Carl Berkhout (left) and Special Collections librarian Roger Myers examine the cover of a copy of the 1632 edition of "A continuation of the histories of foreign martyrs."
Carl Berkhout (left) and Special Collections librarian Roger Myers examine the cover of a copy of the 1632 edition of "A continuation of the histories of foreign martyrs."

Reformation-Era Publications Had Their Own Style of 'Fake News'

A new UA Special Collections exhibit shows that even the covers of books were altered, often to reflect the habits or motives of their owners during a time of religious fervor.
Aug. 22, 2017
Extra Info: 

Click here for a calendar of UA events related to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and here for more information on the Special Collections exhibit.

An engraving inserted into a 1665 edition of Martin Luther’s German Bible
An engraving inserted into a 1665 edition of Martin Luther’s German Bible

"There are numerous creative ways to mess up books," says Carl Berkhout, a University of Arizona professor emeritus, who shares a few unique examples in his latest project involving books about the Protestant Reformation.

Berkhout, an expert in book history and descriptive bibliography, published a descriptive catalog to shed light on some of the rare books on display in the University Libraries Special Collections exhibit "After 500 Years: Print and Propaganda in the Reformation."

One of the more unusual items on display provides a real-life example of never judging a book by its cover.

The book is a copy of the 1632 edition of "A continuation of the histories of foreign martyrs,extending John Foxe's famous "Book of martyrs" into the 17th century. Its original cover has been replaced with one from a century earlier, a metal chain has been affixed to imply that it had been chained in an early monastic library, and the beginning of the title has been excised and replaced so that the title now reads "A true description of the histories of foreign martyrs."

"These anomalies appear to be an effort by an early (1650-1700) owner to refurbish this copy as a discrete monograph of especial value or importance," Berkhout speculated in his new catalog, "Early Printed Books in the Heiko A. Oberman Library, With an Appendix: Selected Recent Acquisitions."

The catalog includes information about the provenance, circumstances of acquisition, binding or covering, and other copy-specific features of each volume. Books as old as as these have often been altered, giving glimpses into the habits or motives of previous owners. Human greed may be one motivation for altering books; religious fervor is another.

The latter was likely the case with a 1665 edition of Martin Luther's German Bible, which is also on display at the UA. Wrote Berkhout: "An early owner, probably a Catholic and possibly a Jesuit, pasted or tipped in (printed separately) additional materials, including several historical engravings."

Particularly jarring is an engraving of St. Ignatius, given Luther's decision to rule out invocation of the saints in Lutheran church practice. This type of adulteration of books was conducted on both sides of the religious divide. As Berkhout puts it, "Catholics and Protestants were equal-opportunity defilers of literature."

Berkhout's catalog was published by Special Collections and soon will be available for free online. It includes 65 titles from the Oberman Library and 30 additional Reformation-related titles, all printed before 1800. Twenty-four are on display at Special Collections. Arguably the most valuable is a four-volume 1545 edition of the Latin works of Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Berkhout's examination reveals that the set remained in Switzerland, in the keeping of some notable earlier owners, before being acquired by Oberman.

The UA is hosting a number of exhibits and events this fall in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which will be observed on Oct. 31.