Editor's note: Portions of this column were recently published in a blog post on Patheos.

The German town of Wittenberg is a sleepy, quaint little place with roughly 50,000 residents. But its small size belies its vast importance. Situated along the Elbe River, it received its charter as an independent city in 1293 and came to be a significant center of trade over the next several decades.

At the end of the 15th century, Frederick III (“the Wise”) adopted Wittenberg as his residence. He was the “Elector of Saxony,” one of seven princes who together selected the head of the Holy Roman Empire — essentially Germany and certain surrounding lands — which Voltaire famously (and accurately) described as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

In 1502, Frederick established the University of Wittenberg, which rapidly grew into one of the most impressive centers of learning on the European continent. According to one of Shakespeare’s plays, written around 1600, the Danish prince Hamlet and his friend Horatio were students in Wittenberg. That’s scarcely possible, of course, because the story of Hamlet dates back at least to the 1200s and possibly even to the early 700s, many decades (or even centuries) before the university’s founding.

Other students and teachers associated with Wittenberg, though, are more securely historical. Giordano Bruno, for example, the Dominican friar, mathematician, philosopher and cosmologist, taught at the university; in 1600, he was burned at the stake in Rome as a heretic. G.E. Lessing, one of the greatest writers of the German Enlightenment, earned his master’s degree in Wittenberg. Curiously, too, the astrologer and alchemist Dr. Johann Faust, later made famous in plays by Christopher Marlowe and J.W. von Goethe, lived across the street from the university for two years.

But all this doesn’t even begin to exhaust the historical interest of Wittenberg. This quiet little town was the epicenter of one of the major revolutions in the history of western civilization and boasts more UNESCO World Heritage sites, concentrated in a smaller area, than anywhere else on Earth.

In 1508, a year after his ordination as a priest, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther was appointed to teach theology at the university. In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences — effectively, promises of salvation in exchange for cash — to anybody contributing to the grandiose reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

On Oct. 31, 1517, infuriated by the very notion of indulgences and by the aggressive way in which they were marketed, Luther nailed his famous “ninety-five theses” to the door of the Castle Church, just down the street, challenging indulgences on biblical and theological grounds. (In Thesis 28, Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel, the chief salesman of indulgences in his area: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”)

This event, or something like it — certain historians have challenged the details of the story — launched the Reformation and forever split western Christendom. And its 500th anniversary is just two years away.

In 1518, Philipp Melanchthon, who would become Luther’s chief lieutenant in the German Reformation, became professor of Greek at Wittenberg.

One of us recently visited the town, staying overnight in a nice little modern hotel squeezed right between the well-preserved homes of Luther and Melanchthon. About 200 or 300 yards down the Collegienstrasse, on which both the hotel and the Luther and Melanchthon houses sit, is the complex of buildings that once belonged to the pharmacist — and painter and visual chronicler of Luther and the Reformation — Lucas Cranach the Elder.

When, on Dec. 10, 1520, Pope Leo issued a papal “bull” or public letter threatening Luther with excommunication, the former monk publicly and defiantly burnt it about 200 yards or less from his house.

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Down the street in the other direction is the City Church, St. Marienkirche, widely known as “the Mother Church of the Reformation.” Luther preached repeatedly in this building, and it was here that the mass was first celebrated in a vernacular, or common language, rather than in Latin — in Luther’s case, course, it was celebrated in German — and that, contrary to prior Catholic practice, both wine and wafer were first given to ordinary lay members of the congregation.

Finally, perhaps 200 or 300 yards past the City Church is the Castle Church where Luther did or didn’t post his theses, and where he’s buried.

Those interested in religious history will find few places featuring such a dense concentration of it.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.

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