‘Forgotten archive’ of medieval books and manuscripts discovered in Romanian church

A team of researchers in Romania has discovered over 200 books and manuscripts in a church in Mediaș. It includes dozens of early prints and manuscript fragments dating back to the 9th century.

The research team, led by Babeș-Bolyai University’s Adinel C. Dincă, found the cache in the Ropemakers’ Tower of St. Margaret’s Church in Mediaș, a city in central Romania. The Biblioteca Batthyaneum, a branch of the Romanian National Library, announced the discovery on its website Facebook site earlier this month. They reported that the find contained 139 printed books from between 1470 and 1600, two manuscripts from the early 16th century, and about sixty other charters and other documents from between the 14th and 16th centuries. In addition, they found several manuscript fragments preserved in church records, the earliest of which dates from the Carolingian period and may date as far back as the 9th century.

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Some of the manuscript fragments discovered. Photo by Adinel C. Dincă / Biblioteca Batthyaneum

The discovery of this “forgotten archive” resembles “one of the Indiana Jones stories,” according to the Biblioteca Batthyaneum.

Margarethenkirche, also known as St Margaret’s Church, dates from the early 15th century and was founded by the Transylvanian Saxons, a community of Germans who settled in this region of Romania in the Middle Ages. The book collection appears to have been left in the church tower for at least decades, perhaps to protect it during World War I or World War II. However, Professor Dincă believes that they were placed here much earlier. In an email to Medievalists.net he explains:

When I first encountered the books, I immediately noticed the arrangement of the volumes according to a certain historical typology: Bibles and biblical texts, patristics, theology, etc. This arrangement does not look like an improvisation and suggests that the collection was placed there an earlier stage of development. In addition, older signatures (with a few exceptions) followed a clear order. The books belonged to the ecclesiastical heritage and were usually (from a certain point in time) kept for their intrinsic value.

These items may have been part of a much larger library collection within the church. Professor Dincă notes that a catalog published in 1864 lists around 7,700 books in the library, including dozens of early printed works by Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon. The research team will now work to match the discovered books to the books listed in the catalogue.

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Church tower where the collection was kept – Photo by Adinel C. Dincă / Biblioteca Batthyaneum

While research into the discovery has only just begun, Dincă explains that they have already made some exciting finds:

A highlight of this historical collection is the large number of original bindings from the 16th century, many of which are dated. In addition, in the series of parish administration books there are several fragments of medieval manuscripts, including one transcribed in Carolingian minuscule, the rest of the “fragment collection” contains the usual liturgical manuscripts of the 14th-15th centuries. The closed context of subsequent use makes it very likely that such recycled pieces of parchment are actually the remains of a pre-Reformation stock of locally used manuscripts.

The research team is now working to better understand and help preserve the collection, and they hope it can be preserved at a local library with digitization to allow for wider access. Professor Dincă believes that this discovery will allow historians to better reconstruct the literacy and intellectual life of the Transylvanian Saxons, as well as the local medieval manuscript tradition.

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