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World Heritage Document: The Gotha Print of Luther’s Book “On Christian Freedom” Declared UNESCO World Heritage Document

Martin Luther: Von der Freyheyt eynisz Christen menschen. Wittenberg 1520. FB Gotha, Theol. 4° 224/8 (8).

As part of its Memory of the World program (MOW), the UNESCO declared the first edition copy of Martin Luther’s book "Von der Freyheyt eynisz Christen menschen" (On the Freedom of a Christian), located among the collections of the Research Library of Gotha (University of Erfurt), as a World Heritage Document in October 2015.

The acceptance into the World Register honors the Research Library of Gotha (Forschungsbibliothek Gotha) for its efforts to preserve cultural heritage of exceptional value from oblivion and destruction. The library supports the UNESCO program by granting universal access to this culturally significant and historically important document.

Luther’s book “On Christian Freedom” is arguably his most famous writing. It was published in the fall of 1520 as tensions between the reformer and the Roman papacy were at their peak. The book was written in German for the general public and deals with the question of freedom in a religious (and not for example in a political) sense. Luther’s two-fold response based on 1 Cor. 9:19 is well known: “A Christian man is a free lord over all things and subject to none. A Christian man is a subservient slave of all things and subject to everyone.” The initial thesis refers to the Christ-given inner freedom from sin, death, and devil, whereas in the antithesis Luther characterizes Christian life as service to one’s neighbor. Along with Luther’s appeal for Scripture as the sole authority in all spiritual and divine matters (sola scriptura) the central principles of his teaching on justification before God, sola fide (by faith alone) and sola gratia (by grace alone), form the foundation of his line of argument.

Luther’s book “On Christian Freedom“ was a bestseller just like many of his other writings from this time period. New editions were continuously published both in German and in Latin translations. Translations in the Czech, English, Dutch, Spanish, French, and Italian languages followed. The magnitude of the circulation can only be estimated, but indisputably thousands of copies were sold throughout Europe. Without regard for the content Johann Rhau-Grunenberg, the printer of the first edition, illustrated the title page of this and several other books with a fashionable woodcut framework depicting Renaissance motifs. Standing on the sides are a pilgrim and a reveler supported on the tails of two dolphins. Centered in the upper and lower bars are the coat-of-arms of the Electorate of Saxony and of the city of Wittenberg.

The first edition print was acquired for the Ducal Library of Gotha under the Lutheran theologian Ernst Salomon Cyprian who directed the library since 1713. In connection with the Reformation Jubilee in 1717 Duke Friedrich II of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg commissioned Cyprian to acquire a large number of old prints and manuscripts written by Luther and many other reformers of the first, second, and third generation. The more than 600 individual printed works by Luther in the library at that time were rearranged chronologically and rebound in a series of volumes.
The book “On Christian Freedom” is the eighth of 34 prints that were bound together. The inscription on the spine of this volume covered in white pigskin reads: Lutheri opera anno 1520 edita. Tom. X (Luther’s works printed in 1520. Volume 10).


Luther’s printed works and manuscripts – among them 48 written in his own hand, the world’s largest collection of Table Talk and approximately one fourth of his existing correspondence – are an important part of the outstanding collections of the Research Library of Gotha on Reformation history. Together with other manuscripts and old prints on Lutheranism they form a reference collection of the history of Central German Protestantism from the 16th to the 18th century.

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