The struggle between tolerance and intolerance is an enduring and painful component of the human experience. The refusal to acknowledge and accept as fully human individuals or groups on the basis of their religion, race, or ethnic background has caused immense human misery. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe provides obvious examples of these tendencies, but it also provides ample evidence of the opposite impulse, that of the struggle for tolerance and for freedom of expression. Though justifiably regarded as an era of crisis, religious warfare and persecution, this period also generated powerful, though often isolated, voices for peace and toleration.
Early modern Europeans–occupying a different mental world from our own–did not, by and large, share the values that we associate with the concept of tolerance. While we recognize toleration as a positive value, the majority of them seemingly understood tolerance as the endurance of something negative, even something loathsome. While most Americans today ascribe to the belief that society benefits from having a plurality of peoples and religions, early modern Europeans considered the presence of minority groups and religions dangerous to the state and to the very fabric of their community.
Acknowledging the differences in mentalité between the past and the present, Voices for Tolerance in an Age of Persecution demonstrates how this period witnessed the first challenges to persecution as a world-view. Advocates for toleration did not succeed in ending oppression, but their ideas contributed to the modern struggle for freedom from oppression and the horrors of war
The exhibition does not assume a linear progression from some supposed late-medieval "darkness" to enlightenment liberalism. It explores how rapidly changing times and political instability created conflict and oppression. By tracing the struggles of groups and individuals as they pursued both religious "truth" and freedom from oppression, we hope to raise questions and heighten awareness of the relevance of these issues for our own time. The books, manuscripts, and art treasures of the Folger Shakespeare Library speak for themselves, suggesting the links between the past and the present. The voices that emerge from these works are alternately shocking and inspiring. They provide us with a window into the timeless and often unsuccessful struggle to balance religious conviction and toleration, a struggle that continues to shape our world today.
Vincent Carey, Guest Curator;
Elizabeth Walsh, Head of Reader Services;
Ron Bogdan, Senior Rare Book Cataloger