When Reference Books Finally Leave the Library

By Neil Weijer |

This week’s post is by Dr. Neil Weijer, the Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Premodern and Early Modern Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins is one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partners.

Due to Martin Luther’s popularity and prominence as an author, publishers printed indexes of his works to aid scholars and students. The university library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partners, has an index published in Wrocław in 1563. This index of Luther’s works is known to survive in only a few copies, and two of those copies can be traced back to the university city of Wrocław, where the work was composed. Sigismund Suevus, who compiled the Wrocław index, studied at Wittenberg, the epicenter of Lutheran printing, and his assumption of the deaconate of the Church of Maria Magdalena in Wrocław may have been a return to familiar territory. In the university’s records for 1551, he is identified as Sigismundus Sueuus Freystadensis Silesius (now the town of Kożuchowie, Poland, roughly 100 miles from Wrocław). In the dedication to his Register, Suevus credited the library of Maria Magdalena as the source of material for his updated index, printed both in German and in Latin by the local Wrocław printer Crispin Scharffenberg in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Trent.


Register Title Page
The title page of Suevus’s German edition of the Register. The Latin edition was reset in a more appropriate italic font.

The volume at Johns Hopkins contains both the Latin and German editions in a contemporary binding: half alum-tawed sheepskin, blind tooled in the manner of earlier European theological works. The pasteboards are covered in thinner parchment, also tooled and painted green (featured image at the top), possibly to cover the use of manuscript waste, as was the case in the (possibly slightly later) binding on a book now in the Folger Shakespeare Library (Folger BX 830 1545 C4 1596).


Register binding detail
Rear cover, showing detail of the tooling. Decorated and painted bindings such as this one would continue to be used in Germany throughout the 17th century.

The volume’s provenance might explain its excellent state of preservation: the ex libris stamp of the Church of Maria Magdalena appears directly below the dedicatory epistle.  Aside from its function, then, the anthologizing of both of these works may have also been an act of commemoration, a local library literally putting its stamp on the key theological issues of Suevus’s day.


Register dedication

Fortunately, the binding also hints at how one of the local copies came to reside in Baltimore. The Library of Maria Magdalena merged with two other libraries during the period of German unification to become the “Rehdigner City Library,” and sometime after 1879 the collections became part of the Stadtbibliothek Breslau, whose stamp on both volumes identifies our copy as a deaccessioned duplicate. Interestingly, the Rehdinger City Library copy it was likely deaccessioned in favor of remains in Wrocław (University Library at Wroclaw 4 B 464).


Martin Luther frontispiece
Latin and German editions featured the same woodcut portrait of Luther, which now bears the stamps of three of the book’s owners.

From there, the book was acquired by Hermann Collitz (1855-1935), the linguist and professor of German. Collitz immigrated to America in 1886, teaching first at Bryn Mawr College and then at Johns Hopkins from 1907-1927. He also served as the first president of the Linguistic Society of America upon its foundation in 1924.  Collitz’s wife, Clara, was also a noted linguist, and their 12,000 volume library remained in Baltimore until her death in 1944. It was ultimately bought for the Hopkins Library from the Linguistic Society in 1946, with the proceeds endowing a professorship in Collitz’s name.

Though this copy survived by staying put, Suevus’s work was designed to spread across Europe, and indeed it did. Other copies (University of Chicago BR325.M375 and University of St. Andrews TypGB B63SS) were bound with other bibliographies of Luther’s works: Suevus’s Latin translation in the St. Andrews copy, and in the UChicago copy, with ten other German works by or about Luther. The rediscovery of this book in the collections at Johns Hopkins highlights a local, immediate chapter of a much larger narrative: religious reform in Protestant and post-Tridentine Europe.


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Neil Weijer is the Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Premodern and Early Modern Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. His research focuses on the use and re-use of print and manuscript histories in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England, as well as the broader book culture of Europe at this time. He is a contributor to the Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe, which examines two prolific annotators in sixteenth-century England.


Image Rights: All images in this post are the property of the Johns Hopkins University and may be used and reproduced for non-commercial purposes.

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