Image: © Shutterstock Martin Luther’s old house in Wittenberg, now a museum
Dr Karen Attar, curator of Senate House Library’s ‘Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings’ exhibition, is looking forward to showing off the library’s riches of 16th- and 17th-century books on this ‘massively important event in European history’.
An anniversary is always a good spur for an exhibition. The Reformation, which was triggered by Martin Luther sending off his 95 theses 31 October 1517 (that he nailed them to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg is now thought to be a myth), is a massively important event in European history. ‘Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings’ running from 26 June until15 December, allows us to show off our riches of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books in a subject area that we do not often emphasise.
To reflect the story about the period from the seeds of the English Reformation until today, the exhibition will present cultural and literary items that were ousted by the Reformation, such as a manuscript Book of Hours, and items that replaced them. Among the contemporary or near-contemporary items to show denominational social rifts at home and abroad is an early biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, portraying her as an innocent martyr who died for her faith, and the first pamphlet about the Spanish Armada, showing God on the Protestant side.
Nearly five hundred years later, the Reformation continues to have huge relevance for us today. The sheer presence of the Protestant church – and the Anglican Church as the state church – is one. So is the English Bible, which remains a bestseller, and which underpins much English literature, including John Milton and William Shakespeare. Other examples include the form of wedding service from the Book of Common Prayer, which remains in use throughout the world, and phrases both from the Prayer Book and the Reformation Bibles which are common in day-to-day language: ‘the salt of the earth’, for example.
And the booming interest in family and local history is greatly assisted by parish registers, an innovation of Thomas Cromwell’s. Sectarian troubles in Ireland can be traced back to the Reformation. Various institutions in their current form stem from the Reformation: my own alma mater, Emmanuel College in Cambridge (whose alumnus John Harvard was instrumental to Harvard) was built as a Protestant educational organisation on the site of a former Augustinian priory.
Choosing which items to showcase from the library’s immense collection of books was sometimes challenging. Some books chose themselves, such as the Geneva Bible of 1560 and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, cornerstone texts of the English Reformation. In other instances I had to choose a single example to illustrate a particular point. Sometimes the choice comes down to the condition of certain items, visual appeal, or even size and how books and manuscripts will fit together in a case.
My favourite item in the exhibition is Thomas Ward’s England’s Reformation, a burlesque eighteenth-century poem by a convert to Catholicism about the Reformation. This is partly because the doggerel verse reducing the English Reformation to the idea of “petulant king tires of his wife” is tremendous fun — you can see an example of it on our Reformation website, and read the whole poem online. My liking arises also from the excitement of finding the item. The way I chose most books was to read secondary literature, then look up books I wanted on the online catalogue and retrieve them from the shelves. I found Ward’s poem, which had not been catalogued, serendipitously in the stacks while I was doing something else, and the element of surprise and delight at discovering it complements my enjoyment of its content.
As with all exhibitions, there are many artefacts that we haven’t introduced, but should have. I’d have liked to show the Great Bible, which is the English Bible that Thomas Cromwell, whom in the course of my reading I grew to admire, supported, and caused to be placed in all English churches. It has an elaborate engraved title page showing among other things, Henry VIII delivering the Bible to Cranmer and Cromwell. Because I like the quirky, I’d also have liked to include Gilbert Abbott A’Beckett’s The Comic History of England (1847-8), and different editions of the Book of Common Prayer, to illustrate its development. But the exhibition space is limited, and one has to be selective and simply choose examples of various features – that’s life. The microsite enables us to introduce a few items that are not displayed physically in the cases.
Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.