In May 1501, Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt in the college of liberal arts with the expectation that he would complete his doctorate in the higher faculty of law. Medieval universities like Erfurt were divided into four faculties: liberal arts, law, medicine, and theology. The study of liberal arts was composed of the more basic trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the complementary quadrivium (astronomy, geometry, mathematics, and music). The university itself was a community of scholars and students, ordinarily with those students pursuing studies in the higher faculties of law, medicine, and theology instructing those in the more general liberal arts. Once the candidate received his degree bachelor’s and master’s in liberal arts view examination, he was prepared to enter into one of the higher faculties.
Luther had planned to study law. His father, Hans, had even given him as a gift a copy of the Corpus Iuris, the code of civil law modeled after Roman law. Luther proceeded very rapidly in earning his degrees. The bachelor’s required one year of study to complete and Luther successfully passed his examination and was awarded the degree in September 1502. He would receive his master’s in January 1505, thereby giving him the right to enroll in the faculty of law. Throughout his studies at Erfurt, Luther was exposed to many of the ideas he would later revisit in his theological work. The study of logic was paramount in the trivium, in particular dialectic and Aristotelian philosophy. He became well-acquainted with both dialectics and Aristotelianism there and later criticized them in his reforming work. He also encountered humanism in Erfurt, leading him to an increased appreciation for the study of classical languages and literature. In his later time at Wittenberg, this interest would shape his curriculum revisions.
After receiving his master’s, Luther enrolled in the faculty of law for the summer semester of 1505. His studies began in May, but he took a fateful trip to visit his family in June. At the time, the new law student was growing impatient with the legal practice, in part because the authors he was reading seemed to lack certainty. In conjunction with his own personal religious temptations and struggles, he was searching for something more firm. The threat of the plague, which took two local jurists in Erfurt already in the preceding year, and a near life-threatening incidental stabbing no doubt provoked more soul searching on Luther’s part. On his way back to Erfurt in July after the visit with his family in Mansfeld, he was caught in a horrific thunderstorm. Luther pleaded with St. Anne to help him and vowed to become a monk if she did. He survived and shortly after his return to Erfurt began making plans to assume the monastic vocation.