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The Diet of Worms (German: Reichstag zu Worms) was a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Emperor that took place in Worms, a small town on the Rhine river located in what is now Germany. It was conducted from January 28 to May 25, 1521, with Emperor Charles V presiding. Although other issues were dealt with at the Diet of Worms, it is most memorable for the Edict of Worms (Wormser Edikt), which addressed Martin Luther and the effects of the Protestant Reformation.
The previous year, Pope Leo X had issued the Papal bull Exsurge Domine, outlining forty-one purported errors found in Martin Luther’s 95 theses and other writings related to or written by him. Luther was summoned by the emperor. Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, obtained an agreement that if Luther appeared, he would be promised safe passage to and from the meeting. Such a guarantee was essential after the treatment of Jan Hus, who was tried and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415 despite a safe conduct pass.
Emperor Charles V commenced the imperial Diet of Worms on January 28, 1521. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views. When he appeared before the assembly on April 16, Johann Eck, an assistant of the Archbishop of Trier (Richard Greiffenklau zu Vollraths at that time), acted as spokesman for the emperor.
Luther prayed for long hours, consulted with friends and mediators, and presented himself before the Diet the next day. When the counselor put the same questions to Luther, he said: “They are all mine, but as for the second question, they are not all of one sort.” Luther went on to place the writings into three categories:
Works which were well received by even his enemies: those he would not reject. These affected the Protestant Reformation.
Books which attacked the abuses, lies and desolation of the Christian world: those, Luther believed, could not safely be rejected without encouraging abuses to continue.
Attacks on individuals: those he apologized for the harsh tone of these writings but did not reject the substance of what he taught in them; if he could be shown from the Scriptures that he was in error, Luther continued, he would reject them.
According to tradition, Luther is said to have spoken these words: “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen.” (“Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”) Most scholars now question whether these famous words were actually spoken, however, since only the last four appear in contemporary accounts. Indeed, the full sentence appears in an account by Philip Melanchthon, one of Luther’s most ardent sympathisers, but only the last four words are recorded in a similar first hand account by Johannes Cochlaeus.
Private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. Before a decision was reached, Luther departed. During his return to Wittenberg, he disappeared.
The Edict of Worms was a decree issued on May 25, 1521 by Emperor Charles V, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw and a heretic who should be “apprehended and punished.” It banned his literature and declared that any of his writings should be burnt. It also made it a crime for anyone to “receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther.”
The Papal nuncio at the diet, Girolamo Aleandro, drew up and proposed the fierce denunciations of Luther that were embodied in the Edict of Worms, promulgated on May 25. These declared Luther to be an outlaw and banned the reading or possession of his writings. The edict was a divisive move that distressed more moderate men, in particular Desiderius Erasmus.
Despite the agreement that he could return home safely, it was privately understood that Luther would soon be arrested and punished. To protect him from this fate, Prince Frederick seized him on his way home and hid him in Wartburg Castle. It was during his time in Wartburg that Luther began his German translation of the Bible. The edict was temporarily suspended at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 but then reinstated in 1529.
When Luther eventually reemerged from the Wartburg, the emperor, distracted with other matters, did not press for Luther’s arrest. Ultimately, because of rising public support for Luther among the German people and the protection of certain German princes, the Edict of Worms was never enforced in Germany. However, in the Low Countries (comprising modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), the Edict was initially enforced among Luther’s most active supporters there. In December, 1521, Jacob Probst, prior of the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp, was the first Luther-supporter to be prosecuted under the terms of the Worms Edict. In February, 1522, Probst was compelled to make public recantation and repudiation of Luther’s teachings. Later that year, additional arrests were made among the Augustinians in Antwerp. Two monks–Johannes van Esschen and Hendrik Voes–refused to recant. On July 1, 1523, van Esschen and Voes