Behold 3,000 Digitized Manuscripts from the Bibliotheca Palatina: The Mother of All Medieval Libraries Is Getting Reconstructed Online

The inter­net, one occa­sion­al­ly hears, has over­tak­en the func­tion of the library. In terms of stor­ing and mak­ing acces­si­ble all of human knowl­edge, the ways in which the capac­i­ties of the inter­net match or exceed those of even the most enor­mous library seem obvi­ous. In the­o­ry, dig­i­tal libraries don’t burn down, at least when prop­er­ly set up, nor, with their abil­i­ty to exist above nation­al bound­aries, do they get sacked by invad­ing armies. Even so, as Google recent­ly proved when its years-long book-dig­i­ti­za­tion effort Project Ocean came up against legal obsta­cles, the phys­i­cal realm has­n’t quite ced­ed to the online one.

“When the library at Alexan­dria burned it was said to be an ‘inter­na­tion­al cat­a­stro­phe,’ ” writes The Atlantic’s James Somers in a piece on the ambi­tious, trou­bled project. When the court ruled against Google’s ver­sion, though, few­er tears were shed.

At least when Hei­del­berg’s Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na, the most impor­tant library of the Ger­main Renais­sance, became a piece of booty in the Thir­ty Years’ War in 1622, its 5,000 print­ed books and 3,524 man­u­scripts remained, in some sense, avail­able — albeit split, from then on, between Hei­del­berg and the Vat­i­can’s Bib­liote­ca Apos­toli­ca Vat­i­cana.

“At the begin­ning of the 17th cen­tu­ry,” says, the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na “was known as ‘the great­est trea­sure of Germany’s learned.’ As a uni­ver­sal library, it con­tains not only the­o­log­i­cal, philo­log­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal works but also med­ical, nat­ur­al his­to­ry, and astro­nom­i­cal texts.” Now, its “core inven­to­ry” of approx­i­mate­ly 3,000 man­u­scripts has become avail­able free online at the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na Dig­i­tal. Since 2001, says its site, “Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty Library has been work­ing on sev­er­al projects that aim to dig­i­tize parts of this great col­lec­tion, the final goal being a com­plete vir­tu­al recon­struc­tion of the ‘moth­er of all libraries.’ ”

From there you can browse the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na Dig­i­tal’s Codices Pala­ti­ni ger­mani­ci, “the largest and old­est undi­vid­ed col­lec­tion of extant Ger­man-lan­guage man­u­scripts”; the Codices Pala­ti­ni lati­ni, where “you will even­tu­al­ly be able to access more than 2,000 Latin man­u­scripts”; and the Codices Pala­ti­ni grae­ci, which hous­es “dig­i­tal fac­sim­i­les of 29 Greek man­u­scripts which are now kept in Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty Library.” It also offers sec­tions on the his­to­ry of the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na; on the Codex Manesse, “the world’s rich­est anthol­o­gy of medi­ae­val Ger­man song”; and (for now in Ger­man only) on the man­u­scripts’ dec­o­ra­tions and the insight they pro­vide into “the the­mat­i­cal­ly diverse art of medi­ae­val book-mak­ing.” And none of it sub­ject to sack­ing — unless, of course, his­to­ry has a par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty sur­prise in store for us.

Enter the Dig­i­tal Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er Euro­peana Col­lec­tions, a Por­tal of 48 Mil­lion Free Art­works, Books, Videos, Arti­facts & Sounds from Across Europe

Dis­cov­er the Jacobean Trav­el­ing Library: The 17th Cen­tu­ry Pre­cur­sor to the Kin­dle

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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