Wittenberg, October 31st, 1517
Inside the church in Wittenberg, behind a closed door, priests
Garlanded by dried hopbines
Outside, the seething, leeching streets of clumsy cobbles
and viscous smells, the castle and the cladding, walls,
woad weaves and heavy, sultry Wittenberg swells…
…this night of all is strange.
All souls alive for one night
And living on the alms of the wealthy,
they were welcomed back.
People would toss rotting apples into graves,
To replenish all souls for one night,
they could keep company with the living during
The deciduous malice of the October apple harvest,
The expulsion of the homeless,
the dissenters, the sick, the mad
was lifted for one night,
for one night candles were lit
for the lost and left
by the windows of houses with plenty to spare,
And the beggars could come into the doorways
where the people would give them alms, if asked.
For one night
asking is permitted
when the all souls are risen
and fleshy again
sat round a fire telling ghost stories
to the scared, scrawny children.
Dole of hot cider, mulled perhaps – to take off the tannin
Or spiked with astringent Dutch genever
And souls: soul-cakes, for those who sing.
Studded proudly by the prim and pouting, sour housewives, with sweetening currants,
Spiced like the cider with thermal herbs: cinnamon, nutmeg, anise.
And they would eat and forget the future with the souls of present-past whilst they baked themselves in drink.
So the soul-eaters and liquor drinkers left their absconding huddle
to decorate the door of more envious housepeople
who were eager to appear more generous than their neighbours.
So the streets of Wittenberg pulsed.
Inside the stone, the Priest drinks pyment and the monks pound the gruit.
Bog myrtle and wormwood,
bog Mary and mace,
ground down then scattered to flavour the ale. Ale to drink and sell.
Stuffing sacks with hay and hops as pillows for the vagrants,
collecting scraps from the kitchen:
All Souls’ aid.
Whereas most years, the lanceolar leaves of Bog Rosemary
curled from the creamy white curd of a block bar of soap,
the priest this time had saved it with catkins of myrtle to palliate
the stagnant holy water.
And although myrtle leaves dance with bay about the feet of flowers in marital bouquets,
they are soon discarded,
so he ground that too into the gruit.
A glut of stinking wormwood too went in, because people have an otherworldly gluttony.
He forgot though that a little will go a distance
and in excessive zeal he pounded the pestle.
After the houses
the beggars one by one take their hop filled pillows from the vinegar hands of the sexton
stood at the gate of the graveyard, stale faced, cold.
Licking their cracked lips
with their untrained tongues forgetful for drink
of their ulcers.
Straying through the graveyard
away from the church
and out to the street
with a supplement draft of booze
Through the hallowed and the heathens Luther marched on the eve of the goodening
to the locked, black door of the church.
All the steam from the cooking pots and vats
brewing fumes of alcohol
took his throat and stung his eyes
like the sight of a good witch burning,
Martin stalked the church,
his shoulders pent up and rearing like an army of peoples
The curious beggars and children followed like a sprawling gaggle of geese,
wide-eyed, curious, chewing their fingers,
this man was a man with whom they could share clothes.
In one hand he held his Theses, in the other his hammer
and a single iron nail.
The beggars and women and kids elsewhere in the town, still busy souling for cakes,
chanting their plain and plaintive songs,
begging providence and haunting the key holders of it,
They turned form the door as they heard loud knocking,
they forgot even the perilous cold and conditions;
They forgot the hot cider
the mulling spices,
the warm interiors of ovens and uterine cloistered parlours
They turned and were called by the sound of the hammer
as Martin primed his gavel
on the laquered, locked door of the church.
Then he struck the iron nail,
All about he church the paupers and children gathered and
moaned with bemusement and reminiscences;
the frescos of Saints and heroes,
stirring no doubt with the thumping on the door
of their house
‘These children should not have to beg at the door
for peelings and the fringes of pastry
and burnt bread,
if you have that.
These people should rise from the uncertainty
of whether life is despair or should be assurance
And know they are the ones who are saved in the Kingdom of Christ.
Not those fat, buttery-fingered citizens
who bake up the goods of their own larder
to offer it up to the empty bellied,
For the soul is not freed by the clink of the coin in the chest, where the heartbeat should repeat
That salvation is saved for the poor,
Not for those who buy,
pantry, cook and serve.
I hope your souls will be revived with cake
one night a year
as easily when you are dead and the deeds are done.’
Turning to the Lazarus mass which apostled him:
‘It is a rich man’s indulgence to give to the poor or lend to the needy,
and his indulgences are not the same as contrition.
Money anyhow is a hole in the head.
They will be purged.
And whilst you, friends may teeter on the brim
those who buy indulgence
are damned in certainty by their teachers.
Here are my words on the subject,
these are words which they cannot sieve and sift for gold.
They hold your salvation to ransom. I call on them for justice.’
Martin gazed out briefly at the cold, wet, earnest eyes
and flickering brows of his congregation,
quivering in uncertainty and anticipation,
lit by the bonfire he could see the sweat
swaggering down the temples of their scruffy potato heads,
loosely hooded in rough cloth.
He took up his lump mallet.
He thumped the door
like a barrel of wine.
The rich home-makers
with fatty waists slobbering round their hips,
stood in their doorways listening
to the hammering
from the under the lintel,
over the sill.
All the homeless, the poor, the hopelessly drunk,
distended with liver disease or dropsy
meandered to the church, following the noise
as though called to prayer by a wooden bell
The Priests inside the Priests’ house looked up from their books,
moved to the widow,
wiped the wet glass clean
and peered through the strengthening night …
Chanting, droning chinking rhythm
gave heart over the reeking groan
of the hinges on closing doors and lids of coffins
and out-chimed the croaking ravens.
And Martin Luther continued to knock
until the nail was fixed.
Then he left, leaving the hammer resting
like a rock pick against the stones of the church.
These poor people choose the holy Cross and reject the saltire,
But is the profane saltire not the Christian cross
With which the illiterate sign their name.
Now the thoughts of the congregation sat inside on Sunday
were wrought in interior language of Latin
on the external door,
the very gateway to God.
The crowd of lowly figures parted as Martin slowly walked away
down the steps and disappeared
into the landscape of the night
at walking pace he returned to anonymity
in the tumbling corrugation of the city.
The beggars clutched their hop-pillows and searched for somewhere to sleep,
while the children ran back to their messy little back street homes,
the drunks passed out in straw next to pigs or horses, successfully dripping tight.
And the mad went back to mapping their delusions in the graveyard or gardens,
ready once again to wander all night.
And the people in the houses, shut out the cold night,
having dispensed all their alms to the poor.
Flung salt over the threshold and scattered beans then
snuffed the candles – all but one,
with rapid ringlets of tight smoke
for a few seconds,
coughing up rich, hot, frightening smells of charcoal and singed fat.
original illustration by Dean Lewis