Written by Ken Smith, Volunteer at Salisbury Cathedral
It’s not often that you are brought face to face, as it were, with the realities of early 16th century life. However, that is what happened to me on a recent visit to the Cathedral library. After being welcomed by the Librarian and the volunteers present, I perused the catalogue and was surprised to see how many early copies of Martin Luther’s works the Library possessed.
The first book that I asked to see had a resounding and impressive title: “Rationes Latomianae pro Incendtiariis Louvaniensis Scholae Sophistis redititae Lutheriana Confutatio” printed in Wittenberg in 1521. My Latin is rudimentary but I could piece together that it referred to Luther’s response to the burning, at the University of Louvain, of some of his books. The book is bound up with another Luther piece from the same year. The title page of the book is a beautiful example of renaissance iconography with biblical patriarchs and beasts from the Book of Revelations rubbing shoulders with mythical creatures amongst elaborate decoration. This book appeared in the year when Luther had not only been been excommunicated but had risked his life to attend the Diet of Worms. There he had stated his heretical beliefs to a shocked and outraged Emperor Charles V.
This book made me aware of the physical as well as moral courage of this humble monk still only in his thirties. The fearful punishment of excommunication damned his soul for Eternity but also made him a target for any Catholic zealot. He had to not only fear an assassin’s knife but judicial execution by being burned alive. Yet, in spite of this, he continued to write and publish his beliefs boosted by the support of his friends and the protection of the Elector Frederick of Saxony. Luther was not to know he would die in his bed of old age; he must often have wondered how long the Elector would be able to shield him from the rage of Emperor and Pope.
The second volume that I had asked to see had also been written by Luther. This was a copy of “Summaria in Psalmos”, printed in 1534. This dumpy little volume was in remarkably good condition, for its age, with its original calf binding. The binding was tight and its covers had to be gently prised open as if it were reluctant to give up its secrets. As I read what I could, I was reminded of how Lutheran and other forbidden Protestant books, like this one, were smuggled into England from the continent during the 1530s. The mere possession of such a book could result in imprisonment and even torture and execution during Henry VIII’s reign. Just as in parts of the world today, your religious views, if differing from orthodoxy, could prove fatal.
These books had given me new insights, both into Luther’s personal qualities, and the religious intolerance of his time. As I walked back down the spiral staircase to the Cathedral, I mused on how fortunate I was to live in a place and at a time when liberty of conscience is allowed.
I shall certainly visit the Cathedral Library again to see what further treasures it contains.
Images of the two books can be seen here, in the accompanying gallery.