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Extremely rare manuscripts unveiled at Chester Beatty Library for 500th anniversary of the Reformation

A number of letters from Protestant reformer Martin Luther are now on display.

The Reformation letters join a host of other manuscripts and letters at the library.
The Reformation letters join a host of other manuscripts and letters at the library.
Image: Joe Dunne/Rollingnews.ie

THE REFORMATION WHICH saw the beginning of the Protestant breakaway from the Catholic Church got underway on 31 October 1517.

To mark the 500th anniversary of the day reformer Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, the Chester Beatty Library on the grounds of Dublin Castle is showcasing a series of rare letters from the time.

Jill Unkel, curator of western collections at the library, told TheJournal.ie that the Reformation is “intrinsically linked” to the arrival of the printing press, with so many new translations of the Bible coming into print.

The library has an archive of rare books and manuscripts, and some of these are rolled out to mark special events or anniversaries.

Here’s what will be put on display from the time of the Reformation:

  • In July 1519, Luther took part in a famous public debate with a fierce opponent, Catholic theologian Johann Ech. In this letter from Luther to his supporter Andreas Karlstadt, he sets out the 12 points he intended to debate with Eck.
  • In this pamphlet from 1922, published in German instead of Latin, Luther was reaching people in a language they understood with the Epistles of St Peter and Epistle of St Jude.
  • The Lutheran confession of faith is known as the Augsburg Confession. In this privately-printed edition from 1557, a hand-coloured woodblock print depicts Martin Luther kneeling at the cross.

These widely shared documents had a profound effect on spreading the German language in the 16th and 17th centuries, according to Unkel.

She said: “It was the availability of printing that enabled the translation to spread so rapidly. Partially due to its widespread circulation, it had a profound impact on the development of the standard, modern German language.

His goal was that every household would have a readable, accurate copy of the Bible, and this was also a stimulus for universal education.

“It also influenced early English translations and inspired translations into other languages,” Unkel added.

The Reformation spreading to England would of course have major consequences for Ireland.

With the United Kingdom turning to protestantism with Henry VIII, the majority Catholic Ireland proved largely resistant to the effects of the Reformation, with the exception of Ulster in the following decades under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I and her successors.

The library also has rare pamphlets published at the time as well as copies of speeches from Luther and his supporters.

Unkel said: “In addition to the pamphlets, the case also includes two 17th-century prints which were also produced during and in response to the Reformation.

One is called Faiths Victorie in Romes Crueltie which depicts a number of English Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake during the reign of Mary Tudor, including Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, former archbishop of Canterbury.

The library has another anniversary coming up with 2018 marking 50 years since Alfred Chester Beatty died.

The wealthy American mining engineer was Ireland’s first honorary citizen and was given a state funeral when he died.

His gift to the people of Ireland was his library collection, which includes other extremely rare works including a four-thousand-year-old clay writing tablet from Mesopotamia, and miniature wooden pagodas from Japan with Buddhist prayers on tiny scrolls dating to 768.

Read: Dublin’s Phil Lynott statue has disappeared. Again. But we know where he is this time

Read: The story of an Irish maths genius who broke Nazi codes is finally being told

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Sean Murray

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