03 January 2023

One morning in early March 1701, six men made their way across Wolfenbüttel’s Schlossplatz on their way to the Marstall (ducal stables). The fine clothing and swords hanging from the waists of the three men in the lead were clear indications that they were members of the aristocracy. Similarly, the appearance of the three men following behind made them easily recognisable as servants. The nobles were travelling through the area and had met by chance in one of the city’s inns. They quickly discovered that they all had the same aim in mind for that day, so they promptly decided to head out together.

They were met at the door of the stair tower on the southern side of the building by Johann Thiele Reinerding, who had served as secretary of the royal library since 1684 and was thus responsible for the ‘foreign’ visitors who wished to view Wolfenbüttel’s renowned treasury of books. Herzog August had had his library moved to the first floor of the Marstall in early 1644, just above the mews and below the cabinet of curiosities and armoury, which could also be viewed by visitors. The royal library was still located there some thirty years after August’s death, even though the space had long been insufficient to house the collection.

Bibliotheca in Wolfenbüttel
Fig. 1

With Reinerding in the lead, the men climbed the winding stairs up to the first floor and entered the long hall with its four walls of books reaching all the way up to the wooden beams of the ceiling (fig. 1). The size of the books decreased moving up the shelves – from the thick folios at the bottom to the thinner octavos at the top – thus making the room appear higher than it actually was. At each of the room’s narrower ends, three windows framed by bookshelves allowed sunlight into the library. Two rows, each with three shoulder-high bookshelves, traversed the floor. Books everywhere.

Fascinated by the sight before them, the visitors’ spellbound gazes were drawn to the countless vellum bindings along the walls, their swathe of pale-yellow interspersed with the comparatively small number of leather volumes that stood out among them. The good-natured library secretary allowed the three gentlemen a moment to take in the scene before beginning his well-practised tour. He began by pointing out the library rules composed by its founder – Herzog August – written in Latin in golden letters on a large wooden plaque mounted by the entrance. He spoke in glowing terms of the achievements of the scholarly duke, who had amassed this incomparably large and valuable collection over the course of his life. As he turned his attention to the first window to point out the portraits of the duke and his wife, he began to speak about the number of books held in the library. It contained over 32,000 volumes with more than 135,000 printed documents as well as over 2,170 manuscripts. He could not give them an exact number, however, for it had been 17 years since the last tally had been conducted. The shelves of this hall were filled exclusively with Theologici and Juridici – there were so many that some of them had to be kept in the other hall. Since August’s death in September 1666, books were still being admitted to the collection, but nothing like as many as before, which was why Privy Councillor Leibniz, who had been put in charge of the library, had often asked the present duke to increase the annual budget – sadly without success, however, for it still remained at 20 thalers. After this small barb directed at his lord and master, Reinerding led the group to the other side of the room, where books were laid out on several tables. These were the exceptional treasures that, for years, had been shown to library visitors. The narrow aisles between the bookshelves obliged the visitors to walk one behind the other, meaning they were also more spread out. The servants, their lack of interest barely concealed, followed along far behind their masters and were soon out of sight of the library secretary.

Reinerding began by presenting four exceptionally thick tomes: the catalogue, the very heart of the library, written in the duke’s own hand. He described the system August had used to organise his collection as well as how each individual volume had been assigned its own ‘number’ (shelf mark), which, despite the ever-growing number of books, made it possible to find its location. Next, the group was shown several legal and theological works printed on vellum and dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. They then made their way via the stair tower landing to the second library hall, which was nearly square and smaller than the first – although like the first it was filled with books all around, here in eight rows of bookshelves. An additional double-sided bookshelf spanned the middle of the room. Here were kept the books belonging to other subject categories – although not the manuscripts – alongside the legal and theological works for which there was no space in the first hall. Most of these belonged to the Historica, which included over 7,000 titles. After Reinerding had, as was customary, shown them the Luther relics (an enormous glass tankard and the inkpot the reformer reportedly hurled at the Devil), he began to speak about the renowned Mazarine manuscripts, a collection of 400 handwritten volumes bound in precious red Morocco leather, for which Herzog August had paid a hefty sum of 24,000 Reichsthalers.

While Reinerding was explaining the volumes’ contents, the eyes of one of the servants fell upon a duodecimo volume on the central bookcase’s upper shelf. On its own it was not a particularly attractive work, but its leather binding and decorated spine caused it to stand out from the vellum bindings surrounding it (see the image gallery). This description of Cardinal Gasparo Carpegna’s collection decorated with copperplate prints, which was categorised among the Historica on account of the Roman coins it included, disappeared unnoticed under the servant’s clothing.

After their tour, which lasted nearly three hours, they all returned to the inn, where the thief used a blade to remove the shelf mark on the margin at the bottom of the engraved title page in an attempt to disguise the book’s origins (fig. 3). As the work was in Latin, the servant could have hardly had an interest in keeping it. The ‘raptor’, as Reinerding described him in a letter to Leibniz, sold the book to another servant for a pittance at the tavern that evening ‘beym Trunck oder Spiel’ (while drinking or gaming). The second servant – who may likewise have had no knowledge of Latin but clearly had a keen numismatic interest in the clinking of coins – soon sold it to a nobleman. He just happened to be one of the three noblemen who had visited the library and thus unwittingly uncovered the theft.

He noticed the shelf mark written on the top edge of the smallish tome – 599.24 Hist. – and remembered Reinerding’s rather ponderous explanation of the idiosyncratic classification system (fig. 4). The fact that a shelf mark was even added at all could be put down to the binding: unlike vellum, leather does not offer an appropriate medium for ink, which is why the shelf mark was written on the duodecimo volume’s top edge. Although it was the binding that offered the motivation for the book’s theft, it was also what enabled its return. Suspecting what had happened, the gentleman stowed the book under his coat and paid a second visit to the library secretary with a request that he look up the Maxima numismata rariora in the ducal catalogue. When Reinerding finally told him the shelf mark after some time, the visitor produced the book and set about telling the astonished library secretary the story of how it had come into his possession. The book, which had not yet been missed, had returned, but for Reinerding, in his official capacity, the affair was not yet over. On 26 March he informed the duke of what had happened. The duke asked to be shown the book – naturally this was noted in the loans register – and he promptly ordered his head marshal Friedrich von Steinberg to investigate the matter. When, on 29 March, Reinerding wrote to his superior in Hanover – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – he was able to inform him that the perpetrator was believed to be in Arnstadt. He also noted the book’s brief tavern visit in a short summary written on its flyleaf – a permanent reminder of the incident (fig. 5). Ever since, the book has not only offered a history of the study of antique coins and how these were perceived in early modern times but also obligingly offers information about its own (if only briefly) exciting past. To date, there is no record of any other excursions of a similar nature.


PURL: http://diglib.hab.de/?link=124


Cover image: Giuseppe Monterchi, Giovanni Pietro Bellori: Rariora Maximi Moduli Numismata Selecta Ex Bibliotheca […] Casp. Carpegnae, Amsterdam: Wetstein 1685. HAB: A: 599.24 Hist.

Fig. 1: [Caspar Merian nach Conrad Buno]: F[ürstlich] B[raunschweig-]L[üneburgische] Bibliotheca in Wolffenbüttel, in: Martin Zeiller, Matthäus Merian: Topographia und Eigentliche Beschreibung Der Vornembsten Stäte, Schlösser auch anderer Plätze und Örter in denen Hertzogthümer[n] Braunschweig und Lüneburg, Frankfurt a. M.: Merian 1654, Ausschnitt. HAB: Top 1 a : 05.2. 


[Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig-Lüneburg], ‘Project etlicher Puncten zur instruction für den Fürstl. Bibliothecarius’, 22 July 1686. Hanover, Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv: Hann. 153 Acc. 2004/107 no. 1, shts. 101–112.

Samuel Chappuzeau, Suite de l’Europe vivante, Contenant La Relation d’un Voyage fait en Allemagne Aux Mois d’Avril, May, Iuin, Iuillet & Aoust de l’anné MDCLXIX (Geneva, 1671), 349–351.

Ingrid Recker-Kotulla, ‘Zur Baugeschichte der Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel’, Wolfenbütteler Beiträge: Aus den Schätzen der Herzog August Bibliothek 6 (1983): 1–73.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz et al., Beschreibung der Aufstellung in den Räumen des Marstalls (1695?). HAB: BA II, 202 [n.p.].

Mechthild Raabe, Leser und Lektüre im 17. Jahrhundert: Die Ausleihbücher der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel 1664–1713 (= Leser und Lektüre vom 17. zum 19. Jahrhundert: Die Ausleihbücher der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel 1664–1806, pt. A), vol. 2 of 2 (Munich, 1998), 205.

Johann Thiele Reinerding, letter to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 29 March 1701, in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe; Erste Reihe, Allgemeiner, politischer und historischer Briefwechsel, vol. 19 (Berlin, 2005), 86–88.

Gottlieb Stolle, [Journal der Jahre 1703/04], Wrocław, Biblioteka Uniwersytecka: Cod. IV oct. 49.