500 Years of Utopia

Special Collections Gallery

See this exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's Utopia in the spotlight case of the Special Collections Gallery.

Portrait of Sir Thomas More

Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497-1543
Colored chalks on paper, 1527
Reproduction from The family of Sir Thomas More: facsimiles of the drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (London: Johnson Reprint, 1977)

Thomas More, a deeply pious man as well as a serious Renaissance Humanist scholar, opted for a career as a statesman rather than for a religious life, ultimately rising to the position of Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. A man of principle, More refused to assent to the King’s wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon. He was executed for high treason in 1535, reportedly saying, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” More was beatified in 1886 and canonized in 1935.

The First Edition of Utopia

The First Edition of Utopia

Sir Thomas More, 1478-1535
Libellus vere aureus…de optimo reip. statu, deq: nova insula Utopia
Louvain: Thierry Martin, [1516] 

Thomas More dated the dedication to this, the very rare first edition of Utopia, 500 years ago on the 1st of November. With his punning title—utopia can mean either “nowhere” or “good place”—More not only invented a genre but also articulated a paradox that continues to be debated to this day: whether an ideal society is in fact attainable. The book is open to the famous (and frequently missing) woodcut map of Utopia, with the invented Utopian alphabet on the facing page.

Purchase, 1892, with the library of John Gilmary Shea

Utopia in America

Sir Thomas More, 1478-1535
The common-wealth of Utopia: containing a learned and pleasant discourse of the best state of a publick weal, as it is found in the new island called Utopia
Philadelphia: James Chattin, 1753

The site of printing provides added significance in this rare first American edition since More’s protagonist, Raphael Hythloday, discovers Utopia somewhere in the New World. According to Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., who based his 1939 bibliography of early Catholic Americana on Georgetown’s extensive collection, this is one of the earliest books by a Catholic author to have been printed in what is now the United States.

Thomas More: A Man for All Seasons

Robert Bolt
A man for all seasons; a play in two acts
New York: Random House, 1962

This is the first edition of this award-winning play starring Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More. First performed in 1960, it was adapted for film in 1966, winning multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Scofield, who reprised his role in the film. The play depicts More as a man of integrity (More was incidentally among the first writers in English to use the word) who stands up to the impetuous pragmatism of King Henry VIII, to the point of death.

Gift of Thomas J. Healey

The First Printed Edition of the Greek New Testament

The First Printed Edition of the Greek New Testament

Desiderius Erasmus, ca. 1469(?)-1536, editor and translator
Novum instrumentu[m] omne
Basel: Johann Froben, [1516]

2016 marks the 500th anniversary not only of Thomas More’s Utopia, but also of his friend Erasmus’s edition of the Greek New Testament. Even though his textual accuracy was limited by the available manuscripts and the scholarly practices of the day, Erasmus enacted the Renaissance Humanist principle of ad fontes—a return to the original sources—by making the original Greek text widely available. These copies of the first editions of two of the most influential printed books of all time are among the greatest treasures of the Georgetown University Library. Open to the first page of the epistle to the Romans.

Acquired with the library of Rev. Thomas C. Levins, 1844

In Praise of Folly—or In Praise of More?

Desiderius Erasmus, ca. 1469(?)-1536
Encomium moriae
Leiden: Johannes Maire, 1641

Printed more than 100 years after Erasmus first wrote it in the space of a week while visiting at the estate of his close friend Sir Thomas More in 1509, this little pocket edition testifies to the staying power of Erasmus’s famous satire on tyranny. Erasmus wittily puns on his friend’s name in the title, which translates as In Praise of Folly—but which can also be read as In Praise of More.