Foxes in the vineyard

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Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me.


The Tourist-Information shop in the German city of Wittenberg is like any other office of its kind. Visitors can learn about the local attractions, book tours and purchase from a range of souvenirs and collectible kitsch. What stands out, however, is that much of the merchandise – from socks and keyrings to dried noodles and DVDs – revolves around a single individual: the theologian and ecclesiastical reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546).

Wittenberg was the town where Luther taught as a university professor and served as provincial vicar of Saxony and Thuringia. It was also where Luther is said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, a list of arguments and objections, to the door of All Saints’ Church in protest against the practice of selling indulgences (essentially buying a fast-track ticket through Purgatory and into Heaven for oneself or a loved one), an action which triggered the Protestant Reformation.

31 October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of this act of defiance against the established Church. Although Alexander Turnbull was not a collector of books about the Reformation specifically he did acquire one item that encapsulates some of its early history in original publications. The volume is referred to as a sammelband, a term used to describe books in which two or more distinct works are bound together.


This particular sammelband contains twenty publications printed between 1496 and 1522. Some of the texts influenced Luther’s thinking, such as the first printed edition of the De causa Boemica by the Bohemian priest and reformer Jan Hus, who was burned as a heretic for his beliefs in 1415. Other texts were written by some of Luther’s associates, such as Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523), scholar, poet and a leader of the Imperial Knights of the Holy Roman Empire. In keeping with the anniversary, this post will focus on the earliest works by Luther included, all of which are in first or early editions, along with one of his most famously vitriolic tracts.

Before discussing the relevant texts, the physical characteristics and provenance evidence are worth noting. The binding, for example, has much to tell us about where these tracts were compiled and how dangerous they were considered to be at the time of the Reformation.

Front coverFront cover

The style of the binding is 16th-century German, blind-stamped with decorative elements and images of figures from classical antiquity. Stamped in gilt along the top edge of the upper board is a warning to anyone who might open the book. It reads, ‘Cave lector’ (reader beware) which, when the contents are taken into account, suggests this volume was once part of a Catholic library.

Cave lector

Note in the above image, too, that a small section has been excised from the front cover. What was removed was likely the name of a former owner or his or her initials, which were often stamped into the front cover of German bindings of this period. Presumably this was done during the Reformation years (1517–1648) or shortly thereafter to protect the now unknown owner from being associated with what were once seen in some circles as texts unsafe to possess.

The earliest identifiable sign of ownership is a 16th-century Latin inscription found on the front pastedown. This was deciphered by Ed van der Vlist of the Royal Library, The Hague, and tells us that this book belonged to Heinrich von Hagen, vicar in the church of Lübeck in northern Germany. The presence of this inscription raises interesting questions: Was Heinrich serving as a vicar during the initial years of the Reformation? Was he the compiler of these publications? Did he remain a Catholic or become a Protestant? (Both denominations used the term ‘vicar’.)

The ownership trail then goes cold until the seventeenth century. Written along the bottom of the first publication’s title-page is the name and date ‘Allardi Uchtmani 1659’, which might be Allard Uchtmann (d. 1680), professor of Hebrew and Greek at the University of Leiden. Unfortunately, nothing more is known of the volume’s history until it turned up in the English book dealer P. M. Barnard’s catalogue 76 in 1913 and was bought by Alexander Turnbull.

Ninety-Five Theses

Turning to the contents, after his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther continued to preach against ecclesiastical authority and expanded upon his call for reform. To reach as large an audience as possible Luther masterfully used the relatively new technology of the printing press. The pamphlets he produced were cheap to buy, easily transported and distributed, and allowed Luther to spread his word widely and rapidly.

The earliest Lutheran pamphlets in the sammelband were printed in 1518 and concern some of the events leading up to Luther’s break with the papacy. Initially, Pope Leo X (1475–1521) was disposed to ignore Luther’s actions in Wittenberg. However, when it became clear that Luther’s doctrines were spreading beyond Wittenberg and directly challenged papal authority, Leo X appointed a commission of inquiry in March 1518 led by the Dominican theologian Sylvester Prierias (ca. 1456–1527). Prierias published a critical assessment of Luther’s arguments against indulgences called the Dialogus de potestate papae (Dialogue on the Power of the Pope) along with a set of principles, one of which stated that the Roman church is theologically infallible and anyone who speaks against it is a heretic. In response, Luther republished the Dialogus along with his own critical reply addressing Prierias’s assessment and principles, which he called ‘sufficiently supercilious’.

Dialogus de potestate papae and Luther’s Responsio title-pages.Dialogus de potestate papae and Luther’s Responsio title-pages.


Despite papal pressure, Luther remained undeterred and unrepentant. He believed too much power was invested in the papacy, a topic addressed in a lengthy sermon delivered on 16 May 1518 and published as his Sermo de virtute excommunicationis (Sermon on the Power of Excommunication). In light of such publications and Prierias’s arguments, Luther was summoned to Augsburg for examination. Over three days in October 1518, he defended himself against the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534). Cajetan was instructed to arrest Luther if he remained defiant, but the cardinal refrained from doing so. Luther, sensing he was under threat, fled Augsburg in the dead of night unbeknownst to Cajetan. Luther published his version of events in Acta F. Martini Luther Augustiniani apud Dominū legatum apostolicum Augustae (Dealings of the Augustinian Friar Martin Luther with the Lord Apostolic Legate at Augsburg), printed in Leipzig by Valentin Schumann.

Sermo excommunicationis and Acta title-pagesSermo excommunicationis and Acta title-pages

Throughout 1519 and 1520, Luther further refined his anti-papal doctrine and increased his publication output. On 15 June 1520, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull that threatened Luther with excommunication. Known as the ‘Exsurge Domine’ (Arise, O Lord) for its opening line, the pope began by beseeching God for assistance, for ‘foxes’ and a ‘wild boar from the forest’ have ‘arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod’. The foxes referred to members of the growing Protestant movement and the wild boar, Luther himself. The bull gave Luther sixty days to recant.

In response, Luther published a series of rebuttals beginning with his Adversus execrabilem Antichristi bullam (Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist). In it he attacked the papacy, stating that if the Church stood in the way of Christian truth then it stood in opposition to Christ’s teachings and was thus the Antichrist. In closing, he labelled the Pope and his cardinals as leaders of a corrupt system who should be excommunicated. Going one step further, Luther publically burned the bull in Wittenberg on 10 December 1520. As a result, he was excommunicated on 3 January 1521.

Opening pages of the Exsurge Domine and Luther’s Adversus execrabilem Antichristi bullamOpening pages of the Exsurge Domine and Luther’s Adversus execrabilem Antichristi bullam

King Henry VIII

The year of Luther’s excommunication saw the publication of Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments) by Henry VIII (1491–1547). This was written as a defence of papal authority in reaction to Luther’s De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church), in which he urged Christians to accept a ‘new’ Christianity. In recognition, Pope Leo X bestowed the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ upon Henry. Although the sammelband does not include copies of De captivitate or the Assertio, Luther’s scathing response, Contra Henricum Regem Angliae (Against Henry, King of England), published in 1522, is present.

Contra Henricum title-pageContra Henricum title-page

In his reply, Luther lambasted Henry, accused him of writing the treatise solely to curry favour with the pope, of having little theological learning or true concern for the issues at hand, and referred to the king of England in such colourful terms as ‘porcus’ (pig or glutton), ‘asinus’ (an ass or fool) and ‘damnabilis putredo’ (a damnable putrefaction) and much worse.

The woodcut border on the title-page was designed by the workshop of Luther’s friend, the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472–1553), and is just one example of Luther’s use of title-page illustration as a propaganda tool. On the left is a peasant playing an instrument, a symbol of Luther’s popular support. On the right, stands a calf-headed monk holding a rosary.

Indeed this single title-page summarises some of the salient points of the Protestant Reformation: Theological argument, the importance of the printing press and art – not only to Luther, but his adversaries, too – and the divisiveness caused by the fight for religious reform.

Together, the tracts that comprise this sammelband serve as surviving witnesses and provide insight into a period of religious upheaval and bloodshed that swept across Europe; a time when the words ‘cave lector’ could literally mean life or death.

Teaser image: Detail from German Bible published in 1644. Ref: qRGer-BIBL-1644-ML

By Anthony Tedeschi

Anthony is Rare Books and Fine Printing Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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