10 December 1520: Martin Luther sets fire to a papal bull

The religious reformer treats Pope Leo X’s demand that he recant with public contempt


Exsurge, Domine! “Arise, O Lord!” So began the papal bull promulgated by Leo X on 15 June 1520, written in response to the Ninety-Five Theses by the German church reformer Martin Luther. With Luther’s ideas spreading across Germany, the pope and his allies were desperate to stamp their authority onto the debate.

By some accounts, Leo was given the first draft of the bull when he was at his hunting lodge, relaxing after pursuing wild boar. That was oddly fitting, since the text called for God to strike back against “the foxes and wild boar who are destroying the vineyard of the Lord, who had bestowed jurisdiction over it to Peter and his successor”. It rejected Luther’s ideas as “heretical, scandalous, false [and] offensive”, and made it illegal for any Christian man or woman “to read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish, or defend them”. As for Luther himself, he and his “accomplices” were given 60 days to recant his views – or face the direst penalties in the church’s arsenal.

But Luther was a fighter. When copies of the bull were posted in German towns, students tore them down. And Luther himself treated it with utter contempt. “Whoever wrote this bull, he is Antichrist,” he declared. “I protest before God, our Lord Jesus, his sacred angels and the whole world that with my whole heart I dissent from the damnation of this bull, that I curse and execrate it as sacrilege and blasphemy.”

That was pretty strong. Even stronger, though, was Luther’s performance on 10 December 1520, 60 days after he had received his copy and been told to recant. Having summoned the students of Wittenberg to a public meeting near the town’s Elster Gate, he lit a bonfire and began tossing papal publications into it. Then he held the bull itself above the flames. “Because you have confounded the truth of God,” he yelled, “today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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10 December 1541

Thomas Culpeper was beheaded and Francis Dereham hanged, drawn and quartered after both were found guilty of adultery with Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII. Their heads were displayed on London Bridge.

10 December 1768

The instrument founding the Royal Academy of Arts in London is signed by its first patron, King George III. Sir Joshua Reynolds will be its first president.

10 December 1812

French architect Paul Abadie was born in Paris. In 1873 he won the competition to design the Basilica of Sacre Coeur at Montmartre. He began work on the project but died in 1884, 30 years before its completion.

10 December 1884: Huckleberry Finn comes to Britain

Mark Twain’s masterpiece is branded “trash” in the States, but still flies off the shelves

Mark Twain had no sooner finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer than he thought of a sequel. It would be based on Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn, and in the course of 1876 he set to work, scribbling on sheets of notepaper. The trick, he realised, would be to capture Huck’s vernacular dialect, a new departure in American writing. The opening line, for example, began as “You will not know about me,” but only after several drafts did Twain find Huck’s inimitable voice: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

The novel’s gestation, however, was slow and painful. For some years, Twain was stuck and put it off. He only managed to finish it after he had written another book, a memoir of his days as a steamship pilot on the Mississippi. At last, at the end of 1884, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was finished, and was published in Britain on 10 December by Chatto & Windus – though American publication, oddly, had to wait a few more weeks.

Alas, not everybody liked it. In New England, one library committee called it “the veriest trash”, adding that it was “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable, people”. Twain thought that was hilarious. “This will sell us another 25,000 copies for sure!” he wrote. And he was right. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

Read more about Mark Twain: America’s historical conscience?

10 December 1909

Red Cloud, leader of the Oglala Lakota Sioux during the Bozeman War of 1866–68, died, aged 77, on the Pine Ridge Agency (or reservation) in South Dakota.


10 December 1907

Rudyard Kipling is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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