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The Sacred and Profane Library The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

E J Clery, Sheffield Hallam University, 1998


Libraries need to be read, not only the books harboured within them. The library represents an order of books, both spatially, in the physical arrangement of volumes and disposition of shelving, chairs and tables, and also textually, in the second-order genre of the catalogue, with its classificatory schemas and codified revelations of presence and absence. The order is born of a species of bibliophilic conception: random or regimented, opulant or frugal, utilitarian or pleasure-seeking. This short introduction to the Corvey Project at the Sheffield Hallam University will begin by examining its material base in the library at Schloss Corvey in Germany, and speculating on the peculiar vision of romantic-era print culture which the collection reveals.



‘ The universe (which others call the Library)...’ J.L. Borges, The Library of Babel1

‘Boullée’ s vision ... converges towards a door that marks the threshold between the profane world of the ignorant and the world of learning’ s elect and towards an allegorical statue in the classical mode, a symbol of the heritage that must be brought together and mastered before new thoughts are conceivable’ Roger Chartier, The Order of Books2

The dream of a universal library containing all the knowledge of the world was pictured by the utopian architect Boullée in his plans for the creation of a library for Louis XVI. The dream was made a reality in a distilled form with the publication of the Encyclopedie, the most characteristic work of the French Enlightenment. But as Roger Chartier’ s comment on Boullée suggests, the project to collect every useful book entails the radical exclusion of the useless or profane.

This is the state of affairs described by Borges in The Library of Babel. ‘When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.’ But ‘an inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression’ ; the accumulation of volumes is overwhelming, the very plenitude of the library threatens to conceal the truth rather than reveal it. One extremist sect undertakes the purification of the library. ‘They invaded the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false, leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole shelves: the hygienic, ascetic furor caused the senseless perdition of millions of books’. The literati of the eighteenth century were similarly vexed by the problem of an embarrassment of riches.

They witnessed and participated in an unprecedented eruption of ideas and fantasies into print, and never before had the discrimination of value appeared so pressing a necessity. In this period, a multitude of reviewing periodicals spring up to patrol the selling and buying of books in the marketplace situated at the threshold of the ideal library.

In Book III of the educational treatise Emile, Rousseau restricts the reading of his adolescent pupil to a single text - Robinson Crusoe: ‘for a long time it will form his whole library’. This austerity is the measure of the threat posed by the random, excessive, intemperate library of any description. Rousseau knew from his own childhood experience how an insentient collection of books could transform itself into an irresistible inner demon. In the Confessions, he tells of how, at the age of five or six, he learned to read by devouring the novels which constituted the library of his dead mother, and was prematurely initiated into the delights of emotional excess. Once it was exhausted, he fell under the countervailing influence of a library formed by his grandfather, a minister and ‘a man of learning’, containing some of the great works of antiquity and of French neoclassicism, and there imbibed the ideals of high public morality. According to Rousseau, the dialectic of the profane library and the sacred library constituted the impossibility of his adult life. It is arguable that the same dialectic informs every aspect of enlightenment print culture and print experience.



‘ Let no profane person enter’

‘ The medicine chest of the soul’

‘ Nutrimentum spiritus - Food for the soul’

(Inscriptions over the entrances of libraries)

The so-called ‘princely library’ is not the first famous collection at Schloss Corvey. The castle was once a great monastery, founded by cousins of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century at what was then the furthest frontier of Christendom. There, production, transmission and preservation of sacred texts was a fundamental part of the missionary work entrusted to the monastery. The library also contained many treasures of classical history and learning, among them the sole surviving text of the Germania by Tacitus. But this and other works were removed and scattered in the seventeenth century at the time of the Thirty Years’ War, when the monastery was bombarded and nearly destroyed.

It was rebuilt however and eventually secularised. In 1812 Victor Amadeus, Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg, inherited Schloss Corvey, and from this time the library took on the form in which it has, for the most part, continued to this day. Into the precincts that had once contained a sacred library, the Landgrave introduced a thoroughly worldly and profane library: a library that was a mirror of the literary production of the new century, that reflected without flattery, that made little or no attempt to discriminate, hierarchise, exclude. Yet this astonishing profligacy was disguised with all the luxurious trappings of conservatism: rich, uniform bindings, specially designed bookcases which concealed the heterodox contents. So successful and complete was the masquerade, that when Victor Amadeus died in 1834, his collection was virtually forgotten.



The German book market in 1800 was a radically altered landscape. Fifty years earlier, publications in the German vernacular were rare. The educated elite read and generally spoke in French; the peasant majority were illiterate; Germany lagged behind France and Britain in the development of industry and commerce, and hence in the growth of a middle class population which, as a broadly-based reading public, would act as a stimulus to literary production and provide adequate economic support for professional authors. Martha Woodmansee has described how ‘a few hundred civic-minded literati’ laboured to create the conditions for a republic of letters, establishing theatres, founding reading societies and periodicals, and cultivating the use of written German.3 Their success was sudden and rapid: the 1760s saw the start of a ‘reading mania’, the Lesewut, which quickly reached such a height that even British observers were astonished by it. Although still only a fraction of the population were literate, they read voraciously, and in the words of James Lackington, the London bookseller, an ‘army of writers’ emerged to serve them.4

The very rapidity of the commercialisation of the literary culture in Germany, no doubt intensified the sense of alienation felt by the literati in the face of this new, devouring monster, the reading public. Johann Adam Bergk writing in 1799 protested:

Reading is supposed to be an educational tool of independence, and most people use it like sleeping pills; it is supposed to make us free and mature, and how many does it serve merely as a way of passing time and as a way of remaining in a condition of eternal immaturity!5

Schiller writes in a spirit of defiance to Goethe in the same year: ‘Since one cannot hope to build and to plant, it is at least something to inundate and destroy. The only possible relationship to the war.’ 6 It is out of this acute disjuncture, in which the writer’ s sense of cultural mission clashes with a literary industry apparently governed more and more tyrannically by demand, that the theory of aesthetic autonomy is first articulated, and the breach between high art and popular culture is formalised in discourse.

Roger Chartier has suggested that the stratification of communities of readers in this period was underlined materially by increasing differentiation of books as commodities, and hence of the various ways in which they were produced, bought and read. ‘It was as if the distinctions among ways to read were progressively reinforced as printed matter became less rare, less often confiscated, and a more ordinary commodity. Whereas the mere possession of a book had long signified cultural difference, with the conquests of printing, reading postures and typographical objects were gradually invested with that function. Henceforth readers of distinction and handsome books stood opposed to hastily printed works and their awkward decipherers.’ 7

These are the characteristic trends of the age which are so magnificently subverted by the library at Corvey, defamiliarising what is perhaps an overly familiar historical narrative. It is a library for plebeians, the despised reading public, collected by a prince for his sole use; a casual mingling of some familiar works, now fixtures in the canon, along with large quantities of ephemera, the common fodder of circulating libraries, forgotten months after appearing if it was ever noticed. All texts are equally dressed in engraved leather covers and placed in glass-panelled cases in high-ceilinged rooms with polished wood floors and large windows overlooking a landscaped park. No records remain of the buying policy for the library, or even of transactions with booksellers or publishers. We can only speculate as to what might have inspired the Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg to purchase a remarkably high percentage of the output of the much-denigrated Minerva Press of Leadenhall Street, London, home of the profiteering gothic shocker.



French is the second language of the Corvey Library, as it was in Germany generally in the period. There is nothing surprising in the high proportion of books in French. The 15,000 volumes in English are however unusual for the time and place: these include histories, memoirs, travel-writing and the whole range of belles-lettres, with novels most fully represented.

The explanation of this abundance of English-language books appears to lie with the wife of the Landgrave, the Princess Elise von Hohenlohe-Langenburg. She was linked to the British crown by kinship: in 1818 her cousin Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen married the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV. The Princess and her husband journeyed to Britain for the ceremony, and while there, she kept a travel journal. But her literary interest is likely to have predated the marriage, since the collecting of English-language works began, perhaps, in the late 1790s. A clue is provided by an earlier correspondence, from the 1780s, between the father of Elise and the celebrated writer Sophie von la Roche, concerning the education of his young daughter.

La Roche was the author of the Geschichte des Frauleins von Sternheim (1771; translated into English in 1776 by Joseph Collyer as The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim), which enjoyed a huge popular success and was hailed as a masterpiece by the new generation of German writers, including Wieland, Goethe, Herder and Merck. It was the first German novel authored by a woman, and was significant and influential in lending a new respectability and sense of moral purpose to the genre. A marked anglophilia was central to this change of direction. The didactic, feminocentric fictions of Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740-1) and Clarissa (1747-8) were clearly indicated as models for La Roche’ s work, both by the epistolary form and by the concern with the inner life of the virtuous heroine. But beyond this, the heroine Sophia Sternheim is characterised strikingly as an anglophile; Wieland in his preface refers to ‘her rather wilful predilection for English lords and every thing originating in their country’.8 The taste for Englishness was a factor in the culture wars of both Germany and France in the late eighteenth century. In reaction against the continuing dominance of the aristocracy and the formal world of the court, it signified a capacity for deep, sincere feeling (the famous English melancholy and inclinaton for suicide), a relatively relaxed social hierarchy due to the strength of the middle classes, an appreciation of private life and domestic virtues, and a consequently high valuation of the moral role and influence of women.

La Roche’ s description of the education of Sophia is telling; in addition to the normal female accomplishments, she is broadly instructed in ‘history, several parts of philosophy, and the languages, of which the English was that in which she made the greatest proficiency, and became almost as much mistress of it, as of her native language’.9 Elise von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, with La Roche’ s long-distance guidance, would have followed a similar programme. There remains in manuscript a translation into German she attempted of Sarah Harriet Burney’ s story The Shipwreck, from one of the volumes in the library at Corvey. It is plausible to imagine that respect for her mentor, and for La Roche’ s achievements as a novelist, leant a kind of moral and pedagogic validity to the amazing novel-buying spree that the Corvey collection represents.

It is also possible that the mass purchase of English literature articulates an oppositional stance within the national culture, as did the invocation of English taste and English values in the writing of La Roche or of Goethe. But if this was the intention, the message was bound to be distorted. The sheer quantity and heterogeneity of the English literary imports belies the idea of a governing motive, ranging as they do from the sensationalism of Charlotte Dacre and the naked commercial opportunism of Mary Meeke, to the moralising of Hannah More or Jane West. The figure of the implied reader is itself unreadable, incoherent. There is the spectre of the female consumer of novels, driven by insatiable appetites: a commonplace of German critical discourse from the early eighteenth century, and a focus for anxieties regarding the democratisation of print.10 But the presence of numerous travelogues, histories and other conventionally ‘improving’ material suggests nevertheless the continuing influence of Sophie von La Roche’ s model pupil. The collection contains the 1776 English translation of The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim; we can suppose some trouble was taken to seek it out.



“I will frankly confess,” rejoined Lysander, “that I am an arrant BIBLIOMANIAC - that I love books dearly - that the very sight, touch, and, more, the perusal -” “Hold, my friend," again exclaimed Philomon, “you have renounced your profession - you talk of reading books - do BIBLIOMANIACS ever read books?”11

The first example of the use of the word ‘bibliomania’ given in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a diary entry by Thomas Hearne, dated 9 November 1734: ‘I should have been tempted to have laid out a pretty deal of money without thinking my self at all touched with Bibliomania’. In 1750 Lord Chesterfield wrote warning his son, ‘Beware of the Bibliomanie’. But the term only achieved common currency in Britain with a work by Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Bibliomania, or Book-madness; containing some account of the history, symptoms, and cure of this fatal disease, first published in 1809. Dibdin’ s Bibliomania is part apologia, part satire, part celebration. The second edition of 1811 is said to have played a role in stoking an actual frenzy of bibliomania in the build-up to the Roxburghe book auction of 1812, when a rare copy of Boccaccio was sold for the fantastic sum of 2,260l. In Dibdin’ s quasi-medical anatomy of the disease he notes the ‘remarkable circumstance’ that ‘it has almost uniformly confined its attacks to the male sex, and, among these, to people in the higher and middling classes of society, while the artificer, labourer, and peasant have escaped wholly uninjured’.12 It is a disease of affluence and a male pathology; a form of fetishism which averts a socially symbolic castration.

The proposals for cures are indicative. Bibliophilic desire is to be channelled into useful productive or reproductive tasks: the study of ‘profitable’ works, reprinting or editing of rare texts, ‘erecting of Public Institutions’ which would replace the (typically feminised) circulating libraries ‘vehicles too often, of insufferable nonsense, and irremediable mischief’, and last but not least, serious bibliography.13 Dibdin gamely attempted some of these cures himself: he founded the Roxburghe club which brought together some of the most notorious bibliomaniacs of the day and made the annual republication of a rare book a condition of membership; he applied himself to bibliography, eventually producing a very bad but widely consulted catalogue of the library of Lord Spencer. And perhaps the cures worked, for in later life he published a work called Bibliophobia.

It is not difficult to divine some of the socio-historical causes of the early nineteenth-century epidemic of bibliomania. The symptoms of the disease - the hankering after large paper copies, uncut copies, illustrated copies, unique copies, first editions, true editions, and a ‘general desire for Black Letter’ - all point to a revulsion against the new realities of the book market. They display a yearning for idiosyncracy and rarity against a background of the mass production and mass consumption of books; books poorly printed on cheap paper and bound in paper covers; disposable books bought or borrowed for a few pennies or a shilling in unprecedented quantities by the vulgar, and read with such gross promiscuity, such gluttinous indifference, that the very act of reading comes to appear vulgar.

The library at Corvey is the perfect monument of this historical and bibliographical intersection. Perfect and paradoxical. The otherwise respectable Landgrave Victor Amadeus von Hesse-Rotenburg was clearly a victim of bibliomania. The evidence suggests that collecting was for him an end in itself. Nothing in his biography reveals any extraordinary taste for reading. The owner of several estates, he designated Corvey as the receptacle of his book collection, and he and his wife were rarely in residence there. It is entirely in keeping that the library occupies a suite of rooms on the first floor, space normally designated as family living quarters within an aristocratic household. Yet in this case book-buying fetishism assumes a novel and genuinely perverse character: instead of expending itself on the rare jewels of the book world, it is devoted to the acquisition and glorification of dross.

The Corvey Library, with all its egregious profanity, should be understood as ‘sacred’ in the complex sense formulated by the librarian and philosopher Georges Bataille. The ‘heterology’ of Bataille relates to all that is external to or extruded by the dominant systems of social value. It is ‘the science of what is completely other’,14 committed to the analysis of the useless, the incoherent, the abject, in inner experience and social organisation. In opposition to the laws of use-value and profitable exchange dominant in the West, Bataille posits the ritual destruction of goods found in tribal societies as a transgressive ideal. But when, as in the case of the popular fiction, destruction corresponds to the principle of utility, when commodities are defined by built-in obsolescence, then the ritual conservation of the princely library at Corvey becomes, conversely, a type of irrational expenditure, a heroic and pointless sacrifice, an act of making sacred, a violation of the restricted economy which had condemned the majority of these texts to a quick extinction.

It is often said of the popular novels of the period, that copies were simply ‘read to pieces’, hence their rarity today. Rapid destruction or obliteration, and immediate replacement with more of the same, was (and is) the working principle of the modern book trade, and the circulating library was the emblem of this frenzied cycle. In relation to the origins of the mass culture industry, Corvey stands as the equivalent of the Pyramids, a sublime folly which seems to parody the serious business of economic and cultural reproduction by its elevation of base matter to fetish, and by its sheer, ludicrous excess.



1) Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970), p. 78.

2) Roger Chartier, The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (London, Polity Press, 1994), p. 63.

3) Martha Woodmansee, ‘The Interests in Disinterestedness: Karl Philipp Moritz and the Emergence of the Theory of Aesthetic Autonomy in Eighteenth-Century Germany’, Modern Language Quarterly, 45 (1984), p. 36.

4) Cit. Woodmansee, ‘Interests in Disinterestedness’, p. 38.

5) Die Kunst, Bücher zu lesen, nebst Bemerkungen über Schriften und Schriftstellar (Jena, 1799), p. 407. Cit. and trans. Woodmansee, ‘Interests in Disinterestedness’, p.42.

6) June 25, 1799, in Der Breifwechsel zwischen Schiller und Goethe, ed. Emil Staiger (Frankfurt am Main, Insel, 1966), p. 770; cit. and trans. Woodmansee, ‘Interests in Disinterestedness’, p.43.

7) Chartier, Order of Books, p. 16.

8) Sophie von La Roche, The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim, ed. James Lynn (London, Pickering & Chatto, 1991), p. 8.

9) La Roche, Sophia Sternheim, p. 29.

10) See Stephen K. Schindler, ‘The Critic of Pornographer: Male Fantasies of Female Reading in Eighteenth-Century Germany’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 20 (November 1996), pp. 66-80.

11) Thomas Frognall Dibdin, The Bibliomania; or Book-Madness, rev. ed. (London, Chatto & Windus, 1876), Part 1, p. 4.

12) Dibdin, Bibliomania, ‘Preliminary Observations’, p. 11.

13) Dibdin, Bibliomania, ‘Preliminary Observations’, pp. 43ff.

14) Georges Bataille, ‘The Use-Value of D.A.F. de Sade’, in The Bataille Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford, Blackwell, 1997), p.159; see also ‘Introduction’, pp.18-9.

© Copyright 1998 E J Clery / Sheffield Hallam University