The Briefbuch (Strasbourg, Archives départementales du Bas-Rhin, Cod. H 2185) of the Commandery of the Order of St John zum Grünen Wörth in Strasbourg

By Stephan Lauper, Universität Freiburg (Schweiz)


The so-called Briefbuch, on which I focus in my PhD thesis, occupies an important role within an ensemble of manuscripts written in the late fourteenth century in the convent of the Order of St- John in Strasbourg. This convent was founded by Rulman Merswin (1307–1382), a rich merchant and patrician of Strasbourg, who withdrew from secular life at the age of 40. From then on, he dedicated himself to a religious life, and in 1366 he leased the former Benedictine monastery on the island called Grüner Wörth. There he established a communal form of the devotional life together with a small group of laypersons. Little is known about Merswin’s life as a homo religiosus, and little is documented of the early years of the community in the convent, called zum Grünen Wörth, until its incorporation into the order of St John in 1371.

After the death of Merswin in 1382, several manuscripts were written by different scribes in memory of him as the founder of the Hospitaller house in Strasbourg. It is said that Merswin left behind booklets and wax tablets (none are extant, with three exceptions) and that the new manuscripts represent copies of this older material. The process of copying these writings in new media generated a complex system of texts and books: every codex was compiled according to its content, historical documents were separated from literary works, and each manuscript was made for a particular audience (vernacular texts are separated from Latin translations). These writings make it possible to study how the new community at the Grüner Wörth handled Merswin’s legacy, especially in terms of his literary work. The Briefbuch was written as one of the last codices to reproduce Merswin’s texts. It refers often to the other codices and texts made and written in the Grüner Wörth, and therefore has a central position within the whole ensemble of manuscripts.

Focusing on the Briefbuch, I want to find out more about spiritual life in the Grüner Wörth around 1400. With a new edition of the whole manuscript and a systematic analysis of its material aspect, describing the binding, writing material, scribal hands and layout, together with a study of the historical context, I want to describe the function of the book for the community and its role within the overall ensemble of manuscripts. The existing edition (Karl Rieder, Der Gottesfreund vom Oberland. Eine Erfindung des Strassburger Johanniterbruders Nikolaus von Löwen, Innsbruck 1905), does not sufficiently respect material aspects of the texts and it is therefore not possible to evaluate or interpret them without reference to the manuscript.

The Briefbuch was also a source used to unmask a central figure of the manuscript, the ‘Gottesfreund im Oberland’, as a literary fiction (see Heinrich Seuse Denifle, Taulers Bekehrung. Kritisch untersucht, Strassburg 1879). This character, invented either by Merswin or his secretary Nikolaus von Löwen (1339–1402), or by both of them, was used to lend authority to activities at the Grüner Wörth, and he was said to be the co-founder of the convent. Identifying the Gottesfreund im Oberland as a real, historical person has a long tradition: in the printed editions of Johannes Tauler’s sermons (Leipzig 1498, Augsburg 1508, Basel 1521 and 1522, and Cologne 1543), the Meisterbuch, which relates the story of the conversion of an academic master by the Gottesfreund im Oberland, was presented as a biography of Tauler (1300-1361). Prior to Denifle’s study several scholars tried to find other historical persons who might have been the Gottesfreund im Oberland. Another scholarly preoccupation was to find the person responsible for the alleged forgery. But studying the idea of the literary fiction itself, the composition of the manuscripts, and their meaning for the second generation of the community, has been neglected. The recently published monograph by Christiane Krusenbaum-Verheugen (Figuren der Referenz. Untersuchungen zu Überlieferung und Komposition der “Gottesfreundliteratur” in der Straßburger Johanniterkomturei zum “Grünen Wörth”, Bibliotheca Germanica 58, Tübingen 2013) presents a wide-ranging study of the whole ensemble of manuscripts, and is thus an important basis for further studies. But still the editions are inadequate, and there are few studies with a historical focus on the textual tradition of texts (especially concerning material aspects) or studies concerning the relationship between spirituality and literature.

The Briefbuch, written between 1395 and 1402, is a particular case of the collection of manuscripts written at the Grüner Wörth because it has different functions. Written in the German vernacular, it tells of the foundation and history of the convent, combining a foundation legend with a collection of relevant letters from the Gottesfreund im Oberland. It preserves these texts, which are important for the constitution of the institution, like an archive. It also contains excerpts from other manuscripts made for the convent, such as excerpts from the so-called Meistermemorial, an illuminated book made for the Prior of the German langue of the Order of St John, Konrad von Braunsberg. The Briefbuch gathers these excerpts and the letters together with biographical writings that are declared to be autographs of the founders of the convent (Merswin and the Gottesfreund im Oberland) themselves. These texts should be venerated as holy objects because of their meaning for the instruction of the community (exempla) and also because of their material specification (relics). For these texts, the codex has the function of a reliquiary.

The collection of letters begins with correspondence about renovating and constructing churches and chapels at the Grüner Wörth. The Gottesfreund im Oberland acts as advisor and takes decisions. At the end of the collection, with the correspondence between Nikolaus von Löwen and the Gottesfreund im Oberland, answers are given to individual questions about joining the Order. So the Briefbuch also has a pastoral function for new members, novices in the community. It seems that the whole codex is not simply a collection of texts, but rather a subtle compilation, a spiritual guide introducing and convincing aspirants to life in the convent. There are several material and visual aspects of the manuscript providing evidence that the codex is not simply an accumulation of texts, but a book arranged with the intention to reach particular readers and a particular audience.

The codex, which is in quarto format, consists of 83 folia. The combination of six quires made of both paper and parchment itself shows that thought went in to the manuscript production: parchment on the outside and/or in the middle of each quire should protect the texts in the codex. Two additional sections (one of smaller format) have been inserted, which contain the narratives of the founders’ conversions. Apart from that, one hand is responsible for the script, and a second hand has added some corrections or annotations. Black and red ink are used, and several rubrics in red ink introduce subsequent texts. A visual accentuation of paratexts was introduced through the rubrics. Besides rubrics, initials offer an aid to reading. The rubrics usually summarise and give detailed information about the following texts. The introduction to the autobiography of the founder Merswin – one entire page in red ink – describes the material elaborately, referring to the inserted section:

 Dis kleine sexsternelin bappires mit den ahte blettern ist daz selb selbe buoch Ruolman Merswines, vnsers stifters eigene hant, alse er es selbe schreip […] so soellent dise zwei bappirine buechere, der erste stam vnd vrsprung, ire eigene hant vnd ir selbes geschrift, vf diser hofestat zuo dem Gruenenwerde bliben vnd gar erwirdeclich gehalten werden glich eime heiltuome, in der selben meinunge sú ouch in dis brief buechelin gebunden sint… (fol. 32v)

(This little paper sexternion with eight leaves is the book of Rulman Merswin, our founder, in his own handwriting, just as he wrote it himself […]. These two paper books,  narrating the first roots and origin, their own handwriting and their own script, must stay on this site at the Grüner Wörth, and be kept with veneration like a relic. It is with the same intent that they are bound into this book of letters …)

 The detailed description of the material aspects of the inserted fascicule, which was originally separated from the book, is aimed at making the autograph, as well as the whole book, more valuable. The autographs are to be kept in the book like relics in a reliquary casket. Only after this material description, the introduction describes the (hand)writings of the founders as basic documents for the instruction of the community. They should inculcate a growing affection (deste me minne) for the founders’ literary work (materien), and the above quotation continues:

…do bi wir vnd alle vnsere nochkomen deste me minne gewinnent zuo allen den andern iren materien dodurch wir billiche súllent vermanet werden. (fol. 32v)

(so that we and all our successors should feel all the more love for their other materials [i.e. texts], through which we should rightfully be admonished.)

 It seems that the codex served as a central object to bind the community, in order to learn about the founders and the institution, and to prepare for life in the convent. Inside the community of the Grüner Wörth, for any act of commemorating the founder(s) and the origin of the convent, the Briefbuch is the most important codex within the ensemble of manuscripts. For that reason I argue that it must have been placed at a meaningful site in the convent. It is known that Merswin, the founder of the Grüner Wörth in Strasbourg, was buried in the choir. No documents exist stating that the Briefbuch was put exactly in the choir next to Merswin’s tomb, but it would have been suitable for a book that was made in honour and memory of that donor.


CC-BY-NC-ND The Briefbuch (Strasbourg, Archives départementales du Bas-Rhin, Cod. H 2185) of the Commandery of the Order of St John zum Grünen Wörth in Strasbourg by Stephan Lauper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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