October 31, 2017 was a typical Halloween at Yale; a few sported costumes, many got candy in class. October 31, 1517, however, was a day that shaped Western history: Martin Luther published his “Ninety-Five Theses” in defiance of the Catholic Church selling “indulgences,” forgiveness for sins, to mitigate its financial struggles. It is thought that Luther tacked his “Theses” onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany as well as sending out copies to several recipients including an archbishop — thus kicking off, according to some scholars, the period of the Reformation. Five hundred years later, in the Beinecke library basement, Curator Kathryn James guided visitors through Luther’s astonishing works that reside in Yale’s collection, alongside early books that influenced his trajectory.
James narrated Luther’s story: “From 1517 through 1522, Luther had this radical period. He was extremely active in writing, churning out these polemical sermons to the point where he was excommunicated and summoned to the Diet of Worms to testify to the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V. This is the famous moment when he refuses to recant — he’s declared a heretic.”
“The point, really, of this display,” she told visitors passionately, “is that Luther is doing something revolutionary in printing, very quickly, these inexpensively produced copies of sermons.” Luther’s revolutionary heretical calls for reformation made use of new printing technologies to gain far-reaching readership. A key choice was to print sermons on a single leaf of paper that could be cut into the pages needed for the pamphlet, and then bound into an inexpensive and portable sermon.
Seeing the Luther pamphlets side by side with the 13th-century Biblia Sacra Bible on display for the event, it’s easy to see how different the materials are. The Biblia Sacra’s pages are made of parchment sheared so thin that you can see your finger through a page. Though it’s not entirely understood how the Bible’s pages were made, it was certainly a time-consuming process compared to paper printing. The Luther pamphlet material, on the other hand, is clearly recognizable as the same sort of paper we use today.
The 15th-century Gutenberg Bible is a more recent forerunner of Luther’s own pamphlets and editions of the Bible — and it too is totally different in many key features. James pointed out something that’s made obvious when the texts are placed side by side: the Gutenberg is a “very large and very not-portable bible.” Luther’s pamphlets and bibles, on the other hand, are the size of books we use today.
The Gutenberg Bibles, James noted, were made for a very high-end market. Even though they were printed on paper by a press (as opposed to being made entirely by hand), the process of constructing them didn’t actually utilize many innovative time-saving approaches. Early pages in the Guttenberg Bible are printed in two colors, red and black, to look like a manuscript. Although this artistic process was abandoned part of the way into the book, intricate hand-painted illuminations (that make each of the only 180 copies the Gutenberg press produced unique) span its entirety. Gutenberg himself went bankrupt sponsoring this expensive process, after becoming tied up in an acrimonious lawsuit with his business partner, James said.
The stark contrast between Luther’s and his predecessors’ texts drives home the importance of the shift to printed paper texts. “[The] phenomenal impact that Luther had with this document [is] in part because of the cheap print that he was using, in a way that I think was quite novel and revolutionary in the time.” James commented.
After publishing his “Ninety-Five Theses,” and subsequently being declared an outlaw, Luther hid away in the Wartburg Castle in Germany. Safe there, he undertook the project of translating the Bible into German. He quickly produced a version of the New Testament based on the 1516 Erasmus translation — which lay directly across the table from Luther’s own version of the New Testament at the Beinecke exhibit. However, Luther’s pace of production lagged when he moved on to translating the Old Testament: it took him until 1534 to complete this project, because he had such difficulty working with the Hebrew language sources.
Luther’s translation didn’t simply provide another German-language edition of the bible; as a translator, he took the liberty of producing a novel form of the text. James introduced the books by remarking that “instead of translating as though he was strictly following the Latin, [Luther] translates it in this very energetic, very lively form, that becomes a self-referential text in its own right.”
The Luther bibles also feature woodcut illustrations, particularly in the book of Revelations, James points out. These simple line drawings are easy to follow, and help the reader visualize the scenes’ drama. In combination with the text’s style of “stirring vernacular,” as James describes it, the images make the Luther Bible a highly distinctive piece.
Around their 500th birthdays, it’s incredible to see these interlocking fragments of history lined up together in our modern world — one that’s so foreign to their time, yet fundamentally shaped by it.
Hannah Kazis-Taylor | firstname.lastname@example.org .