Remembering the Reformation – Using digital curation to widen the debate

Martin Luther, a key figure in the Reformation

To mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, we spoke to Professor of Modern History Alexandra Walsham on her project to stimulate wider interest in this important historical event.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther is reported to have nailed his theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, initiating a series of historical shocks that changed the face of Christian worship and western culture, echoing down the centuries to the present day.

What became known as the Reformation has long-fascinated historians. But history is in its essence an act of remembering. And like memory, interpretations and analysis of past events can change to reflect the times in which they occur: We see the past in different ways at different times.

This is particularly true with events as traumatic as the Reformation. And to better understand exactly how, a major Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project has been taking a fresh look at how the shattering of Christendom has been seem over the centuries, and how this relates to gender, politics and more.

The project – Remembering the Reformation – has united historians from the University of Cambridge and literary scholars from the University of York.

Along with traditional academic study, together they have launched a spectacular online exhibition featuring more than 130 items – including manuscripts, books and artefacts – that illustrate how the Reformation has been remembered, forgotten, contested and reinvented.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to bring together material from a range of places, including the libraries at Cambridge University, York Minster and Lambeth Palace, as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum,” says principal investigator, Alexandra Walsham, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge.

The Remembering the Reformation website

“People can zoom in on images to see detail in high definition, and navigate through the exhibition in all sorts of inventive ways, using links across different categories.

Remembering the Reformation will be archived permanently on the University of Cambridge website and we hope it will be a major resource for interested members of the public, students and lecturers.”

Prof Walsham hopes the project will inject a critical edge into the wider anniversary of the Reformation – as well as challenge some of the myths that have grown up around it.

“For example, it wasn't just one reformation but many,” she says. “There was a Catholic reformation, a Lutheran reformation, a Calvinist reformation, a global reformation – and more.

“People were deeply divided by faith as a result of the Reformation and memory was at the heart of the ways in which it fragmented society and challenged the ties of affection that bound families together. But remembering the medieval and Protestant past was also a mechanism for cementing powerful identities.”

Remembering the Reformation is organised around four themes: Lives and Afterlives; Events and Temporalities; Objects, Places, and Spaces; and Ritual, Liturgy, and the Body.

“Putting it together has been a hugely rewarding experience for everyone involved,” says Prof Walsham.

“The inter-disciplinary character of the work has enabled us to collaborate in many ways and we have learned a lot from each other and the different ways that we work.

“There has also been some real mutual benefit derived from a closer relationship with museums, libraries and archives – a number of which were not even in our original funding application.”

Prof Walsham hopes that the project will stimulate wide interest, contribute to the lively debates that are taking place in this Reformation year, and prove a resource of lasting value in the future.

“AHRC funding has been wonderful,” she says. “We have been able to do so much and are all very grateful.”

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