Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Missals and Martyrs: the Reformation in the Rare Books Collections at the University of York

Today is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the door of the Schlo├čkirche (“castle church”) in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. This event is conventionally associated with the beginnings of the religious conflicts and changes known as the Reformation. Luther was challenging the authority of the Pope, and also asking the Catholic Church to respond through reasoned argument. Many millions of words were written on both sides, and the printing press helped make the new ideas and thoughts widely available.

Initially, the official reaction from England was to condemn Luther. Henry VIII wrote the Defence of the seven sacraments, and learned men like Thomas More and Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, published in support of the Catholic Church. Gradually, attitudes changed and under Edward VI and Elizabeth, Protestantism became the state religion.

Henry VIII. Assertio septem sacramentorum, or an assertion of the seven sacraments against Martin Luther... London, pr., Nath. Thompson, 1688.

In 2016 a display of books from the Rare Books Collection was mounted to support a workshop for AHRC funded project Remembering the Reformation, the starting point for this blog. The books help tell the story of the Reformation in Europe and in England. Many come from the Mirfield collection, a library belonging to the Community of the Resurrection, Anglican monks based in Mirfield, West Yorkshire.
All the items are available for study and can be found on Yorsearch.

Lugd'., per ... Iacobum Sacon. Expe[n]sis ... Anthonij koberger ... Feliciter explicit, 1512.

The common or “Vulgate” version of the Bible in the Middle Ages was translated by Saint Jerome into Latin in the late 4th century. It was the official bible of the Catholic Church used throughout western Europe, including England. This edition was printed in Nuremberg, Germany in 1512. Its title page promotes itself as a learned text: the four Gospels are “revised, corrected and emended with the greatest diligence”, and it includes marginal annotations of textual cross-references. It is folio sized and the hand-coloured woodcuts make it an expensive artefact.

Missale: begins Annus habet. xii. meses. Nurmberge, impressum per Georgium Stuchs de Sultzbach, 1484.

Missals contain the instructions and words necessary for celebrating Mass, the most sacred part of Christian worship in the pre-Reformation church. This example was printed in Nuremberg in 1484, making it one of the earliest printed books in the Rare Books Collection, and some of the pages have illuminated initials. Showing the books continued use, an engraving of the crucifixion printed in the early 17th century has been pasted in opposite the Te igitur, the first prayer that marks the opening of the canon of the Mass.

In medieval England, the most widespread form of the Mass was the Sarum Rite, or Salisbury Use, first developed in the 11th century. This was used throughout the south of England; in the north, the York Use was also common. This edition was printed in Rouen in France for distribution in England during the reign of Mary Tudor when Catholicism became the official religion again in England. After Mary’s death and Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in 1558, this was reversed.

Confessio odder [sic] Bekantnus des Glaubens erlicher Fursten und Stedte: Uberantwort Keiserlicher Maiestat: zu Augspurg anno 1530. Apologia der Confessio. Gedruckt zu Wittemberg durch Georgen Rhaw, 1531.

The Augsburg Confession contains the chief articles of faith for the Lutheran Church. It was written in an effort to show common ground between the Lutheran and Catholic Church, and presented to Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg in June 1530. Martin Luther contributed much of the text but was unable to attend the Diet as he was banned from travel. Many of the German states supported the Confession, however the Catholic Church did not, so Philip Melancthon, a close friend of Luther’s, prepared the ‘Apology’, a defence of the Confession and an attempt to deal with the contested points that the Catholic Church had identified. The Confession and Apology are still important documents in the Lutheran Church today.


Dietrich, Viet. Agend Buchlein fur die Pharrherrn auff dem Land. Nurnberg, : durch Johan vom Berg und Ulrich Neuber, 1544.

After the Reformation, German Protestants developed their own forms of worship. The Agend B├╝chlein is a Lutheran Service Book which includes ceremonies and blessings to help clergy teach and lead their congregation. It was adopted by many German cities and territories. This edition was prepared by Viet Dietrich, an associate of Martin Luther.

Luther, Martin. Colloquia oder Tischreden Doctor Martini Lutheri: so er in vielen Jahren die Zeyt seines Lebens gegen gelehrten Leuthen, auch fremden Gesten und seinen Tischgesellen gefuhret. Franckfurt am Mayn, Peter Schmid und Sigmund Feyerabend, 1569.

Tischreden, or “Tabletalk”, was first published in 1566, and is a collection of Martin Luther’s comments overheard and recorded by his followers. It captures Luther’s most influential ideas, and covers topics such as religious doctrine and the undesirability of whipping children. The titlepage shows Luther in conversation round the dinner table.

Tyndale, William. The newe Testament of our savyoure Jesu Christe, newly and dylygently translated into Englyshe wyth annotacions in the mergent to help the reader to the understandynge of the texte, 1549.

William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 was the first full printed translation of the Bible in English. Tyndale wanted all Englishmen to be able to read the word of God in their own language. Early editions were banned in England, and Tyndale was executed as a heretic in 1536. However, changes in the political climate allowed Tyndale’s authorship to be acknowledged in this copy from the reign of Edward VI. It is claimed that the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, took more than 80% of its words and phrases directly from this translation.

Fisher, John. Assertationis Lutheranae confutatio, etc. Parisiis, apud Mathurinum du puys, 1545.

Initially Martin Luther’s ideas, as manifested in the 95 theses, were vehemently opposed by the government of Henry VIII in England. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and considered to be the greatest theologian in the country, first published his confutations of Martin Luther in 1523 in an effort to prove Luther’s ideas false. The Bible verse on the title page encourages the reader to reject false prophets. This edition was reprinted in Paris in 1545 at the same time as the opening of the Council of Trent, which initiated the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic reaction to the Protestant ideals. Although Fisher was dead by 1545, the reprinting demonstrates his continuing influence on the Catholic reaction to Reformation ideas.



More, Thomas. The supplycacyon of soulys made by Syr Thomas More knyght councellour to our soverayn lorde the Kynge ... against the supplycacyon of beggars. London, W. Rastell, 1529.

Thomas More, lawyer, humanist and Chancellor to Henry VIII, also opposed Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. He wrote this pamphlet as a response to The Supplication of Beggars by Simon Fish that had denied the existence of purgatory. Unlike John Fisher whose confutations were in Latin, More wrote in English enabling him to reach the literate but less educated English audience. After Henry VIII’s divorce and his break from Rome, both Fisher and More were executed in 1535.


Coverdale, Miles. Certain most godly, fruitfull and comfortable letters of such true saintes and holy ... as ... here within this realme, gave their lyves for ... Christes holy gospel etc. London, John Day, 1564.


After the death of her sister Mary I, Elizabeth I reinstituted the Reformation, and became “Supreme Head of the Church in England”. Miles Coverdale, Reformer and Bible translator, collected letters of early supporters of Protestantism in England such as Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, and Bishop of London Nicholas Ridley, who had been burned for heresy under Mary. On the titlepage Coverdale describes them as “saintes”. Another book written about the Protestant martyrs was John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments. An image from Foxe has been pasted into this book to reinforce the message about the holiness of those who gave their lives for the Protestant cause.

Book of Common Prayer, [1575]


The Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549, laid out the structure and form of Protestant services in English. This copy is bound with a Bible printed by Richard Jugge in 1575.


The Rare Books Collection covers a wide range of topics. For more information check the website: https://www.york.ac.uk/library/collections/rare-books-collection/ 

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