Primary Source Instructional Tools

The Reformation

While today many people see old books and documents as valuable or sacred objects needing to be revered and preserved, for European people who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was fire on every page. Reformers and counter-reformers often reinterpreted the images and ideas they found in old books and manuscripts to make arguments in their present. People continue to do this today; we use what is familiar or powerful about the past to lend strength to our points of view in the present. Considering how words, written or spoken, can be sites for engagement and debate, we can better understand how even the most highly publicized ideas and images of our day will become relics for reinterpretation in the future. Moreover, understanding this can help us to better empathize with the people who lived 500 years ago.

Text in this instructional tool is drawn from The Reformation exhibition labels.

Compelling Question:

Why, and how, do people repurpose ideas and images of the past to help give power to their ideas in the present?

Staging the Question:

What’s an example of something that you used to think, that you think differently about now? Why did your ideas change over time?

Primary Sources:

Book of Hours, use of Sarum, Flanders, 15th century, parchment, HM 1087. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Book of Hours

Many medieval devotional books, such as this Book of Hours, include miniature paintings of St. Jerome (347–420) diligently translating the Bible into Latin, always with a lion by his side. The style of this miniature is simplistic, as the scale and proportion of the figures are not accurate.

Close Looking:
  1. Describe what you see. What do you notice first?

  2. Why do you think this work was created? And for whom?

  3. Why might this have been an image that was familiar to many people during the time in which it was created?

Transitional Prompt:

What personal feelings about this popular scene do you think the artist included in this depiction?

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), St. Jerome in his Study, 1514, Engraving, Edward W. and Julia B. Bodman Collection, 72.62.160. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

St. Jerome in His Study

Dürer was known for his self-expression using the new methods of engraving and printing. In this engraving, Dürer examines the artist’s internal struggle by tackling a familiar subject in a new way. By re-creating this iconic scene, he sought to express the idealized environment and mood for pensive work, something he saw as critical to the artist’s private creative endeavor. Basing his Renaissance masterpiece on the iconic medieval image maintained a visual continuity: he re-created and reinterpreted the same scene to reflect a shifting sense of the self.

Close Looking:
  1. Describe what you see. What do you notice first?

  2. How does this image compare to the image of the Book of Hours, above? (color, objects, feelings, actions, how they were made)

  3. What is your first reaction to this piece? Why do you think you had that reaction?

Transitional Prompt:

How did Dürer change a popular image to send his own message?

Why do you think he chose to do it this way?

Primum mobile, Erasmus Oswald Schreckenfuchs (1511–1579), Basel, Henricus Petrus, 1567, on permanent deposit, Ministero per i beni culturali e ambientali, Italy, Burndy Library Collection, RB 750589. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Primum mobile (First moved)

Sometimes censors marked up the portions of books that they wanted removed from future editions. In this astronomical work, a censor inked out Schreckenfuchs’s name on the title page and throughout the first part of the book. The censor also inked out the authors of poems praising the work and some names in the preface. The ink used was so acidic that it burned the paper, permanently scarring the pages. The Huntington’s Dibner Book Conservator has been able to stabilize the book to prevent further loss, but much of the damage is irreparable.

Close Looking:
  1. Describe what you see. What do you notice first?

  2. What kind of book might this be, and why might someone have wanted to alter it?

  3. What effect, if any, do you think this type of censorship had on the people of the time? Do you feel that those effects carry over to future generations?

Transitional Prompt:

In what ways might this kind of censorship be connected to the present?

King James I (1566–1625), A proclamation against seditious, popish, and puritanicall bookes and pamphlets, London, Bonham Norton and John Bill, 1624, RB 53438. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

A Proclamation against Seditious, Popish, and Puritanicall Books and Pamphlets

Protestant states actively practiced censorship, just as the Catholic Church did. In 1624, King James I issued a proclamation requiring that all forthcoming books on religion or politics be authorized by particular archbishops, bishops, or heads of Oxford and Cambridge universities (who held state and religious appointments). It was illegal to print, sell, or import any “seditious” works. The proclamation also required that any existing seditious work be destroyed. The ban on imports was one way to quarantine the English from radical ideas circulating on the Continent.

Close Looking:

  1. Can you read any of the text? What does it say?

  2. How do the ideas in the proclamation relate to the act of censorship shown on the pages of the Primum mobile above?

  3. What larger story does this object tell beyond what is printed?

Shepard Fairey, Prison Reform, 2015, Illustration courtesy of Shepard Fairey /

Prison Reform

Shepard Fairey is a Los Angeles–based street artist and activist. In this image, he draws upon the aesthetics of midcentury graphic design to make a contemporary comment about the injustice of the prison industrial complex in America. Blending an older design style with a potent sociopolitical message helps to visually cue an awareness that a current debate has a history. This image is one of several the artist makes available as free downloads on his website, along with instructions on how to make stickers, posters, and t shirts. Quickly and inexpensively putting propaganda into the hands of activists remains a goal of reformers, just as it was in the 16th century.

  1. Describe what you see.

  2. How do the text, images, and overall style of this poster convey the artist’s message?

  3. How do you relate to this image?

Transitional Prompt:

Based on your close reading of the primary source materials, explain the statement “the moment makes the meaning.”

Summative Argument:

Based on your close reading of the primary source materials, provide an argument about why, and how, people repurpose ideas and images of the past to help give power to their ideas in the present.

Extended Learning:

Horace (65–8 BCE), Opera (Works), Venice, Reynaldum Nouimagio Almanum, 1483, Annotations by Martin Luther (1483–1546), RB 17864. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Opera (Works)

Martin Luther’s undated annotations to this edition of works by Horace show just how closely he studied the Latin text. While reading the lyric poet’s epistle VII, part of a discussion about resolving to study philosophy, Luther responded by writing subject headings in the margins, aggressively underlining certain passages, and adding glosses between printed lines. These were typical reading practices for scholars and clerics at the time. Seeing how Luther engaged with pre-Christian texts provides a better understanding of his own writings and teachings.

  1. What skills do you need to be able to make meaning from this object?

  2. What is the value of possessing those skills? Is there anything else these skills could help you do?

  3. How do you relate to this image?

Physical Place:
  1. Where can you find materials like this?

  2. How does one work with these types of materials?

Subject Knowledge:
  1. What do you need to know to make sense of the society that created this?

  2. What is the value of understanding this history?