Printing in Kiel: Only Surviving Books Found

By Drew Thomas |

Most of the major printing centres across sixteenth-century Europe were in cities that were also major centres of culture, commerce and trade. However, despite being an important port on the Baltic sea, the German city of Kiel never had a vibrant printing industry. According to Christoph Reske’s authoritative reference on early modern German printers, Kiel only had three printers during the first 275 years of print. In the sixteenth-century, Kiel only registers a single year of activity, 1528. In that year the Anabaptist preacher Melchior Hoffmann printed three of his own works.


“As you can imagine, this find is far beyond my expectations.”
-Ernst Bjerke, Head Librarian


Unfortunately, there are no known surviving copies of either of the three works listed in the USTC or in the German national bibliography, VD16. There are, however, some early twentieth-century facsimiles that survive. In 1991 Richard G. Bailey published an article about Hoffmann in which he mentions a 1529 edition of Hoffmann’s Dat Boeck Cantica Canticorum. However, Bailey does not state in what library he consulted the book or whether it was an extant copy or a facsimile that he viewed.

We are proud to announce that a copy of Hoffmann’s Cantica Canticorum, as well as nine other editions by him, have been identified recently in the Oslo Cathedral School library, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partners. Our postdoctoral fellow, Drew Thomas, recognized the rarity of these items when examining the Cathedral School catalogue.


Melchior Hoffman, Kiel title page
Oslo, Cathedral School Library, M2H121.


The head librarian, Ernst Bjerke, was thrilled with the discovery and stated, “You did say, when we met, that an old collection like ours was bound to contain something interesting, but this is remarkable! As you can imagine, this find is far beyond my expectations. I know these leaflets, I’ve handled them several times, and always thought they might be ‘something’, although I’ve never investigated them any further.”

Two of the books are copies of editions listed in the USTC and VD16. The remaining eight works are not only unknown editions but also unknown works by Hoffmann, representing a significant find for historians of the Reformation.

Hoffmann was an Anabaptist preacher in northern Europe, who preached in Kiel, Stockholm, Lübeck, Emden, and other towns. He disagreed with Luther on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and his teachings, which influenced the 1534 rebellion in Münster, led to his spending the last years of his life imprisoned.


Melchior Hoffmann, title page
Oslo, Cathedral School Library, M2H121.


The ten surviving books by Hoffmann represent the earliest and only known copies of sixteenth-century printing in Kiel. This also doubles the known printing output for Kiel in this period. When VD16 was originally conceived, it only included libraries in German-speaking lands. The findings in Oslo demonstrate the rich discoveries available by investigating German books in non-German libraries and by focusing on smaller, under-analysed collections. There could be more Kiel imprints lying on other distant library shelves.

Although the books were known to the Cathedral Library staff, their rarity and uniqueness were not apparent. We hope our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books project can help smaller libraries demonstrate their importance to regional funding bodies and hope it can assist them in developing future conservation and digitization projects. By including their holdings in the USTC, we hope to open their collections to the larger scholarly community.


Is your library one of our partners? Let us know if you would like to contribute to this blog. Please contact us by email at [email protected].

Are you a librarian interested in learning more about the rarity of your collection? Learn more about how to partner with Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.

Drew Thomas is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant for Preserving the World’s Rarest Books and the Universal Short Title CatalogueHe received his PhD from the University of St Andrews, focusing on the rise of the Wittenberg printing industry during Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation and counterfeiting in the Reformation book trade. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas or on Academia.eduORCID iD


Images used with the permission of the Oslo Cathedral School Library.

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