Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands: A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project

The Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and Bodleian Libraries are digitizing nearly 600 medieval manuscripts written in German-speaking lands, in a project funded by The Polonsky Foundation between 2019 and 2021.

The collecting work of William Laud – archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645 and simultaneously chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1630 to 1641 – brought many manuscripts to the library during a time of religious strife in both Germany and England. He and his agents assembled around 320 manuscripts between 1633 and 1639 from Würzburg Cathedral, the Mainz Charterhouse, and Eberbach Abbey. The Würzburg manuscripts include a significant body of Carolingian manuscripts, such as a ninth-century copy of Gregory the Great’s homilies (MS. Laud Misc. 275).

The Dutch philological scholar Franciscus Junius (1589–1677) later donated some of the Bodleian’s most significant Germanic manuscripts. These include MS. Junius 25 (coming soon), a volume of booklets from the 8th and 9th centuries that includes three Old High German glossaries and the glossed Murbach Hymns. The Junius collection also includes his own transcriptions and preparatory editions of texts in Gothic, Old English, and Old High German.

The nineteenth century brought a further wave of German manuscripts to Oxford. In 1817, the library purchased much of the collection of the Venetian Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727–1805/6), a former Jesuit. The Canonici manuscripts include an eleventh-century sacramentary from Reichenau (MS. Canon. Liturg. 319), a treasure of Ottonian manuscript illumination. The bequest of Francis Douce (1757–1834) to the library augmented its collection of illuminated manuscripts. Douce purchased many books from Germany that came onto the market through the secularization of its monasteries during the Napoleonic period. MS. Douce 185 (coming soon) is a collection of homilies made for a community of nuns in the Rhineland; its companion volume is now Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, MS W.148. The sons of Sir William Hamilton (1788–1856) gave a substantial body of manuscripts from Erfurt, including a copy of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy annotated by a German translator (MS. Hamilton 46).

The library has continued to acquire German manuscripts in the last century. James P.R. Lyell (1871–1948) allowed the library to select one hundred items from his collection, including several important items from Austrian monastic libraries. Alfred Ehrman (1890–1969) acquired a manuscript of German geomantic and astronomical texts, copied by Nicolaus Breys of Bayreuth in 1469, for the sake of its fine binding; his son John gave it to the library in 1978 (MS. Broxb. 84.3). Most recently, the library purchased a 15th-century manuscript from the Strasbourg charterhouse focused on the contemplation of the Passion of Christ (MS. Don. e. 250); and a prayer book made by a Ciscercian nun at Medingen Abbey (MS. Don. e. 248), adding to three other manuscripts in Oxford from the same abbey.

The project has a dedicated website, with further information about the history of the Bodleian and HAB collections, a project blog, and a full list of manuscripts digitized by both institutions.