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University of Basel

Medieval manuscripts in the University Library

Ueli Dill

The vast majority of medieval manuscripts in Basel University Library were written later than the earthquake of 1356 – that is to say, in the late 14th and, especially, the 15th century. Unsurprisingly, the collection is dominated by theological works, which comprise two thirds of the total. A quarter can be assigned to the liberal arts, while law and medicine account for the rest. There are around 350 volumes containing works in German and 90 containing works in Greek, but the majority – almost exactly three quarters of the total – are written in Latin.

Composite manuscript from the monastery of Fulda (8th–9th century) containing works by Isidore of Seville, Fulda’s oldest library catalog, the so-called Basel Prescriptions, in Old High German, and an astronomical-computistical picture cycle (image: F III 15a, fol. 23r).
Composite manuscript from the monastery of Fulda (8th–9th century) containing works by Isidore of Seville, Fulda’s oldest library catalog, the so-called Basel Prescriptions, in Old High German, and an astronomical-computistical picture cycle (image: F III 15a, fol. 23r). © Universitätsbibliothek Basel

On February 22, 1536, Bonifacius Amerbach, the rector of the University of Basel, and Theodor Brand, the senior guild master, discussed a plan to erect a dedicated building for the university’s library. Like most library construction or renovation schemes, the project was subject to delays, reaching completion only in 1559. The result was the construction of a twostorey building below the old university on the Rheinsprung, with workspaces on the first floor and a storage area in the basement. This housed not just the book collection built up during the century since the university’s establishment but also the much more extensive libraries, relatively speaking, of monasteries dissolved in the course of the Reformation.

A safe haven

For 30 years, this material had been left in its original locations, unused, neglected, and poorly protected; much of it had also been lost. With the opening of the university library in 1559, the surviving volumes (with certain exceptions) were moved to this relatively safe haven; a second wave of transfers followed in 1590. The largest collections preserved in this way, consisting of manuscripts and what we would today class as early printed books, came from the Carthusian monastery (2,100 volumes, including around 450 manuscripts), the Dominican monastery (600 volumes, including around 500 manuscripts), the cathedral chapter (100 manuscripts), and the collegiate chapter of St Leonhard (300 volumes, including around 40 manuscripts). Together, they contain about 1,200 manuscripts – a good two thirds of the current total.

Later, more medieval manuscripts were added as part of two large collections from the Amerbach cabinet (1661) and the Faesch museum. The fate of a set of manuscripts from the monastery at Fulda serves as a special case. These manuscripts, dating from the 8th to 10th centuries, were acquired by the Petri printing house in order to produce an edition (which was never published) of the complete works of Isidore of Seville. Following the firm’s bankruptcy, they became part of the Faesch family library, which passed to the university library in 1823. In this way, the university library accumulated a total of around 1,750 medieval manuscripts – the largest such collection in Switzerland today by some measure.

Following the turmoil of the partition of the old canton of Basel in 1833, the University Library became an even safer haven. The university’s assets were awarded to the new canton of Basel City and declared an inalienable possession by the University Act of 1836. For centuries, therefore, Basel has made an important contribution to preserving humanity’s written cultural heritage. It has also saved a whole series of so-called codices unici from destruction, meaning that today Basel possesses the only surviving manuscripts of these works. They include the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus’s universal history, as well as works by Hincmar of Reims and the Greek scholar Eustathios of Thessalonica.

An impressive Greek collection

Basel was unusual in possessing a very large collection of Greek manuscripts, which is always mentioned in descriptions of the library. In his Epitome historiae Basiliensis of 1577, for example, Christian Wurstisen notes, “The university library is well stocked with new and old books, as well as manuscripts and books in Greek”. Around 60 of the Greek manuscripts come from the Dominican monastery, to which they were left by the Croat Ivan Stojković, himself a Dominican. Stojković had bought them up on the instructions of the Council of Basel while serving as the council’s legate in Constantinople from 1435 to 1437.

For several decades they lay in Basel unused, but later they played a key role in the spread of knowledge of Greek north of the Alps and the development of printing in Basel during its golden age. In 1516, Erasmus of Rotterdam used them for his first edition of the Greek text of the New Testament; many other Greek and Latin manuscripts later served as the basis for works published by Basel’s printers. We can assume that seeing them held in such high esteem by printers and scholars motivated the authorities of the University Library to include them in its collections.

This is clear from the example of Stojković: The Council of Basel (1431–1449), which also acted as huge European book market, played an important role in building up the stock of the city’s monastic libraries. The monasteries not only produced books themselves, but also purchased them or received them as gifts. Often delegates to the council made such donations in an effort to stimulate intellectual life in Basel, which was considered rather backward. The work of the council itself is well documented in the current manuscript collection: through transcripts of its proceedings, manuscripts of delegates’ speeches and, above all, the conciliar history of Juan de Segovia, which was presented to the city by the author as a gift along with four other manuscripts.

From monasteries and monks

Other manuscripts came from monasteries with links to those in the city. Thus, the Carthusian monastery obtained an illustrated edition in several volumes of Nicholas of Lyra’s commentary on the Bible from its sister house in Freiburg. However, the most important source was the monks’ private libraries. In two cases, these provide a detailed picture of their owners’ lives and scholarship. Albert Löffler from Rheinfelden (1416/17–1462) left 33 volumes in his own hand to his Dominican monastery. And when Jacob Louber, the penultimate prior of the Carthusian house, entered the monastery in 1477, he brought with him 42 volumes, half of them wholly or partly handwritten. Today, they are an important source for academic teaching at Basel University, then in the early phase of its development.

The most famous private library is that of the theologian and humanist Johannes Heynlin. After a successful career in Paris and Basel, Heynlin retired to the Basel Carthusian monastery in 1487, together with nearly 300 volumes – around 50 of them manuscripts – designed as collector’s editions (see page 21 ff.). Although almost no trace remains of actual scriptoriums in Basel, the monasteries were clearly centers of writing. One impressive example is the Bible in four volumes produced by the Carthusian Heinrich Vullenhoe, a keen scribe. The completion dates for the three surviving volumes – 1435, 1443 and 1445 – show that Vullenhoe spent more than ten years on this work.

The most extensive, best-attested and best-preserved library is that of the Carthusians. Not only do nine-tenths of the original holdings survive, we also have two catalogs, a loans register, and a librarian’s guide. In fact, there were four libraries: the bibliotheca antiqua, which housed the manuscripts and older printed books; the bibliotheca nova, containing more recent printed material; the choir library, made up of liturgical texts; and the lay library. This housed books in German for use by the community’s lay brethren, including the many translations by one of its own members, Ludwig Moser. The loans register records around 500 loans between 1482 and 1528 – to professors and students, clerics, printers, schoolteachers, and friends of community members. The librarian’s manual provides a detailed description of how books are to be acquired, bound, catalogued, supplied with an ownership mark and table of contents, shelved, and lent out. It also sets out in full the tasks to be performed to ensure that stock is checked and kept clean.

Preserving and opening up the collection

Today, the Department of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books continues to work hard to preserve and open up its manuscript collection. In recent years, all documents have been cleaned and packed into specially made cardboard covers. The descriptions and catalogs produced over the course of the last century, only parts of which were available in published form, are being updated and made accessible through the HAN online catalog for manuscripts, archival records and estate papers. More and more manuscripts can be consulted in digital form on the online platforms e-codices.ch (for the Middle Ages) and e-manuscripta.ch (for the modern period). The aim is not just to safeguard the rich manuscript heritage of medieval Basel for as long as possible, but also to facilitate and encourage its use by scholars.

Dr. Ueli Dill is Head of the Department of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books at Basel University Library.

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