Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


Today, we are going to visit Heidelberg, the city where the earliest German University was founded in 1386. On account of its romantic setting, it became one of the internationally popular institutions in the 19th century. Here, we will visit the University Library, where the manuscript we are to discuss today is housed. It is on the shelf in the Department of Manuscripts, bound in a modest working cover of the 19th century.


We shall embark on a journey of more than 500 years into the past and through some very trying times that helped shape present-day Central Europe. Finding the manuscript was not an earth-shaking discovery, but rather the following of the Haensel-and- Gretel trail of crumbs which were dropped by a book on medieval trades by Gerhard Eis, and the later mention of the manuscript by Leonie von Wilckens, the now deceased Curator of Textiles at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. It is part of the famous Palatina Collection of the University of Heidelberg, that is to say, it once belonged to a prince of the Palatinate.

The manuscript was collected some time before the 1550's by Ottheinrich (1502-1559), then count Palatine of Palatinate-Neuburg. He was a lavish Protestant Renaissance Prince, a notable collector and bibliophile. This ran him into great financial trouble - especially in view of his pocket-size realm - and his eclectic art collection counting many famous Italian paintings and objets d’art wound up on the auction block, since the trades no longer consented to support his extravagant lifestyle by paying his debt. He had to lie low and leave the country for a while. His magnificent castle from that time at Neuburg can still be admired today. He was able to hold on to his collection of books, though. Many of his book acquisitions were a direct result of the many closings of monasteries and convents due to the wave of the Reformation that swept Germany - in most cases these collections were thus saved from destruction. In 1556, he succeeded to the hereditary title of Elector Palatine, thus joining the rather powerful club of princes that elected the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Ottheinrich immediately proceeded to remodel Heidelberg Castle in the Renaissance style, and he combined his library with that of the University and placed it into the upper story of the Church of the Holy Ghost, to be made available to scholars and other interested folks who were able to read. He also provided a generous endowment, so that the library could continue to be developed and prosper. Here, the collection served the university, which was reborn as a reformation institution with Philip Melanchthon at the helm.

This state of affairs of the library lasted until the 15th of September in 1622 when, in the 4th year of the terrible conflagration of the 30 years’ war, which laid waste to so much of Central Europe, Heidelberg was sacked by Count Tilly who was in command of the Catholic forces. The castle went up in flames, the city was pillaged during three days of horror and the library, which had been on the Pope’s shopping list for quite a few years was packed up, crated in boxes made from the wood ripped from the church pews and sent to the Vatican, where it arrived in early 1623. This involved University books, as well as the Palatina Collection, a total of 3600 manuscripts and more than 12,000 prints. The ruins of the castle above the city are a testimonial to those days of horror.