The Texts of the Reformation

The 31st October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, a text that sparked the Reformation. The movement was entwined with the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, allowing the rapid spread of texts such as pamphlets and vernacular Bibles. As such, it is a historical moment of shift in terms of reading, writing and literacy, as well as fascinating texts.

When founded, St John’s College was rooted in Catholicism – Sir Thomas White himself was knighted by Queen Mary I, who fiercely pursued the supremacy of Roman Catholicism in Britain. This is reflected in the Library’s old collections: little can be found that relates to Luther and other key Protestants compared to many other colleges. This small selection of texts contains texts both in favour of and opposed to the Reformation, illustrating the complexity and clashes that underpin this period.

Libraries throughout the University of Oxford are providing resources and events to mark the 500th Reformation Day. You can find out more here.


Boke of good workes
Martin Luther, 1520; this edition published circa. 1535.

In this text, Luther sets out his arguments on the concept of ‘good works’, meaning religious acts carried out to redeem someone from their sins. He encourages good works that stem from faith, such as prayer and charity, but attacks practices such as the veneration of saints or the purchase of indulgences. The edition held by the Library is in English, indicating the processes of translation and printing that allowed Luther’s ideas to spread swiftly across Europe.



Assertio septem sacramentorum aduersus Mart. Lutherum
Henry VIII, 1521; this edition published in 1562.

The role of the seven sacraments as a tactile indicator of the human relationship with God was significant to the Church in sixteenth century Europe. One of Luther’s controversial claims was that there were only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, rather than seven. King Henry VIII wrote the Defence of the Seven Sacrements in response, denouncing Luther as “one little monk weak in strength”.  That Henry would write such a fierce defence of papacy only a decade before breaking away from Rome himself and creating the Church of England illustrates the rapid and unpredictable state of religious and political Europe during this period.



Interpretatio du horribilium Monstrorum (Deuttung der zwo grewlichen figuren)
Printed in ‘Tomus quartus omnium operum Reuerendi Domini Martini Lutheri’.
Martin Luther, 1523; this edition published in 1572.

In her article ‘The Unlucky, the Bad and the Ugly: Categories of Monstrosity from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment’ (2013), Surekha Davies describes the ways in which monsters were used as symbols of “divine displeasure” throughout the Reformation. Luther’s invokes this trope in his satirical pamphlet, depicting monstrous creatures that represent the Catholic Church. While the text was originally written in German, the Library’s edition is a Latin translation.


De vita hominis (from Institutio Christianae Religionis)
John Calvin, 1536; this edition published in 1550.

French theologian John Calvin was another key reformer. His cornerstone text Institutes both attacked Catholic teachings and provided a comprehensive introduction to core Protestant ideas. Originally published in Latin, the text appeared in French in 1541, a significant moment for the written language; French had only replaced Latin as the official national language of France in 1539. This text held by the library is an extract of the full Institutes printed in Latin by Jean Crespin, an influential French Protestant printer.


The booke of common prayer
Thomas Cranmer et al, 1549; this edition published in 1560.

The First Book of Common Prayer consolidated the supremacy of Protestantism in England, setting out the prayers and services to be used in English churches. It was followed by various revisions to make it more palatable for a population that only twenty years earlier had been staunchly Catholic. A key result of the Reformation was the circulation of religious texts in English rather than Latin; as such, the Book of Common Prayer is in English. The Library holds a first edition.


Actes and Monuments (or Foxe’s Book of Martyrs)
John Foxe, 1563; this edition published in 1570.

The influential Book of Martyrs depicts the suffering of Protestants under the Catholic Church. It vividly conveys violence through both text and illustration, heavily featuring images of burning martyrs. The library holds the second edition published in 1570 in response to Catholic criticism; this edition is almost twice the size of the first due to the inclusion of much more material.



If you’re a St John’s College reader and you would like to learn more about the Reformation, here are some useful shelfmarks.

HIST 160 (History of the Reformation)
HIST 166 (Luther)
HIST 167 (Calvin)
HIST 712 (Tudor)

OXON 015 (The Reformation in Oxford)

THEOL 430 (The Reformation in Theology)

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