Documents : Letter from Martin Luther to Gerhard Vilskamp

Luther, Martin, 1483-1546


<p style='text-align: justify;'>The letter is addressed to Gerhard Vilskamp, Rector of the community of Brethren of the Common Life at Herford in Westphalia. It is one of a number to survive from correspondence between the two men dating from 1527 to 1534.(1) Luther's contact with the community began with Jacob Montanus, a friend of the German Lutheran reformer Philipp Melanchthon, who had moved there in 1522 to assist in their teaching activities. Vilskamp, along with his prorector, had been arrested in 1525 'as Lutherans and heretics' by Bishop Eric of Paderborn and Osnabrück. After the city adopted the new faith in 1530, Luther supported the community in their appeals to the city authorities to maintain their communal life.(2) The subject matter of the letter is particularly personal as Luther reflects on his recent struggles with depression and illness.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The circumstances of the letter's acquisition are mysterious. It is now part of the Thomas Raffles Autograph Collection, accompanied by a <a dir='auto' href='' onclick='store.loadPage(3);return false;'>letter of authentication</a> sent by William Kunzel to the London bookseller John Waller in 1880. The folder also contains an engraved portrait of Luther, a facsimile of part of a 1536 letter from Luther to Thomas Cromwell, and Albrecht Dürer’s signature inscribed on the title-page of a book by Luther.(3) The Raffles collection was one of Rylands's earliest major acquisitions; via the bookseller Sotheran's, she purchased 204 lots at the Raffles sale in June 1891.(4) Rylands was reluctant to acquire the whole collection en masse, but Green suggested that some of the letters from famous individuals 'might be shown under glass in the Library'.(5) This is perhaps the earliest indication of an intent to provide public access to the Library's treasures through exhibition. However, while a portrait of Luther and the Dürer autograph are recorded in the sale catalogue, the Raffles collection did not contain any Luther autographs.(6) Rather, the letter is one of about two hundred autographs added to the collection after its acquisition by Rylands. Of these, the invoices only account for two – those of the reformers Théodore de Bèze and Isaac Watts.(7) It seems likely that Rylands kept separate records of her autograph purchases, perhaps associating them more closely with her private collections. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'><div>(1) The letter was published in D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel, Bd. 4 (Weimar, 1933), pp. 319 320, Nr. 1197.<br />(2) See William Landeen, ‘Martin Luther and the Devotio Moderna in Herford’ in Kenneth A. Strand (ed.), The Dawn of Modern Civilization: Studies in Renaissance, Reformation and Other Topics Presented to Honor Albert Hyma. (Ann Arbor, 1964). Vol. 2, pp. 145-64.<br />(3) Raffles Collection, Eng MS 343/198. The facsimile is of a letter from Luther to Thomas Cromwell, now British Library, MS Harley 6989, f.56.<br />(4) Sotheby’s, Catalogue of the Important and Valuable Collection of European and American Autograph Letters and Historical Documents Formed by the Late Rev. Thomas Raffles ... of Liverpool, to Be Sold in Compliance with the Instructions Left by His Son the Late T. Stamford Raffles Esq. ... Of the two hundred lots purchased, about thirty selected by Samuel Gosnell Green (see letter 19 June 1891), eighty-six by Enriqueta Rylands (see annotations in catalogue), the remainder not marked, but presumably bought by Sotheran’s for Rylands without commission.<br />(5) JRL/6/1/2/2 Letter Samuel Gosnell Green to Enriqueta Rylands, 16 June 1891.<br />(6) The lot, no. 332, appears under the heading ‘John Locke.’ It was bought for £3 3s.<br />(7) Eng MS 343/163 and Eng MS 343/304; these were purchased on 30 June 1891 from Ellis and Elvey, alongside Shakespeare’s third folio and a 1575 Book of Common Prayer (JRL Invoices 53/1).<br /></div><br /></p>

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