Framing Luther: Woodcut Borders in Reformation Pamphlets

As part of our series of posts to accompany the current Reformation exhibition we are pleased to welcome guest blogger Drew Thomas for more on Martin Luther and the printing of pamphlets:

The arguments surrounding the Protestant Reformation saw Martin Luther become one of Europe’s bestselling authors. Pamphlets first printed in Wittenberg, where Luther was a professor and preacher, were quickly re-printed in cities across the Holy Roman Empire.

The John Rylands Library has a large collection of these pamphlets, many acquired by Enriqueta Rylands and her first librarian Henry Guppy. They are a testament to the importance of print in spreading Luther’s evangelical ideas. Although most of the pamphlets were quite short, several featured ornate woodcut title page borders. These were wooden frames with space in the middle for the insertion of movable type. As Luther’s movement grew, workshops in Wittenberg began decorating his works with artwork on the title pages. Because using woodcuts increased production costs, printers usually only used them for longer books that would command a higher price. However, using them in Luther’s pamphlets helped them stand out in a crowded bookstall and they quickly became synonymous with Reformation print.

Auff des bocks zu Leypczick Antwort , R7418

An early example is a 1521 edition of Luther’s Auff des bocks zu Leypczick Antwort (Concerning the Answer of the Goat in Leipzig). It was printed by Johann Rhau-Grunenberg, the first Reformation printer. It features his initials at the bottom centre and notably, also depicts two men operating a printing press in the bottom corner, one of the few depictions on a border. The border was created by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the famous German Renaissance artist. He was court painter to the Elector of Saxony and provided many woodcut borders to Wittenberg’s printers.

Verantwortung der auffgelegten Auffrur von Hertzog Georgen Sampt einem Trostbrieff an die Christen von jhm aus Leiptzig vnschuldig veriagt D. Mart. Luther, R6787

Although Rhau-Grunenberg was the only printer in Wittenberg when Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, the movement’s popularity brought other printers to town. Nickel Schirlentz became one of Wittenberg’s leading printers, printing the first edition of Luther’s Small Catechism in 1529. Schirlentz also used many woodcut borders from the Cranach workshop. To make up the increased costs of using a border for such a cheap work, printers would often use the same border in different books. The John Rylands has a copy of one of Schirlentz’s most popular borders, which featured Salome holding a platter with the head of John the Baptist. It is a 1533 edition of Luther’s Vindication against Duke George’s Charge of Rebellion, which was acquired in 1900 from the bookseller David Nutt. Schirlentz used this border in over fifty editions, making it one of the most used borders in Wittenberg.

Printers in other cities started imitating Wittenberg by using woodcut borders in their re-prints of Luther’s works. However, in addition to using their own borders, some printers used copies of the original Wittenberg borders. In a testament to the breadth of the John Rylands pamphlet collection, the library has examples of both Wittenberg borders and the copies used elsewhere. In 1523 Lucas Cranach and his business partner Christian Döring published Luther’s Against the corrupters and falsifiers of the imperial mandate. It featured a woodcut title page border with square columns on the sides and angels at the top.

Nearly twenty years later the Augsburg printer Heinrich Steiner used a copy of this border in a re-print of Luther’s sermon against the Turks. The borders are nearly identical, but you can spot the differences in the face at the bottom centre and the depiction of the angels at the top.

Title pages
Widder die Verkerer vnd felscher keyserlichs mandats Martinus Luther, R7434 and Ein Heer-predigt wider den Turcken, R4787

From the beginning of his movement, Luther’s followers collected his works. Many of the pamphlets were collected and bound together in single volumes, which helped books which were ephemeral in nature survive to the present day. Just as the presence of a woodcut border increased the printer’s financial investment, today such artwork commands a higher price on the antiquarian book market. Due to the careful curation of the John Rylands’ early librarians, the library has a valuable collection representative of this unique Reformation medium. Many are on display in the Reformation exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, open to the public until 4 March 2018.

Drew Thomas is a Research Assistant with the Universal Short Title Catalogue at the University of St Andrews. His PhD focused on the rise of printing in Wittenberg during Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation and counterfeiting in the early modern book trade. He is the Project Manager of the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and the Technical Editor for the PhD blog Pubs and Publications hosted by the University of Edinburgh. You can follow him on Twitter (@DrewBThomas) or Academia.edu.

1 comment on “Framing Luther: Woodcut Borders in Reformation Pamphlets

  1. Pingback: John Rylands Research Institute | ECR spotlight: Drew Thomas - John Rylands Research Institute

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