Unlocking Philip Melanchthon

Philip Melanchthon, one of the key Reformers in Wittenberg, was a renowned scholar, the first systematician of the Reformation, and one of Luther’s closest confidants.  Born Philipp Schwartzerdt in 1497, the son of an armorer, he had an intellectual spark from the start, though he arrived in Wittenberg only after reaching the ripe old age of 21, to serve as a professor of Greek. If it seems surprising that he was called to a major university as a professor of Greek at the age of 21, consider the fact that he was introduced to the work of Greek and Latin poets and Aristotle as a ten-year old.  And as kids do, he then decided to follow the custom of the Humanists at the time and change his last name from Schwartzerdt (Black Earth) to the Greek equivalent, Melanchthon (Μελάγχθων). Honestly, I never thought of doing that as a ten year old. If I had, I guess I would have gone from Bridges (Bridges) to Gefyres (γέφυρες).  Uh, oh, now you are going to know my password.


Who thinks of that as a ten-year old?  Genau. Speaking of rhetorical questions, two years later, at the age of 12, he entered the University of Heidelberg to study rhetoric, philosophy, astrology, and became known as a scholar of Greek. At 16, denied the Master’s Degree because he was only 16, he moved on to Tubingen to add mathematics and medicine to his line of study. He earned his Master’s Degree, began to study theology, and published writings including a Greek grammar.  By this time, he knew his way around a University in any number of departments, and arrived in Wittenberg in 1518. 


By the time Melanchthon died in 1560, he’d left an indelible mark on the University, and, as the Chief Content Officer of the Reformation, on the Church throughout the western world and across the generations. It is said that his passing left such a hole at the university that four professors were hired to carry his workload.  


Much has been written about this scholar, the specifics of what he wrote, and about the impact of his contributions to the Disputations, the Diets, and the resultant formative documents. In Wittenberg, when one visits his house, though, it is the picture of a family man and a beloved professor that emerges. At the age of 23, he married the daughter of the Mayor of Wittenberg and later became the father of four children.  It seems that he practiced intentional hospitality and enjoyed a happy domestic life, though he was not always in the best of health and strength. He hosted dinners, doted on the kids, mentored students, attended religious services and practiced personal piety as a person of faith. 


Sometimes Melanchthon hosted dinners at home with professors and intellectuals from France, Germany, Spain, England and around the world.  Sometimes the only language they had in common was Latin. So they had to have their dinner conversation in Latin.  (What must it be like when everyone at the table declines to speak?) 


These life and times come through on the tour of The Melanchthon House in Wittenberg.  One can walk through the rooms and imagine him in the space 500 years ago.  Interestingly, the house, as a museum, is specifically designed to appeal to children – to explore, pique curiosity, discover, and learn.  For instance, when you enter the house, you’ll receive a key.  It’s a big tactile skeleton key.  In each room there is something to unlock with the key. It might be a wardrobe, in which you’ll find professor robes.  Signs invite you to find an academic gown that fits, and put it on for a bit. (In the process you’ll find out how tall Melanchthon was.) Wearing the robe, you’ll read about the daily life of students and professors, sit at their tables, and learn about life in 16thCentury Wittenberg. In another room, the key might fit a desk in which you’ll find scrolls of writings, and so on.  Kids run from room to room looking for a keyhole, and opening the doors, lids and drawers to find the items related to what that room has to reveal about the life, times, and work of this scholarly reformer.


If you get to Wittenberg, take time at the Melanchthon House to unlock first-hand information about the Reformation and walk in the steps of the reformers.

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