The Library consists in reality
of two Library collections: those of the Sélestat Latin
School and of the great humanist, Beatus Rhenanus.
It is intimately connected to the
prodigious rise of one the best known Latin Schools of the Holy
Roman Empire. One may consider it as the most precious "relic"
of a particularly glorious age, not only for Sélestat,
but for all of Alsace.
In 1441, the parish priest, Johann von Westhus, and the civil
authorities placed an educator of great talent at the head of
the school, Ludwig Dringenberg, who introduced the methods of
rhenish humanism. Under his headmastership (1441-1477), then that
of his successors, Crato Hofmann (1477-1501), Hieronymus Gebwiler
(1501-1509), and Johann Sapidus (1510-1525), the number of students
increased continuously. It has been said that there were some
900 in 1515. Nearly the entire first generation of Alsatians humanists
was educated in the school.
All schools need reading material and a library. Obtaining books
was a very difficult task at a time when manuscripts were rare
and expensive. In 1452, when the parish priest Johann von Westhus
donated some thirty long manuscripts to the school, he was far
from realizing that in doing so he was founding one of the most
prestigious libraries in the Western World. Dringenberg also,
not long before his death, donated books to the school, as a bequest.
The famous Selestadian humanist Jakob Wimpfeling offered precious
incunabula to the school every time he visited his home town.
Martin Ergersheim, parish priest from 1503 to 1518, gave over
his rich private library, which contained more than 100 volumes.
The school's library was located on the second floor of a chapel
on the south side of the parish church. The books were placed
on tables or on lecterns. Many were chained to their stands to
protect them from theft or, more generally, to prevent home borrowing.
The Library of Beatus
Some few days before his death,
which occurred on the 15th of July 1547, the illustrious scholar
Beatus Rhenanus, the close friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam, bequeathed
to his home town all of his books (some 670 volumes), one of the
best and finest libraries of that time.
As public establishments loaning books were extremely rare then,
every learned person had to constitute a personal library. That
of Beatus was the passion of an entire life. As a pupil in Sélestat
he possessed already some sixty works.
During his four years of study at the University of Paris, he
acquired 188 volumes. Then he had a long and rich career in Basel
and in Sélestat. Little by little, the shelves of his library
were filled. His personal fortune allowed him to buy nearly all
the books that he needed for his historical and literary studies.
Former professors or fellow students regularly sent their works
to him. The Basel printer, Johann Froben, obviously gave him copies
of the authors which our humanist, as philologist and corrector,
These then are the treasures that became the property of the town
in 1547. It is a very considerable collection for its time; all
the more so as a large number of the books are composite volumes
containing as many as fifteen different works. It is also unique,
in that the magnificent libraries of the other great humanists
have been dispersed. Our "Rhenana" is the sole witness
to that age of great intellectual effervescence. It allows one
not only to follow the thought of one of the most famous humanists,
but also to seize more concretely the literary and religious interests
of a great period in our history.