Our current Treasures Gallery display focuses on Martin Luther to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But this is not the first time that our holdings have been showcased for a Luther-related anniversary.
In 1883, George Bullen, Keeper of the Department of Printed Books in the then British Museum Library, organised an exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of Lutherâs birth. In his introduction to the short accompanying catalogue (âprice twopenceâ), he notes that the anniversary celebrations in Germany had âattracted âŠ much notice and sympathy in this countryâ and says that a suggestion for an exhibition âformed of the numerous books, pamphlets and broadsides contained in the Museumâ had been âcordially adoptedâ by senior staff there.
Looking at the catalogue, itâs gratifying to know that, 134 years later, the team behind our display made selected many of the same items to exhibit as Bullen and his colleagues did. Of course itâs also inevitable since some items were such obvious choices: the 95 theses, the Indulgence that triggered them, the Papal Bull condemning Luther, the âSeptember Testamentâ, and Lutherâs first complete German Bible. A surprising omission in 1883 was Lutherâs response to criticisms of his Bible translation, the Sendbrief von Dolmetschen â perhaps the more so since Bullen did show Hieronymus Emserâs attack on Lutherâs translation (pictured below).
Two other choices we shared were an edition of Henry VIIIâs Assertio septem sacramentorum and a book-binding stamped with portraits of Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, but those currently on display are definitely not the same as the ones shown in 1883: we have a Rome edition of the Assertio while Bullen chose a London one, and the binding we are displaying comes from the collection of Henry Davis which was bequeathed to the British Library in 1977.
Bullen had more space than our modest four cases: his exhibition was mounted in the Grenville Library, to the right of the Museumâs entrance hall (now a gift shop), where he was able to show a wider range of items. In some cases these helped add context to other exhibits. For example there were copies of other writings against indulgences alongside the 95 theses, including German-language pamphlets which took Lutherâs arguments to a wider audience. Likewise the Assertio septem sacramentorum was accompanied by the pamphlet De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae which inspired Henryâs response, and by Lutherâs own reply to the Assertio.
The 1883 exhibiton also had space for more Bibles, including some of some of the first sections of Lutherâs Old Testament to be printed, and the splendid Bible of 1541 with manuscript inscriptions by Luther, Philipp Melanchthon and other reformers.
Other exhibits from 1883 touch on areas we couldnât accommodate, including pamphlets by Luther on theological topics, works of scriptural exegesis, and copies of his services for baptism and the mass. Bullen also found room for some manuscript letters, including one from Luther to Thomas Cromwell (MS Harley 6989, f.56) which had in fact been on my initial longlist but missed the final cut.
Examples of items shown in 1883 but not in 2017. Above: Martin Luther, Auslegung Deutsch des Vatter Unser ... (Leipzig, 1519) 3905.bbb.22, an exegiesis of the Lordâs prayer for German-speaking lay people. Below: Martin Luther, Vom Eelichen Leben (Wittenberg, 1522) 3905.dd.76, Lutherâs treatise on marriage.
One theme which we chose to feature and Bullen did not was pro-and anti-Lutheran visual propaganda, such as the Passional Christi und Antichristi ([Wittenberg, 1521]; C.53.c.3.) which compares the perceived corruption of the papcy with the life of Jesus, or Thomas Murnerâs attack on Luther, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren. Perhaps these were seen as too frivolous or too crude for contemporary tastes. A number of pictures from the Department of Prints and Drawings were shown, but these were nearly all straightforward portraits rather than propaganda prints or caricatures.
Too crude for Victorian visitors? An image of Luther being stuffed into a privy, from Thomas Murner, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren (Strassburg, 1522) 11517.c.33. Shown in 2017 but not in 1883
I suspect that our final exhibit of a Playmobil Luther figure and a Luther rubber duck (below) would certainly have raised eyebrows in 1883, but the display then also included commemorative souvenirs, albeit in the less frivolous form of items from the Department of Coins and Medals. And placed on a table in the gallery was âa statuette of Luther modelled in terra-cotta by Mr Charles Martin, after Lucas Cranachâs portrait, lent for exhibition by Mr Martin.â No doubt a more realistic and sober representation than our souvenirs, but that in itself shows how attitudes to the culture of commemoration have changed since Bullenâs day.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
The Treasures Gallery display continues until 4 February 2018. On 27 November 2017 the British Library will be holding a Study Day âThe Reformation outside Germanyâ, looking at the impact of the Reformation in other European Countries. A full programme and booking details can be found here.