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« Tuna 3 / 2017

Three Sources of Tallinn’s Old Library: on Stocking the Library in the 16th Century

Tallinn’s former municipal library, which was located at the Church of St. Olaf, was most probably founded in 1552, but no sources from that time period concerning this library have survived. Nevertheless, the lists of books drawn up by two successive librarians who were responsible for the library in the 17th century, Heinrich Bröcker (in office 1658–1667) and Jacob Felssberg (1668–1684), make it possible to glance at the library’s early development. Since the greater part of the books that were in the library in the 17th century have been preserved to this day in the Baltic collection of the Tallinn University Academic Library, it is possible to obtain valuable additional information from the books themselves: from the design of the bindings, from notations concerning donors or former owners, and from notes written by users.

Books “from the old Tallinn Library” (von der alten Revalschen Bibliothec) are entered in the first part of H. Bröcker’s list on pages 4–8. Bröcker denotes books that had been in the library before his time as librarian with this designation, most of which are from the 15th – 16th centuries. Since this study considers the story of the establishment of the library in the 1550s – 1560s, 28 of the 160 volumes on the list “from the old Tallinn Library”, which arrived in the library at the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century, are not taken into consideration in the following. These are mostly notes that had still been in use at the Church of St. Olaf in the 17th century. Bröcker has focused his main attention on the books that arrived at the library during his time in office, the entries of which fill the greater part of his list. The books that were previously in the library were most likely entered from time to time over a longer period of time, perhaps over the entire period of Bröcker’s tenure, which is indicated by the frequently changing handwriting and the empty space left here and there, which was evidently meant for additional future entries. Some of the books that had previously been in the library have obviously been left out of his list, as is indicated by comparison with the list drawn up by J. Felssberg, and by information obtained from the bindings of and entries in the books. On top of everything else, Bröcker has not registered a single old book in a format smaller than quarto format; yet considering later preservation rates, it can be assumed that only a few such books had survived “from the old Tallinn Library”. Bröcker gleaned all of his information on the books from the books themselves. There is no reason to assume that any earlier list had served as a model for him.

The previous origin of the greater portion of older books registered by Bröcker is known: it is not known for only 21 books. The books “from the old Tallinn Library” can be divided into three groups according to the sources from where they arrived at the library: the books that had belonged to Reinhold Grist, the last catholic priest of the Church of St. Olaf who died in 1551, which perhaps provided the impulse for the birth of the library; books received in 1564 from among the property that had most likely belonged to the Franciscan abbey in Rakvere; and books donated by Tallinners in the 1550s and 1560s. The heritage of Reinhold Grist has previously been studied the most thoroughly: it is a collection of books that is quite large in terms of its number of books, but in terms of its composition it is rather typical for a pre-Reformation cleric. The list of Grist’s book collection is also deposited in the Tallinn City Archive. Forty-nine of the 137 titles listed there very likely have been preserved to this day. Among other things, the substantive outdatedness of this catholic-oriented collection in Tallinn, which was already long since Lutheran, could have already caused rather extensive losses during the first century of the St. Olaf ’s library. Grist’s books are mostly in beautiful and durable, and thus also relatively expensive, bindings, yet are generally without any traces of use. The fact that the newest books of those that have survived were published in 1518 and that the collection was no longer added to after that point in time, even though Grist was well-off through to the end of his life, is astonishing.

Only three of the volumes from Rakvere have been identified according to the entries in them, and another three have been identified by way of Bröcker’s notes, which quite likely refer to entries that have perished by now but were once found written in the books in question. Five volumes from Rakvere have been identified on the basis of the similarity of their bindings. Eleven volumes contain a total of 18 different publications. Additionally, a few more books with content of a similar orientation can presumably be connected to Rakvere. Pre-Reformation books, some of which were published before the founding of Rakvere abbey in 1506–1508, form a typical late-medieval abbey library stratum with something of a humanist aura. On the other hand, the content of the works in identical bindings that were published in 1530–1540 is almost invariably anti-Lutheran polemics — this probably characterises well the abbey’s main field of activity at that time.

Thirty of the 51 volumes that are known to have been donated by Tallinn’s citizens and the city’s commander of the Teutonic Order during the years 1555–1562 have survived. They are all large-format books in light-coloured Renaissance bindings with typical ornamentation in blind stamping. The similarity of the binding design allows the conclusion that they were all bound in one Tallinn bindery. The name of the donor and the year in which the book was donated are written in the books in the same handwriting. In terms of content, they are mostly the works of Martin Luther and the church fathers. While the former is entirely in accordance with expectations, it is difficult to connect a penetrating interest in the church fathers in Tallinn of that time with any other known cultural currents. The works of Luther’s closest fellow combatants are not represented, yet on the other hand, 10 volumes of the Magdeburg Centuries treatment of the ecclesiastical history of the so-called Gnesio-Lutherans were part of the collection. There is nevertheless also other evidence of Gnesio-Lutheran orientation in pre-Livonian War Tallinn. In any case, this kind of unity in both content and form indicates that wealthy townspeople had acquired these books according to a wish list especially for donating them to the library, and that these were not books that had previously belonged to the private libraries of townspeople. The books were also brand new at the time when they were donated, and most had been published less than five years prior to their donation.