Humanist footsteps and footnotes

A humanist’s schoolbook: this 15th-century paper manuscript is inscribed with the school notes by Beatus Rhenanus between 1498 and 1499, Sélestat, Bibliothéque humaniste, MS 50.

The small town of Sélestat in Alsace once boasted one of the most high-performing Latin schools in the West. Known throughout France, Flanders and the Holy Roman Empire, Sélestat produced some remarkable figures towards the end of the Middle Ages. One of them was Beat Bild, later known among the humanists and Latinists as Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547).

The son of a butcher, Beatus was lucky to be born at a time when humanist education and letters were taking over the West. But instead of just piggybacking on the shoulders of giants, he left his mark on the humanist movement – and most of all, he left behind an impressive library of over 400 volumes, manuscripts and printed works.

A Vitruvius printed in Venice, 1511, from Beatus’ collection

Beatus’ library is now preserved in the rather uninspiringly named Bibliothèque Humaniste in Sélestat, in what was once the grains hall, but in which the French architect Rudy Ricciotti worked his wonders.

Lovely building, infelicitous name
The entrance
The main hall

As a humanist of the late 15th century, Beatus was unrelenting in his pursuit of knowledge, letters, friendships and novel ways of thinking and doing things – always with an eye to the ancients, which the humanist movement had disturbed from their age-long slumber.

As a scholar, he published, edited, corrected and inspired works which advanced the humanist cause. Having been an alumnus of one of the Empire’s best grammar schools naturally helped, but Beatus sought the friendship of inspiring figures like the Alsacian humanist Jacques Wimpfeling, the Rhenish preacher Jean Geiler de Kaysersberg, printers Matthias Schurer and Johann Frober, and more importantly the towering Erasmus and the German reformers Martin Bucer and Ulrich Zwingli.

A man of his time, Beatus couldn’t ignore the effects of the Reformation on the lands of the Empire. As far away as one could be from an armchair scholar, Beatus got himself involved in the Peasants Wars which threatened to break up the fabric of the Empire. Always falling back on his books, Beatus’ continued to advance the humanist cause by writing, editing, correcting and publishing books using the West’s latest technology, the printing press. He also continued to collect books, amassing an impressive library which he bequeathed to his native city on his death in 1547.

A 16th-century edition of Sophocles’ tragedies printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice.

An avid traveller, Beatus moved from Sélestat to Paris (1503), then to Strasbourg (1507), Basel (1511), Augsburg (1530), where he attended at least a session of the Diet, the result of which was the Augsburg Confession, a watershed moment in the history of the Reformation.

Beatus was not the only one. From all around Europe, from major cities and small towns, more and more scholars brought their humanist vision to bear on a Europe struggling with old and new demons. A time of extreme effervescence, which lay the foundation of a new framework.

A 7th-century Merovingian letterbook, also part of Beatus’ library collection

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