One of the Earliest Printed Images of a Book Burning

Hutten, Ulrich von (1488-1523)

Ein Klag über den Luterischen Brandt zu Mentz.

Zürich: Christoph Froschauer,


Quarto: 20.5 x 15.5 cm. [8] pp.

ONE OF SIX PRINTINGS, all in 1521.

Bound in modern red leather. A nice copy, lightly toned, illustrated with three woodcuts, two of which show a book burning. All printings are very rare. Only 2 copies in North America (Folger and Emory.)

The woodcut on the title (repeated on the final leaf) shows a monk, two devils, and the papal legate Aleander burning Luther's works at Mainz on 29 November 1520.

Ulrich von Hutten's scathing and defiant reaction to the wave of public burnings of Luther's books, in particular the one held at Mainz on 29 November 1520. Hutten mourns the burning of Luther's books and excoriates the papacy and its agents for, among other things, licentious living, selling indulgences, and robbing the German people. He ends with words of encouragement for Luther and pledges his solidarity. On the last leaf of the volume we find Hutten's famous motto "Ich habs gewagt" ("I dared.")

Burning Luther's Books:

"In the notorious bull Exsurge Domine, Pope Leo X declared that Luthers books were 'utterly condemned, reprobated and rejected'. The faithful were forbidden to read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish or defend them. The Pope instructed that Luther’s works be sought out carefully and be 'publicly and solemnly' burnt in the presence of the clerics and the people.In the edict of Worms, Emperor Charles V, after prohibiting the buying, selling, owning and reading of Luthers books, instructed the judiciary in the Empire to publicly burn and eradicate Luther’s books. 

"On October 23, 1520, the papal legate Aleander, charged with executing the bull, reported to Pope Leo X on the execution of the bull in Louvain. More than eighty Lutheran books and many libelous booklets were burnt in the market on a podium. The local magistrates were present in their official attire, the condemnation was pronounced by the herald while the executioner took care of the fire. The audience included the inhabitants of Louvain and 'all the nations of the world that assembled in the court [of the Emperor]'.

"In his dispatches to Pope Leo X, Aleander also reported of a book burning in Liège conducted with the active cooperation of the local bishop.Later Aleander followed the Emperor Charles V to Cologne, where he arranged, with the participation of the faculty of theology, a semi-public book burning.Later yet, Aleander burnt books in Trier.By the end of November he reached Mainz. 

"In mid-December Aleander sent a dispatch to Cardinal Julius de Medici, the Vice-Chancellor in Rome, in which he reported of both an unsuccessful (November 28th) and a successful (November 29th) attempt at organizing book burnings at Mainz. He explained to the Vice-Chancellor that the first attempt had failed because the Emperor had only been in town for a short while, because the archbishop had been busy, because of the 'perversity' of those appointed to assist him and because of the 'maliciousness' of the town. On the following day, however, the condemnation of Luther’s books was announced by trumpets and the inhabitants were invited to a public burning. And, according to Aleander, despite the opposition of some inhabitants, the book burning was carried out successfully.

However, other sources report that the November 29thburning was not the success that Aleander claimed it to be.

"[Some reports] about the burning in Mainz (29 November 1520) emphasized the resistance to the burning rather than its final success. Three weeks after the burning the later reformer Kaspar Hedio, court preacher in Mainz at the time, wrote to the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli that the books were burnt 'with ridicule' and that anyone that had been present at the burning would swear that it was not books by Luther but rather scholastic books and books by Luther’s adversaries that were burnt. But whichever books had been burnt, Hedio wrote, it was an insult to Luther, and it came close to Aleander being 'thrown in excrement'.In January the following year the humanist Beatus Rhenanus related the events of the burning in Mainz to the Swiss jurist Bonifaz Amerbach. According to Rhenanus, the hangman, standing on a platform, had asked whether the books were lawfully condemned, and when the people replied that they had not yet been condemned, the hangman declined burning any books until they had been condemned according to the law. The attempt to commence the book burning was met with laughter. Aleander was on the verge of being 'buried with stones. They called him Jew, traitor, scoundrel and what not.' The following day, according to Rhenanus, some books were burnt at the market, not by the public executioner, but by the gravedigger/skin flayer. No one was watching except for a few women who were selling vegetables.The hangman’s refusal to burn the books rendered the whole undertaking illegitimate, while the laughter and the attack on Aleander rendered it ridiculous."

"Martin Luther reacted in kind to the first wave of public burnings of his books: on the morning of December 10, 1520, outside the walls of Wittenberg, in the presence of Luther, other scholars and some students, books of the canon law, books of scholastic theology and books of Luther’s adversaries, 12 volumes in total, and a copy of the papal bull Exsurge Domine were thrown into a fire."(Avner Shamir, Early Reformation Book Burning and Persuasion)

VD 16, H 6370; Benzing 157 (one of six printings, all in 1521)