The Man  |  The Book Collections of Leander van Ess  |  The Reformation Pamphlets

The book collections of Leander van Ess

Although he was never a wealthy man, historical circumstances made it possible for Leander van Ess to acquire large collections of valuable books. He emerged from the monastery into the world because of the secularizing programs of the Napoleonic regime in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The dissolution of the monasteries involved the dislocation of extensive and ancient libraries. In some areas of Germany these books were gathered into university or royal libraries, but in northwestern Germany there were no such repositories and the holdings of monastic libraries, if not taken to France by the conquerors, were thrown open (as it were) to the world. They were sometimes taken by the former monks as they went on to other lives; often they found their way to the open market, sometimes under questionable circumstances.

 Leander van Ess amassed very large collections, apparently at nominal expense. He had books from Marienmünster, acquired when he left there; he had books from other former monastic libraries, including many from the Benedictine monastery at Hysburg in the diocese of Halberstadt, of which his cousin Carl had been a member. A large number of books originating from a number of south-west German monasteries, came from the duplicates collection of the unversity library at Freiburg im Breisgau. A significant group of manuscripts originated at the Carthusian monastery of St. Barbara in Cologne. Van Ess continued to acquire books at Schwallenberg, during his tenure at Marburg, and at Darmstadt.

By happy chance, most of the books once owned by Leander van Ess can still be identified. They are the collection of manuscripts and incunabula sold in 1824 to the great English collector, Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) and van Ess's library, sold in 1838 to Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Literature: On the history of van Ess's collecting, see Gatch, "The Book Collections and the Library of Leander van Ess / Die Büchersammlungen und die Bibliothek des Leander van Ess," in 'so precious a foundation', 47-84 (with a table of known provenances of books in the collection); and Altenberend, Leander van Eß, 366-89.

a. The collections of manuscripts and incunabula sold to Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1824

In 1823, Leander van Ess published a catalogue of manuscripts for sale:

Sammlung und Verzeichniss handscriftlicher [sic] Bücher aus dem VIII. IX. X. XI. XII. XIII. XIV, etc. Jahrhundert, bestehend aus 171 Bänden auf Pergament, 19 theils auf Pergament theils auf Papier, und 190 auf Papier. Nebst einer Sammlung von alten Holzschnitten und kleinen Gemälden mit Vergoldung, die leider! aus alten Pergament-Handschriften ausgeschnitten sind, welche besitzt Leander van Ess, Theol. Doctor, vorhin Professor und Pfarrer in Marburg. [Darmstadt: privately printed, 1823].

This offering attracted to his residence in Darmstadt Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) then at the beginning of a career that would make him the largest collector of manuscripts in the nineteenth century. Phillipps bought the entire contents of the catalogue—367 Western manuscripts, a handful of Arabic manuscripts, and several items that had not been listed in the printed catalogue. Listed together in Phillipps's own catalogue of his manuscripts, the acquisition remained in the Bibliotheca Phillippica until they were scattered in the long series of sales of his books by the Phillipps heirs, beginning in the last decade of the nineteenth century and continuing into the latter half of the twentieth.

 With Dr. Sigrid Krämer and Dr. William P. Stoneman, I am preparing an edition of van Ess's Sammlung und Verzeichniss… with notes on the provenance and present ownership of the manuscripts. This project is in active preparation and may be published online in 2008.

 While he was at Darmstadt, Phillipps also purchased a collection of incunabula from Leander van Ess—over nine hundred, items plus a collection of printed Bibles. Van Ess had prepared a catalogue of this holding in manuscript, and using this manuscript (now in the Horblit Collection, Grolier Club, New York) as printer's copy, Sir Thomas produced a catalogue of the collection at his private press:

     Catalogus incunabulorum Professoris et doctoris theol. L. van Ess, Darmstaelt [sic]. Nunc in Bibliothecâ Phillipicâ deposit. [Broadway, Gloucestershire: Middle Hill Press] n.d. [c.1825].

Most of the items in the catalogue were sold by Phillipps's grandson, Thomas FitzRoy Fenwick via the Rosenbach Company in Philadelphia to Henry Huntington in 1923 and are now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. I am also preparing a transcript of this catalogue and tracing the items through the estate, Rosenbach and Huntington catalogues. This material will also be published, either in print or online.

    Literature: Two articles discussing these catalogues were published in Gazette of the Grolier Club, New Series 48 (1997) under the rubric, "In Search of Leander van Ess: the Phillipps Connection" (pp. 73-74): Milton McC. Gatch, "Leander van Ess, Sir Thomas Phillipps, and Harrison Horblit: Serendipitous Adventures" (pp. 75-90), and Sigrid Krämer, "A Manuscript Catalogue of the Nineteenth Century: Leander van Ess's Description of the Books Sold in 1824 to Sir Thomas Phillipps" (pp. 91-105.

b. The library sold to Union Theological Seminary, 1838

In 1838, Leander van Ess sold his working scholarly library to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, an institution that was just being founded. A manuscript in his hand and still at the Seminary describes the library. It is divided in three parts:

    • Catalogus A. headed  "Kirchengeschichte, Patristik, Kirchenrecht &&" ("Church History, Patristics, Canon Law, etc.") lists 4209 items—many of which also exist in duplicate and some of which are multi-volume works or serials;
    • Catalogus B described 430 incunabula (books printed in the fifteenth century with some from the early sixteenth)—to which one could add a number of incunables not catalogued and incunabular materials in Catalogues A and C—in 1838 the largest collection of incunabula in America;
    • Catalaogus C lists thirty-seven manuscripts, mostly medieval—and again there are other manuscripts in the collection to be added to this list.

It is also known that the catalogue had originally two further divisions for which the lists are no longer extant:

    • Catalogus D: Flugschriften (Reformation Pamphlets)—on which see further below—originally at least 1244 items; and
    • Catalogus E: Magnetismus (i.e., animal magnetism, the teaching of Franz Anton Mesmer).

This library of Leander van Ess was the subject of an exhibition held in New York, Mainz, Paderborn, Toronto, and Austin, 1996-1998. The fully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition—its title taken from the seminary president's description of the library—"so precious a foundation' is cited above. (In print: see at "Publications" tab.) To consult a full transcription of van Ess's Catalogue A, with additional materials and indexes to authors or titles and provenance,  Click Here

To consult a full transcription of van Ess's Catalogues B and C, with additional materials and indexes to authors or titles and provenance, Click Here


The first page of Leander van Ess's manuscript Catalog A of books on church history, patristics, canon law, etc.

Portions of manuscript pages from Leander van Ess's Catalogus B (incunabula) and Catalogus C (manuscripts)