The city of Strasbourg, in what is now the French region of Alsace, has long been an important cultural hub. Its situation on the Rhine river made it a necessary relay in the transport of goods, people and ideas in Renaissance Europe, and its imperial immediacy status granted it more freedom than other cities. As such, it benefited from the progressive ideas of the northern Renaissance and proved fertile ground for the Reformation. In 1518, barely a year after Martin Luther’s famous publication of his theses in Wittenberg, the first services in the Luther fashion were being held in Strasbourg, which officially converted to Protestantism in 1532. The development of educational institutions was a key element of the Reformation. In 1538, Johannes Sturm established the Schola Argentoratensis (Argentoratum was the Latin name for Strasbourg) which would eventually become the University of Strasbourg, and in 1543, a boarding school for impoverished students is founded by Caspar Hedio: the Collegium Wilhelmitanum, named after the disused St William convent it occupied. One of the teachers, Johann Marbach, was responsible for organizing books that were donated to the school and recommending materials to be purchased, laying the foundation of the Collegium’s library.
The existence of the Collegium and its library was a rocky one. In 1660, it moved out of the crumbling and leaking St William convent to another disused convent, that of the Dominicans next to today’s Temple Neuf. As an institution for destitute students relying on donations, the Collegium had trouble maintaining the premises and had to rent out rooms to various commercial enterprises: printers, bookbinders and booksellers, and even a wine merchant. The library thus was safe from the rain, but the next century brought along another danger in the form of the French Revolution and its wholesale confiscation of Church property. Influential lawyer and professor Christian Wilhelm von Koch, who was also the Librarian at the University of Strasbourg, obtained that protestant institutions be spared from confiscation. von Koch fell from grace during the Terror, however, and the Collegium’s possessions eventually found themselves on the revolutionary inventories. Astonishingly, just as its library was slated to be transferred to the dépôt littéraire in 1794, it was determined that there was no more room to absorb this collection and the library was spared confiscation a second time.
The next calamity to strike was the fire of June 29, 1860, which destroyed the former Dominican convent entirely. Quick action by professors, students, soldiers and firemen succeeded to save most of the Collegium library, including precious volumes dating from the Reformation. The fire also threatened the city and university libraries, which were in nearby Temple Neuf but were spared from destruction thanks to an iron door. The Collegium and its library were subsequently relocated to a wing of the Protestant Consistory building on Quai St Thomas, built in 1772 by Strasbourg city architect Samuel Werner. Part of the demolished Dominican cloister was rebuilt behind the Consistory building as part of this relocation, where it survives to this day. The relocation to Quai St Thomas was fortuitous for the Collegium library in that it escaped the fate that befell Temple Neuf during the War of 1870, when an incendiary bomb destroyed the church and the city library that was still in it…
In 1804, the function of the Collegium shifted to become the boarding school for the Protestant Seminary, also located in the same building. Hereafter, the name Thomasstift (St Thomas Foundation), or Stift for short, became synonymous for both institutions and the building itself. During the Second World War, the Stift library was first moved away from the front before being ordered back to Strasbourg by the Nazi occupation forces. Miraculously, the Stift building survived Allied bombings prior to the liberation of the city and so did its precious collections, which were hidden in a fort in nearby Mundolsheim.
In 1946, Resistance fighter, pastor and theologian Rodolphe Peter was nominated as director of the Stift. Under his guidance, the institution opened up to the broader student population of Strasbourg to become a residence and restaurant no longer reserved to theology students. A consumed bibliophile, Peter also actively participated in the development of the Stift library through acquisitions and donations until his death in 1987. In 1988, the Stift/Collegium Wilhelmitanum library officially merged with the documentation centre for the Alsace-Lorraine protestant Churches, becoming the Médiathèque Protestante. Since then, the library serves both as a modern library for Stift residents, constituents of the local protestant Churches and the broader public, and as the depository of one of the most significant rare book collections in Alsace and a key part of the history of the Reformation in Strasbourg.
Many items from the rare book collection can be viewed online on the Médiathèque’s Flickr account or browsed on the Numistral digital library, such as the Ptolemy Cosmography pictured above. A video tour (in French) also presents some highlights from the collection.
I’m very grateful to Jérémy Kohler and Thomas Guillemin for welcoming me to their library in September 2022 and allowing me to take the images presented here.
- Kohler, J., & Guillemin, T. (2022). De la bibliothèque du Collège Saint-Guillaume à la Médiathèque Protestante du Stift. Booklet published by the library.
- Médiathèque protestante de Strasbourg. (2022). In Wikipédia.
- Directoire et Consistoire de l’Eglise de la Confession d’Augsbourg (Strasbourg). In Archi-Wiki. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
- Muhlbach, D. (2012). La Réforme à Strasbourg au XVIe siècle. Base Numérique Du Patrimoine d’Alsace – Réseau CANOPÉ.
- Siegel, J.-M. (2012). La Réforme : un mouvement centrifuge. Base Numérique du Patrimoine d’Alsace – Réseau CANOPÉ.
- Stift (Strasbourg). (2021). In Wikipédia.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!