Sidelines on the Reformation

‘Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the world is wider than the realm of England’, words spoken by Mary, Queen of Sots at her trial at Fotheringay Castle in 1586, was an admonition chosen to represent the case ‘New World Order’ within Senate House Library’s exhibition on the English Reformation. The end of the exhibition provides the opportunity to think a little more about the Reformation beyond England. A major resulting fall-out on the Continent was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as a Catholic-Protestant struggle which radically changed the balance of power in Europe. As 2018 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of this war, we shall be commemorating it as a Feature of the Month next year. It would be possible to select books marking various stages.

From a denominational point of view, the exhibition focussed on the Church of England as the new official English church, with a nod to Puritanism through books by John Bunyan, Richard Baxter (microsite only) and immigration to America. We sidelined even Calvinism in the interest of a strong focus: regretfully in a way, because we have several early imprints by Calvin. In Germany, one result of the Thirty Years War and the devastation it wreaked was a desire for spiritual renewal. Fuelled partly by the works of Bunyan and Baxter and partly by dissatisfaction with the emphasis perceived in the Lutheran church of doctrine and theology over personal living among other influences, Pietism arose, with an emphasis on personal faith. Ultimately its roots can be traced back to the Reformation. It reached its peak in the mid-eighteenth century and survives today, most obviously in Germany and in outposts of the Moravian church, but also implicitly in Evangelical Protestantism worldwide. Had we had space to explore that route, we might have represented major collections at Senate House Library that were not featured. The library of Beilby Porteus (1731-1809), Bishop of London from 1787 until 1809, is that of a man intensely interested in the currents around him. It includes among its multiple pamphlets one from 1749 by the Pietist leader and Moravian church leader Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Hymns Composed for the Use of the Brethren, ‘published for the benefit of all mankind’. The work of Zinzendorf’s god-father Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), who started the Pietist movement, is to be found in the Priebsch-Closs collection of Germanic rare books, together with the output of some of the major Pietist hymn writers whose songs have percolated into English. Especially prolific among these is Paul Gerhardt, the writer of ‘O Sacred Head Sore Wounded’, and his work is also to be found in the music library. For its infiltration into culture, I should probably have shown Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which weaves Gerhardt’s chorale into it as a leitmotif.

The Reformation as seen in the zenith of the Pietistic movement merges with the early history of the University of London through its first bulk donation of antiquarian books, noted in 1838. The books were given by a medical practitioner of Ilfracombe, one Nathaniel Vye. They feature eighteenth-century German devotional literature of a Pietistic bent and may well have been first owned by somebody in the Moravian heartlands: we can surmise this from the bright blue or pink paste endpapers, which were popular in the area at the time. Shown here is the fourth edition of daily prayers by Johann Friedrich Starck (1680-1756), Johann Friedrich Starcks Morgen- und Abend-Andachten frommer Christen auf alle Tage im Jahre (Frankfurt am Main, 1766). The sub-title indicates the natures of the work: wie solche aus der Quelle des göttlichen Worts fliessen, darinn das lebendige Christenthum, wie ein wahrer Christ inwendig und auswendig, vor Gott und den Menschen beschaffen seyn soll, beschrieben wird (‘how such [prayers] flow from the source of the divine Word, describing living Christianity, what a true Christian should be like internally and externally before man and before God’). Starck was a prolific theological writer who was very popular in his time, and who wrote for all occasions, most distinctively a booklet of daily prayers for women who were pregnant or giving birth (Tägliches Gebetbüchlein für Schwangere und Gebährende). He also wrote about one thousand hymns, none of which survived to twentieth-century hymn books. By contrast, the prayers in his morning and evening prayers were printed as recently 1963. Simple, direct and personal, they are not timebound. The Senate House Library copy is the only copy of the fourth edition noted in the United Kingdom and one of only two copies of any edition.

I should like to end this blog post with a sharp turn. Reading background material for an exhibition, as for any other purpose, one quickly comes to respect the masters in the field. A major figure is Arthur Geoffrey Dickens (1910-2001), whose The English Reformation (1964) established him as the leading historian of his generation in the field. Dickens’s obituary in the Independent (9 August 2001) wrote that it was a landmark in Tudor historiography; that in the Telegraph (2 August 2001) that it established a new benchmark of excellence for such surveys and set the agenda for teaching and research in the field for the next 25 years. Criticism came not of its content, but of its ending with the death of Mary Tudor in 1558, and of an interpretation which it was felt neglected the vigour of Catholicism and unpopularity of Protestantism in Tudor England. Dickens was the Director of the Institute of Historical Research at Senate House from 1967 until his retirement in 1977. Consequently, the University Archive holds his papers (MS923) including drafts, notes and correspondence pertaining to The English Reformation, mainly to its second edition of 1989. Do look at it!

Blog post details

  • 6 Dec 2017