Truth in translation


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How do you define truth? In medieval Europe, it was often thought that truth came from ancient texts in Latin or Greek, passed down through generations and only accessible to those who could read them. The truth in these texts could then be spoken to others who couldn’t read, or didn’t understand ancient languages. And few texts were more important in European society than the Bible.

Since the 5th century, most European churches had been using a version of the Bible known as the ‘Vulgate’, translated from Hebrew into Latin by St. Jerome. Around 1000 years later, new scholarship and access to more Biblical texts gave European scholars fresh insight and revealed a number of errors in the established Vulgate. The truth, it seemed, was in the translation: scholars began to realise how a slight mistake, or the decision to use a particular word, could change the meaning of a whole passage.

Woodcut depicting the Foure Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Martin Luther's 1522 September Testament.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse depicted in Cranach’s woodcut for the New Testament (R28664).

Martin Luther, who was professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, had read these newly accessible texts with interest. Luther felt strongly that the Bible, as the Word of God, should be available to everyone in a way they could understand. Translation of God’s Word was naturally a challenging task, to make sure that the truth of the message was not distorted as words were changed. Luther believed that he had been called to spread this truth and was eager to create a new German translation of the Bible. Unlike earlier translators, he used a new Greek version of the original texts edited by the scholar Erasmus (c.1469–1536), rather than the Vulgate, since he believed it held more truth.

In three months, during his period of hiding at Wartburg castle, Luther completed his translation of the New Testament into the everyday language of the German people. This became one of the most influential translations, both because of its accessibility to ordinary people, but also because of the later rise of a sense of German nationality.

The text was published swiftly in September 1522 at Wittenberg and became known as the ‘September Testament’. Neither the printers nor the translator were mentioned on the titlepage: this was not unusual in Bible translations, but it may also have been to protect commercial sales from Luther’s infamy across Europe. One of the financial backers was the Protestant artist Lucas Cranach, whose workshop supplied the twenty one striking woodcuts included in the volume.

Illustrating the book of Revelation with apocalyptic scenes, these vivid images were an aid to the reader and perhaps more controversial than Luther’s translation. Three of the woodcuts depict monsters wearing the Papal Tiara, the crown of the popes, visualising Luther’s accusation that the pope was the antichrist. Perhaps the most provocative of these images is the Whore of Babylon, wearing the Triple Crown, surrounded by a crowd of worldly worshippers.

Woodcut showing the Whore of Babylon wearing the papl tiara in Luther's translation of the New Testament.

The Whore of Bablyon wearing the papal tiara in the ‘September Testament’ (R28664).

Woodcut from a later edition of Luther's New Testament, in which the papal tiara has been removed.

Later editions of Luther’s New Testament removed references to the papal crown.

It was these images, rather than the text, which were considered the most offensive. In November 1522, Duke Georg of Albertine Saxony banned the printing and dissemination of Luther’s New Testament citing the ridicule and insult they heaped on the pope. In spite of this, the translation was hugely popular, even though it was expensive (costing around 2 weeks’ wages for a baker). A second printing followed in December, but changes were made to the images, as well as the text. All traces of the triple, Papal crown were removed, leaving the Whore and other monsters with a single crown to mark them out.

Some later editions were copied from the first and included the anti-papal propaganda, proving that Luther’s views and suspicions were still widely held. But it was the words which would prove decisive: spreading the Bible to all German speaking people who could read, or listen to literate preachers.

Woodcut showing fire raining down on a city, with people huddling in the foreground, from Luther's New Testament.

The vivid nature of Cranach’s apocalyptic images are still striking today (R28664).

Definitions of truth have grown fluid over the centuries since the Reformation, none more so than aspects of faith and belief. Luther’s September Testament represents what he and his fellow reformers believed to be the ultimate truth, in word and image, given directly by God and spread to ordinary people. This truth was influential, but only one of a number in the turbulent Europe of the early sixteenth century, inspiring complex conflict and debate which would last for centuries to come.

The early years of the Reformation demonstrate the questioning, curiosity and determination which would be swept away by violent persecution and fighting in the decades which followed. This autumn, The Reformation exhibition at John Rylands Library explores the battle of beliefs in print from 1517-1547, contrasting Luther, Henry VIII and William Tyndale as radical, rogue and renegade.

With thanks to Ester Camilla Peric, Università degli Studi di Udine.

Diversity in Archives: Growing Pains

Jasspreet Thethi, Special Collections Reader Services Assistant, writes:

This year I attended my first conference in the record-keeping sector with a bursary courtesy of Kevin Bolton. Among the varied sessions at the Archives and Records Association Conference in Manchester was an exceptionally thought-provoking talk from Kirsty Fife and Hannah Henthorn. They shared the findings from their unfunded and independently conducted survey, Marginalised in the UK Archives Sector, which recorded the experiences of under-represented groups in the Archives sector.

Fife and Henthorn

Kirsty Fife and Hannah Henthorn discussing their findings. You can find a link to their work here:

Many participants felt marginalised in ways I had not considered. For example, one participant did not feel comfortable attending conferences beneficial to their professional development due to fear of being miss-gendered or experiencing other transphobic micro-aggressions.[1] I began reflecting on how we could create a welcoming, supportive and safe space[2] where all under-represented individuals feel welcome.

I concluded that to achieve this, each person in the sector must be willing to engage with the topic of diversity with a sensitivity that will legitimise the feelings of the under-represented and result in a change behaviours and policies. To explain this fully I will use my experience as an example.

As a British Asian in the heritage sector, I work with a majority of white British or European colleagues and have repeatedly experienced being the only BAME person in an entire building. When micro-aggressions occur in these settings I have two options: speak out or let it go. Speaking out is an empowering option if I am confident I am in a safe and understanding environment. Letting it go is more preferable when I am unsure of my surroundings. The latter is more common in a workplace setting.

When these micro-aggressions occur, I am overcome with an array of feelings including hurt, vulnerability and belittlement. Often, I make a joke of what has happened as a protective way to discuss a sensitive topic. The more I learn to articulate myself during stressful situations in a clear concise and kind manner, the more I can discuss these transgressions with my colleagues. I expect my conversational partner to mirror my respectful and understanding approach but often their embarrassment and hurt leads to misdirected anger and/or a dismissive attitude.  This in turn causes me to feel invisible and upset.

If we intend to dismantle all barriers to under-represented groups and fully embrace diversity into the workplace we must be sensitive to those highlighting discriminatory behaviour: accepting our ignorance and discomfort and turning this into understanding and acceptance. This is a complex sensitive topic but we can begin with four steps.

  1. Understand there is mutual discomfort: challenging someone about micro aggressions is intimidating and uncomfortable.
  2. Accept the discomfort: do not immediately dismiss or defend micro-aggressions, because implicit bias is universal and no one has full understanding of other peoples’ life experience.
  3. Do research: learning about the life experiences of minority groups will increase understanding and inform positive interactions.
  4. Forgive yourself for making mistakes: if you are following these steps to create a more welcoming environment for everyone, you’re doing your best.

By doing this we can make a truly safe space for those under-represented groups. As the sector’s diversity grows, so will our discomfort when mistakes are inevitably made. However, this is not a negative prospect. Growing pains are necessary when changing the status quo and this is an exciting and important part of creating a fully diverse and integrated profession.

This article also appears in the November 2017 issue of the ARA magazine, ARC.

[1] Indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

[2] A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.



Discovering Intérieurs anglais: the art of Bedford Lemere & Co.


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This week the Special Collections division held a Roadshow in the University of Manchester Library. For me, it was an opportunity to speak to colleagues about what they can now discover about some of our Victorian British photography as a result of the ‘Out of the Ether’ project, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

Discovery at the Special Collections Roadshow

Talking about Visual Collections and discovery at the Special Collections Roadshow. Image by AAnderton.

My previous post explained that the first album to be made fully accessible from the visual collections is Intérieurs anglais, a portfolio of cyanotypes from Bedford Lemere & Co., the leading English firm of architectural photographers between 1870 and 1930. A turning the pages style bookreader object of the entire portfolio, as well as a record detailing each individual print is now available via our online image collection in LUNA.

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The photographs within the album document the interiors of some of the grandest houses in England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as notable public buildings, c1900. These images are now discoverable, but what was also fascinating to me as a cataloguer, were the things that I discovered about the places shown that were not always directly relevant to the description, but interesting nonetheless!


Interior view showing the grand staircase at Sheffield Town hall from the second landing. By Henry Bedford Lemere, 1897.

The above image is the impressive and beautiful staircase at Sheffield Town Hall. The ornate carved friezes above the arches incorporate scrollwork and putti (cherubic figures) into the design and depict the industries of Sheffield. But rather charmingly, also portrayed is the slaying of the ‘Dragon of Wantley’; the local legend of a dragon-slaying by a knight on Wharncliffe Crags in South Yorkshire, who is protected by a bespoke suit of Sheffield armour. The depiction has been somewhat edited, in that the legend has the knight slaying the dragon by a fatal kick to the backside, delicately termed, the ‘arse-gut’. I was slightly disappointed to find that an altogether more traditional knight with a sword is shown in the frieze!


The Dragon of Wharncliffe detail at Sheffield. Image courtesy of Wikicommons.

Overtoun House in Dumbartonshire, Scotland, has a couple more sinister stories attached to it, the first going all the way back to the creation of the mansion. The first story relates to Madelaine Smith, the daughter of the Glasgow-based architect of Overtoun, James White. Madeline was suspected, but never convicted, (despite standing trial) of the murder of her former lover Pierre Emile L’Angelier. L’Angelier was found dead from arsenic poisoning on the 23rd of March 1857. Although the circumstantial evidence pointed towards Madeline’s likely guilt (she had made purchases of arsenic in the weeks leading up to L’Angelier’s death, and had a motive to silence Pierre about their affair, as she had become engaged to marry another man) the jury returned a verdict of “not proven”, i.e. the jury was unconvinced that Smith was innocent, but the prosecution had produced insufficient evidence to the contrary.

The second story is more contemporary, which is the peculiar fact of an inexplicably high number of dogs that have leapt to their deaths from the bridge into the Overtoun estate that runs over the Overtoun Burn. This strange phenomenon has been recorded as far back as the 1950s with no concrete explanation of why it happens. Some dogs have survived leaping from the bridge, but promptly try to leap again, leading to locals terming them ‘second-timers’. Despite the suggestion that Overtoun may be a ‘thin place’ which disturbs the animals, another plausible suggestion is that it is the smell of nesting Mink which is attracting the dogs, who in a state of sensory overload, run over the edge. Whatever the cause, clear signs now warn dog-owners to keep their beloved pets firmly on a lead.


Interior view of the grand staircase at Overtoun, Dumbarton, seen from the half landing. By Henry Bedford Lemere, November 1892.

The details of a further two photographic albums are to be made available shortly.  An album of English architecture and landscapes, which features prints by Francis Bedford, George Washington Wilson and 12 wonderful prints by the renowned pioneer of early photography, Roger Fenton.  The second is an album of prints from 1901 of The West Riding Asylum, Menston, Yorkshire, which was later High Royds Hospital. The set are by an unknown photographer and they show the extent of the Hospital facilities and its grounds, which were so vast that the asylum even had its own railway.

Additional blog posts will announce when the material is available, but meanwhile, follow Library Tammy on IG for updates on what goes on in the Visual Collections office here are The John Rylands Library.

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Heritage Imaging team.



The Reformation – we are open!


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It was more than five years ago that we first had the idea for an exhibition to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This was during a visit to the Newberry Library in Chicago in 2012. Their own exhibition ‘Religious Change and Print, 1450-1700’ will open on 14 September. The full proposal was put forward two years ago while detailed planning kicked off last December. So it has been a long time in the making but here we are finally open!

For the last week a team of people have been hard at work putting everything in place – Special Collections collections and engagement staff, Collection Care and Strategic Marketing & Communications. There were a few last minute crises (aren’t there always with exhibitions?) but nothing that couldn’t be solved with some smart thinking and teamwork. A big thanks to everyone, you know who you are ….

The Reformation exhibition is now on until 4 March 2018. It is free and open to all.

Watch out for more on social media (#jrlReformation) and on this blog highlighting the stories in this exhibition and individual objects.

Digitisation of the Christian Brethren Archive



We are pleased to announce that a further selection of material from the Christian Brethren Archive has been digitised, and is available for access online. This material includes a collection of correspondence written or received by John Nelson Darby, and 2 notebooks from the Fry Collection, which include transcriptions of conversations and correspondence between Benjamin Wills Newton and F.W. Wyatt, and copies of notes for addresses given by Newton.

The Correspondence of John Nelson Darby

Letter from John Nelson Darby to Mr Keen of Folkstone, 1989. archive reference JND/5/113

Darby was one of the founder members of what later became known as the Plymouth Brethren. When the latter split in 1848, he went on to become the first leader of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’. He was a noted biblical scholar whose doctrinal system was adopted well beyond the confines of the Brethren.

The digitised series of Darby correspondence consists of 307 letters, and forms a series of the catalogued papers of John Nelson Darby, archive reference JND/5. The letters date from 1829-1882 and are predominantly correspondence received by Darby from figures of consequence within the Christian Brethren, including Edward Cronin, Benjamin Wills Newton and William Kelly, and with references to George Mueller and George V. Wigram. The letters include discussion of divisions, disputes and ex-communications, and references to numerous Brethren assemblies. There are requests for advice from Darby on personal, theological and eschatological questions, with reference to fellowship at assemblies, baptism and marriage, and also discussion of missionary work.

The letters can be viewed using this link.

The Notebooks of the Fry Collection

Benjamin Wills Newton also played a prominent role in the formation of the Plymouth Brethren. Initially intended to take holy orders, Newton underwent an evangelical conversion whilst at Oxford and, on his return to Plymouth, began to preach at independent Christian gatherings. He developed a close relationship with John Nelson Darby, and was appointed as an elder of the Providence Chapel.

Over time however, Newton’s views on Biblical prophecy diverged from those of Darby and his followers, and the dominance Newton had come to exert in the worship at Providence Chapel elicited disapproval. There were also accusations of heresy made in relation to some of Newton’s teachings, and the disagreements between Darby and Newton would lead to the division of the movement into what are known as the ‘Open’ and ‘Exclusive’ Brethren in 1848.

Newton left Plymouth and the Christian Brethren soon after this dispute, and later retired to Newport, on the Isle of Wright, where he continued to maintain and encourage a following of like-minded Christians. Amongst his congregation were Frederick William Wyatt, a watchmaker and Greek and Hebrew scholar, and Alfred Charles Fry, a printer, who would become Newton’s close associates, and make notes of his lectures and addresses. Wyatt transcribed conversations between himself and Newton into notebooks, and Fry was employed as Newton’s colporteur, delivering and distributing his works around the island by bicycle.

Fry Manuscript 1 archive reference CBA 7057

The notebooks which have been digitised from this collection, archive references 7057 and 7061, are dated 1883 and 1893-1896 respectively, and include transcriptions of conversations between Newton and Wyatt, copies of correspondence, and copies of notes of addresses given by Newton. Also included is a copy of a proposed lexicon begun by Newton.

The notebooks of the Fry Collection can be viewed using this link.

Remarkable discovery of new Alan Turing papers


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Dr James Peters writes:

The Library has recently received a previously-unknown cache of correspondence of the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954).

This complements our existing Turing collection, which is part of the National Archive for the History of Computing (NAHC). Archive material relating to Turing is scarce, so having some of his academic correspondence is a welcome and important addition to our holdings.


The Ferranti Mark 1 computer with Alan Turing (standing) and Ferranti engineers, Brian Pollard and Keith Lonsdale.

This file of letters dates from early 1949 until Turing’s death in June 1954, during the period he worked at the University’s Computing Machine Laboratory. It was discovered unexpectedly by Professor Jim Miles of the School of Computer Science, who is the School’s history co-ordinator, and has been reorganising a store room of artefacts deep in the Kilburn building. Professor Miles immediately recognised the file’s significance, commenting “I was astonished to find such a thing that had remained out of sight for so long.”

The file has now been catalogued (as the Turing additional papers), and is available for consultation in the Special Collections of The University of Manchester Library. It comprises over 140 items of correspondence, both incoming letters and copy replies. The latter are typed, and were mostly dictated by Turing to his secretary, but a few letters include his annotations, usually where he adds mathematical notation to problems he is discussing.

Although the letters mostly confirm what is already known about Turing’s work at Manchester, they do provide additional information about some of his preoccupations at this time, and also how his work was understood by others. Several letters are requests to use the Mark I computer, for which he had administrative responsibility, and even at this early stage, a diverse group of researchers – chemists, engineers and economists – were using it for their work.

Many letters also deal with Turing’s research. Turing continued to publish highly innovative work during this period, most notably the articles “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), which explored the relationships between human and machine intelligence, and the “The chemical basis of morphogenesis” (1953), which set out a highly original view of the chemical and physical bases of the development of biological form, and used computational techniques to try to demonstrate this.

The correspondence reveals considerable interest in this work; Turing is invited to deliver lectures and talks, and to discuss the progress of his research. Turing himself recognised that as he was working outside his usual area of expertise he needed to persuade mainstream biologists. As he tells the biologist Michael Swann, “I am really more anxious to know what the biologists will have to say about it”; although he ruefully informs another correspondent that “most biologists don’t know enough mathematics to see what it is about”.

Several letters reveal a growing popular interest in artificial intelligence and the potential of digital computers. There is correspondence relating to Turing’s contribution to the BBC radio programme on “Can machines think?” in early 1952. A bemused Turing also has to disappoint a couple of correspondents who believed a chess match was to be held between the Mark I computer and human experts, although he acknowledges he is “interested in the possibility of making machines do this sort of thing.”



Section from schedule for the BBC radio programme “Can machines think?”, 1952. Ref. TUR/ADD/26.

Turing’s war work on Enigma was still secret at this time, and apart from one letter from the director of GCHQ about Bletchley Park, this is not mentioned. The correspondence is similarly silent on Turing’s personal life in this period. The story is now well-known of his conviction for an illegal sex act in 1952, followed by a period of enforced hormone treatment, and ultimately his suicide in June 1954.

It is tempting to speculate about Turing’s personal situation from some incidental comments in his correspondence, but too much should not be read into this. For example, a proposed visiting lectureship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952/3, about which Turing was initially enthusiastic, is not pursued, and a planned lecture tour to Germany in early 1953 is cancelled for unclear reasons. A request to attend a conference in the US in April 1953 meets with an impassioned negative: ”I would not like the journey, and I detest America”.

Despite these difficult circumstances, the letters make clear Turing’s professionalism, his willingness to help other researchers, and the high regard in which he was held by colleagues in the UK and the USA.

Understandably, this remarkable find has already generated considerable media interest. Watch the BBC Northwest Tonight interview with Professor Jim Miles and Dr James Peters:

‘Power – For my angel poet-friend’: The Papers of Elaine Feinstein


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Project Archivist Jane Speller writes:

Work has started on the papers of English writer, poet and translator, Elaine Feinstein. Funded by the Strachey Trust, the aim of the project is to catalogue and make available this important literary archive.

Born in Bootle in Lancashire in 1930, Elaine’s parents were from Liverpool and all her grandparents were Ukrainian Jews from the city of Odessa. Now living in London, Elaine retains strong connections with the North West of England via her association with the Manchester-based Carcanet Press.

Elaine’s connections within the literary world are truly international. Over the years, in addition to writing biographies, novels, and poetry collections, as well as translating work by some of the great Russian and Soviet writers such as Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Elaine has championed the work of countless new and emerging writers. In 1959, she was invited to edit an issue of Cambridge Opinion magazine. According to Elaine’s memoirs, she decided to call the issue ‘The Writer Out of Society’. She felt herself on the edge of the English literary world – being Northern, a woman, and the granddaughter of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. For fellow outsiders, she looked to America,

‘So it was I briefly became a conduit, more or less by chance, for an American avant-garde not yet much known in England, all of them acknowledging the influence of Ezra Pound and several of them as Jewish as I was’.

Elaine wrote to a young American writer Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), one of the leaders of the Beat Generation,

‘…because I liked his poetry, which most people thought was hilarious at the time. The early stuff is marvellous…Anyway, I wrote to Ginsberg and he sent me a whole list of people I could write to, so I did. I was sitting in the house with two children, not doing anything else. I wrote to them all and got back screeds from Corso, Ferlinghetti, everyone’ (from an interview published in The Irish Times, May 2005).

Through Ginsberg, Elaine made contact with some of the most radical, rebellious and experimental writers of the day.


Cambridge Opinion magazine: list of contents, 1959

A letter Elaine received from Ginsberg and several of the postcards he sent her are in the archive. He signs off one card – in which tells her he has quit smoking – ‘My  face aches. Smoke moves. Yours Allen G.

Elaine published his poem, ‘A Supermarket in California’ in Cambridge Opinion magazine. The poem represents one of Ginsberg’s first experiments with the long line form that would be epitomized by his poem, Howl, and which would become his trademark style.


Opening of ‘A Supermarket in California’ by Allen Ginsberg, published in Cambridge Opinion, 1959.

Also in the archive are communications with Elaine from other Beat poets; Michael McClure (b.1932) asks, ‘Who are you? Or rather what is the magazine you propose like? Who are you printing? Is it political?’ before discussing his poem, ‘Peyote’,  which references an hallucinogen favoured by the Beats; and a letter in stream-of-consciousness  form written by Gregory Corso (1930-2001), in which he discusses the differences between English and American poetry,

Most all young English poetry of late is gossiped dark polemics, such poets really have nothing galaxy to say; they’d never wear velvet, no weakness, that good poetic weakness, in their we’re-for we’re-against the bowler hat man’s zombic mein’ [sic].


Excerpt about peyote: letter from Michael McClure to Elaine Feinstein, c. 1959

Corso sends Elaine his poem, ‘Power – For my angel poet-friend’. Corso wrote the poem for Ginsberg his life-long friend and collaborator who he met in the New York lesbian bar, Pony Stable:

‘Somehow, it also became a focal point for the Beat Generation poetry scene. Back in 1949, the young poet Gregory Corso having just been released from prison was adopted as an ‘artist-in-residence’ by the women at the Pony Stable’ (From  Lost Womyn’s Space website).


Excerpt re. ‘Power for my angel poet friend’: letter from Gregory Corso to Elaine Feinstein, 1959.

The address, 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, Paris, is name-checked in a number of letters in the papers relating to Elaine’s editorship of the Cambridge Opinion. Aficionados of the Beats will recognise this as the location of the infamous ‘Beat Hotel’, a small, run-down hotel and bistro in the Latin Quarter which provided a haven for an international clientele of bohemian artists many of whom were escaping the rigid censorship laws of the US and Britain. Some of the hotel’s most famous occupants (1957-63) included: ‘Mr and Mrs Ginsberg’ a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky (1933-2010), William Burroughs (1914-97) and his lover Ian Sommerville (1940-76), and Gregory Corso.  It was at the Beat Hotel that Burroughs wrote his controversial novel The Naked Lunch (1959) and Ginsberg wrote the seminal poem, ‘Kaddish’ (1957-59), a galley proof of which is in the archive. See The Beat Hotel (2011) documentary for information about this impromptu home of the Beats – trailer on YouTube.


Excerpt from Ginsberg’s postcard, sent to accompany a proof of his poem ‘Kaddish’, which had also been accepted by Scottish magazine Jabberwock, 22 December 1958.

Read more about Elaine and her work in forthcoming blog posts.

Henry VIII: Defender of the Faith


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Henry VIII in 1520 (unknown Anglo-Dutch artist) courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Henry VIII, anonymous artist, c1520, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Ask anyone to name an English monarch, and Henry VIII is likely to spring to mind. Now perhaps best known for his six marriages and habit of executing those closest to him, in the sixteenth century he was famous for being named ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo X in 1521.

It was Henry’s staunch defence of Catholicism against reformers like Martin Luther, who questioned established practices in the Church, which earned Henry this accolade from the Pope. Since the publication of Luther’s ninety-five ‘declarations’, his Ninety Five Theses, in 1517, print had been an important and effective way of spreading radical religious ideas across Europe. Before long, these radical works started to enter England.

Defending his faith and his rule, Henry VIII banned Luther’s work, but this was not his only response. As a Renaissance prince in a closely connected Europe, Henry took an active approach to these dangerous ideas which, he believed, threatened the very nature of his divinely ordained kingship. In later years, such threats would be dealt with by swift and often bloody action: executions have since become almost synonymous with Henry’s reign. But the young Henry lived in a world that was rediscovering ancient ideas and developing new, sometimes dangerous ones. Rather than just banning and burning Luther’s writings, Henry took to the new media of print to wage a war in words.

Illuminated titlepage of the John Rylands Library's copy of Assertio septem sacramentorum, (JRL 18952).

Titlepage of the John Rylands Library’s copy of Assertio septem sacramentorum, (JRL 18952).

Gathering a team of scholars to present the counter argument, Henry set to work defending the seven sacraments against Luther’s attacks, particularly those in the reformer’s vitriolic On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). Henry’s debut work (in Latin) was published in 1521 as Assertio septum sacramentorum (Defence the Seven Sacraments) and became a hit amongst the educated elite.

But words alone, even the king’s words, were not enough: armed with a manuscript copy of the Assertio, Cardinal Wolsey denounced and burned copies of Luther’s writing at St Paul’s Cross in London in the same year.

The Assertio wasn’t just an attack on Luther’s ideas. Henry also used the book to defend papal authority, arguing that the Church was key to ensuring unity across Europe. In case this point had been lost on the Pope, the book was dedicated to him and a luxurious copy sent to the Vatican in September 1521. The Pope’s gratitude included Henry’s new title ‘Defender of the Faith’ (‘Fidei Defensor’) putting the English monarch in the front rank of European rulers, alongside rivals such as France (known as ‘the Most Christian King’) and Spain (‘Catholic King’). Through this book, Henry succeeded in arguing the supremacy of the old, Catholic Church and showing himself as an enlightened Renaissance prince.

Inscription reading 'Regi daciae' on the first blank leaf of the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (JRL 18952).

The inscription on the first blank leaf of the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (JRL 18952).

The John Rylands Library’s first edition of the Assertio is printed on vellum with an extravagantly hand decorated title page and illuminations throughout. It also holds a mystery: a small inscription which reads ‘Regi daciae’. Dacia usually refers to an area of Eastern Europe, so for a long time it was assumed this book had been a gift to the King of Hungary, although there is no clear link between the two kings. However, Dacia was also the Latin name given to the combined kingdom of Denmark and Sweden (from the Latin names Dania and Suecia) which was ruled for a brief time by King Christian II of Denmark (and also Norway). We know that Henry VIII and Christian II met in London on 30 June 1523 to confirm a peace treaty, at the time when Henry was still basking in his role as Fidei Defensor. What better way for Henry to demonstrate his Renaissance credentials to a fellow king than to present Christian II with a luxuriant copy his own bestseller?

Decorated page from the luxurious copy of Assertio septem sacramentorum (JRL 18952 leaf a2r).)

Decorated page from the luxurious copy of Assertio septem sacramentorum (JRL 18952 leaf a2r).

Henry’s role as the European defender of the Catholic Church did not last much longer, although it is likely that he remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. If this book belonged to Christian II, it seems he did not take its messages to heart either: he was forced into exile in the year he met Henry and soon became a committed Lutheran.

Just like the portrait shown above, the Assertio reveals a different Henry to the figure famous today for executions and religious turmoil in England, presenting himself as one of the foremost Renaissance princes of his generation

Religion, faith and power have always played a complex role in society. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s Ninety Five Theses, kick-starting public debate and the rapid spread of ideas which led to centuries of upheaval across Europe.

The Reformation, a free exhibition, will run from 7 September to 4 March at John Rylands Library, Deansgate. This opulent copy of Assertio will be amongst the treasures on display.

With thanks to Ester Camilla Peric, Università degli Studi di Udine.

Rediscovered: Persian poets and poetry


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James White writes

Over the past weeks, I have been cataloguing some of the Persian literary manuscripts in the University of Manchester Library, on a John Rylands Research Institute project sponsored by the Soudavar Foundation.

Pencil sketch of a Persian man

Sketch of a man in Qajar dress
(found in Persian MS 918)

The Library houses around a thousand Persian manuscripts that came to Manchester after circulating in Iran and India. Some of these are rare works, such as the only substantially complete copy known of ʿAwfī’s Lubāb al-albāb (Persian MS 308), the earliest extant biographical compendium of poets in Persian. Then there is the first volume of ʿAlī Ibrāhīm Khān’s Khulāṣat al-kalām (Persian MS 318), an autograph copy of an anthology of narrative poetry, selected and compiled by a judge who lived in Varanasi in the late eighteenth century. Other manuscripts are significant because they date from the life of the compiler, or just after, like the copies of Tuḥfa-yi Sāmī (Persian MS 317) and Taẕkira-yi Naṣrābādī (Persian MS 315).

I have made some discoveries. Some of the manuscripts had not been identified previously, or had been misidentified. Persian MS 328 (below) turns out to be an anthology compiled by the poet Bāsiṭī (fl.c. 1160/1747)  Although anthologies often arrange poems by author, this one is more of a handbook of images. Each chapter takes a different idea, such as ‘On Expectation’, or ‘On Remembering and Forgetting’, and selects lines that engage with the overarching theme. Curiously, Bāsiṭī still refers to this work as a taẕkira (biography) in his preface, a habit that he continued in his other collections of poetry that are not biographical in their genre.


 Beginning of Bāsiṭī’s anthology (Persian MS 308, folio 10b)

Another previously misidentified work in the collection is Persian MS 648, entitled ʿĀshiq ū maʿshūq: Hamīsha Bahār. It was previously thought that this was a copy of the anthology compiled by Ikhlāṣ Chand, but the text is a narrative that follows the adventures of a prince, as he travels through Kashmir in search of the meaning of love. The final line of the work gives the name of the author as Fānī, and the text is dated elsewhere in the manuscript as having been written in 1051/1641-2. On the basis of the name, the date, and the thematic link to Kashmir, the work can be ascribed to the poet Fānī Kashmīrī (d.1081/1671-2). A third previously misidentified work is Persian MS 457, which turns out to be an encyclopaedia compiled for the Quṭb Shāh Abū l-Manṣūr Abū l-Naṣr al-Muẓaffar Sultān ʿAbdallāh.


Sketch of a woman in youth and age (found in Persian MS 918)

Apart from the texts themselves, the manuscripts have been full of intriguing surprises that provide a glimpse into the lives of their former owners. For example, loose in the pages of Persian MS 918, a copy of Luṭf ʿAlī Bayg’s Ātashkada, is a small leaf with two portraits sketched on it in pencil. One side depicts a man in Qajar dress (see top of page), while the other consists of a drawings that represents a young woman when held from one end, and an elderly woman when held from the other (left).

Descriptions for the twenty-four manuscripts included in the project have been uploaded to Fihrist, alongside briefer records for the whole collection which were created with support from the British Institute for Persian Studies and the Iran Heritage Foundation. Images of selected Persian manuscripts are available via our online Image Collections.