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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2004 > College Row
College Row

From the Folger

Pared to its essentials, a Folger exhibition is the act of bringing books, manuscripts and other objects together to tell\or better, to show\a story. The number of such stories is potentially limitless, given the richness of the Folger collections, and many of the Folger exhibitions tell stories about books themselves. Wefve had exhibitions devoted to remarkable bindings, to gassociation copiesh (books valuable because of their ownership or association with a significant person), to forgeries and fakes in our collections, and most recently\as I wrote about last\to the remarkable 1608 illustrated manuscript book of Thomas Trevelyon.

But the powerful, provocative exhibition that opened on June 9 and runs through mid-October\gVoices for Tolerance in an Age of Persecutionh\stands out for its contemporary relevance and even tragic timeliness. Focusing on the complex struggle between the forces of tolerance and intolerance in Europefs early modern period (1500-1700), the exhibitfs canvas is a full, rich picture of struggles waged on religious, political, racial and ethnic grounds from Ireland to Central Europe. Its avowed aim is to use the books, images and pamphlets from the Folger collection to provide a detailed historical backdrop to the conflicts that dominate our headlines now\a historical context that we forget not only at our peril but also with real intellectual loss.

Almost every conflict raging in Europe today\with sectarian violence in Northern Ireland only the most obvious example\has roots in the early modern period. This was when French Catholics slaughtered 10,000 Protestants in the 1572 St. Bartholomewfs Day massacre; when Protestant sectarians were hideously executed for ghereticalh beliefs by their fellow Protestants; when Jews\having been expelled from England, Spain and elsewhere\lived amid conditions of limited toleration in Venice and Amsterdam and were accused of committing horrifying atrocities; when Europeans regarded the Islamic world\especially the expanding Ottoman Empire\with a volatile mixture of fear, suspicion and fascination, even as mercantile trade with Northern Africa and the Levant continued apace. As an example of the fascination with the Ottomans, the exhibit displays a beautiful reproduction of an Elizabethan portrait of eAbd al-Wahid bin Masfud, Moroccan ambassador to Queen Elizabeth.

But the exhibition does not just tell a dark story of persecution, atrocities and warfare. Against this grim backdrop, it offers more hopeful reminders of the beginnings of toleration and religious freedom, exemplified above all by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who advocated an end to all war, even gagainst Christendomfs great rival, the Ottoman Turk.h The stories of other figures, such as Martin Luther, are more complex. Early in his career, Luther advocated religious toleration and political revolt, but later he adopted harsher, more repressive positions. On Jews, for example, he published a work, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523), that argued against persecution. He later reversed himself and argued in 1543 that Jews should be expelled from Germany and their books and synagogues burned. Sir Thomas Morefs views were similarly complex, since he supported the suppression of heresy even though his great work Utopia (1516) imagines a world based on religious toleration. And even Erasmus, though he advocated tolerance for Jews, was personally anti-Semitic.

The exhibit displays the Folgerfs copy of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, one of the great documents in the history of freedom, as part of telling the larger story of the French civil wars of religion\a bitter struggle between Catholics and Protestants that was one of the most savage conflicts in the period. The exhibit closes with several reminders of the official beginnings of religious freedom and liberty of conscience. One of these occurred with the Puritan Revolution in England, where Oliver Cromwell not only sought toleration for persecuted Protestant sects but also granted readmission of Jews into England after centuries of official exile. And we are reminded, too, of the intellectual contributions of the 17th-century philosophers John Locke and Baruch Spinoza, whose forceful calls for freedom of thought as a natural right and for the separation of church and state laid the groundwork for some of the principal tenets of the Enlightenment.

Visitors to gVoices for Tolerance in an Age of Persecutionh will come away sobered by the shocking images of atrocity and persecution, buoyed by historical reminders of voices of conscience, and\inevitably\led to reconsider the question of moral progress.

\Gail Kern Paster

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