these. He thougt that one could only earn salvation of one´s soul through life long humbleness and trust in god. Luther also disagreed with the autocratic rule of the Pope and the Vatican Concile which claimed to be free of errors. This quickly led to severe problems with the church in Rome. In contrast to earlier efforts in the late middle ages, Luther now found influencal friends within the German empire. His ideas quickly spread through the country, also suported by the newly invented letter printing. Naturally, his words also reached Austria rapidly. The first noticable contact with the Reformation can be found in Steyr at the Enns River in 1520. A bare-footed monk openly spread the new words there. In the beginning it was Austria´s nobility which came into contact with Lutheran writings as they were the ones that travelled around.

Martin Luther, the German reformer.

The burning of protestant books at Salzburg.

In the yearly phase (1520s) and again in the 1560s, great parts of Upper- and Lower-Austria´s, Styria´s, Corinthia´s and Krain´s nobility converted to Protestantism. Only western Austria (meaning Tyrol and Vorarlberg) remained Catholic. In opposing the Catholic church, the nobility´s hope was to get a share of the church´s properties/land. They therefore also stood in opposition to their Catholic Emperor. However due to the fact that Turkish troops had regularly raided Austria, the Emperor did not have enough money to put pressure on his Protestant nobility. More than that: the Catholic church could keep its influence as e.g. Emperor Ferdinand I., was fanatically fighting the Lutherans in his country. He had already banned Protestant books on 12. March 1523. However this only led to an increased consumption of the writings. In 1524, the first Lutheran heratic was decapitated in Vienna and his dead body burned publically. In the following years further mandates against the Protestants were laid down. Strangely enough, the conversion to Protestantism was facilitated by the church. This was because they allowed the nobility to decide over their subjects´ religion by themselves - and the farmers usually followed the religion of their local authorities. So Emperor Maximilian II., King of Upper- and Lower-Austria, Bohemia and Hungary until 1576, had to promise his father Ferdinand I. to remain Catholic, however he granted the nobility the freedom of religion. This also comprised their subjects´ belief.

“Parents are teaching protestant religion to their children”. A contemporary copperplate engraving of the 16. century.

One can therefore say, that the second half of the 16. century was the high time of Protestantism in Austria with around 70% of the population following this new religion. Needless to say that Austria had long been prepared for the Reformation as it was too obvious that the Catholic church and its priests were deeply rotten. Reports from these times show that one third of the total land in Austria was possessed by the church, administrated by cloisters and church foundations. This meant that all the income went there and did not reach the impoverished local parishes. These local priest however had to earn their own living from what they could collect from their parish. Even the bishops had noticed the situation of the church: drunkenness, whoring, usury, swearing and quarrels. No surprise that the people were not satisfied with the Catholic belief and in some cases even chased the priests out of their villages for above reasons..

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