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

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

Back in the days before mass media, quick communication methods and the internet, one of the key ways to protest was in print. The invention of the printing press made it possible for individuals or small groups to produce a large number of copies of their thoughts, beliefs or arguments to share amongst others. By the sixteenth century, the production of pamplets (small books of just a few pages without hard covers) were helping to spread radical, satirical and challenging ideas across Europe from the presses of small printing workshops via travelling booksellers.

As we’ve already mentioned in this blog, few were as consumate pamphleteers in the sixteenth century as Martin Luther, the German monk whose actions sparked off the tumultous events which we now know as the Reformation. The John Rylands Library holds a significant number of pamphlets published by Martin Luther, a few of which are on display in our current exhibition: The Reformation.

An image of a fifteenth century ingulence, printed with manuscript additions, including a seal.

Ingulgence printed in 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg. The text relevant to the buyer has been written in by hand.

Printing wasn’t just used in protest, of course: in the same exhibition (alongside the pamphlet version of Luther’s 95 Theses), you can see a printed copy of an indulgence from 1455. Indulgences were sold by the medieval Church as a way to reduce the amount of time the buyer (or a chosen relative) would have to spend in Purgatory, working off their sins before they could go to Heaven. The printing press enabled the Church to produce indulgences rapidly and relatively cheaply, leading to more sales. Ironically, it was the mass sale of indulgences and the methods used to sell them which triggered Luther’s protest in publishing his 95 Theses against the Church.

On Thursday 16th November, there will be an opportunity to explore protest with print from 5-7pm at the John Rylands Library. In addition, The Reformation exhibition will be open and the Curator will be on hand to answer questions and showcase some more fascinating original artefacts held in the John Rylands collections.

We hope you will be able to join our protest on Thursday, and look forward to seeing you there.