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Religion has always been a key part of the collections in the John Rylands Library, particularly Christianity. While he was alive, John Rylands was a firm supporter of Biblical study. After his death, John’s third wife Enriqueta put Christian and Non-Conformist beliefs at the heart of her vision for a cathedral of knowledge, although she was careful not to exclude material differing from her own religious beliefs. This mission is reflected in the Rylands’ extensive collection of Martin Luther material, and items surrounding the Protestant Reformation. These help us to trace the profound transformation of religious, and thus world, views across Europe in the sixteenth century.

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The role of pamphlets

Pamphlets were vital to the spread of ideas in the early modern Europe. Small and lightweight, (normally issued in quarto format with 8-16 pages) they could be produced relatively quickly and spread significant distances by travelling booksellers. The average price was roughly a third of a daily wage for an artisan apprentice in Germany: these prints were affordable, but not throwaway. Pamphlets weren’t designed to educate, but to influence opinion. Usually printed in easy to read fonts, this new media helped ideas to spread fast across Europe.

A portrait of Martin Luther printed in 'De captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae' (Strasbourg, 1520).

A portrait of Martin Luther from ‘De captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae’ (Strasbourg, 1520).

Pamphlets were written by many different sorts of people, even some women, but most were penned by educated men, normally the clergy. The topics they covered were just as wide ranging, but in the sixteenth century religion was often the key theme.

Martin Luther proved skilled at using pamphlets to spread his ideas and to agitate for reform. Just 11 years after his Ninety-five Theses were unveiled at Wittenberg in October 1517, 32 of Luther’s tracts had been printed in more than 500 editions. It is estimated that, before long, around a quarter of German publications were issued under his name. When Luther died in 1546, nearly three million copies of his works, excluding Bible translations, had appeared.

Reforming ideas

Rare depiction of a printing press on the titlepage of Luther's Auff des Bocks zu Leypczick Antwort (Wittenberg, 1521).

A rare depiction of a printing press on the titlepage of Luther’s Auff des Bocks zu Leypczick Antwort (Wittenberg, 1521).

Luther used this new media to challenge the established Church; in 1520 alone, his publications included attacks on economic practices, celibacy, good works and his sensational On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praelvdivm Martini Lutheri). In the same year, Luther was threatened with excommunication: as well as burning a copy of the bull, Luther went back to print to publicise his response.

Although the number of pamphlets produced mushroomed between 1517 and 1525, there was still a barrier to the spread of ideas. In Germany, around 10 pamphlets were produced for every literate member of the population: to access these ideas, people had to be able to read, or be read to. It is impossible to know whether anyone reading the text aloud changed the message, but it is likely that the eager audience for these pamphlets was made up of like-minded people, interested in reform. Rather than these rare surviving copies, sermons may have been a far more powerful tool in changing ordinary people’s minds. However, it is the pamphlets which have survived five centuries as witnesses to this time of dramatic change.

Collecting the ephemeral

Henry Guppy, Librarian of John Rylands from 1900, recognised this importance. In his tireless collecting to further the ambitions of the Library and its founder, Guppy was responsible for acquiring a large proportion of the Luther pamphlets which form a part of the collection today.

15 pamphlets were bought from David Nutt booksellers between 1900 and 1907. In 1907, Guppy oversaw another significant purchase of Luther pamphlets, when 50 ‘tracts and pamphlets’ were purchased from J.S. Cornish for £25. Six more items were sold to Guppy by the booksellers Henry Young & Sons (Liverpool) in 1909, including three important Luther pamphlets (De Libertate Christiana Dissertatio Martini Lvtheri, 1531; Resolutio Lvtheriana, 1519; De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praelvdivm Martini Lutheri, 1520).

Invoice detailing 'Luther' items bought by Henry Guppy from booksellers in December 1909.

Invoice detailing ‘Luther’ items bought by Henry Guppy from booksellers in December 1909.

By this time, the Library was known for its interest in Luther literature. A couple of weeks after the 1909 purchase, Henry Young & Sons wrote again to Mr Guppy, on 21st December, to say that they had a 1543 first edition of “Enchiridion”, in its original binding, with 50 woodcuts after Albert Durer. Within two days the purchase of Enchiridion Piarvm Precationum… (Wittenburg, 1543) had been written in the accessions registers.

The exploration of radical ideas changed the world for Europeans in the sixteenth century, hand in hand with the boom in pamphlets. Luther played a major role in both of these transformations by spreading his ideas and countering others through the new medium of cheap printing, with far-reaching consequences. The diligent collecting of the Rylands Library has brought together many of these items to give a snapshot of this inquisitive and revolutionary time.

Some of these significant pamphlets, and other important items, will be on display in our autumn exhibition: The Reformation which opens in September. Over the next few months, we will be telling more stories of some of these fascinating items on this blog.