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Gillian Bepler: ‘Dynastic women’s libraries in early modern Germany’

by on March 25, 2010

On 12 March 2010, the Seminar on History of the Book heard about “Dynastic women and their libraries in early modern Germany,” from Gillian Bepler, of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel.

A cast of strong women, some of them learned and some politically powerful, populated Dr Bepler’s talk. These included Eleonora Catherine von Hesse-Eschweger (1626-1692) who served as regent of her husband’s German lands after his death in 1655. She built up a library of juridical, historical, and geographical works to support her in these duties.

Documents containing the details of women’s libraries were generated by momentous events in women’s lives. Marriage or death would require an inventory of property, of course. But other events might draw attention to a woman’s personal property, and especially to reading matter. Anna of Orange, Princess of Saxony (1544-1577), had an evidently unhappy marriage with William I of Orange. When she bore a child by Jan Rubens, father of the painter, William sent her away from court. Her books were seized and inspected. Were the French romances, such as Amadis de Gaul, discovered in her library, evidence that novels aroused improper emotions in women?

Anna Sophia of Brandenburg (1598-1659), married to the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg, fled from her husband’s home under the pretext of a visit to her family when her liaison with an army officer was about to be exposed. Books being too bulky to carry without arousing suspicion, these had to be left behind. The Duke ordered her apartments sealed and a room inventory was made, which had the benefit for historians of noting where Anna Sophia kept her books, recording such details as the devotional works kept in a writing desk. What a library today would call a shelflist is able to evoke the picture of an early-modern woman keeping her own private spiritual diary.

A key point of law obtaining in some German states was the concept of “Gerade”, property belonging only to the wife, and descending only to female heirs. This special status was for property considered the “woman’s realm”, such as household linen, and applied also to personal items such as jewelery. Books owned by and read by a woman came under the rules of Gerade. The difficulty of tracing some of the collections of books belonging to German dynastic women is due to the movement of these collections, through inheritance, to the homes of their female relatives. These were other dynastic women who, as Dr Bepler’s paper made clear, might be married away to homes far from their native lands.

The Seminar is convened at All Souls College each Hilary Term by Prof. Ian Maclean.
— from Alexandra Franklin

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