Decoding Diet of Worms
In my mind’s eye, I can still see many a student saying, “I did read it; I just didn’t understand it.”
Young readers struggle with decoding printed words for many reasons. One is that they often come across words that have more than one meaning. The phrase “Diet of Worms” is a good example. Unless they are religious scholars, youngsters likely will only understand “diet” as a daily food regimen and “worms” as those wiggly creatures that come in handy for fish bait.
When readers encounter such an odd phrase, they should consider its context, the words before and after it. In this case, the words preceding are “Martin Luther went before.” They provide a clue. Luther could not really go “before” a daily food regimen, so “diet” definitely has to mean something else.
The next words are “to face charges stemming from his religious writings.” Those words give another important clue. “Diet” must mean an official group of people, if someone went before it to face charges.
Making those inferences might then help young readers more critically examine “Worms.” Some, but not all, will note that the word is capitalized. If they have learned their grammar rules, they know that the names of cities and towns are capitalized. A fair guess, then, is that Worms might have been a place, rather than fish bait.
Now, young readers might deduce that “Diet of Worms” meant an official group of people who met at a town or city called Worms. A quick Google check confirms that.
A diet was a formal deliberative assembly. It was more correctly called an Imperial Diet, which came from the Latin phrase Dieta Imperii. It was an assembly convened by the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire, which wielded great power through much of Central Europe from about 960 to 1800.
At least seven diets took place at Worms, an ancient city in Germany occupied by the Romans in 14 BC. It was there in 1521 that Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, defended beliefs that leaders of the Catholic Church considered sacrilegious. Not long after, the Pope excommunicated Luther.
Luther’s ideas, however, spread so widely that government and/or religious authorities could not contain them.
“Diet,” by the way, is still used to describe at least one official assembly––the National Diet in Japan, which is that country’s chief legislative body.
Oh, yes, struggling young readers should also know that in the sense of an assembly “diet” is pronounced “dee-it” and “Worms” in German is pronounced “Vorms.” Nope, the food-and-fish-bait theory just doesn’t hold up to analysis.
Luther in 1533 by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Photo of both paintings courtesy of Wikipedia
Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521
19th century painting by Hermann Wislicenus
President George W. Bush addressing the Diet of Japan
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia