Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation

Frontispiece of Martin Luther, De Captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae [Argentorati: Ioannis Schotti], 1520.

Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

25 September–20 December 2017

Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation is the fourth exhibition and catalogue that the Reverend Doctor P. J. Carefoote has prepared for the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto, and it is his second of 2017, following directly after his Struggle and Story: Canada in Print (20 March through 9 September; review here). His previous works include Nihil Obstat: An exhibition of banned, censored & challenged books in the West 1491–2000 (2005), adapted into the monograph Forbidden fruit: Banned, censored, and challenged books from Dante to Harry Potter (2007) and Calvin by the Book: A literary commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Birth of John Calvin (2009). Additionally, he was the General Editor of the Thomas Fisher Library’s Great and Manifold: A Celebration of the Bible in English (2011) and contributed to In memoriam Ralph Stanton: An exhibition to commemorate the donations of books by the late Ralph Stanton (1923–2010) to the University of Toronto Library (2010). I provide this somewhat long ‘bio-bibliography’ of the second man behind Flickering of the Flame (the first being the progenitive Reformer Martin Luther) as the current offering is as much the chef-d’oeuvre of Carefoote, a clergyman and a librarian at the Thomas Fisher Library, as it is the coming together of a wide variety of purchase and education initiatives.

Through 95 items, a figure no doubt arrived at as a silent nod to the 95 theses that Martin Luther reportedly hammered, by manuscript note, onto the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517, Flickering of the Flame serves as a sort of ‘best of’ of the Fisher’s past while ushering in the precedents of a bright future. Many of the items in this 172-page catalogue — the longest the Fisher has printed to-date — received a breezier treatment in earlier descriptions. Some examples of this include, from Nihil Obstat and Calvin by the Book, Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis (1559; item 21); from the Calvin alone, Erasmus’s diglot Novum Testamentum (1519; item 8) and Martin Bucer’s De regno Christi Iesu seruatoris nostri (1557; item 22); and from Great and Manifold, the Tyndale New Testament (1534; item 25), Henry VIII’s “Great Bible” (1541 [i.e., 1540]; item 27), and the Counter-Reformation “Rheims” New Testament (1582; item 55). All the while, though, there can be found in Flickering of the Flame new purchases for the collection, items on loan, and items of the relatively recent fracturing of Protestantism in North and South America. According to the audio guide, Carefoote tells patrons that item 6, Bula de indulgencias a favor de la catedral de Burgo de Osma (1498), is a special purchase for the display. One cannot overstate the significance and rarity of this Bula for demonstrating the flashpoint behind Luther’s anti-papal critique — it is a printed indulgence, with the blanks left empty of a name; it grants the recipient, in lieu of a gift of money to the Roman Catholic Church, holy forgiveness for sins that include “the consumption of meat, milk, cheese, and eggs during Lent; participating in certain occult practices; the making of abortifacients; and the commission of certain sexual sins, including incest” (20). Similarly, Flickering of the Flame provides and describes items of religious censorship out-of-scope of earlier catalogues and displays (i.e., Nihil Obstat). Notably, it includes on display the Fisher Library’s copy of the notorious Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books 1566; item 47) wherein Pope Paul IV, and company, listed and condemned to burning certain works of the new “heresiarchs,” such as Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and Reformed Tradition figures like Calvin (85). Driving home the negative reality of religious censorship as a textual phenomenon, Flickering of the Flame demonstrates admirably various techniques of the Index Librorum Expurgatorum (Index of Books to be Expurgated), such as blotting out full columns (item 7, The Legende named in Latyn Legenda aurea, by Jocobus de Voragine, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1507), bisqueting of a 1546 Church of England Primer during the reign of Elizabeth I (item 28), and obliteration of Desiderius Erasmus’s Adagiorum opus (1541; item 48). In such respects, the Fisher’s “commemoration” of the Reformation (as Carefoote observes on the audio guide, “commemorate” not “celebrate” is the word of choice of the Christian community) is more traditionalist and scholarly than the activities of other major libraries, like the John Rylands Library of Manchester University and the British Library.

Nevertheless, despite this scholarliness — greater depth than previous exhibitions and publications, titles provided without translation in the vernacular German, nuanced distinctions of doctrinal dispute such as only an ordained and practicing priest would know, etc. — Flickering of the Flame, all the same, might be approached as an essential survey in Christianity and its textual traditions for anyone willing to invest the effort. Richly illustrated with 79 photographs by Toronto photographer Paul Armstrong, the catalogue covers, in eight sections, a wide variety of religious concepts described in many places elsewhere with less verbal dexterity and writerly skill. In “Europe on the Eve of the Reformation,” for instance, Carefoote summarizes very nicely how Books of Hours derived out of Geert Groote’s movement in spirituality that came to be known as “devotio moderna” (11–13). To those not as well versed in liturgical practice, Carefoote’s discussion of the Divine Office, of the eight canonical hours of matins, lauds, vespers, and compline, etc., of the seven penitential Psalms, the litany of saints, and the Collects, offer a solid foundation upon which the book’s tacit argument might be understood: the idea that there is indirect relevance of the study of the Reformations (Lutheran, Reformed Tradition, English, Scottish, Counter-Reformation [Catholic Reaction], and “reverberations” in the Americas) to communications circuits today (i.e., the idea of systematized structures of learning and mass communication as systems of control). Similarly in “Europe on the Eve of the Reformation,” Carefoote remarks on the centrality of Nicholas of Lyre’s postilla (or notes) to Luther’s revelations (item 3; 14–16); Thomas à Kempis’s Dell’immitatione di Cristo (The Imitation of Christ ca. 1460–80; item 4) as a text of central influence to Methodism (16–17); Sebastian Brant’s Stultifera nauis (Ship of fools 1497; item 5) and the trope of comedy in Church reform (cf. Erasmus, The Praise of Folly; 17–19); and Jocobus de Voraigine’s Legenda aurea, for the role of matryrology and hagiography in popularizing local print cultures (item 7; 20–22). As in other sections, Carefoote wisely observes the many ways in which practices of religion in print developed into widespread print customs: Erasmus’s numbering of recto and verso of his Greek-Latin New Testament (23–24); Hans Buldung Grien’s woodcut portrait of Luther in De Captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae (1520; item 12 [see illustration above]) and modern notions of celebrity authorship (30); and the French printer Nicolas Jenson’s experiments in roman typography (1481; item 3) prior to a return to the gothic on the understanding that “typographical innovation had moved ahead of the market” (16). Throughout the catalogue, famous printers and their biographies are repeatedly shown to be an intrinsic part of the study of religion through books (e.g., Johann Knobloch 26, Johann Schott 30–31, Joseph Klug 34, Hans Lufft 39, Christoph Froeschauer 42, John Day 109, and John Baskerville 127).

Specifically, Flickering of the Flame teaches a lot about the English Reformation and Scottish Reformation, respectively through discussions of item-provenance and of rare pieces on-loan from a private collector, Dr. Eric Robertson. Carefoote’s discussion of the fine literary achievements of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1549; item 30), for instance, is localized beautifully in his earlier discussion of the provenance of Johann Oecolampadius’s In prophetam Ezechielem commentarius (1534; item 20): the Fisher’s copy of the Oecolampadius is from among the “five hundred printed books and about one hundred manuscripts” that once constituted the library of that cruelly martyred bishop (44). As Carefoote’s brief, summary explanation of the causes of the English Reformation illuminates the theological contributions of John Wycliffe, namesake of University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College (50), so too his examination of the Scottish Reformation fleshes out the character of that “Great apostle of the Scottish Reformation,” John Knox (67). Knox, who lends his name to the University’s Knox College, turns out to be a figure whose reputation may justly come under fire if subjected to the scrutiny of 21st century Canadian revisionism: although now best remembered for his tract popularly known as “On Predestination” (1560), he first gained notoriety through an earlier misogynistic rebuttal of the rights of Mary Queen of Scots, First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558). Much to the benefit of an increased scope of Flickering of the Flame, the Fisher has borrowed, as its Scottish Reformation holdings remain admittedly weak, a copy of the “reissue of the 1562 second edition of the Geneva [Bible] that actually holds the honour of first English-language Bible printed in the country” (67; item 35); a striking copy of The Psalms of David (1635; item 37), with “opposite pages … printed upside down, allowing the singers of the various parts to share a single book” (70); and a 1648 copy of A Solemn League and Covenant (item 43), a reminder of how the Scottish peoples remained allied with the Parliamentarian faction very near to the execution of Charles I (January 1649). The Scottish section of this catalogue (66–78) thus might ultimately be re-understood as a much-needed postscript to the chronologically later focus of the Fisher Library’s earlier catalogue The Culture of the Book in the Scottish Enlightenment (2000).

There is, however, an incongruity to Flickering of the Flame that ought to be acknowledged. Rhetorically, it is not localized in a single age. Its title originates in a line of one of Luther’s “Table Talks” recorded by his biographer Philip Melanchthon, “Printing is God’s ultimate and greatest gift … the last flicker of the flame that glows before the end of this world” (9). Variously throughout the materials of the exhibit, allusions are made, by Carefoote and Nicholas Terpstra (Introduction 6–8), to the idea (or reality, as you will) that the 21st century rise in online communication has somehow given similar rise to a second digital Reformation (Terpstra: “We are living in a time when optimism about the democratizing effects of open access and social media is sobered by the spread of alternative facts, fake news, and the friendly fascism of the midnight tweet” [8]; Carefoote: “Pamphlets were the Twitter of their day. They were the way in which people were able to get information out overnight into the largest number of hands in the cheapest way possible. Really this is the beginning of propaganda, modern propaganda” ). Provocatively, while Flickering of the Flame purports to be an anniversary exhibit that “marks the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, launched when Martin Luther penned and posted his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg” (Loryl MacDonald, Foreword 5), it is, even so, presented as a scholarly exercise whereof “the primary focus is on the works published between the years 1517 and 1648, when the Wars of Religion came to an end” (10). Although such a description ostensibly holds true, repeat allusions to the 1648 terminus are plainly disputed by the fact that 14 of 95 items are of a print-date after 1648 (approximately 15%).

In sum, Flickering of the Flame is a meticulous piece of scholarship, well worth a considerable investment of time. This review might go on for another 1,000 words of praise and summary, noting Carefoote’s care-full treatment of many important ideas, such as the questioned status of the Virgin among Protestants (140–41), the spiritual significance of processional chants to Catholic life-pilgrimage (141–42), secular portraiture as a Protestant response to Catholic idolatry (144), religious biography and Teresa of Avila (103–4), the spiritual basis of Saint John of the Cross’s mystical poems (149–50), or Wenceslaus Hollar’s etchings of St Paul’s Cathedral in London as a rubric of understanding the ravages of civil war and iconoclasm (154–55). Fittingly, one expression that Carefoote uses rather a lot throughout the book — “not surprisingly” — captures the essence of Flickering of the Flame (53, 73, 104, 107, 110, 134 [twice], 148, 149). To Carefoote, an ordained and practicing priest, much of this religious learning is old hat. But, to everyone else, a close study of the Reformation, and subsequent reformations, repays in dividends a better understanding of our present age.

Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation. Exhibition and Catalogue by Pearce J. Carefoote. Toronto: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library [Printed by Coach House Press], 2017. 172 p., ill.

This exhibition was originally advertised under the working title “Flickering of the Flame: The Book in the Reformation.” The finalized title, which appears on the catalogue, is “Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation.”

Joshua McEvilla
University of Toronto


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