News , Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive | 10. Jul. 2020

Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive, No 10: A Disastrous Fire

During the Corona closure of our Munich Institute, the MGH invite you to join us on a trip through 200 years of medieval research history: The series “Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive” presents a treasure trove of rare and fascinating items illustrating key moments of our history. Enjoy discovering!

Probably everyone who has ever worked with archival material or manuscripts has sometime wished to be able take an original document home to read and transcribe at one’s leisure, dispensing with the inconvenience of institutional opening hours and regulations. 150 years ago, this was a privilege that MGH editors enjoyed: Archives and libraries lent them their most valuable treasures to work on them in the rooms of the MGH. From thence, the documents were sometimes removed to the greater convenience of the private study.

In 1880, this practice led to a disaster that shook the scholarly world. The MGH archival material on display still bears the traces of what happened. For his work on the edition of the Getica, the history of the Goths, by Jordanes, the famous historian Theodor Mommsen had taken a number of manuscript copies of the work including the precious principal manuscript, Codex Heidelbergensis 921 written the in eighth-century, with him to his private study. There, during a nightly session in July 1880, he happened to knock over a lamp and set his study ablaze. The fire almost completely destroyed his valuable library, leaving but little to save from the ashes. Among the losses were four manuscripts of Jordanes, most unfortunately also the principal manuscript; a fifth manuscript was badly damaged..

Deploring the blaze in issue 2752 (July 24 1880), the British journal „The Athenaeum“ cited an „intimate friend of Prof. Mommsen“ as saying that "(...) he deliberately used the phrase 'Missgeschick', while on Monday he said 'Unglück'", when speaking of the fire in his library. The whole report was published in an article on p. 115 under the title „"Prof. Mommsens's Library":n:

An intimate friend of Prof. Mommsen sends us the following details respecting the calamity which has befallen that eminent Scholar: "On my visit to-day, the 16th, I received full confirmation of what the papers announced. (...) His library must really be regarded as destroyed. The ancient manuscripts from foreign libraries which were in his hands are partly damaged, no doubt; but it would seem that they may be regarded as having as a body been practically saved. This was the case with the most important manuscript of Jordanis's Gothic history, which he had edited for the 'Monumenta Germaniae'. The edition is ready printed. In the collection of Roman inscriptions the main loss is in South Italy, because it will not perhaps be possible to collect again all the materials. The collection of Swiss inscriptions is also lost, and Mommsen will at once undertake its reconstruction, and so soon as he can get away he will proceed to Switzerland - not, as the papers say, to North Italy. Mommsens's MSS. of his lectures must be considered as destroyed, and they can only approximately be replaced from the note-books of his hearers. His collectanea are lost, and among these are unfortunately included those for the 'Römisches Staatsrecht' and the Roman history, and most valuable critical materials collected for the edition of the oldest writers on German history. (...)
I sought out Mommsen the morning after the catastrophe, and found him very much depressed. All references to his vigour and mental freshness and the possible restoration of his library were of no avail. To-day he was quite different - of course grave, and still thinking much of the greatness of the mischance that has befallen him, but on the whole collected and absorbed in the immediately necessary exertions. Already it was pleasant to observe that he deliberately used the phrase 'Missgeschick', while on Monday he said 'Unglück'

In the face of the loss of his library and research materials, Theodor Mommsen showed himself to be highly resilient, as one would say today. He also received a wave of support from fellow historians who donated him books to continue his work. Mommsen’s edition of Jordanes‘ Getica was published as volume 5,1 of the MGH series Auctores antiquissimi, which he himself had initiated. In his preface to the edition, he humbly wrote that he had not the audacity to thank the libraries for the manuscripts that they had lent him and that he could never return. As long as he lived, he claimed, that „ill-starred book“, the Jordanes edition, would ever remind him of his sad mishap (p. LXXIII). In 1894, he was able to publish the second volume with editions of the chronicles of the 4th to 7th centuries, including an edition the chronicle of Marcellinus Comes. The materials for this edition were among those which had survived the fire. They are today to be seen in the MGH archive.

Theodor Mommsen attained worldwide fame for his „Römische Geschichte“ („A History of Rome“) published in three volumes in 1854, 1855, and 1856. In 1902 at the age of 85, Mommsen was presented with the Nobel prize for literature as "the greatest living master of the art of historical writing, with special reference to his monumental work, A history of Rome", beating out other famous nominees such as Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola, Gerhard Hauptmann, and Leo Tolstoy. Although his „A History of Rome“ is in the meantime no longer up to date, it is still considered a masterpiece of history writing on the grounds of its literary quality.

A. Marquard-Mois

Mommsen, Theodor (Hrsg.): Iordanis Romana et Getica (MGH Auctores antiquissimi 5,1). Berlin 1882

Chronik des Marcellinus Comes in: Mommsen, Theodor (Hrsg.): Chronica minora saec. IV. V. VI. VII. Band 2 (MGH Auctores antiquissimi 11). Berlin 1894, pp. 37-104.

Athenaeum Issue of 24.07.1880 in: The Athenaeum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music, and the Drama 1880 (part 2)

Bresslau, Harry: Geschichte der Monumenta Germaniae historica im Auftrage ihrer Zentraldirektion. Hannover 1921, particularly pp. 538f.