31 October 1517: The Birth of Luther’s Reformation

Portrait of Martin Luther by an unknown artist. © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

31 October 2017 marks exactly 500 years since Martin Luther sent a list of 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz. Tradition records that the Theses were also nailed to the West Door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. The publication initiated a heated discussion which rapidly spread throughout Europe and can be seen as the starting-point of the Reformation.

The Wren Library has particularly rich holdings of Luther’s writings, including more than 200 of the pamphlets he published in his lifetime, some of which are now exceptionally rare. Cambridge was a hotbed of Reformation dissent, but in fact none of the Lutheran publications in the Library can be associated with the University at that time — even less with Trinity, which was founded in the year of Luther’s death by one of his strongest opponents, Henry VIII. Several of the publications featured here arrived in the Wren in the mid-19th century, as part of the outstanding library of German books collected by the Venerable Julius Hare, Archdeacon of Lewes and formerly a Fellow of Trinity.

Decem praecepta Vuittenbergensi predicata populo per. P. Martinum Luther Augustinianum (Leipzig: Valentin Schumann, 1518). Hare 38.1831

Although Luther is most famous for promoting the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, it is notable that the Law of the Old Testament formed an important part of his theological thinking. This tract on the Ten Commandments is based on sermons which Luther delivered in Wittenberg in the year leading up to his proclamation of the 95 Theses. The depiction of Moses with horns is not a sign of demonic intent, but in fact arises from a mistranslation from the Hebrew which Luther was later to correct in his own translation of the Bible. According to Exodus 34 : 29, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai after his encounter with God, his face was ‘radiant’. The Latin Vulgate renders this Hebrew word as cornuta (‘horned’), possibly to express the idea that rays of light were shining from Moses’ face like horns.

Das ander teyl des alten testaments (Wittemberg : [M. Lotther], [1524]). A.10.12.
Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X after his refusal to recant his writings at the Diet of Worms in 1521. From May 1521 to March 1522, partly for his own safety, Luther resided at the Wartburg Castle outside Eisenach under the assumed name of Junker Jörg. During this time he began work on his translation of the complete Bible into German. The New Testament, translated from the Greek, was completed in 1522, and his work on the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew, in which he worked with several collaborators, continued over several years. This second volume of the Old Testament, printed in 1524, comprises the books from Joshua to Nehemiah. It includes several woodcut illustrations attributed to Lucas Cranach and others.

Biblia, dat ys, de gantze hillige Schrifft Sassesch corrigeret, na der lesten vordüdeschinge [von] Mart. Luth. (Magdeburg: Michael Lotter, 1536). A.14.16.
This single-volume edition of the complete German Bible of Luther includes 117 woodcut illustrations by Georg Lemberger. Luther continued to make refinements to his translation until the edition of 1546, the year of his death.

Assertio septem sacramentorum aduersus Martin. Lutherū, ædita ab inuictissimo Angliæ et Franciæ rege, et do. Hyberniæ Henrico eius nominis octauo (London: In ædibus Pynsonianis, 1522). C.7.9.

Probably the most prominent of Luther’s opponents was King Henry VIII, who produced this lengthy polemical essay in response to the 95 Theses and Luther’s tract of 1520 On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Henry’s learned treatise won considerable acclaim from Pope Leo X, who granted the king the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith). This decorated copy, put together from a mixture of sheets from the first and second editions of 1521 and 1522, was owned by the notable Elizabethan book collector Humfrey Dyson.

Antwortt deutsch Mart. Luthers auff Koenig Henrichs von Engelland Buch (Wittenberg: Nickell Schyrlentz, 1522). Hare 38.1858.

Luther quickly responded to Henry VIII’s treatise with a pamphlet Contra Henricum Regem Angliae, of which this is the German edition. He argued among other things that the King’s reasoning was not fashioned so much from learned theology as from a desire to secure recognition from the Pope.

Fünff schoner Christlicher Sermon geprediget durch Doctor Martini Luther zu wittemberg. M.D.xxiii. Jare ([Augsburg]: [Ulhart], [1523]). Hare 38.18611.
This edition of five sermons on the Gospels of Matthew and John includes one of several versions of a familiar portrait of Luther.

Martin Luther, oder Die Weihe der Kraft: eine Tragödie, vom Verfasser der Söhne des Thales [i.e. Zacharias Martin Luther, oder Die Weihe der Kraft: eine Tragödie, vom Verfasser der Söhne des Thales [i.e. Zacharias Werner] (Berlin: Johann Daniel Sander, 1807). Hare 33.181.
Luther has been depicted in many different ways in subsequent centuries. This play, first staged in Berlin in 1806 under the title ‘Die Weihe der Kraft’ (‘The Consecration of Power’), achieved some degree of popularity in following years. Its author, Zacharias Werner, was a friend of Goethe and one of the first playwrights to develop the genre of the ‘tragedy of fate’. The five-act drama covers all of the major historical events in Luther’s life, and positions him as a figure in the national historical consciousness, at the time of the Napoleonic occupation. The facts are interwoven with fantasy, especially in the story of Luther’s courtship of Katharina von Bora, who is shown in the frontispiece hand in hand with her much older husband. A few years after writing this play, Werner converted to Catholicism and became a priest in Vienna.

Assertio septem sacramentorum: or, An assertion of the seven sacraments, against Martin Luther by Henry the Eighth; Faithfully translated into English by T.W. Gent. (London: Nath. Thompson, 1688). K.15.691.

Henry VIII’s publication against Luther had a continued resonance in the later development of the Church of England, where its defence of Catholic doctrine found occasional supporters. This later translation by Thomas Webster was published in 1688, the year of the overthrow of James II, the last Catholic monarch, by William and Mary.

These books will be on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours until the end of November 2017.

 

 

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