Four hundred eighty-nine years ago today, deep in the heart of Germany, the notorious Wittenberg professor Martin Luther was abducted in the Thuringian Forest. Armed horsemen brought their captive to the Wartburg Castle, where Luther doffed his monk’s robes, allowed his hair and beard to grow, and spent nearly a year disguised as a knight.
This friendly abduction had been masterminded by Spalatin, chaplain to Duke Frederick of Saxony, the territorial lord and patron of Wittenberg University, in order to protect the outlawed professor from his enemies.
From Luther’s frequent correspondence with friends on the outside, historians know a great deal about his activities during his exile at the Wartburg, which he discreetly referred to as his “Patmos” or the “Wilderness” or the “Kingdom of the birds.” Luther never named his guardian, Captain Hans von Berlepsch, but he did refer to his “host in the kingdom of the birds.” The Berlepsch coat of arms features five green parrots on a field of gold.
Historians know almost nothing about the other residents of the castle, such as the captain’s family or servants or soldiers. When I began writing Kingdom of the Birds, my imagination peopled the Wartburg with those whose lives were influenced by encounters with Martin Luther. In the mountaintop world that is my Wartburg, I have lived with Seppel and Ilse, Otto and Hermina, Gunda and Dolf for so long that they seem as real to me as any figures in history–and as dear as many other figures in literature.