The Art of Disagreeing Badly

Religious Dispute in Early Modern Europe

The physical exhibition curated by Dr Stefan Bauer and Bethany Hume, from the University of York, will be on display at the Old Palace, York Minster from the 15th November - 15th December 2016. The exhibition showcases the collections of the York Minster library, examining the role of religious polemic in the early modern period. 

All images taken within this exhibition are taken by Paul Shields, and made available by the University of York under the creative commons licence, via their digital library website.  

This digital exhibition is interactive, if you click on any of the links it will lead you to a zoomable image of the books. 

Historical writing as theological polemic 

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were an age of confessional polemic. After the beginning of the Reformation in 1517, church history presented a challenge to each confession in its own right. Protestants aimed to explain, through examples from history, why error had come into the Church after apostolic times and after centuries of decadence the Reformation had become necessary. Catholics argued, on the other hand, that the Church had always remained the same. Protestants also doubted specific key events in church history. They asserted, for example, that St Peter had never been in Rome, so that the Petrine tradition, on which the papacy based its own primacy, was invalid. Catholics, of course, never doubted Peter's stay in Rome. Many other such polemical arguments were thrown back and forth, making church history a hot battleground of the confessional struggle. 

A large number of the books exhibited here are from the collection of Tobie Matthew, Archbishop of York (1546-1628). Matthew was well known for his strong aversion to Catholicism and made his extensive library available to polemicists who defended the Reformation.    


In his Leipzig disputation with Johann Eck of 1519, Luther argued about papal primacy. Eck had maintained that Peter was the successor of Christ – a fact which made the Roman Church superior to the other churches. Luther argued that this was false in his Resolutiones Lutherianae (1519), and that the pretence of superiority of the Roman Church derived from the "ice-cold" decrees of the popes of the last 400 years. Papal primacy was not established by divine right, but created by mere human actions. This insight was instrumental in paving the way for his later rejection of the papacy as an institution.


A question which was central to papal claims to authority was whether, and if so for how long, St. Peter had been in Rome. The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339/340) had stated that both Peter and Paul had been executed in Rome under Nero. The dates of their stays and deaths, however, were far from clear – and indeed, despite Eusebius's affirmation, it could not be proved with certainty that Peter had ever been in Rome. The Bohemian scholar Ulrichus Velenus radically denied the Petrine tradition in 1520. This lingering uncertainty was enough to unsettle the Roman side; for if Peter’s stay in Rome was in doubt, so, too, was the claim to primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

John Fisher (St John Fisher) (c. 1469–1535), bishop of Rochester, cardinal, and martyr, was born at Beverley, Yorkshire. Fisher aimed to refute fundamental assets of Martin Luther's theology such as justification through faith, the appeal to Scripture alone and the rejection of papal authority. His Confutatio enjoyed publishing success and was frequently reprinted. Fisher at first enjoyed the support of King Henry VIII; however, the relationship with the king later soured and Fisher was executed in 1535. He was canonised, together with Thomas More, in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

The German Lutheran Reformer Philip Melanchthon (d. 1560) developed the idea that there had been a long historical continuity in the proclamation of the truth of the Gospels. This continuity was expressed by small groups of believers who throughout history had stuck to the true faith despite the widespread and worsening corruption in the Church. Matthias Flacius Illyricus's Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth, 1556 is the most striking example of this line of argumentation. Just as the Catholics maintained that there had been an uninterrupted succession of bishops of Rome, Flacius argued that there had never been a time in which there was no protest against the domination of the Church by the popes.

The Elizabethan regime ruled that Catholic priests in England committed treason and were therefore justly executed. The English Cardinal William Allen (d. 1594) maintained their innocence. In his Apologie and true declaration of the institution and endevours of the two English Colleges, the one in Rome, the other now resident in Rhemes (1581), Allen argued that these priests had no political objectives. The copy on display here was heavily annotated by an English Protestant hostile to Allen's arguments. Note that the word "Sinister" is crossed out on the title page.


"Let them object any thing against us, we say to it roundly, this must needs be the sense, by comparing other Scriptures to the same: thus such and such a Doctor expound it, thus the fathers interpret it, thus such and such a general Council understand it. If they object against praying for the dead, we give them S. Augustine's answer to Aerius, and his whole book De cura pro mortuis: if they argue against the honouring of holy Relics, and Pilgrimage, we answer with S. Hierom's words against Vigilantius" - William Allen

In the section above, Allen indicated how Protestants should be answered when they criticized the adoration of saints, the belief in the holiness of relics and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as well as other Catholic doctrines and practices. He gave a catalogue of writings by the Church fathers which could be cited to counter the Protestant arguments. This section of the book was wholly unacceptable to Allen's Protestant reader, who simply crossed it out with multiple vigorous strokes.

The Annales ecclesiastici (Ecclesiastical Annals, 1588-1607) of Cesare Baronio provided the first official Catholic church history. In these 12 volumes, which went down to the year 1198, Baronio aimed to show that church institutions and doctrine from apostolic times had always been the same. Baronio recognized the authority of the Roman Church and presented its doctrinal traditions, which, he argued, were already fixed in the first centuries. He strove to demonstrate, in particular, the origins of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. The frontispiece, shown above, depicts the defeat of heresy.

In De primatu Petri, the Italian Church historian Onofrio Panvinio (d. 1568) aimed to counter the arguments of the Protestants against papal primacy. By collecting and ordering testimonies, starting from the Bible, he showed that the primacy was given to St Peter by Christ, that Peter exerted it during his lifetime and that all the succeeding popes used it as well. Panvinio took pride in answering the Protestants' polemical and insulting language, and their mixture of truth and lies, with a factual and orderly presentation of testimonies from authors who wrote mainly before the time of Charlemagne. He also picked apart the entire treatise of Ulrich Velenus from 1520 (who claimed that Peter had never come to Rome), citing all of it and trying to refute it passage by passage. The copy in York Minster Library contains carries Archbishop Tobie Matthew’s signature on the title page (see above) and contains numerous handwritten annotations.

              "No middle way between true and false"       

On page 210, Panvinio reacts to the work by Ulrichus Velenus (also shown in this exhibition). Velenus had claimed that because the ancient sources which referred to St Peter’s stay in Rome gave so much differing information about his dates, the stay itself cannot have been a true event (Velenus, In hoc libello, 1520, sigs a4r-b1r). Panvinio answered that if this were the case, then also the creation of the world, the existence of Moses and that Christ had been invented as there was much disagreement about their respective dates. Panvinio goes on to argue that while it cannot be possible that more than one of these dates are correct, one cannot necessarily infer that they are all false (Panvinio modified a phrase from Cicero, De natura Deorum, I, 5). The event could not be doubted, only its dates. The hostile annotator of Panvinio’s book did not agree and commented in the margin: “On the contrary, there is no middle way between true and false.” (“Immo inter verum et falsum non est medium.”)

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim was an influential church historian of the Enlightenment (d. 1755). This German Lutheran theologian, in his treatment of church history, aimed to move away from confessional polemics and to draw on historical sources in a way that satisfied scientific standards. Nevertheless, his portrait of the Latin Church was bleak and vicious. He criticised the intrusion of worldly authority and pagan philosophy in the Church from late Antiquity onwards, which led to a contamination of Christian values.

The English Reformation: 
a history of two sides

Confessional interpretations of history are evident in differing accounts of the Reformation from supporters of the Church of England and their opponents who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. This continued into the seventeenth century, and arguably even exists today as historians still disagree over the extent of change in practice and belief in Tudor England. A new narrative arose of Protestant victory and English independence in the face of Church corruption. These writings emphasised the emotive martyrdom of Protestant reformers, the historical precedent for royal authority over the church, and used humorous references to abuses of the clergy and papacy. Catholic responses argued that reform should have been undertaken as part of the wider Catholic church, pointing out Henry VIII's inconsistency in being the 'Defender of the Faith' against Luther in 1521, and instigating a split from Rome in  1534. Catholic polemicists also pointed out the newness of the Protestant movement, and compared Protestants to earlier, medieval heretics. 


The persecutions of the sixteenth century gave rise to the new genre of Protestant hagiography. The accounts of the fate of the victims aimed to strengthen the faith and shape confessional identities. John Foxe's book of martyrs was strongly influenced by the persecutions during the reign of the Catholic Queen, Mary Tudor (1553-58). Foxe first published a forerunner in Latin (Commentarii rerum in ecclesia gestarum, 1554), but the most comprehensive versions of his book of martyrs were the four different English editions published during his lifetime (Acts and Monuments, 1563, 1570, 1576 and 1583). Foxe aimed to sustain the cause of the English national Church by demonstrating, through examples from history, why the Roman Church should justly be hated. Not only did he make use of extensive evidence from oral testimonies and eyewitness accounts, but Foxe also drew heavily on archival sources such as the archiepiscopal registers at Lambeth Palace and the London diocesan records.

His inclusion of vividly realistic illustrations depicting martyrdom enhanced the book's effectiveness as a weapon of propaganda. For example, the image above of three women burned at Smithfield depicts the women in prayer, despite their chains and the rolling flames of fire surrounding them. This image of piety in the face of martyrdom was the opposite of how Mary Tudor was portrayed, with this polemical dramatisation of the persecutions during her reign leading to her being named "Bloody Mary". 

"These three innocent and godly women, thus falsely and wrongfully by men accused" - John Foxe 
"conformitie with the now Church of England"

Thomas James (1573-1629), the first librarian at the Bodlian in Oxford, wrote this Apologie for John Wykliffe refuting the Jesuit Robert Parsons, and defending Wycliffe as a "resolved, true, Catholike, English Protestant" that was in “conformitie with the Church of England”. This reclamation of Wycliffe as a pre-cursor to the reformers of the sixteenth-century was a common theme in Protestant histories.

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), was well renowned for his wit, particularly his satirical works written during the Civil War. His Church History of Britain is a much longer work, covering the history of Christianity in Britain 'from the birth of Christ' onwards, but includes snippets of polemical humour. For example, on page 315 in his history of the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, Fuller includes a letter addressed to Thomas Cromwell that outlines the "incontynensye of the Nuns of Syon, with the Friores, afore the acte done, the Friores reconsile them to God". This letter describes in detail how the monks broke their oath of celibacy, and many other abuses of their office. 

"made a key for the doare, to have in the night time received in Wenches for him and his fellowes"

The use of historical evidence like this letter, which destroyed the reputation of monastic houses, supported Henry VIII's prerogative to dissolve them. Thomas Fuller was a royalist during the Civil War, and supported the king's power to make rulings over the church. For instance, on 26 July 1643 he preached on church reform stating that it was the Supreme power of the king to make such decisions, not the role of radical reformers.

Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) was an Anglican who used history to prove the legitimacy of the Church of England. His History of the Reformation of the Church of England (1681) was first printed in 1679 and its immediate popularity is clear in its reprint, and the production of an abridgement in 1683. This edition has very detailed images besides the frontispieces of the two volumes, the first of which depicts the Reformation under Henry VIII and the second shows the Catholic restoration under Mary and her persecution of Protestants, whilst Elizabeth I sits enthroned above holding a bible.  

This opening image, drawn by Robert White,  shows Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer in front of the disassembling of superstition and the rebuilding of religion. Henry VIII is standing upon the papal crown, fallen at an angle with the words "The Pope's supremacy" beside it, whereas Cranmer's feet dismissively step on the Pope's decrees and a discarded rosary.  If the image wasn’t clear enough, Burnet describes Protestantism as 'progress’ on the book’s title page.

The publication of the book in 1679 was very timely, since a year earlier a Catholic plot was unveiled that aimed to assassinate the King. The information about this plot led to widespread fear of the Jesuits, and Protestants grew concerned about the succession as James, the Duke of York and the king's heir, had converted to Catholicism.

Bossuet (1627-1704), the Bishop of Meaux, was an opponent of Gilbert Burnet. Both used confessionalised history to support their polemical works. In his History of the variations of the Protestant churches Bossuet opposes Burnet's views with the argument that the Church of England was not legitimate, but merely a political act by a corrupt king. Bossuet also dismisses Calvinists, Lutherans and the Church of England as part of the trajectory of heresy inherited from the Albigensians, Waldensians and Wycliffe. His erudition as a historian was unparalleled in the French court, and this work shows his use of historical sources to back up his arguments against the Protestants was very thorough. The book was reprinted multiple times and had received over thirty responses by well-known Protestants, including French exiles in Holland and England, as well as Gilbert Burnet. 

(Mis)reading Muhammad: conceptions of Islam in early modern culture

European familiarity with Islam in the early modern period coincided with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and its swift expansion to the walls of Vienna in 1529. The result was Christendom's association between the religion of Islam and the "terror" of the Turk, embodied in the figure of “Machumet” (1543). The Qur’an, “Alcoran,” published first in Latin, was viewed as a book of war written by “Mahomet”: thus the English title about a century later (1649). The “Turkish Alcoran” epitomized, according to the Dean of Norwich, the “true nature of imposture” (Prideaux, 1697).

Not surprisingly, these views were expressed by authors who had never read the Qur’an in Arabic. But there were other views by learned Arabists, in England, Holland, and Germany who not only printed the first Arabic version of the Quran (Hinckelmann, 1694), but also translated it into English from the Arabic original (Sale, 1734). There were also scholars who promoted the study and printing of Arabic material (Erpenius, 1656), as well as travelers who described Muslim societies (Herbert, 1634). And there were Lebanese monks, trained in the Maronite College of Rome, who translated Muslim and Christian Arabic (and Syriac) texts on geography and ecclesiastical history (Echellensus/al-Ḥāqilānī, 1651), contributing thereby to Christendom’s engagement with Islam.

- Professor Nabil Matar
Presidential Professor in the President's Interdisciplinary Initiative on Arts and Humanities, Department of English, University of Minnesota



This is the first printed edition of the Qur'an in Latin in 1543, based on the medieval translation of Robert of Ketton. Robert of Ketton (c.1110-1160) was an English medieval theologian, astronomer, translator and Arabist who met with Peter the Venerable and worked on a translation of the Qur'an into Latin, completing it by 1142. It was the first translation into a European language and remained the standard well into the sixteenth century. However, the translation is not viewed by modern scholars as having been faithful, but includes passages with distortions and exaggerations of the original Arabic. This printed edition, Machumetis Saracenorum, was published by the Swiss Orientalist, publisher and linguist Theodor Bibliander, and printed in Basel on the press of Johannes Oporinus in 1543. The project was nearly stopped by the censors in the city, who seized all copies of the text and briefly put Oporinus in prison. After negotiations with prominent reformers Luther and Melanchthon, the authorities agreed to release the manuscript and printer as long as neither Basel nor Oporinus were mentioned on the title page. 

L'Alcoran de Mahomet was the third western translation of the Qur'an, the translation was made in 1647 from Arabic into French by André  du Ryer (c.1580-1660). Two years later, the Scottish writer Alexander Ross (1591-1654) translated it into English from the French.

Hinckelmann (1652-1695) was a theologian in Hamburg and collector of eastern manuscripts. This was the first complete Arabic edition of the Qur'an to be printed in Europe. The mayor of Hamburg acquired a copy of the Qur’an during a stay in Vienna, providing Hinckelmann the opportunity to publish an edition.

George Sale's (1697-1736) English translation of the Qur’an in 1734 was at the time considered the authoritative translation. The work has been reprinted multiple times, and this later edition from 1795, includes a map of Arabia, and a print of Mecca.


This study of the Arabic language examines it through the structure of Latin grammar. Erpenius (1584-1624) struggled, after the Raphelengius brothes ceased printing in 1614, to find a printer with an Arabic typeface, so he set up his own print shop in his home, to allow for the publication of Arabic texts. The Grammatica Arabica, closely followed Arabic texts but analysed them using the grammatical rules of Latin.

Travel books were important to the growth of interest in orientalism in Europe, and as a result, increased understanding of Islam. This travel report includes descriptions of the 'religion, language, habit' of people Sir Thomas Herbert (1606-1682) encountered during his travels in Africa and Asia. Accompanying the ambassadors of Persia, Herbert writes many short descriptions of seventeenth-century Islamic and Hindu cultures. These included an account of hearing the morning calls to prayer, and a description of the architecture of a mosque. 

The clergyman and orientalist Humphrey Prideaux (1648-1724) wrote a story of Muhammad's life in which he accused Muhammad of mixing Judaism and Christianity to create a new religion. The work is also a veiled critique of Catholicism, as Prideaux notes the rise of Muhammad corresponded with claims for papal supremacy. The work was greatly criticised by other orientalists, such as George Sale in his notes on the translation of the Qur’an.

Ibrahim al-Haqilani (also known as Abraham Ecchellensis, 1605-1664) was a linguist who translated several Arabic works into Latin, including this Chronicon Orientale (1729). Ecchellensis was also involved in the work of creating an Arabic Bible, and translated Arabic documentary sources for the Council of Nicea (1645). He collected many Arabic manuscripts in his role as scriptor for Syriac and Arabic at the Vatican library. 

Feedback

"An excellent introduction to relevant holdings in the Minster Library, and to the theme of early modern religious dispute"

"extraordinarily interesting"
We hope you have enjoyed
The Art of Disagreeing Badly, if you have any feedback about the exhibition please contact the curators:

Dr Stefan Bauer -   stefan.bauer@york.ac.uk
Bethany Hume  -   br579@york.ac.uk


With special thanks to Prof. Nabil Matar, Prof. Simon Ditchfield, Sarah Griffin and Steven Newman.