“So, what exactly is the Reformation?” asks one of my fellow journalists at the press preview of John Rylands Library’s new exhibition. There’s a pause from our guide that suggests this is not a new question. Then she says, “Where do I start?”
We begin 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, when, according to popular legend, Martin Luther nailed a tract to the door of Wittenburg cathedral criticising the Catholic Church and sparking a religious revolution that changed the world.
Luther, a German monk and scholar, condemned the Church’s sale of indulgences (documents that promised forgiveness for sin, a kind of get-out-of-purgatory-free card) as a way of raising income. His incendiary ideas, spread via hastily printed pamphlets, reached like-minded thinkers all over Europe and instigated a call for reform. His insistence that the Bible should be translated and made accessible to ordinary men and women threatened to destroy the religious authority held by the clergy. Luther was condemned as a heretic and ex-communicated but his ideas took root. The next 50 years would see the splintering of the Catholic Church, England’s split from Rome, the establishment of the Church of England, the growth of Protestantism and the religious division of Europe – events that shaped the world we live in today.
This exhibition, staged on the anniversary of Luther’s controversial act, explores the Reformation story through three crucial figures: Luther, King Henry VIII, who needs little introduction, and William Tyndale, a radical thinker and the first to translate the Bible into English. It brings together some of the most important documents in the library’s collection, including a copy of Luther’s original 95 Theses, counter-arguments from Henry VIII and Thomas More, and one of the earliest examples of the printed word – a letter of indulgence, produced by Gutenberg in 1455. Through these carefully selected treasures we trace key events and see how the invention of the printing press enabled news and ideas to spread faster than ever before.
Simple information panels give us the facts and some context, but detail is sparing – the books are the stars of the show. Under the hushed, dimly lit gothic arches of the library I’m struck by the evocative power of these objects. An illegal Bible, smuggled into the country, conjures images of secret networks and conspiracy rings. The aforementioned letter of indulgence, sold to Heinrich Deuprecht and his wife Anna, has me wondering just what dubious acts Heinrich was trying to offset. Foxe’s illustrated Book of Martyrs memorialises Protestants who were executed, burnt alive at the stake – you can almost feel the flames. To a history nerd like me it’s pure gold, but I wonder if visitors lacking background knowledge will really grasp the deeper significance.
I ask lead curator, Julianne Simpson, what message she wants visitors to take away. “It’s about how people approach communicating their beliefs and ideas,” she says, pointing out pamphlets that used visual images to disseminate rhetoric to the illiterate masses. “Similar to the digital revolution of the 21st century, the invention of the printing press changed the way that people communicated. The printed word had the power to effect change. And in some ways, not that much has changed since then. We want people to think about the differences and the similarities.”
In our post-Brexit world, it’s hard not to draw parallels. Simpson points out that one of the moral arguments that Henry VIII used against Rome was that English money should stay in England. Sound familiar?
There’s a space set aside for reflection at the back of the room. A sign asks, ‘What would you like to change about the world today?’
“It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of that,” says Simpson. “We want people to think about what it might have been like for those who stood up for their beliefs. The Reformation caused waves of migration across Europe as people were expelled from their homes because of their religion. That migration changed this country and the world. It was a religious war of minds and ideas that people died for.”
It’s certainly important history, but is it relevant in our secular society? In a city still grieving the Manchester Arena attack, that seems like a difficult but necessary question.
The Reformation is at John Rylands Library in Manchester until March 4, 2018. For more information, click here.