The HAB Collection

The Herzog August Bibliothek hosts a significant, and in Northern Germany unrivalled, collection of monastic libraries from the late Middle Ages. These collections form the precious nucleus of the historic collections. When Duke Julius of Braunschweig and Lüneburg, himself a learned man and bibliophile, who had studied in Leuven and Bourges, took over the government in his principality Wolfenbüttel in 1568, he immediately introduced the Lutheran confession in his lands – according to the famous motto condensing the result of the Peace of Augsburg (1555) “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose realm, his religion). Indeed, German princes then could decide about the confession of their subjects.

Duke Julius brought under his control 36 monastic houses in his realm. He decided to transfer their libraries to his residence Wolfenbüttel in order to replace the old, papistic and superstitious books in the monasteries with good Lutheran books. In 1572 the libraries – manuscripts and printed books – from the nunneries in Lamspringe, Marienberg, Wöltingerode, Steterburg, Dorstadt and Heiningen were brought to Wolfenbüttel in order to become parts of the Duke’s library.

Convents for men, however, were allowed by Duke Julius to keep their books, because these houses were thought to become schools for the protestant youth. Therefore, unfortunately, not all libraries were transferred to Wolfenbüttel – and many of these were destroyed during the Thirty Years War, a terribly devastating period for Lower Saxony and many other regions of the Holy Roman Empire.

The private collection of Duke Julius and the monastic libraries transferred to Wolfenbüttel formed the so called Bibliotheca Julia, the princely library of the late 16th century. The regulations for using the Duke’s library in Wolfenbüttel were published in 1572 – this is regarded as the founding act of our library. Julius was also the founder of the protestant University of Helmstedt, about 40 kilometres from Wolfenbüttel, an important intellectual centre in the 17th and early 18th century.

Julius’ grandson Duke Friedrich Ulrich decided to transfer the Bibliotheca Julia to the university in order to facilitate the academic use of the books. They were brought to Helmstedt in 1618, on the eve of the Thirty Years War. The libraries of the male Benedictine convents of Clus and Northeim (then already reformed protestant houses) were brought directly to Helmstedt in 1624. Only one year later the university library was transferred from Helmstedt to Braunschweig for safety reasons – as war arrived in Lower Saxony. For about fifteen years they were kept in the rooms of the Stift St. Blasius. From 1640 until 1810 the books were kept in Helmstedt. The shelfmark “Codex Helmstadiensis” indicates this provenance. After the dissolution of the university in 1809 they were brought back to Wolfenbüttel where they now stand together with Duke Augustus’ princely collection.

In the last decade considerable research has already been done with the Helmstedt manuscripts:

  • A new catalogue of the 1014 medieval Helmstedt manuscripts is being prepared since 2001, consisting of detailed descriptions according to the well known guidelines established for Germany by the German Research Foundation. The first volume of the printed catalogue was published in 2012. Descriptions are published online together with images (if already available) in the Manuscript database of our Library and in the national database Manuscripta Mediaevalia. Currently about 500 medieval Helmstedt manuscripts have been investigated and detailled descriptions of them are already online.
  • The library of the Benedictine nuns of Lamspringe was in the focus of an exhibition in 2007, accompanied by a catalogue and descriptions of the mostly high medieval manuscripts written and often also illuminated by the nuns for their own use.
  • Funded by the State of Niedersachsen the libraries of five convents were reconstructed, investigated and partly digitized: those of the Augustinian nuns of Dorstadt, Heiningen and Steterburg, of the Cistercian nuns of Wöltingerode and of the Augustinian canons of Georgenberg next to Goslar. Results of this research were published in four books, amongst them two dissertations and an exhibition catalogue.
  • The library of the Benedictines from Clus, a major centre of monastic reform in the 15th century, has recently the object of research using the especially the decorated bindings and old shelfmarks glued on them to reconstruct for the first time the rich collection of books produced and used there until reformation was introduced.
  • In 2017, a catalogue project on the illuminated manuscripts of Herzog August Bibliothek was inaugurated, starting with the oldest, late antique and early medieval manuscripts, namely those from the Benedictine abbey of Wissembourg in Alsace. The current research is now done in manuscripts from the eleventh century and will soon include numerous Helmstedt manuscripts from the monasteries I mentioned. The combination of detailed descriptions including the stylistic analysis of initials and miniatures has been remarkably facilitated when digital images were available and even more significant is the usefulness for researches and lovers of medieval book art when descriptions and images of complete manuscripts can be seen side by side on the screen everywhere in the world.
  • Last but not least, in 2019 a research project on the illuminated manuscripts from the nunnery of Medingen started, expecting profit from the digitization of the Medingen manuscripts in Oxford, Hildesheim and Wolfenbüttel.

Further research will be facilitated by the digitization of the remaining monastic manuscripts, namely those of five convents which form the basis of our contribution to the Oxford-Wolfenbüttel-Polonsky project : the already mentioned Benedictines of Clus, the Augustinian canons of Sülte in Hildesheim, the Cistercian nuns of Marienberg in Helmstedt, the canons of St. Blasius in Brunswick, and the Benedictine nuns of Medingen. Every convent had its own spiritual and intellectual profile, depending from the respective monastic order as well as from interests of individual canons, monks and nuns.

by Christian Heitzmann