The Liberei in Braunschweig

The Liberei in Braunschweig –

a medieval library ahead of its time

The Liberei in Braunschweig

Braunschweig in approx. 1550 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Liberei in Braunschweig is a unique medieval building:  1. It was the first free-standing library building in Europe north of the Alps.  2. It was the southern-most example of Backsteingotik. 3. It was one of the first public libraries in Germany.  4. It was a famous centre for research.  Quite remarkable for a building of just 5 by 5 metres.

The Liberei stands the Kröppelstrasse, next to the St Andreas Church (marked “A” on the left hand side of the above picture).  This is the church of the Neustadt “new town” part of Braunschweig.  The term “new” is a bit confusing today.  The Neustadt was planned and created in the late 12th century, replacing an earlier fishing village.  The earliest record dates from 1232.  The church, which replaced an earlier village church, goes back to 1225-30, finished in 1250, although there were later changes and additions.  The citizens of the Neustadt were mostly tradesmen, predominantly weavers and smiths making copper and brass pots.[i]

I discovered that this medieval gem is just around the corner from where we used to live when I was a child.   Surprisingly, I never knew about it.  It was only when I returned recently, more than 50 years later, that I discovered that we had lived so close to such an important building.  Of course, I wanted to find out more.

The Liberei in Braunschweig

The Liberei seen from the west

1. The oldest purpose-built library north of the Alps

The word Liberei has its origins in the Latin words liber “book” and libraria “collection of books”, just as the English term library.[ii]  It is said that the building in Braunschweig is the oldest purpose-built library north of the Alps.  At the time, only religious houses and universities, as well as a few very wealthy private people, would have collections of books. Books, i.e. manuscripts, were very valuable, so they needed to be kept safe.  They were mostly stored in boxes or cupboards which could be locked, or even a separate room, although this room would originally have bene built for a different purpose.  Libraries in the sense of collections of books did, of course, exist in Braunschweig before the Liberei.  The largest was that of the cathedral chapter.  The Franciscan friary (now Brüdernkirche) is also known to have had an extensive collection.  However, all these collections were stored in facilities or rooms which would have been built for a different purpose altogether, whereas the Liberei was specifically built for books.

The Liberei in Braunschweig

Brüdernkirche in Braunschweig – the former Franciscan Friary

Construction of the building was started in 1412 by the then rector of St Andreas, Johann Ember.  However, at St Andreas an interest in books and collecting them had begun approx. 100 years earlier, by the then rector, Magister Jordanus.  When Jordanus died on 3 September 1309, he left 18 theological manuscripts to the church so that the priest and his chaplains could study them.  To make sure that these valuable books were taken good care of and not sold, he stipulated that each of his successors had to sign a document listing all titles and pay a bond to the dean of the cathedral chapter.  We have a second list, which was written down when his successor, Magister Bruno Luckemann, took over.  Some books are not included in this list, whereas one is added.  However, this seems to be just an error of the scribe.  The next list was composed on 10 October 1336, when after Luckemann’s death Orthgis took over.  This is identical with the initial one, as it was with the next incumbent, Claus von Solvede (March 1358 to 1360).  In 1365, Ludolf von Steinfurt became the next rector.  He contributed twelve more books to the collection.  He resigned from his post in 1393, though he only died in 1401.   In 1399, Johann Ember was given the living of St Andreas.

2. Johann Ember and the Liberei

Ember was born in approx. 1365, probably in Hannover.[iii]  He studied in Prague, where he was admitted to the bachelor of arts exam in 1382. Ember must also have studied canonical law, possibly at the university of the Roman curia and at Bologna.   To receive St Andreas, he had to change certain entitlements with his nephew Konrad. Although he held several other positions, it is said that St Andreas became the centre of his life.

He donated further manuscripts to the collection of St Andreas and decided that they would best be kept in a separate building.  In 1412, he undertook to build the library, if the elders paid a certain sum (which they did), and he would cover the rest.   In exchange, Ember requested two masses per year for his and his parents’ souls.  A draft for the donation document is extant in the city archives (or was at least in 1901, when Heinrich Nentwig’s article was published).  This also includes strict instructions about the desks to which the books were to be chained.  After all, books were at that time, before the arrival of the printing press, very high-value items.  It also determined who would be responsible for the keys.

On 25 September 1412, Ember and the church elders agreed on a contract with “Master Mason Heinrich, son of Master Werner” from Lüneburg.   As this is the first time in northern Europe that a building was constructed for the exclusive use as a library, this is an extremely important document.

According to the contract, the building should have been completed by Whitsunday 1413.  However, it was only finished approx. 10 years later, probably in 1422.  There were misunderstandings with the elders, but the main obstacle was the so-called Pfaffenkrieg.  The Pfaffenkrieg was a conflict between the city council and the St Blasius cathedral chapter between 1413 and 1420.[iv]  As he represented the cathedral chapter (of which he was a member), Ember became to be seen as the prime opponent of the city and he had to leave Braunschweig in 1413.  St Andreas also stayed closed during this time.  Ember could only return after the end of the conflict, seven years later.  The new-found peace is commemorated by three coats of arms on the southern wall (see below).

After the end of the conflict, the project was taken up again in 1422.  A contract between Johann Ember and the two chairmen of St Andreas of 25 April 1422 again regulates the responsibilities of both sides for the construction, the interior decoration of the library, its later financial upkeep, as well as storage and use of the books.

The exact date when the Liberei was completed is not known, but it is generally assumed to have been later in 1422.

3. The southern-most example of Backsteingotik

The Liberei is also architecturally remarkable.  Most buildings in medieval Braunschweig were half-timbered, indeed it was considered the largest half-timbered city in Germany.  The Liberei, however, was built in the so-called Backsteingotik “brick gothic”, a style which we usually find in northern Germany and along the Baltic Sea.  It is the only medieval brick building in Braunschweig and the southern-most example of this medieval building style.

The Liberei in Braunschweig

Southern side of the Liberei

The contract of 1412 had specified that the library should be built of bricks.  The reason was probably that a brick building was safer than a half-timbered one in the event of fire.  Since the 13th-century people in the city had built small square stone houses in backyards for just this reason.  However, stone was expensive and might have been out of reach for the church and its priest[v].  While this style was unusual for Braunschweig, there are several 14th-century examples of it in Ember’s hometown Hannover.  Master mason Heinrich came from Lüneburg, where brick was widely used, so he built the library in the style he was used to from home.  Maybe that is the reason why a builder from another town was chosen rather than a local one?

The Liberei is a small building, just 25 square metres, with two storeys, with one room each, each accessible by stairs from the outside.  Both rooms have a gothic ceiling.  The bottom one, which is partially underground, was originally the reading room, although the room has very little natural light, just small windows facing east.  The top room is much lighter as it has six pointed double windows.  Next to the entrance there is a small recess which probably once contained a lockable cupboard.

The building has stepped gables to the north and south.  While the north one is quite plain, the south one, facing Kröppelstrasse, is the one on show.  The gable is decorated with four blind niches, outlined with glazed and shaped bricks with a vertical emphasis.  Where the gable meets the façade, there is a frieze of 17 lions walking from right to left, looking at the observer.  Underneath the frieze are three coats of arms:  to the left is the one of the chapter of St Blasius Cathedral (three lions), in the middle the lion of Braunschweig (the city council) and on the right arms with three buckets, as Johann Ember’s surname is based on the German word for bucket, Eimer.

The Liberei in Braunschweig

Lion coat of arms of the Braunschweig city council

4. One of the first public libraries in Germany

The contract of 25 April 1422 contains a list of all the books of the library at that time, which then included the original 18 donated by Magister Jordanus, the 12 donated by Ludolf von Steinfurt and Ember’s own collection.   After Ember’s death, it would have been a total of 52 books.  All books were to be kept chained to reading desks.  The contract also determines who has access to the books.  Ember was the only one allowed to take any books off-site and then only one or two for a limited time.  All other readers had to read them in the library.  It also explicitly says who the readers could be: “venerable priests, chaplains and citizens of Braunschweig”.  The last group was a truly remarkable inclusion for its time when most church libraries were only accessible to clerics.  This means that the Liberei was one of the first public libraries in Germany.

Ember had not long to enjoy his library.  As part of the negotiations to end the Pfaffenkrieg, he resigned from St Andreas. The new rector was Ludolf Quirre[vi], who like Ember came from Hannover. Ember died in July 1423 in Magdeburg but was buried in the churchyard of St Andreas.  On 24 March 1424, Quirre took the oath and paid the bond for the library to the dean of the cathedral chapter (Magister Jordanus’ regulation was still in place), but it was found that instead of 52 books there were only 48.  What had happened to the four others is not known.

Ludolf Quirre was born in approx. 1395.  After his studies, he became the secretary of the local duke.  As this duke held the advowson of St Andreas, he was presented as Ember’s successor.  He received the living on 29 September 1422, but there was a tiny problem:  he was not yet an ordained priest.  A lengthy legal wrangling followed.  He was eventually ordained in 1429 in Rome.  He managed to hold on to St Andreas until his death in 1463, but this benefice was only one among many more for this ambitious cleric.  There are hardly any records of him in connection with the library, which apparently did not interest him.  The same was true for his successors.

5. Gerwin von Hameln – creating a famous centre for research

However, there was another man, who transformed the Liberei into a library of international fame:  Gerwin von Hameln[vii].  Born in approx. 1415 in Braunschweig, he came from a respected family of tradesmen.  He began studying at the University of Leipzig in 1433 but did not receive an academic degree.  By 1438 at the latest, he was back in Braunschweig, where he became the city recorder, the second highest public servant in a city.  He was to hold this office for over 50 years until his death in 1496.  A great number of documents from his time in office are still extant and show his diligence and attention to detail.  In appreciation of his work, the city council awarded him a life annuity.

Like most public notaries of his time, Gerwin belonged to minor clerical orders.  In April 1445, he was given a lucrative living at the Heilig-Geist-Kapelle “Holy Ghost Chapel”, though the pastoral work was probably carried out by a paid deputy as he was not an ordained priest.

At the time, it was not unusual for the minor orders to be married.  So was Gerwin and had two sons.  However, a decree in 1435 stipulated that all married clergy had to separate from their wives or lose their jobs.  He seems to have obeyed the instruction as neither wife nor sons are mentioned in his last will, though he arranged annuities to support his sons after his death.  As Gerwin was in his 80s when he died, his wife had probably predeceased him and his sons must have been financially independent too.

It is not quite clear why it was Gerwin who took over the administration of the Liberei after Quirre’s death rather than the new rector (whose responsibility it would have been according to Ember’s instructions).  Whatever the reason, it was very fortunate that he did.

Gerwin lived opposite from St Andreas and was very involved in its affairs.  And he loved books and had the financial means to enjoy his hobby.  He stored his private collection in the Liberei.

It was during his lifetime that the invention of the printing press and paper made books more affordable and more widely available.  Gerwin’s collection included also more than 100 incunabula (early printed books).  Rather than being the ornamental early books, most of his are of a more functional type, suggesting he was more interested in their contents than elaborately decorated pages.

The way books were acquired had also changed rapidly.  In the beginning of the 15th century, Ember had brought his books back from his travels.  By the mid to late 15th century, Gerwin was able to buy his books from travelling booksellers, which must have suited him very well as his job required him to stay in Braunschweig.  Most of his collection are professional works dealing with theological and legal issues.

The Liberei in Braunschweig

Last page of Gerwin von Hameln’s Will of 23 September 1495 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Gerwin wrote his last will in September 1495, when he was over 80 years old.  His substantial fortune was left to religious institutions and family, most went to his nephew Gerwin Wittekop.  The last part deals with his collection of 336 books in “my library in St Andreas”, which he left to the Liberei with strict regulations.  They were not to be lend to anyone outside of the city, and to those in the city only in very specific cases.  The only exception was his family, who could borrow up to two books per quarter.  Like Ember, he wanted the library to be available not only to clerics but to all “honest and learned persons in Braunschweig”, i.e. the city’s public officers and any interested citizens.  The responsibility for the library went to his nephew Gerwin Wittekop and his descendants.

6. Decline and end of the library

After Gerwin’s death in 1496, the library continued to be a famous place for research and attracted scholars from all over Europe.  One of Gerwin‘s successors as recorder, Johannes Alßhausen, left another 84 books to the Liberei, when he died in 1579.

However, as time went by, more and more books went missing and there was conflict between Gerwin’s heirs and the local council about the maintenance of the building.  Towards the end of the 16th century, the then minister of St Andreas and the council of the Neustadt planned to use the building for other purposes and to built latrines immediately next to it.  Heinrich Wittekop, a descendant of Gerwin Wittekop, was furious and called the minister and the mayors and treasurers “ungrateful people”.  He pointed out that the latrines would be against the city’s building regulations and their smell would make the use of the library impossible.  Towards the end of 1602, the glass in some of the windows was broken.  The local council demanded that Wittekop should pay for the repairs, while he said it was the council’s responsibility.  Eventually, the town council decided to revoke the family’s rights to the Liberei.  The family appealed against this decision but finally lost all rights in 1609.

The problem was that then nobody felt responsible for the library and its building.  The building became more and more dilapidated and books continued to get lost.  Towards the end of the 17th century, the scholar Hermann von der Hardt was looking for a specific book, which he had heard was available in the Liberei.  However, that book could no longer be found.  Von der Hardt was shocked by the dismal state of the collection and took some of the remaining books to his employer, duke Rudolf August.

In 1753, duke Karl I of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel issued a decree merging all church libraries in Braunschweig into one library, which was located next to the Brüdernkirche (the former Franciscan friary).  This was the end of the Liberei.

The Liberei in Braunschweig

Gerwin von Hameln’s coat of arms in one of his books (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Gerwin had marked all his books with his coat of arms and wrote into them “Orate pro Gherwino de Hamelen d[on]atore” [Pray for Gerwin von Hameln, the donor].  Of his 336 books, researchers have so far found 137 (41%) in other libraries, mostly in Braunschweig and Wolfenbüttel.  199 books seem to be lost.

After 1753, the former library building was used as a laundry.  In 1862, the church restored the building and used it as a registry.  During the bombing raids of 1944, the Liberei, like the church next to it, suffered extensive damage.  The building burnt out, the roof collapsed and both gables were damaged, with parts of the southern gable falling into the street.  Initially, it was suggested to retain the northern gable only and rebuild the rest with modern materials.  Fortunately, in 1947, due to its historical significance, it was decided to make the ruins safe.  The outside could only be rebuilt in 1963/64 – in a simplified version of the original, as only then the shaped and glazed bricks could be reproduced.  The interior was only restored in 1984/85 thanks to private donations and public money.  A new exterior staircase, this time made of steel, was erected on the northern side.  Unfortunately, the building is used only rarely, mainly for art exhibitions.  Today the Liberei is a listed building.

So why did it take me until now to find out about the Liberei?  The answer is probably that when we lived there, in the early 60s, the Liberei, along with St Andreas, was still being rebuilt. I seem to remember the area hidden from view by a high building fence.

For anyone interested in books and libraries, a visit of the Liberei is a must.   Apparently, it is also possible to arrange viewing the interior of the building.  Definitely, a reason to go back!

Sources and Further Reading:

Arnhold, E. and Kotyrba, S., Mittelalterliche Kirchen in Braunschweig. Arnhold & Kotyrba Architekturführer. Kotyrba Verlag, Braunschweig, 2014, p. 54

Koch, N., ‘St Andreas’, in: Braunschweiger Stadtlexikon, ed. L. Camerer; M.R.W. Garzmann & W.-D. Schuegraf. Johann Heinrich Meyer Verlag, Braunschweig, 1996 (first published 1992), p. 19

Nentwig, H., ‘Die Kirchenbibliothek bei St Andrea‘, in: ‘Das ältere Buchwesen in Braunschweig. Beitrag zur Geschichte der Stadtbibliothek. Nach archivalischen Quellen und anderen Urkunden‘,  XXV. Beiheft zum Centralblatt für Bibliothekswesen (1901), pp. 19–38.  Online URL: [last accessed online 20 Oct. 2016]

Stadlmayer, T., Wo Braunschweigs erste Bücher standen: Die Liberei zu Braunschweig und der Büchersammler Gerwin von Hameln. Merlin Verlag, Gifkendorf, 2012

‘Die Lieberei’, Ev.-luth. Kirchengemeinde St. Andreas zu Braunschweig.  URL: [last accessed 14 Oct. 2016]

‘Geschichte’, Ev.-luth. Kirchengemeinde St. Andreas zu Braunschweig.  URL: [last accessed 14 Oct. 2016]


[i] Jericho, B., ‘Neustadt’, in: Braunschweiger Stadtlexikon, ed. L. Camerer; M.R.W. Garzmann & W.-D. Schuegraf. Johann Heinrich Meyer Verlag, Braunschweig, 1996 (first published 1992), pp. 166-167

Arnhold, E. and Kotyrba, S., ‘St Andreas‘, in: Mittelalterliche Kirchen in Braunschweig. Arnhold & Kotyrba Architekturführer. Kotyrba Verlag, Braunschweig, 2014, p. 51

[ii] Although nowadays for a library the term Bibliothek is used, which is of Greek origin.

[iii] Biographical information on Johann Ember:  Schwarz, B., ‘Hannoveraner in Braunschweig. Die Karrieren von Johann Ember († 1423) und Hermann Pentel († nach 1463)‘, Braunschweigisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte, vol. 80 (1999), pp. 9–54

Schwarz, U., ‘Johann Ember‘, in: Braunschweigisches Biographisches Lexikon: 8. bis 18. Jahrhundert, ed. H.-R. Jarck. Appelhans Verlag, Braunschweig, 2006, pp. 377-378

[iv] Jürgens, K., ‘Pfaffenkrieg’, in:  Braunschweiger Stadtlexikon, p. 180

[v] Giesau, P., ‘Kemenaten’, in: Braunschweiger Stadtlexikon, pp. 126-127

[vi] Biographical information on Ludolf Quirre:  Schwarz, U., ‘Ludolf Quirre (gest. 1463): Eine Karriere zwischen Hannover, Braunschweig und Halberstadt‘, Braunschweigisches Jahrbuch, vol. 75 (1994), pp. 29-72

Schwarz, U., ‘Ludolf Quirre‘, in: Braunschweigisches Biographisches Lexikon, p. 439

[vii] Biographical information on Gerwin von Hameln:   Schmid, J., ‘Gerwin von Hameln’, in: Braunschweigisches Biographisches Lexikon, p. 261

Stadlmayer, T., Wo Braunschweigs erste Bücher standen, pp. 15-23

One thought on “The Liberei in Braunschweig

  1. Pingback: Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche Sydney – Und wieder geht eine Tür auf

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