Helmstedt, Augustinian Nunnery of Marienberg

The Augustinian convent Marienberg was endowed in 1176 or 1181 on freehold by the abbot Wolfram of the Benedictine St. Ludger’s Abbey. It is possible that a chapel had previously stood at this location, the site of a Marian miracle, that served as a focal point for the convent. Wolfram’s sister was possibly the first prioress at that time. 1181 marks, presumably, the occupation of the newly-founded convent with holy sisters from Steterburg bei Braunschweig. The convent was initially frequented by noble women and was richly bestowed with property so that by 1235 the community, consisting of 40 nuns, five priests, and four converts, had to be limited. However, this also allowed a second convent, Marienborn, to be founded and occupied nearby in 1242.

No information is available about the book holdings during the early years of the convent; probably the oldest local possession is a beautiful Initial-ornamented three-volume breviary for the abbey, that was produced about 1300 for the Marienberg prioress Mechthild von Warberg (1294–1307). The careful, deep indexing of the breviary resulted in a number of discoveries that shed light on the spiritual life of the convent: clearly there were talented hymnographers in the Marienberg community and the priests who served them as a number of songs are known only to this convent. In addition, some offices were created for the chapter patron Anna. The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ, including the related Divine Office, were acquired from Goslar and donated by the cleric Friedrich von Jerxheim.

Thus a series of characteristic features of the Marienberg liturgical manuscripts can be distinguished that allow the successive allocation of a further 26 Codices Helmstadienses to this collection. Of these, so far only two can be identified by a mark of ownership. Evidently, the production of liturgical manuscripts in Marienberg began in the second half of the 13th century and achieved a new pinnacle two hundred years later with the reform of the convent. The well-known convent reformer and chronicler of the Devotio Moderna, Johannes Busch, introduced the reformed Windesheim Augustinian community practices into Marienberg from 1459-1461. While in many other reformed convents older books, especially the Liturgica, were phased out or used for pulp, the holy sisters of Marienberg, disapproving of the Windesheim visitor, could not be moved to part with their Codices. They remained continuously alongside the numerous newly-written, bought, or donated liturgical and theological books in manuscript and print.

When Duke Julius von Braunschweig-Lüneburg sent his agent to inspect the Marienberg library in March 1572, he found in this convent a treasure totalling 292 manuscripts and prints. Then, in April 1572, part of the Liturgica from this collection was sent to Wolfenbüttel, whereas most of the manuscript texts remained in place, even after the convent had been transformed into a Protestant women’s abbey that still exists today with six residents. Not until several decades later were the manuscripts retrieved by Duke August the Younger. Thus far only somewhat more than 60 manuscripts and 8 printed books can be identified as undoubtedly coming from Marienberg. There is still much to be done in terms of further research and indexing the numerous and yet-to-be-allocated breviaries, missals, psalters, prayer books, and especially the Helmstedt manuscript endowment.

  • Bertram Lesser

Further Reading

Ulrike Strauss, Das ehemalige Augustinerchorfrauenstift Marienberg bei Helmstedt, Braunschweig 1983 (Beihefte zum Braunschweigischen Jahrbuch 1)

Urkundenbuch des Augustinerchorfrauenstiftes Marienberg bei Helmstedt, bearbeitet von Horst-Rüdiger Jarck, Hildesheim 1990 (Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Niedersachsen und Bremen 37, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Niedersachsens im Mittelalter 24, Quellen und Forschungen zur braunschweigischen Landesgeschichte 32)

Horst-Rüdiger Jarck, Article: “Helmstedt – Augustiner-Chorfrauen, später Damenstift (Marienberg, 1176/81 bis zur Gegenwart)”, in: Niedersächsisches Klosterbuch. Verzeichnis der Klöster, Stifte, Kommenden und Beginenhäuser in Niedersachsen und Bremen von den Anfängen bis 1810, 4 vols., hrsg. von Josef Dolle und Dennis Knochenhauser, Bielefeld 2012 (Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Historische Landesforschung der Universität Göttingen 56/1–4), vol. 2, pp. 636–643