The 500 Year Anniversary of the Reformation

Half a Millennium of Reformation


Exactly five hundred years ago, on October 31st, 1517, German scholar and priest Martin Luther sent his Ninty-Five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, and according to legend, nailed it to the door of All Saints’ Church. This document spelled out Luther’s grievances with the Catholic Church and papal authority and set the stage for the Protestant Reformation.

Washington University is proud to own several artifacts related to the Protestant Reformation and the history of the Bible. To the right is a picture of Martin Luther from our holdings. This mirror image of Luther was published in 1546, the year he died, and was likely circulated to commemorate his death. The caption below the image translates to “Thy plague I was alive, my death shall be thy death, O Pope.”

Translating the Bible

One of Luther’s main goals was loosen the priesthood’s exclusive hold on the interpretation of the Bible. In order to do this, he believed that the Bible needed to be translated into the language of the people.Traditionally, the Bible had been available almost exclusively in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, which could only be read by scholars and priests. The page on the left is a leaf of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, a translation of the Bible in all three of these languages that was completed in the same year that Luther posted his Theses, although it was not published until 1520.

Luther himself translated the Bible into German. Although the Bible had been translated into German before, Luther’s version used a variant of German that was closer to the vernacular of the common people. His translation also included a number of woodcuts to aid readers in the interpretation of the text, some of which contained anti-papal imagery. To the right is an image taken from a 1585 reprint of Luther’s translation of the Bible. This particular illustration is from the Book of Revelation.


Additional Translations

A 1549 reprint of the Matthew Bible, available for viewing in Special Collections

Luther’s translation of the Bible influenced scholars throughout Europe to begin work on translations into other common languages. Special Collections has a copy of the 1549 edition of the Matthew Bible, one of the earliest translations of the Bible into English. Originally published in 1537, it includes the work of three different translators. The most significant contributor to the translation, William Tyndale, began his translation of the Bible into English in 1523, in spite of the fact that this act was strictly forbidden. He was able to translate the New Testament in its entirety, but was burned at the stake for heresy before he could finish is work on the Old Testament.



More to Explore

An illustration from a 15th century Book of Hours

If  the anniversary of the Reformation has piqued your interest in religious history, Special Collections has a number of other holdings that you may find engaging. For example, one particularly intriguing holding contains original leaves from famous Bibles spanning over nine centuries (from 1121 to 1935).

Washington University also owns eleven illuminated manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries (see image on left) in its George N. Meissner Collection. Please contact one of our librarians for more information!



About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.