Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

The Boy Who Sung for His Breakfast

On that day when Christopher Columbus went out from the Alhambra, sad and dejected, there was a little boy in a town in Germany who was experiencing a sorrowful childhood. He was born on St. Martin's Day, 1483, and his parents have christened him Martin. They are very poor. The father is a miner, and works hard in digging copper ore and smelting it. The family have little to eat better than rye bread and herrings.

Martin's father is a passionate man, and his mother is a stern woman. His school-master is hard-hearted and cruel; and between the three the boy gets many whippings. His lessons are dry as dust—the Catechism, Ten Commandments, Apostles' Creed, the Canticles, Psalms, and Latin exercises. One day the brute of a master punishes him not less than fifteen times! There is no joy in life. He hates the Catechism and the Creed, but makes good progress in Latin. The miner has sense enough to see that Martin can learn very little in such a school, and sends him to another, taught by monks, called a currend school The boys attending it sing in the churches on Sunday, and go through the villages early every morning, and sing before the burghers' houses for a bit of bread. They carry little tin boxes with a slit in the cover, and the burghers' now and then drop in money. At tunes Martin obtains neither money nor bread. On Christmas mornings the boys go out early, Martin singing the solos, and the others joining in the choruses. The solo rises, sweet and clear, upon the wintry air:

"Praises now from all on earth:

'Tis the day of Jesus' birth,

Of a Virgin horn in sooth;

Angels glory o'er the youth.

Kyrie eleeson.

"Only child of God's own kind

In a manger shepherds find;

God-babe sent our sins to free

By suff'ring our humanity.

Kyrie eleeson."

But it is not always Christmas, and there are days when the boys have little to eat. Martin often has only a crust. He grows thin and pale and weak. What shall he do? His father is so poor that he cannot help him; the monks have nothing to give him, and if the burghers do not supply him with food, he must starve.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


There comes a cold and bitter morning. Martin goes out to sing through the streets, but the burghers do not like to be awakened so early, and the servants are surly. He sings before a house.

"Go away!"

It is a gruff voice that he hears, and he passes on to another residence; but as soon as he begins to sing, the door opens, and a man's head is thrust out.

"Clear out there!

Don't you know better than to disturb the master so early?"

He will get nothing there, and moves on to a third house and sings; but before the carol is finished a servant comes out with a whip.

"Begone, you ragamuffin!"

Charity is frozen on this winter morning. Weak, faint, hungry, disheartened, he turns away. What shall he do? Why should he sing? No one will give him bread.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"I may as well go back to the convent and die," he says to himself.

He is standing before Conrad Cotta's house. The owner is a rich burgher. No one is astir about the premises that he can see. The daylight is streaming up the east, and the burghers of the town will soon be eating their breakfast; then they will be off to their shops. Oh, if he but once in life could eat all that he wanted!

Shall he sing?

Herr Cotta is one of the chief men of the town; will he not rush out and whip him? The tears roll down the boy's cheeks as he stands there, irresolute.

Sing, boy! sing The ages are waiting for you. Sing! sing! All the world will hear you. God knows what will come of it.

Sweet and clear, his voice rises on the morning air. The door opens, and Ursula Cotta stands upon the threshold beckoning to him.

Little does Ursula Cotta know what will come from that lifting of her hand. She has seen the poor boy driven from the neighbors' houses, and the harsh words addressed to him have filled her with pain. She has seen him on Sunday, and has recognized his voice as being sweeter than all other voices in the choir. She will give him a good meal. He goes up the steps. She takes him by the hand, leads him into the house. He goes to a warm breakfast and a home; henceforth Ursula Cotta will be a mother to him. Now he can go to school and study all day, sleep sweetly at night, and have all he can eat at breakfast, dinner, and supper. The scowl disappears from his face. He is no longer dogged and sullen, but bubbling over with joy; and in a short time, so diligently does he apply himself, that he is fitted to enter the university, where he masters the Latin language, till he can speak it as fluently as his mother-tongue.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


One day, while in the university library looking at the books, he comes upon an old volume into which none of the students or monks ever look. He brushes the dust from the covers, opens to the title-page, and sees that it is the Bible. He has heard of the book, but never before has he seen a copy. It is in Latin. He turns the leaves, but his eye falls upon an interesting story about a boy who tended the lamps in the sanctuary on the green hills of Shiloh. Never has he read so interesting a story.

Of all books in the library none are so entertaining as this. He reads the volume at every leisure moment. The other students spend much time in celebrating festivals, marching through the streets; but he has no time for play, and even on holidays, when all the inhabitants turn out and decorate the streets, he is busy with his books. He is thirsting for knowledge, and makes such progress in his studies that before he is twenty-seven years old he is made a doctor of philosophy; and his fellow students, proud of their young doctor, make a grand parade, conduct him to the hall of the university, and install him as their teacher, with appropriate ceremonies, in his professor's chair.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


And now, instead of reciting creeds and catechisms, he is giving lectures, and is so earnest and eloquent that students come from far to listen to his teaching. There comes a night when he invites all the students to take supper with him. They drink his health in foaming mugs of beer. He rises to make a speech. They hurrah and clap their hands. But never have they seen the young doctor so sober. He informs them that it is the last time they will meet together. He has decided to resign his professorship and become a monk. They are astounded.

"Become a monk!"


"Shut yourself up in a convent, shave your head, go barefoot, and wear a hair shirt!"


He bids them good-bye, leaves the room, and at midnight knocks at the gate of the convent of the Augustine monks. The door turns on its hinges, and Doctor Martin Luther passes in, and the door closes upon him. Morning comes. The professor's chair in the university is vacant, while the professor who has occupied it is kneeling on the cold stone floor of his cell, saying his prayers. He is dead to the world, and the world is dead to him: he studies; he spends his time in praying; he fasts, eating only a few morsels of bread; he grows thin and pale, till he is only skin and bones—trying in this way to get rid of his sins. He begs his living. Shouldering a bag, he goes through the villages, asking the people for bread, cheese, geese, chickens—or anything that will support life. Martin before long, however, discovers that the monks, instead of being holier than other men, have like passions, and are ready to help themselves to the best of the things given them by the people. There are frequent disputes which the prior has to settle.

And what do the people receive in return for their gifts? Nothing.