Have you ever wondered what the first public libraries looked like?
Like many things in medieval Europe, knowledge and books were closely associated with the Catholic Church, which wasn’t particularly keen on sharing knowledge. However, when the Reformation movement popped up, which was all about empowering the people and making worship accessible in their own language, instead of through an intermediary of the Church, some of the Church officials recognised the value of sharing and the first public libraries were born.
One of them was the Librije in St. Walbruga’s church in the Dutch town of Zutphen, which is amongst the oldest public libraries in the world, dating back to the 16th century. It was founded by two Church masters, who believed that they could keep the people from straying towards the temptations of the Reformation by allowing them to read good, proper books, so the Librije housed a collection of tomes on various topics, from grammaticas to legal works, religious texts and natural sciences. However, the books were very valuable at the time and in order to prevent stealing, they chained them up. So even though a chained library sounds very esoteric and macabre, the chains were what granted the freedom of knowledge to the common people. Now, keep in mind that reading was still a very rare skill in the 16th century, but it was a start, as the books were previously accessible only to the monks or the very wealthy.
The library in Zutphen is one of only 3 remaining chained libraries, along with the Malatesta Novello library in Cesena, Italy and one in the cathedral in Hereford, UK. It was modelled after the monastic reading rooms as a sort of side chapel with good natural lighting and anyone could come and read books there during the day. It is still remarkably well preserved, complete with original leather-bound tomes chained to the lecterns, so the whole place just breathes history. Today you can only visit the library as part of a guided tour, which is run several times per day by the local foundation. Since it is not a major tourist attraction, tours are mainly in Dutch and German and the guide I had was a very enthusiastic older guy who didn’t speak English well. Luckily I was able to sort of understand the tour in Dutch with my functional German and the guide was kind enough to explain the details I didn’t manage to catch afterwards.
St. Walburga’s church & the Librije chained library
The Librije also owns a very famous book – Copernicus’ De revolutionibus corporum coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543), in which he first explained that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the centre of what we now know as the solar system. If you look closely at the photos below, you’ll notice another peculiarity: the Devil’s footprints in the library floor. Supposedly, a monk dared to eat chicken during Lent and spent a rather disturbing night locked in the Librije with the Devil.
For me, the library was the main attraction, but Zutphen is a nice historical town in its own right and the weekend farmers’ market is always worth visiting anywhere. Like most of Dutch towns, it’s next to a river where you can take a river cruise and you can also visit the nature reserve in the nearby village of Warnsveld for hiking.
Zutphen is one of the older, Hanseatic towns in the Netherlands, so it has a similar medieval vibe as Amersfoort. If you are not familiar with it, the Hanseatic Legaue was the major medieval trade union, which shaped the economy and politics of Northern Europe for more than 400 years. The trade network included more than 200 cities and towns, which now have a common heritage and I’ll tell you more about that in my future post about Bergen, which was one of the 4 cornerstones of Hansa. As one of such towns, Zutphen of course has a lot of historical museums and monuments and I also liked the retro Luxor Theater cinema, although I didn’t have time to watch a movie.