‘Printing is God’s ultimate and greatest gift. Indeed through printing God wants the whole world, to the ends of the earth, to know the roots of true religion and wants to transmit it in every language. Printing is the last flicker of the flame that glows before the end of this world.’ Thus did Martin Luther, who is said to have hammered his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church exactly five hundred years ago, describe the advent of the printing press in his famous ‘Table Talks’. So close were he and the other Reformers to the appearance of this new ‘black art’, as printing by moveable type came to be known, that the Reformation is even referred to in some circles as ‘Gutenberg’s child’. While the printing press cannot be solely credited with the revolution that occurred in Europe in the sixteenth century, it certainly facilitated it. The reality is that the thought of men like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, as well as Loyola, Allen, and Bellarmine, was transmitted in a way unimaginable only a century earlier during the manuscript era.
Luther’s remark that printing was the last flickering of the flame before the end of this world was not apocalyptic; rather it was the prescient observation of a man who understood that the printed book would become one of the most important instruments lighting the way into the modern era.
Although the year 2017 marks one particularly important event that had seismic consequences for the Western world, determining the period that this exhibition should cover was not as straightforward a task. It could certainly be argued that the twelfth-century Waldensians, or the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century proto-Reformers, Wycliffe and Hus, should be considered as the point of departure. Given the philosophy that the church should be semper reformanda, it could also be argued that there should be no end point. Both of these opinions are reflected in the items selected; but for reasons of practicality, and in order to highlight the strength of the library’s collections, the primary focus is on the works published between the years 1517 and 1648, when the Wars of Religion came to an end.
This exhibition was curated by Pearce J. Carefoote and displayed at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library from 25 September - 20 December 2017. The online exhibition was prepared by Danielle Van Wagner and Andrew Stewart.