8 May 2024

The Herzog August Bibliothek holds a collection of bibles whose main elements can be traced back to Elisabeth Sophie Marie zu Braunschweig-Lüneburg (1683–1767). From 1714, Elisabeth Sophie Marie reigned as duchess in Wolfenbüttel at the side of her husband, August Wilhelm (1662–1731). After his death and as stipulated in their marriage contract, she came into ownership of the as yet unfinished Grauer Hof, now known as the Brunswick Palace, for use as a widow’s residence, where she began putting together a remarkable collection of bibles – an exceptional undertaking even by the standards of the time. This collection, on display in some of the palace’s most prestigious rooms, was viewed by numerous individuals, including scholars and aristocrats, and many of these signed their names in the duchess’s visitor book. The digital edition of the visitor book can be viewed here.

Visitor book belonging to Elisabeth Sophie Marie, bound (or: digital edition of the visitor book, screenshot) Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 125.25a Extrav.

As the duchess had no surviving children, in 1764 she ordered this collection of nearly 1,200 bibles to be transferred in its entirety to the royal library in Wolfenbüttel, now the Herzog August Bibliothek (HAB), where it was to be displayed. It is still held by the HAB and has grown thanks to later additions.

When the opportunity arose, during the 1740s, Elisabeth Sophie Marie purchased entire collections from bourgeois bible collectors with the aim of rapidly expanding her own collection. Other aristocratic bible collectors adopted a similar approach. For example, Herzog Karl Eugen von Württemberg (1728–1793) travelled to Copenhagen for the express purpose of acquiring a bible collection belonging to theologian Josias Lorck (1723–1785).

In any case, bible collecting – particularly in the Protestant areas of northern Germany and Denmark in the 18th century – was a surprisingly popular activity. At times even the collectors themselves appear to have been amazed by the trend. For this reason, Lorck, a self-styled ‘bible collector’, even went so far as to describe his era as the ‘biblical century’. The Hamburg senior pastor Johann Melchior Goeze (1717–1786), known primarily for his role as Lessing’s opponent in the Fragementenstreit (Fragments Controversy), was a bible collector as well, of course. Reflecting on his own collecting activities, he wrote:

‘As pleasant, as useful and, in many instances, as necessary as it is to have a collection of the rarest and most unusual bibles – one that is as complete as possible or at the very least large … up until the beginning of the current century our ancestors gave scant thought to the matter, investing in the enterprise little of the necessary care, effort and expense.’ (Goeze, 1777, p. 1)

The existence of dozens of 18th-century bible collections has been established, mostly by examining printed catalogues. Only a few of these collections have survived, one of them being the collection belonging to Herzogin Elisabeth Sophie Marie von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel now held by the Herzog August Bibliothek and Karl Eugen’s collection in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek (Württemberg State Library) in Stuttgart.

No two collections are the same, however, for there are many different kinds of bible collections. The nature of these collections meant that none of them were identical in terms of the books they contained, and none of them were amassed in a haphazard way. It is also important to note that they were compiled in line with their collectors’ wide variety of interests: most bourgeois collectors, many of whom had a background in theology and a limited budget, were active in the area of what was known as the ‘biblical library’, meaning they collected bibles in a particular language or dating to particular periods, for example. Some of them developed even more specialised collections that spanned a few decades or were limited to individual printing locations. The purpose of these bourgeois collections was to enable scholarly evaluation of the bibles they held and to allow their bibliographical peculiarities to be described in print publications. Such publications helped their authors garner a scholarly reputation within their discipline. If they were to publish the definitive work on one of these specialised areas, then they needed to be sure that they had the most complete collection in their particular area, although collectors could of course never be sure that they had achieved this.

Here the matter of visual inspection also played an important role. Only individuals who had direct access to the book at issue and could answer any questions that arose by consulting the original were seen as experts capable of commenting on the subject in bible-collecting circles. This also explains why collectors sometimes travelled to inspect other collections or asked for excerpts from particular copies of a work, although ongoing access to the originals continued to be more important as an indicator of one’s own expertise. Temporary access – based, for instance, on a visit to a collection or the evaluation of other collection catalogues (of which Goeze owned no fewer than 150, according to the auction catalogue for his library) – was thought to provide an inferior form of legitimacy.

Reconstructed network of bible collectors associated with Elisabeth Sophie Marie zu Braunschweig-Lüneburg Reconstruction: C. Reimann

Having one’s own collection was advantageous in that collectors were able to read and understand the books themselves – collectors only acquired books for their ‘biblical libraries’ written in languages they had sufficient command of. Goeze describes this phenomenon in his usual direct fashion:

‘Collecting bibles in languages that I do not understand has never been my aim. What use would I have for these? Whenever I chanced upon one or the other of these, I did indeed acquire it. But as collections of this kind are not to everybody’s taste, they nonetheless deserve the distinction they achieve when men of standing or scholars who are able to cope with the attendant difficulties undertake such collections. There is something impressive, something very moving about the sight of printed bibles in nearly every language known on earth; it can add penetrating insight to the weightiest reflections on the fulfilment of divine promises and on the maintenance and propagation of the Word of the eternal truth of God’s watchful benevolence.’ (Goeze, 1777, p. X)

Here the Hamburg-based theologian is referring to the second type of bible collections. Creating such a collection – as Goeze also stresses – was reserved for those collectors with access to significant funds and a large network. These individuals could acquire bibles without linguistic, temporal, or geographical limitations, although such collections, too, also tended to have recognisable focuses. Contemporaries viewed these as genuine ‘bible collections’ as opposed to the ‘biblical libraries’ referred to above. The capital requirement involved meant that this type of bible collection was often the province of aristocratic enthusiasts, such as Elisabeth Sophie Marie: although her collection focuses on bibles in German, we also find in it examples of bibles in Arabic, Icelandic, Hungarian, Tamil and Welsh.

These collections were also catalogued and the results published – after all, without the resulting publicity, collectors could not expect to be recognised as ‘bible collectors’. In the case of the collection in Brunswick, the serving librarian and court chaplain Georg Ludolph Otto Knoch (1705–1783) not only compiled the catalogue but also penned the comprehensive Historisch-kritische Nachrichten (Historical-Critical Dispatches) in which he referenced numerous other publications.

Another characteristic of early modern bible collections is that they were made accessible to researchers. This could take the form of physical access to the books, made possible by a readiness to produce excerpts or even to lend out individual copies. Collectors also engaged in regular correspondence. Analysis of these contacts clearly shows that 18th-century bible collectors maintained a close-knit network consisting of personal contacts, written correspondence and the citation of each other’s work in their publications. It is within this network that the bible collection belonging to Elisabeth Sophie Marie was created and received by her contemporaries. Other 18th-century collectors describe it as the ‘most renowned and significant treasury of bibles’.

Cover image: Self-presentation of Herzogin Elisabeth Sophie Marie as a bible collector, in Ludolph Otto Knoch, Bibliotheca Biblica, Brunswick 1752, frontispiece, copperplate print. Herzog August Bibliothek, BA I, 633.

PURL: http://diglib.hab.de/?link=184