A Passion for Literature



Beatus Rhenanus' Books

In consulting the first volume of the chronological inventory of 16th century books printed in Paris, which extends from 1501 to 1510, one is surprized to notice that the Humanist Library of Sélestat is cited more than any other French library, with only one exception, that of the National Library. If there were a modern bibliography of the books printed in Basel by Johann and Hieronymus Froben, the surprize would be just as great: the holdings preserved in the little Alsatian town would rival those of Basel and most likely outdo those of Paris, surely those of London.

This unexpected richness may be explained by the meeting of a man and a town. Sélestat had benefited from an excellent school tradition since the middle of the 15th century: this is what ensured the beginnings of an extraordinary pupil, Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547), who would soon become one of the best scholars of his age and the alter ego of the “prince of humanists”, Erasmus of Rotterdam. Once retired to his home town, Rhenanus bequeathed to it his greatest treasure, his personal library, and the city authorities, the “magistrate” as was said at that time, had the intelligence and the desire to maintain it nearly intact for four and a half centuries. This was great good fortune if one remembers the dispersion which awaited the books of men such as Erasmus or Guillaume Budé. The only collection of that period known to be as well preserved is the Bibliotheca Vadiana, bequeathed by the historian Joachim Vadian (1484-1551) to the city of Saint-Gall, of which he was mayor. However, it has neither the depth nor the richness of that constituted throughout his life by the book lover Beatus Rhenanus. Indeed, he was only fifteen years old when he bought his first books in the year 1500 at the Strasbourg book fair, and the most recent works of his library date from 1546, that is, from the year preceding his death. It is possible to follow year to year the development of his collection thanks to his habit of entering in his books a dated ex-libris, either upon acquisition or at the time of their binding or restoration. In the beginning, the ex-libris is found as a simple statement: Est Beati Rhenani Sletstattini, followed by the date, then, it is the book itself which declares "Sum Beati Rhenani", with, sometimes, before the place and the date, a proclamation of faithfulness to its master "Nec muto dominum". His contacts with the Basel humanists led Rhenanus to change his habits: the first formulation, still prevalent in 1512, yields to the second in 1513.

The ex-libris in their careful calligraphy reveal to us the pleasure with which Rhenanus took possession of a new volume; sometimes they also evoke the way in which he had acquired it. As a young man, when his studies were provided for by his father, a successful butcher's shop owner in Sélestat, he noted the price of purchase: this detail will later be omitted, when his literary work and some fine inheritances will place him above such contingencies. On the other hand, throughout his life, he will mention the name of the friends who gave him the book or obtained it for him; the ex-libris are a useful complement to his correspondence when one attempts to retrace the vast network of a scholar who was in touch with authors as well as printers (Lefèvre d’Etaples and Josse Bade, Erasmus and Froben), with current celebrities as well as humble strangers who timidly submitted their first work to him. He is especially indebted to those who accepted to play the role of his personal agent, to men such as Michael Hummelberg, who obtained the latest publications from Rome, Wilhelm Nesen, who brought books from Freiburg on Breisgau, Jakob Spiegel, who took advantage of his position at the imperial court to act as an intermediary with the Fuggers or to lay his hands on a manuscript of Tacitus which had belonged to the king of Hungary, Matthias Corvin. In spite of its superb binding, this codex regius was not for Rhenanus an objet to satisfy his love of books, but it was, like all others, whether manuscript or printed, a tool: if he valued the manuscript, it was because through it he was able to give a new edition of Tacitus in which he corrected the text on numerous occasions. A patrician such as Willibald Pirckheimer collected the production of Italian presses at great cost: “As soon as a handsome and worthy book was printed in Italy…, he had to have it no matter the cost, such editions being at that time very expensive, with the result that still today those who possess them preserve them like treasures, especially the books printed by Aldo Manuzio”. Rhenanus possessed a collection of Aldine publications also, but at no cost, and it was infinitely more precious, because it included documents – books, but also galley proofs and manuscripts marked for printing – that his professor of Greek, the Dominican Johann Cuno (ca. 1463-1513), had brought from Venice, where Aldo Manuzio had utilized and perhaps exploited his services, and which he had bequeathed to him upon his death.

Rhenanus, who had practiced the same profession of corrector in Paris, Strasbourg and Basel, collectedwith great care all of the remnants of the activities, both intellectual and typographical, which give birth to a book. The Carthusians of Basel left to Froben in 1527 a manuscript of St. Augustin, provided they receive a copy of the printed work. On the other hand, Rhenanus rescued from destruction a codex of the 11th century which had been the source of his 1521 editio princeps of Tertullian; some time later, after his ennoblement by Charles V (1523), he had the pages, covered with his corrections and on which the printshop workers had made their calibration marks, bound in a cover bearing his arms. This archivist-like passion, which led him to preserve just as carefully a booklet received from Rome and rapidly reprinted by Froben, makes his library an obligatory stop for whoever wishes to study the printing practices of Venice and Basel at the beginning of the 16th century. If so many precious documents have escaped destruction, it is because Rhenanus assembled them and had them bound in the wood and vellum cold stamped covers, which characterize his library: out of the 423 volumes preserved today in Sélestat, only 201 hold individual works, the remainder, that is to say 222, are composite volumes, containing 1,086 imprints and 41 manuscripts distributed among them. Certain volumes bear the trace of what well seems to have been a shelf number, but it would probably be vain to try to determine a methodical classification, so great can be the variety of subjects, printers and publication dates found under the same cover. It seems in any case that Rhenanus never made an inventory of his holdings; he most likely never felt the need, due to the intimate knowledge he had of his books. Indeed, a large number bear the mark of active reading. The pupil or the student wrote down the notes taken during a lecture course; the humanist read pen in hand, a practice he styled inter legendum adnotare.

His marginalia ascend from the simple note to the collation of a newly discovered manuscript or the erudite glose which will be taken up nearly verbatim in his next publication. Beatus’ father noted down in his missal the date of birth of his son; the son will transcribe on the inside covers or the flyleafs of his books a wide range of texts which he deemed worthy of attention, be it passages of Ammianus Marcellinus or of Irenaeus of Lyon, yet unpublished at that time, or indicators of current events such as a poem on Louis XII or a prayer of Erasmus.

It is rather hard for us to form an image of Rhenanus surrounded by his books, be it in Basel or in Sélestat, after he had moved into the family house “At the Elephant”, located rue du Sel. We know, thanks to details given by Johann Sturm in his “Life of Beatus Rhenanus”, that our pious bachelor led a studious and discreet life, which even brought about criticism for being egotistical: Beatus est beatus, attamen sibi. The young men who held the position of his famuli, Albert Bürer, then Rodolphe Bertschi, must have had the responsibility of helping him in his day to day business; the silent assistance of an old servant woman must have kept his library free from the dust and dirt which, according to the humanist, characterized monastery lecterns. On the other hand, the books which have been preserved allow us to sketch out an idea of the tastes and interests of Rhenanus. The classical languages, especially Latin, have the majority; Hebrew makes only a subtle entrance with the works of Johann Reuchlin and Sebastian Münster. There are virtually no books in French or Italian, but German is well represented. The pupil of Sélestat had chosen to buy mainly grammatical treatises and school authors; during his studies in Paris, he had a passionate interest in philosophy and the works of humanists, in verse as well as in prose: his “voyage to Italy” was purely bookish. When he returned to Alsace, at the age of twenty-two, he was already the owner of 253 books, which is a considerable number for that period. During his times of residence in Strasbourg (1507-1511) and in Basel (1511-1528), he constituted for himself an admirable collection of ancient authors, Greeks and Romans, pagans and Christians. Nor did he neglect the literature of contemporary controversy, and was for a time a purveyor of Martin Luther's writings, before he went over to the thinking of Erasmus, his true source of inspiration. Once he had returned to Sélestat, he continued to strengthen the ancient part of his library, of which certain choice books, such as the in-folio volumes of Livius, Ambrosius and Chrysostom, were decorated with his arms in 1534. However, his increasing interest in history and the foundings of nations drew him more towards the Germanic Middle Ages. From 1540 onwards, Rhenanus’ delicate health reduced his activity: he no longer published and his library seems to have grown mainly from the homages and favors which he received from faithful friends, such as the printer, Crato Mylius (Kraft Müller), established in Strasbourg but Selestadian by birth. Until this time, Rhenanus had managed to acquire the essential bibliography in all of the areas in which he endeavored, and could thus devote himself to the principal goal of his life, the defense of fine literature.

Such a remarkable tool, rich in projects cut short by death, was bound to attract the attention of scholars, and printers. On January 19, 1549, the municipal authorities of Basel made an official request to their counterparts in Sélestat in order to obtain a certain number of books, both manuscript and printed, of which Hieronymus Froben and Nicholas Episcopius had not been able to negotiate the return. It was necessary to accede to their request, and this is most likely why the works which Rhenanus kept near to hand disappeared, such as his own copy of the Rerum Germanicarum Libri Tres, in which he had accumulated matter for a new edition, or the Livius of which the margins contained his collations the Worms and Speyer manuscripts, now lost alas. Afterwards however, in spite of prolonged borrowings made by the Jesuits of Sélestat, in spite of the appetites generated by the catalogue which was finally drawn up in 1739, in spite of the flight of volumes to Paris, Cambridge or New Haven, the collection was preserved. Rhenanus’ library is still a living thing: combined with the parochial library in 1757 and placed in the majestuous setting of the former Grain Hall for more than a century, it summons researchers still more than tourists. It is, today, an ideal place to enter the private world of a humanist and to meet the fellow defenders of fine literature he knew, that is to say, the best minds of his time.

Pierre Petitmengin

(This text appeared for the first time in Histoire des bibliothèques françaises, tome 1 : Les bibliothèques médiévales du VIe siècle à 1530, Paris, Promodis – Editions du Cercle de la Librairie, 1989, pp. 298-301).