The former Augustinian priory (convento) at Erfurt in Germany is best-known as the house at which Martin Luther joined the Order of Saint Augustine, but there is much more to its history than that. The Augustinians had come to Erfurt in 1266, only ten years after their Grand Union. By the time in 1300 when Germany was made into four Augustinian Provinces, Erfurt was the largest and most important Augustinian priory in the new Province of Thuringia-Saxony.
This was especially so because it had contained a studium generale (an international study house for persons joining the Order) from soon after the year 1300 and the foundation of the University of Erfurt in 1392 and its faculty of theology. From the very beginning of the university, a chair of theology at Erfurt was entrusted to the Augustinians. The Augustinian monastery (see image above) became influential in the intellectual and religious life of late medieval Germany because of its outstanding teachers and theologians Henry of Friemar (died 1340), Herman of Schildesche (1357) and Jordan of Saxony or Quedlinburg (died 1370 or 1380). Two Erfurt Augustinians were invited preachers at the Council of Constance in 1414-1418, which led to the end of the Great Western Schism.
In the fourteenth century Erfurt was not only the commercial powerhouse of all of Thuringia but also, with about 18,000 inhabitants, was Germany’s largest city. Before joining the Order of Saint Augustine in 1505, Martin Luther had attended its prestegious university from 1501 onwards to become a Master of Arts graduate. He has been attributed with the comment, “For a good education, go to Erfurt!”
Founded in 1389, Erfurt was the third university established in Germany, preceded only by Heidelberg and Cologne. By the year 1500 the Augustinian convento at Erfurt was the leader of the twenty-seven houses participating in the Augustinian observant movement in Germany, to which Erfurt had contributed since 1474. There was a good spirit of regular religious observance in the Augustinian convento at Erfurt, and its financial situation was sound. In 1503 Johannes von Staupitz, was elected vicar general of the German observant houses of the Order of Saint Augustine.
He moved to Erfurt in July 1506, and began his association with Martin Luther. When Martin Luther entered the Erfurt house as a novice in 1504, there were over fifty Augustinians living there. Luther made his first profession of religious vows at the end of his novitiate late in 1506, and was ordained to the priesthood six months later in February or April 1507.
Soon afterwards he began his study of theology at the Order’s studium generale at Erfurt. By the spring of 1508 Luther was teaching there as well as studying. By the winter of 1508 Luther was transferred to teach at Wittenberg. In the autumn of 1509 he returned to Erfurt to lecture at the University of Erfurt. During his years as an Augustinian at Erfurt, Luther was diligent in his community obligations and practices. This was attested to both by Augustinians who later became Lutherans as well as by those who remained in the Order.
Much later in 1532 Luther praised his Augustinian novice master of 1505 as having been “a truly admirable man and without doubt a true Christian under the detestable cowl.” Even after the Protestant Reformation fully erupted, the Augustinian convento at Erfurt remained faithful to the Order of Saint Augustine and to the Catholic Church. This was greatly assisted by the strength and unwavering conviction of two Augustinians who were professors at the University of Erfurt. They were Johannes Nathin and Bartholomaus von Usingen.
The former had taught theology to Martin Luther as a young Augustinian, and, even earlier again, von Usingen had taught him philosophy in the faculty of arts when both of them had still been laymen. (In 1512 von Usingen had joined the Order of Saint Augustine at the age of fifty years.) From the pulpit and by the written word, Nathin and von Usingen opposed Luther's teaching.
In the spring of 1522, fifteen members of the Augustinians at Erfurt - a sizeable minority of the occupants - apostatized and left the monastery. This included John Lang, who was currently the Prior of the monastery, the Vicar General of all of the German Augustinian observant houses, and a good friend of Luther. The rest of the Erfurt community remained in place.
During an uprising of Luther’s followers in 1525, however, Bartholomaus von Usingen and the other Augustinians in Erfurt were forced to leave the city for their own physical safety. Some soon returned, and the monastery remained Augustinian for another thirty years, until the Order was expelled from the city by force in 1560. This was fifteen years after Luther's death.
Still called the Augustinerkloster, the monastery remains included some sections first built in 1277. In the Second World War it was badly damaged but was rebuilt in authentic style. The monastery now serves as an international conference and seminar centre for the Protestant Church in Saxony. It houses a permanent exhibition that depicts the history of the Bible and the history of the monastery. Since 1996 a group of evangelical nuns from the Order of Saint Benedict from the Casteller Ring Community have been living, praying and working in the former Augustinian monastery.
By Luther’s time Erfurt was known as the "German Rome" because of its numerous churches, monasteries and steeples on the skyline. When Luther was there, Erfurt had twenty-one parish churches, four collegiate churches and eleven monastery churches. The Church of St Augustine was the oldest and first to be completed of all the monastic churches in Erfurt. It occupies the site of the former parish church of St Phillip and St Jacob that was built in 1131.
The church and the majority of monastery buildings were constructed in a relatively short time (1276-1340). The church was begun in 1291. It is plain and simple in style, with three aisles and an impressive collection of leadlight windows from the early 1300s. Among them is a "picture-cycle window" that portrays the life of St Augustine in multiple scenes.
It was in this Augustinian monastery church that Luther took his vows as an Augustinian in 1506, and celebrated his First Mass as a Catholic priest on 2nd May 1507. The wooden choir stalls on both side walls are the original ones where Luther and other Augustinians took their place to recite the Psalms of the monastic hours through the day and night.AN4218