“Reformation Treasures” at the British Library

Private ‘show and tell’ event with Marja Kingma, Curator.

From the announcement in the Winter Newsletter :

October 2017 marked the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther launched his momentous campaign against papal teaching on indulgences. Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 is one of the most famous events of Western history. Most likely, Luther did not nail the Theses on the door but he did, on the eve of the Feast of All Saints, send them to the Archbishop of Mainz, along with a strongly worded letter of protest – the catalyst for a crisis in the Holy Empire, and a permanent schism in the Western Church.

Though the English reformation began later, the 95 Theses were known about in England by 1518 as Erasmus had sent a copy to Thomas Moore in March of that year. Luther’s works were on sale in an Oxford bookshop in 1520 and were burned by Cardinal Wolsey in 1521. Still, the reforming movement that subsequently spread across Europe was to have profound consequences in England, triggering centuries of religious reform, conflict and suppression that have been described as England’s ‘Reformations’.

In 1525-6, inspired by Luther’s work, William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament was printed. His biblical translations were the first to be mass-produced as a result of new advances in the art of printing. Henry VIII’s ‘break with Rome’ was completed in 1536, with the most crucial parliamentary legislation having been passed in 1533.

To commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, the British Library held a special exhibition on the subject, featuring among other items an original copy of the Theses and examples of contemporary pro- and anti-Lutheran propaganda.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections, Dutch Languages at the British Library, has invited the ANS to a private ‘show and tell’ event, where some unique pieces will be shown, for instance Erasmus’ letter to Luther, the family Bible of Daniel Elsevier and the, lost but later found in the British Library, 1566 Hymn book by J. Utenhove. The items in this event are not featured in the public Reformation exhibition, and will offer some more insight into Luther’s life, work and lasting influence. Please join us for this unique experience.


From the report in the Summer newsletter :

Reformation Treasures at the British Library

Report, by Ann McMellan, on the private viewing on 17 April

European urbanisation and the growing demand for recording knowledge accelerated the development of moving type in the Gutenberg era and modernity thereafter. The 13th Century rediscovery of the Late (Roman) Empire’s skills in casting coins and using dies to strike medals also contributed to the flourishing printing centres from Venice to Leipzig, from Amsterdam to Basle and from Paris to London.

On Tuesday, 17 April, Marja Kingma, the Curator of Germanic Collections, Dutch Languages, showed us that the first printed books often retained many features such as illuminated capitals. From the British Library’s collection of 40 million books, Marja had selected a number of Reformation Treasures, which our clean hands were allowed to handle. (Fibres from gloves may spread pathogens.)

The books on display included one of the first editions of the Old Testament printed in Dutch in Delft in 1477. Of the 50 copies of this work left in the world, two are held in the British Library and one is at Austin Friars. When Mary Tudor banished members of the Dutch community from Austin Friars, some books were printed in Emden and the British Library has one small rare book from that period. As a contrast, Marja had provided a massive 1675 tome, which would have proved backbreaking to lift even without its lavish metal ornamentation. As elsewhere, Bibles in the United Provinces would sometimes serve as ‘livre de raisin’, recording family history from cradle to grave and we saw an example of this. Another volume illustrated that the wide margins were designed to permit individuals to make notes as they read.

A particular frisson was provided by the volumes fuelling religious differences in the 16th Century. Generated by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses’ against indulgences, controversy spread throughout Europe with appalling consequences. Attempts by Frances I and Ferdinand I of Habsburg to prohibit printing workshops proved futile and indeed served to spread wider interest in the exchanges. After the Pope awarded Henry VIII the title Defender of the Faith for his 1521 ‘Asserta Septem Sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum’, there was a 1523 response from Luther with ‘Contra Henricum Regem Angliae’. There was also a counterblast against Erasmus van Rotterdam. The group had many questions and we were delighted that Chantal had asked Marja to present her expertise and the precious books for our enlightenment.

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