Medieval rare book expert Pearce Carefoot with one of the 95 books and manuscripts from the Reformation on display at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Exhibit puts Reformation history in focus

  • September 22, 2017

It begins with the Beguines — the Reformation, that is.

Five hundred years on, Lutherans and Catholics across Canada are praying together, studying and debating their history, learning from each other. The Beguines would be shocked to learn how it has all turned out.

From Sept. 25 to Dec. 20 the beginnings of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation are on display at the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Book Library in an exhibition called “Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation.”

The Reformation did not suddenly fall down from Heaven and nail itself to a church door in October 1517. Something was afoot long before the Augustinian monk Martin Luther.

The Beguines were a movement of Christian lay women who believed their salvation would have something to do with how they lived. At the beginning of the 15th century (1400s) the Beguines set themselves up either alone or in households of half a dozen or fewer. They were a leaderless movement of people who dedicated themselves to simple service of the poor, the disabled and the elderly. They cooked meals for them, tended their gardens and sewed patches on their clothes. They befriended the forgotten people.

Beguines came along about the same time as Devotio Moderna, another movement of Christian lay people who were reimagining how Christians are supposed to live. These social networks of faithful Christians took off in the Dutch lowlands of the Holy Roman Empire about 100 years before Luther and his 95 theses.

It was only when a new communications technology stepped in to turbocharge the social networks of the late Mediaeval period that the Reformation (and the modern world) took off.

“The Reformation was the first revolution that took place after the invention of the printing press,” said Mediaeval manuscript and rare book expert Pearce Carefoot.

Carefoot and the staff at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library have assembled 95 books, manuscripts, woodcuts and pamphlets spanning the 15th to the 18th centuries to tell a story of the Reformation that goes deeper than just the 95 theses.

From the point of view of the second great information revolution — the one with the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and Google — the story of the first revolution in sharing information reveals itself anew, said Carefoot.

“Looking back 500 years, we see that this revolution resulted in the birth of what we now call the modern world,” he said. “Look back 500 years and see what happened when that first information revolution took place. It may give us some insight into where we’re going today.”

The parallels between then and now struck Carefoot hard about five years ago as he witnessed Twitter and Facebook fuelling the Arab Spring.

“Those were, in many ways, religious movements that were happening in Iran, in Tunisia, in Syria,” he said. “These were religious people, in the same way as happened 500 years ago — in a different religion, obviously.”

The Twitter of Martin Luther’s time was the pamphlet and the broadside — cheap, disposable products of the printing press that could be churned out quickly and profitably sold. The 95 theses began life as an academic manuscript in Latin calling scholars in Wittenberg to a debate. But they were quickly translated into German and printed in pamphlets and broadsides.

Catholics and Lutherans will gather Sept. 30th at 2 p.m. in Toronto’s St. Ansgar Lutheran Church, a month before the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, to pray together with Cardinal Thomas Collins and Lutheran Bishop Michael Pryse.

Scholars from around the world will descend on the University of Toronto Sept. 27-30 for a conference entitled “Global Reformations: Transforming Early Modern Religions, Societies and Cultures.”

Lutheran and Catholic parishes from coast to coast are already convening ecumenical study groups to read and discuss Together in Christ, a five-week program jointly designed by Canada’s Catholic and Lutheran bishops to help their faithful better understand each other and themselves.

Any parish or school group in Toronto can learn more about the revolution in printing and religion that shaped our modern world by booking a tour of “Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation.” Call (416) 978-5285 to arrange a tour, weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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