The Uses of Provenance Evidence: Reconstructing the Fifteenth-Century Library of Scheyern Abbey, Bavaria

By McQuillen, John T. | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

The Uses of Provenance Evidence: Reconstructing the Fifteenth-Century Library of Scheyern Abbey, Bavaria


McQuillen, John T., The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


In "The Uses of Provenance," the 1969 Zeitlin & Ver Brugge Bibliography lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, Pierpont Morgan Library director Frederick B. Adams described various aspects of provenance evidence: bindings, armorials, inscriptions, bookplates, and so forth. (1) He focused considerable attention on the historical uses of provenance, the way that it establishes the pedigree of the object, with such-and-such book being owned by this king, this noble, or this collector, and the historical importance of such identifications. This is the first step in provenance research: the simple identification of the who, what, where, and when. Providing an individual volume with such specific historical association is sometimes an end unto itself.

Provenance has become a hot topic in book and library history in the last several decades, and publications, conferences, databases, and listservs abound. (2) This is not the place for a full summary of recent work in provenance studies, as highly desirable as that would be; but a few examples of recent work illustrate the possibilities in the expanding field of provenance research, especially in the field of incunabula research. The Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) is one example: its Web site is a growing resource for provenance studies. (3) Although CERL has hosted conferences on this topic, looking through the papers published from CERL conferences on other topics shows the increasing role provenance data is playing across the field of book history. Typically any discussion of a historical library or an individual copy of a book must deal with provenance questions. (4)

Also thanks to CERL, two exceptional tools for incunabula provenance are now available online (and are ones that I use heavily): Paul Needhams Index Possessorum Incunabulorum (IPI) and the Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) database. (5) Needham compiled the IPI from the provenance inscriptions and identifications of thousands of incunabula, library catalogues, and sale catalogues, whereas the data in the MEI database is added by participating libraries updating copy-specific characteristics (i.e., style of decoration, binding, manuscript annotations) of their individual copies. The centralized collection of so much provenance data from libraries around the world will be of great benefit to provenance research and book history. Rare book cataloguing needs to continue bringing these copy-specific aspects to the fore, and individual publication by institutions, as well as data sharing through such databases as MEI, is integral to the future of rare book studies. Such resources are already utilized by librarians and curators to identify comparanda for the unknown historical identity of their volumes; they allow for the reconstruction of former collections and will help research examining the place of the book in culture and society. (6)

My focus in this article is provenance evidence as a basis for reconstruction of one historical collection: the fifteenth-century library of Scheyern Abbey in Bavaria. The original house-cloister and mausoleum of the Wittelsbach dynasty of Bavaria, this Benedictine abbey was founded by 1119 and had a flourishing scriptorium in the early thirteenth century. It reacted to the literary imperatives of the fifteenth-century Melk Reform movement by building a library of approximately seven hundred volumes by the end of the century. The monastery was dissolved in 1803 in the course of the Bavarian Secularization, and the bulk of Scheyerns manuscripts and early printed books in the library at the time went to the Hofbibliothek in Munich (now the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek). Scheyern Abbey was then refounded in 1838 and reseeded with duplicate volumes from the Hofbibliothek, but few of the original Scheyern books, save their 1452 customary (Scheyern Abbey, Ms 37), were returned to the monastery. (7)

I undertook research on the collection for my doctoral work; my concern was with how the Scheyern library developed in the fifteenth century as a result of the revolutionary changes in book (i. …

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