Introducing the exhibition: the curator speaks

Almost as soon as Senate House Library decided to do a major exhibition on the English Reformation, I knew that I wanted to curate it. Curation has been thoroughly enjoyable. It has expanded my knowledge - sometimes gruesomely - with results which are not all reflected in the explanatory captions on our Reformation microsite. It has entailed balancing awareness of complex threads with the need to present a straightforward narrative. The Reformation concerned not merely clashes between Catholicism and Protestantism, but also different manifestations of Protestantism, which conflicted to the extent that Puritans left England for the New World to break free from a Protestant Anglican regime—emigration reflected in John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, which viewers invariably admire for its fold-out illustrations. In an exhibition which focuses on the impact of the Reformation we also wanted to distinguish between Reformation phenomena and concurrent Renaissance developments. Distinctions can blur: for example, Shakespeare is seen clearly as a product of the Renaissance (as opposed to a religious playwright like John Bale), but the opportunity for Elizabethan secular drama arose through the Church of England’s ban of mystery plays.

Thinking about the Reformation led to comparisons with other countries and times. A comparison drawn from the start and mentioned several times in the media, was with Brexit, for England’s severance of the continental tie to Rome—although the Reformation’s waves of immigration between England and the continent in both directions for religious reasons demonstrate clear contrasts with Brexit too. Twentieth-century totalitarian states offer a sober comparison for subjugating freedom of expression. There is not much difference between an ordinary citizen risking imprisonment or worse for criticising the leader of any twentieth-century totalitarian regime, and a washerwoman in Henrician England endangering herself for calling Anne Boleyn a whore. Execution for treason could follow failure to swear the Oath of Supremacy supporting Henry VIII in 1534 or to Adolf Hitler between 1934 and 1945. Wanton destruction which accompanied the dissolution of English monasteries, when for example royal commissioners used monastic books to polish their boots and scour candlesticks among other purposes, may recall the damage inflicted on cultural heritage today in war-torn countries.

Working on the Reformation has also infused new meaning into familiar activities. The Holy Communion service according to the Book of Common Prayer includes sentences about Christ coming into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1,15) and being the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2,1). Formerly these had seemed appropriate for the occasion, but uncontroversial. Last Easter, listening to them for the first time since writing a caption for the prayer book, I was struck for the first time by their triumphant aggressiveness, laying down a gauntlet to the contemporary church: “forget the saints! forget indulgences!” in a clarion call to the nation about newly resurrected tenets.

Curation has been a journey of exploration. Part of it has been an exploration of Library holdings. Various projects from the last decade rendered it easy to target the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English imprints which dominate the exhibition from the online catalogue. But holding the books has made me marvel anew. One of my favourite books in the exhibition, for the sheer fun of the content, is Thomas Ward’s doggerel verse England's Reformation (from the Time of K. Henry VIII to the End of Oates's Plot) (1747). This I found serendipitously in the stacks. Reading the books makes events vivid: the chronicles with their descriptions of pageantry or retailing of speech; the earthy personal insults within scholarly folios (Jewel).

May those who experience the exhibition be as enriched by the encounter as I have been by the preparation.

Dr Karen Attar is the Curator of Rare Books and Artworks at Senate House Library, and is the curator for Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings which runs from 26 June to 15 December 2017.

Blog post details

  • 4 May 2017