British Museum blog

Luther, language and faith

Alexander Weber, Department of Cultures and Languages, Birkbeck, University of London

Martin Luther (1483-1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), 1529. Oil on wood. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Martin Luther (1483-1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), 1529. Oil on wood. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

What attracted me – to be honest, a reluctant blogger – to contribute to the British Museum’s blog, is the historical connection between Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, the British Museum and my own profession as an academic teacher of German in England. Long before the universities discovered my discipline, German grammars and textbooks had been produced by generations of curators and librarians at the British Museum. From the eighteenth century onwards, German protestant pastors preached to emerging German communities in London on Sundays and during the week catalogued the great treasures of ancient Biblical manuscripts (such as the Codex Alexandrinus) still in the British Library today. They were leading experts on the textual history of the Old and New Testament mainly because they followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther. Luther believed in the authority of scripture and not the dogma of the Roman church and to prove his point he immersed himself in careful critical study of the best original sources available to him in Greek and Hebrew. His formula of restoring the freshness of the original and then expressing it in the spoken language of ordinary Germans of his time brought the great stories of the Bible to life.

The opening of the Book of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455. © The British Library Board C.9.d.3, 4v-5

The opening of the Book of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455. © The British Library Board C.9.d.3, 4v-5

It was Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, however, which disseminated Luther’s writings to a mass audience. One of the best places in the world to study the link between the media revolution of the printing press and the Reformation is the British Library. The German pastors in London were also involved in building up the great collection of Luther editions. They had inherited the enthusiasm for studying and cultivating their own language from Luther and fostered it in Britain through private lessons. They taught German in the royal household.

The front end paper of Luther's 1541 Bible with portraits of Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen and Luther's transcription from the 21st psalm and signature. Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrift: Deudsch auffs new zugericht. D. Mart. Luth., etc. (Wittemberg, 1541). © British Library 679.i.15.

The front end paper of Luther’s 1541 Bible with portraits of Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen and Luther’s transcription from the 21st psalm and signature. Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrift: Deudsch auffs new zugericht. D. Mart. Luth., etc. (Wittemberg, 1541). © British Library 679.i.15.

Before Luther the German language was regarded as too crude and fragmented into provincial rough dialects to be used in any cultivated discourse. In learned circles, Latin was used – both in writing and speech. The Lutheran Bible changed all this, becoming the benchmark of modern German. An unprecedented number of authorized copies and countless pirated editions were circulated in Germany. It is estimated that a very large proportion of literate households possessed a copy, and in many cases it remained the only or at least the most treasured book in the house for several generations. Even the tide of polemics against Luther had to use his language in order to reach the huge readership which the new medium had created.

How did Luther overcome the strong regional differences which had emerged through waves of sound shifts during the long history of the German language? Since his childhood he had moved across these linguistic borders and managed to balance the extremes of dialect in his own speech. He also built on a common language of officialdom, the chancelleries which issued decrees which had to be understood across the whole of Germany. He looked towards areas where the population had mixed through migration and where a more common version of the German language was beginning to emerge. I am not persuaded, though, by the argument that these developments would have happened anyway. What intrigues me most about this story is that an individual can change something as universal as a whole language. In fact, we all leave linguistic traces behind through mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of our speech, our individual linguistic fingerprint, if you like. The historical circumstances may have been favourable, but Luther was a character of greatness and literary genius, possessing a truly exceptional power to coin phrases and expressions which have become the nuts and bolts of the modern German idiom. In my view, Luther was a giant, a figure of supreme confidence in the power of the thinking self to turn the tables against lazy dogma and sophistry.

The two cornerstones of Luther’s theology are two existential faculties of the self: the use of logos, i.e. language, and faith; logos and faith alone can redeem us. His emphasis on the individual was so strong that Protestantism became increasingly subjective, which resulted in modern relativism. History gained a lot through Luther, especially because he encouraged ordinary people to get involved in serious matters of public life. This defining shift also fostered the German idea of nationhood. The republicans who gave this movement its direction often referred to Luther as their ideological starting point. Historically there was a loss, too. The universality of the Latin world of education and the church was undermined. The supranational identity of European Christianity was diminished and replaced by German, English and other national concepts of God. Very little was left to mediate between these fronts. Luther was a German, not a cosmopolitan figure compared to the broad-minded humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example. He was also a master of polemics in a period which one could call the golden age of mud-slinging. He inspired noble democrats but also nasty nationalists.

Luther’s cult of the word benefited the growth of standard German, but it also encouraged the attacks on treasures of visual art and sacred objects during the Reformation. It should not be overlooked that ordinary, illiterate people before Luther had access to the Bible through the so-called biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), which was essentially a picture book. I find it fascinating to observe that the image is once again favoured in today’s digital media, just as the era of the printing press gave power to the word. Today the text no longer rules over the image. This exhibition, Germany: memories of a nation, focusing as it does on objects and making them speak, is a good example of the re-balancing of image and word. It would make Luther shudder, though, just as the relics and images of saints of his time did. In his youth he was a very stern Augustinian friar on the radical fringes of the Roman church, and he never lost his suspicion of the senses, especially the eyes as an inroad of sin into our souls. The word was abstract, an expression of the spirit, the same stuff that God was made of. Images and objects would pull us away from this, Luther thought. As a linguist I admire the greatness of Luther, the sheer might of his words, both pious and polemical, but many things which he dismissed have regained an unexpected importance again and probably for a good reason.

Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September.  The episode Luther and a Language for all Germans is available to listen to on the BBC website.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , ,

A personal history in 190 objects: from Germany to the British Museum and back again

Paul Kobrak, series producer, Germany: memories of a nation, BBC Radio 4

To say that it was a life-changing moment would be to seriously over-egg it. But being made the second producer on a then unheard-of project in September 2009 gave my BBC career a much-needed shot in the arm. By then I’d already celebrated my 21st ‘radio’ birthday (I started working at the BBC in 1988) and I’d been making documentaries for more than 10 years. I was beginning to wonder where I could possibly go next.

Four months later A History of the World in 100 Objects began its life on Radio 4. I doubt I’ll ever work on another project that has the same impact. Not because others would not be equally good, or just as fascinating and challenging; rather that none would break new ground in the same way nor match the scope. And its popularity has been astounding, as sales of the accompanying book and the download figures for the series (37,693,121 and still counting) attest.

Since then I have worked on both follow-up partnership projects: 2012’s Shakespeare’s Restless World and this year’s Germany: memories of a nation. You could say that working on a series that brings together the British Museum and the BBC is like dancing with an elephant – but in truth it’s more like dancing with two. And with each project their complexity has increased.

Even a hundred programmes about objects all of which are in the British Museum were less of a challenge than twenty based on artefacts from around the UK, with our series on Shakespeare. Finding time to get to the objects and interact with them (in the unique way that Neil does) is no easy task. But aiming to do the same with thirty programmes and some 70 objects – all German in origin and the majority of them still in different parts of Germany – well, that’s just asking for trouble.

Paul Kobrak, being photobombed by Kathe Kollwitz in Kollwitz Platz, Prenzlauer Berg district, Berlin.

Paul Kobrak, being photobombed by Kathe Kollwitz in Kollwitz Platz, Prenzlauer Berg district, Berlin.

My job in all this is a bit of everything… and anything. It’s my responsibility to ensure that the programmes are made: so, ensuring the scripts are written (and to the right length), the interviews are done (and cut to the required succinctness), the locations and objects sufficiently represented (recording the ‘noise’ a delicate object makes is a challenge in itself, often helped by the tissue paper it may well be wrapped up in) and that the finished product hangs together, makes sense and – in the dictum of Lord Reith – informs, educates and entertains. But above all, it’s to ensure that the presenter is able to play the roles required of him, which is basically all of the above.

And, given the pressures on Neil MacGregor – running one of the largest and most comprehensive museums in the world (with some 8 million works in its permanent collection) – his time is incredibly precious. Nevertheless, we’ve made seven trips to Germany and one each to France, Czech Republic and Russia, visiting 15 different cities, interrogating objects and people along the way, and it’s been an education.

Neil MacGregor, working on the script, next to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, Suermondt Ludwig Museum, Aachen

Neil MacGregor, working on the script, next to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, Suermondt Ludwig Museum, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

We’ve been to places and seen things that mere mortals – as I am when on holiday or away from work – would not get to see. Neil and I were left on our own with the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor (that features in programme 11); handled the unused wetsuit involved in a failed escape from East Germany to West (programme 2); picked up the vase that Goebbels personally declared as degenerate (programme 24); turned the page to Luther’s handwritten inscription in his 1541 translation of the Bible into German (programme 6); compared Dürer’s original monogram with the knock-offs that he pursued in the courts of Venice (programme 17); stood on a manhole cover in Kaliningrad, one of the few things you will find in that Russian city still marked with the original German name of Konigsberg (programme 3), and visited one of the first Synagogues to be built in Germany after World War II (programme 28).

Manhole cover, Kaliningrad, Russia, dated 1935.

Manhole cover, Kaliningrad, Russia, dated 1935.

In fact, on a personal note, it’s been more than an education; it has changed my own personal views of the country. Despite the fact that I have a German passport (a legacy of my German father, who left the country as a child over 75 years ago), I have never had a close affinity to the country that I have always viewed through the prism of 12 years of Nazi rule. In that regard, having never lived in Germany and rarely visited it, I am probably not very different from many British people. However, having spent much of the past nine months working on this series, I realised how limited my knowledge (and views) of Germany are – hat I need to broaden my own outlook and try to better understand the rich history behind it.

Radio programmes don’t change the world. They can’t. But if we can change the view of one person, then it’s a job well done. In that regard, I suppose the series is already a success. I can only hope that it doesn’t stop there.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September 2014.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , , ,

Was the ark round? A Babylonian description discovered

Irving Finkel, curator, British Museum
Detail of a cuneiform tablet

I’ve just come from the press conference launching my new book, The Ark Before Noah. As I told the journalists, it all started with a fairly normal event for a museum curator: a member of the public bringing in an object that had long been in their family to have it identified. As often happens in my case, it was a cuneiform tablet. The visitor, Douglas Simmonds, had been given it by his father for passing his exams. It was part of a modest collection: a few tablets, some cylinder seals, a lamp or two and some pieces from China and Egypt. His father, an inveterate curio hunter, had picked them up after the War in the late 1940s.

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

This tablet, however, turned out to be one in a million. The cuneiform was a sixty-line passage from the ancient Babylonian Story of the Flood. This story had been well known since the 1870s, when George Smith, a brilliant decipherer who worked at the British Museum, first identified the story known from the Book of Genesis in a seventh-century cuneiform tablet from Nineveh. The two accounts – Babylonian and biblical – were closely related. The new tablet, however, written in about 1750 BC, has startling new contents.

When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s.

Deciphering the tablet was a great adventure, but one development soon led to another: a documentary film in which the Ark is being built according to these 3700-year-old instructions (although not quite full size), and the commissioning of a book.

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Writing it led to some demanding questions: what was the origin of the Flood Story? How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew? Then I discovered that a line from the new tablet was quoted on our famous Map of the World tablet, showing where the Babylonian believed that Ark had landed. I also got to address other questions I have been asking myself for years: how does cuneiform writing really work? What were the ancient Babylonians really like?

The Ark Before Noah_544

Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is available from the British Museum Shop online for £20, British Museum Members’ price £18.

The tablet is on display in Room 56 (Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC)

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