Special Collections has now finished cataloguing a fascinating collection of 35 religious tracts and sermons written by Martin Luther and published during his lifetime.
Luther was one of the founding fathers of the Reformation, the Protestant movement that swept through Europe in the 16th Century leading to the separation of the Christian Church. He took issue with what he saw as corruption within the established Church and increasing deviation from Biblical teaching in favour of what he understood to be false doctrines such as good works – gaining entry to heaven by donating money to the Church or doing charitable deeds.
His ideas quickly gathered popular support throughout much of Germany and central Europe, spread by cheap tracts and pamphlets written in the vernacular. By writing in German, the language of the people, rather than Latin, the traditional language for learned discourse, Luther ensured his writings would reach a mass audience. While Luther’s printed tracts and sermons did not cause the schism exactly, it has been convincingly argued that they played a critical role in the development of Protestantism by diffusing his ideas in a language that everyone understood and at a price they could afford. Rather than simply trying to convert the sceptical, they were perhaps most effective at arming sympathisers with sound arguments for debate and helping shore-up supporters’ belief and self-confidence.
Luther’s published works were incredibly popular – it is estimated that a third of German books sold between 1518 and 1525 were written by him! A contemporary letter comments of two of his pamphlets that they were so popular that they were not so much sold as seized. The earliest of the pamphlets in this group was published in 1518; the latest in the year of Luther’s death, 1546. Some of the editions in the group are reasonably rare: the 1525 edition of Luther’s Sermon on Luke Chapter 1, printed by Gutknecht in Nuremberg is only listed in a few other libraries. Indeed, Luther’s pamphlets printed in Catholic-sympathising towns like Nuremberg, are often rarer since printing Protestant literature was frequently outlawed or punished by town authorities.
The pamphlets, bound into four volumes, were donated to the library in 1898 by a Mr. David T. Maclay, likely the partner of the same name from Glasgow law firm Maclay, Murray & Spens. Maclay’s colleague David Murray, a keen bibliophile and antiquarian, presented the bulk of his library to the University in 1927 – it now forms Special Collections’ Murray Collection.