News , Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive | 20. Apr. 2020

Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive, No 6: Goethe and the MGH

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!

Among the early members of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica was the famous poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The monumentists, however, soon began to wonder if he was just the kind of associate they were looking for. „I might have wished that Geheimrat Goethe would have made befitting use of the honour given to him by our highly respectable association by sending us a list of the manuscripts in Jena, as we requested,“ commented vom Stein on April 6 1820 on receiving a letter from Goethe. Instead of presenting the list, Goethe raised questions about the baptismal bowl of Cappenberg (see No 5, Stein cited in Bresslau, p. 81, note 1).

Lists of manuscripts, such as Goethe should have been compiling, were vitally important for the editions plans of the newly formed association. But the great poet had other aims. As he wrote on April 1 1819, in the same letter that had elicited vom Steins critical remarks, his intention was „to use the honourable position given to me by your highly respectable association both for my own purposes and perhaps at the same time to contribute in some way to your high goals.“ Assistant work such as compiling manuscript lists was obviously not his cup of tea.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday on August 28 1819, the „Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde“ – today known as the MGH – had appointed Goethe as an honourable member of their association. The great poet was pleased with the honour and noted it in his diary. He also wrote a lengthy letter of thanks to the directorship dated to October 5 1819: An authentified copy of the letter transcribed by the association’s secretary, Johann Lambert Büchler, exists today in the MGH archive. There, we can read in Goethe’s own words how he came to be a member of the Monumenta: „In summer 1815, it happened that I had the good fortune to visit his excellence the minister of state von Stein in Nassau and accompany him on a short Rhine trip. On this occasion he informed me of the plan to constitute an association dedicated to researching the knowledge of elder German history. Later, I received a laborious article on this topic that I worked my way through in oral and written form together with some older and younger friends of mine, listening to their opinion and questioning them as to their disposition since, being new to the subject, I dared not presume that I had the necessary knowledge or judgement (...)."

Goethe found the new challenge quite pleasing, as he himself noted: „As I now more closely considered the demands of the association and the form of participation it required of me, it occurred to me that it might well be an advantage to be called to enter a new field of study in my later years and with higher education“ (cited in Bresslau, p. 82, note 2). His first undertaking was to make a copy of a Middle High German poem from the famous Jena Liederhandschrift, which was published in the association’s journal, the „Archiv“. Thereafter, Goethe started work on manuscript descriptions following a scheme that he himself had developed and that, in the words of Horst Fuhrmann, presented „a well thought out and even for modern standards thoroughly acceptable approach to describing manuscripts“ (Fuhrmann, p. 25). Beyond this, he also engaged a library copyist named David Compter to produce manuscript facsimiles. Goethe’s collaboration with the „Gesellschaft“ ended, however, as the association found itself unable to pay Compter for his work. Thereafter, the 28-year-old new director, Georg Heinrich Pertz, began to professionalise the MGH.

A. Marquard-Mois

Besides the letter on display, the MGH archive posesses 17 other documents of Goethe's correspondence with the "Gesellschaft", including several signed by the great poet himself. The documents are digitised and available online under: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Briefe an die Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde; for Goethe's letter of thanks on being awarded honorable membership dated 5.10.1819 see PDF pp. 5-7; for an example of Goethe's scheme for describing manuscripts see PDF p. 65.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Lob- und Spottgedicht auf K. Rudoph von Habsburg, in: Archiv der Gesellschaft für Ältere Deutsche Geschichtkunde 2 (1820), S. 388-390. (

Tagebucheintrag Goethes zum 9. September 1918 auf

Bresslau, Harry: Geschichte der Monumenta Germaniae historica im Auftrage ihrer Zentraldirektion. Hannover 1921, S. 81-84.

Fuhrmann, Horst: "Sind eben alles Menschen gewesen." Gelehrtenleben im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. München 1996, S. 20-26.

Learn more about this treasure of the MGH archive in: Arno Mentzel-Reuters: Der Dichterfürst als Mitarbeiter. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe und Barbarossas Taufschale (1. April 1820), in: Mittelalter lesbar machen. Festschrift 200 Jahre Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 2019, S. 132-141.