The duchy* of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, in northern Germany, consisted of nine distinct areas that were not all connected to each other. During the Renaissance, it became a center of scholarship and home to one of the largest libraries in Europe.
Members of the merchant class in Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel joined the Protestant Reformation* early on. For many years, they pressured their Catholic dukes to become Protestant. When Duke Julius mounted the throne in 1568, he converted the duchy to Lutheranism. His reign brought a dramatic rise in humanist* learning to the court.
In 1572 Duke Julius founded a court library in Wolfenbüttel. He contributed many treasures from his own collection, including a variety of valuable medieval* manuscripts taken from former monasteries after he abolished Catholicism in his realm. Four years later, Julius founded the University of Helmstedt, mainly to educate Lutheran clergy members. However, the school's policies stressed the need for a broad humanist program. Later decades brought a series of independent-minded teachers to the university, including the philosopher Giordano Bruno.
During the rule of Duke August the Younger (1635–1666), the library expanded to over 135,000 works, becoming one of the largest in Europe. In contrast to other book-loving aristocrats, August was not just a collector but also a librarian. At a time when cataloging was rare, even in university libraries, he sorted and cataloged his library into 20 subject areas. August also acquired countless treasures of medieval and Renaissance book art.
Later dukes and duchesses of Wolfenbüttel donated valuable collections to the library, though none as systematically as August. At the beginning of the 1700s, the ruling duke commissioned a building to house the collection. Called the Bibliotheca Rotunda, this became the first library building in Europe that was not associated with a church. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who served as librarian in Wolfenbüttel from 1691 to 1716, oversaw the planning for the Rotunda. The building later became a model for libraries at Oxford University and the British Museum.
- * duchy
territory ruled by a duke or duchess
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe