The Nineteenth Century

Vol. LXXVII - No. 59, p. 1061

May 1915





In the Review Zentralblatt für Bibliothekwesen some German intellectuals have attempted to explain and excuse the destruction of the Library of Louvain University. Monsieur Burger, director of the Amsterdam Library, has replied to them in masterly fashion in the Dutch Review Het Bœk.

The Germans, in their efforts to justify the burning of a monument entirely devoted to Learning, blame the officials of the Library of Louvain for not having been present to point out to the soldiers the value of the collections—which otherwise would certainly have been spared! A ghastly pleasantry and in the worst possible taste! Can it be possible that after all these months the directors of this German Review are unaware of the horrible scenes of massacre and pillage that go to make up the crime of Louvain? No one will credit that. Rather shall we say that their ignorance is merely a sham—and a monstrous and clumsy sham!

I will not waste time in refuting this vile insinuation, which the official and well-authenticated accounts of the outrage on Louvain suffice definitely to dispel. It is now acknowledged by all right-minded men who are not prejudiced and do not refuse to seek and admit the truth (1) that the fire in the Library of the University broke out suddenly after eight days’ peaceful occupation of the town by the German troops; (2) that the fire broke out during the night of the 25th of August, when all the Library premises were closed and the residents were forbidden to leave their houses after seven o’clock in the evening; (3) that that night of the 25th of August was unquestionably the first night of fire, pillage, and massacre. We know the unhappy fate of the unfortunate people who fell into the hands of the drunken soldiers that night—as also during the days and nights that followed. I saw the ruins of the Library again eight days after the fire, and even then I was only able to look at them from a distance and at considerable risk. Broken pillars, an impassable heap of bricks, stones, and beams smouldered in the fire which slowly consumed thousands of volumes between huge portions of [*1062] dangerous and threatening walls: that was all remained of the majestic building known as tile Halles Universitaires, and of the rich treasure it contained. In the streets of the ruined and deserted city, where the soldiers were completing their work of pillage, and further on even into the country, leaves of manuscripts and books fluttered about, half burned, at the mercy of the wind.

The German Review, without taking into consideration the manifest inconsistency of its assertions, dares to claim that the loss of the Library of the University of Louvain is of no great importance. A somewhat arbitrary assertion! I am glad to take advantage of the hospitality offered me by the Editor of the Nineteenth Century to contradict it.

The burning of the Library of Louvain has caused two irreparable losses: the loss of an historic monument, a gem of the most beautiful architecture of two distinct periods—the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries—and the loss of the collection of manuscripts, books and. relics of the University of Louvain.

Let me first say a few words about the monument in which was enshrined the Library of the University. This monument, known as the Halles Universitaires, was the old Halle aux draps, or Weavers’ Hall, of the town of Louvain, which in the course of centuries has been adapted and enlarged, as we shall shortly see.

The first stone of the Halle aux draps was laid in 1317, and in 1345 the building was completed. It consisted of a ground floor and an upper story in the roof; outside were fine doorways—the most beautiful specimens of the civil architecture of Brabant at the beginning of the fourteenth century; inside were two large halls, one of which had in the course of centimes undergone many changes; while the other—kept as it originally was, though restored-served as the Salle des Pas-Perdus of the Library of the University. This hail was divided into two parts by a series of vigorously moulded semi-circular arches; these arches rested on pillars with capitals ornamented with two rows of foliage and fruit. Magnificent brackets supported the oak beams of the ceiling; the subjects they represented were very varied: foliage, burlesque scenes, fantastic or hybrid beings; all were carved firmly and boldly, forming specimens rarely met with at that period in other parts of our country. Similar works are to be found with us only in a few rare monuments of the second half of the fourteenth century.

In 1432 the University of Louvain received permission from the town to convert a portion of the Halle aux draps into quarters suitable for schools and lecture rooms. This condition of things lasted until 1676, when the University purchased the Halle from the town; a little later, in 1680, extensive works were undertaken and a spacious story was added to the building. [*1063] This story was divided into lecture rooms for the different Faculties. In 1723 a large building in the Perpendicular style was added to the Halles Universitaires for the purposes of the Library.

The whole of this Perpendicular building—ground floor and first story—as well as the whole of the story of the Halles added in 1680, was now occupied by the Library of the University.

Amongst the many apartments of the Library of Louvain four are worthy of special mention. First, the large hall—the building of which in 1723 I have just mentioned. This hall was 185 feet long by 43 wide and 35 high; oak wainscoting of exquisite workmanship covered the wails. All round it were pillared recesses, surmounted by canopies, containing the life-sized statues of the most celebrated philosophers and writers of bygone days. At the end of the hail stood two immense columns decorated with hieroglyphic characters and symbols of the sciences and arts. A floor of oak, a ceiling adorned with plaster ornaments, and a door in iron of very remarkable workmanship completed a marvellous ensemble—the stately, imposing and harmonious aspect of which has been surpassed by no other ancient Library.

Just a year ago we had turned the school of Civil Law in the old University into a study for professors, and in it we discovered delicate arches, oak wainscoting of a more finished style of carving than that in the large hall, and under a very graceful canopy the large statue in oak of Justinian. This hall—so elegant and home-like in appearance—was a perfect gem of Renaissance architecture.

The school of medicine in the old University remained as it always had been—with its rostra, stalls, and benches. It was the only room on that floor of the Halles not devoted to the Library, and it was used as a Salle de Promotions. In it, amidst all the splendour of ancient ceremonial, took place the solemn meetings of the theologians, the philosophers, and the scientists. Many indeed are the men of learning, the celebrities of every rank and every country, and the princes of the Church, who have taken part in those memorable debates! I well remember one of the last meetings, at which the distinguished Cardinal Boume, Archbishop of Westminster, was present.

Lastly, a hail of extraordinary dimensions served as a public reading-room. It contained a collection of portraits of the most eminent professors and greatest benefactors of the old University. This collection was unique and of exceptional interest as a literary history of the Low Countries. How many were there of these master-minds from the beginning of the fifteenth century to the [*1064] end of the eighteenth—some famous for all time, others more obscure and retiring—whose memories we piously preserved and whose features have disappeared forever in that tragic fire? Let me name a few of the most celebrated portraits in that gallery: Adrian the Sixth, a professor at Louvain, eventually raised to the sovereign pontificate, the last Pope who was not anItalian; Justus Lipsius, the most celebrated master of Louvain, whose features looked forth from a small canvas of remarkable interest to artists and historians; Erasmus, who lived for several years in Louvain; the historian Molanus (the canvas depicting the features of Molanus was of great artistic value); the humanist Guteanus; Jansenius—austere and intense of countenance; Andreas Vesalius—a sombre and. cracked canvas this, on which could be distinguished a face full of life and character—a faithful and most interesting study, so say connoisseurs, of the countenance of the famous originator of anatomy. Then on larger canvases and in brighter colours the celebrated doctor Rega, Monseigneur de Ram, who restored the University in 1834—and many others. All these savants, who have made their indelible marks in the field of science, seemed to connect by mysterious bonds the living work of a reading-room with the ever illustrious past of our University; they inspired in visitors, readers, and students alike, a respect and love for learning and study.

The University of Louvain did not possess a central library before 1636. Several colleges—there were forty-three under the old regime—had small libraries of their own; and it was for this reason, no doubt, that a central collection of books was so long in being established. Two erudite patrons of literature, Laurent Beyerlinck and Jacques Romain, presented their well-stocked libraries to the University—the one consisting of 852 books on theology, and the other of 906 volumes on medicine and mathematics. On the occasion of the installation of the library, Valère André, the first librarian, and a learned historian of our University, delivered an impressive address. This address attracted a great deal of notice, and was published with the first catalogue of the new library.

A Canon of Antwerp, and formerly a professor at Louvain, Dominique Snellaerts, possessed a very valuable library of 3500 volumes—consisting almost entirely of works on the Jansenist Question—which he presented to the University, and this addition necessitated the building of the immense hall of which I have already given a description.

Numerous funds bequeathed by private donors,' and rich acquisitions considerably increased the importance of the Library of Louvain. It will suffice to mention the acquisition of the [*1065] most valuable and rarest volumes resulting from the sale of the libraries belonging to the Jésuit college which were suppressed in 1778. In 1795 and in 1797 a number of very precious volumes were removed, some by the French, others by the librarian of Brussels, Laserna-Santander; and these were never recovered. Since, however, the restoration of the University, of Louvain in 1834 the various possessions of the Library had increased so considerably that the academical authorities were obliged two years ago to place at our disposal extensive premises over the large library, and we had just had installed therein a magnificent and immense metal bookcase with movable shelves. The supreme irony of it! The contract for the bookcase had been carried out by Germans, and they had just completed its installation for us!

It had taken months to remove all the old books, which had been lying under the dust of centuries. This patient and laborious work brought to light in the most forsaken and obscure corners of the University buildings surprises and discoveries of the greatest importance.

I hasten to say a few words about the manuscripts, printed books, and ancient relics contained in the Library of the University of Louvain. Our manuscripts numbered about five hundred. The most famous was a little manuscript, partly on parchment and partly on paper, written by the hand of Thomas à Kempis; it was called Sermones triginta ad novicios regulares et vitam S. Lidewigis à Thoma à Kempis conscriptam. Visitors were also shown several books of Hours ornamented with very rich illuminations and miniatures. One of them was especially remarkable for a series of admirable miniatures. Some manuscripts in English came from the English Carthusian monastery at Nieuport. In 1829 several twelfth-century manuscripts were purchased from the Norbertine abbaye du Parc near Louvain. An important section of our manuscripts related to the history of Belgium, and more especially to the history of Brabant. Another very valuable collection of manuscripts was that composed of the lectures and cahiers of the professors; this collection had scarcely as yet been examined, but it would have provided a rich mine of learning for historical research. I would specially mention a profusion of works containing the manuscript notes of the most celebrated professors of the old University such as Lessius, Molanus, Miraeus, Scott, etc.

The principal wealth of the Library of Louvain lay in its store of old printed works, and amongst these a collection of incunables,[1] wonderful from every point of view. In this collection were several very rare editions and some unique specimens. In order to throw full light on it, a few words on the intro-[*1066]-duction of printing at Louvain and the relations of the publishers with the University are indispensable.

In 1473 John of Westphalia came to Louvain and there established his printing presses; in the following year the University appointed him to be magister ai Lis impressoriae. In 1474 the first printed work of John of Westphalia appeared at Louvain under the title of Petri de Crescentiis opus ruralium commadorurn; and this very rare edition with large initial hand-made letters belonged to our Library. Under the auspices of the school of Louvain John of Westphalia brought to light over one hundred and twenty works, editions of classical texts, and even quotations from the Old Testament in Hebrew characters. Our collection of incunables included several editions by John of Westphalia. After the arrival of John of Westphalia several printers carne to settle in Louvain, and their numbers grew to such an extent that the University had often to come to the aid of poor, aged, and sick printers. Later, in 1512, the celebrated printer Thierry Martens came to take up his abode in Louvain, and devoted his printing presses to the Faculty of Arts. At that time Louvain occupied one of the highest positions amongst the grandes écoles of Europe. Some of the greatest humanists of the day went there—such as Erasmus, Ludovicus Vives, Martin Dorpuis, Barland, Rexius, etc. These humanists, with the help of Thierry Martens, edited and revised a large number of texts, and accomplished a series of translations of Greek works into Latin. When in 1518 Thierry Martens announced his intention of printing in Hebrew, he could truthfully say ‘so far as Latin editions are concerned I am second to none; in the Greek I have very few rivals; I wish to achieve the same distinction for my printing of Hebrew.’ When Thierry Martens left Louvain in 1520 his printing presses were taken over by Jiexius, a professor at the college of the Trois-Langues, and a prolific publisher of Greek texts.

These beautiful editions, which first saw the light at Louvain, were preserved by the savants of our provinces, and when the central Library was planned in the seventeenth century it was enriched by many gifts of special libraries, and among them were found several fine specimens of the earliest printed editions. Formerly the number of incunables in the Library of Louvain was estimated to be about three hundred and fifty; but at the time of the removal recently carried out, to which I have already referred, we found in practically all the ancient collections—in the theological collections in particular—a further mass of precious incunables. We had just begun to catalogue them, and in a few years’ time we should have been able to offer to the [*1067] public a magnificent catalogue of eight hundred or even one thousand incunables.

The Library of the University of Louvain contained between two hundred and fifty thousand and three hundred thousand printed volumes. In this immense collection I would specially mention a set of rich and precious works, such as, in regard to completeness of ensemble, no other library in the world possessed. I refer to the ancient theological collection. The part played in successive centuries by the Faculty of Theology of Louvain in the great doctrinal quarrels is well known. When Luther’s writings made their appearance in our provinces, the doctors of Louvain, who had already been for a long time in conflict with the new doctrines, promptly censured them; and this was the first condemnation of Luther pronounced by a constituted body. On the advice of Margaret of Austria the theologians of Louvain produced some pamphlets refuting Luther; later on they made an index of forbidden books and a list of the works that could be read in the schools; they published several translations of the Bible in the vulgar tongue; and they proclaimed a profession of faith, to which, by command of the Emperor, all the ecclesiastical dignitaries and instructors in religion had to conform. When, by dint of pamphlets and writings, heresy attempted to force its way at all costs into our provinces, the School of Louvain, throwing overboard its ordinary curriculum, devoted itself to refuting every writing of the Reformers by scientific treatises based on the Scriptures and the Fathers; the number of pamphlets, letters, and papers of every description published in our provinces or the occasion of the doctrinal controversies of the Reformation is incalculable.

The controversies of the Reformation had hardly been settled, when a fresh heresy—Baianism—made its appearance in the Faculty of Theology at Louvain, and shook it to its foundations; it was merely the prelude to a longer and sharper controversy—indeed in a very short time Jansenism was causing divisions in the Faculty of Louvain. Jansenius, Professor of Holy Scriptures at the University of Louvain, numbered many supporters, and the disputes and quarrels between the Jansenists and the Jesuits were the source of an abundant and especially interesting controversial literature.

   I have already mentioned the valuable collection of Jansenist books bequeathed to the University by Snellaerts. All the documents relating to the Reformation, Baianism, and Jansenism had been hound in volumes, and on the parchment covers could be read the following titles: Varia reformatoria, or Janseniana, or even Jesuitica. What treasures were gathered together in that vast theological library-the like of which we shall never see [*1068] again! Two years ago we began to catalogue the old theological collections. In doing so we came upon surprise after surprise, and the publication of the catalogues of these treasures, which had not so far been exhaustively examined, would have been of very great use to the history of the theological controversies.

Like all old collections of books, our Library possessed several bibliographical rarities and typographical curiosities of every description. We had a collection of coins, medals, and some very fine specimens of Flemish bookbinding of the sixteenth century, several of which had been made the object of special study. All the visitors to the Library examined carefully the magnificent work of Andreas Vesalius: De humani corporis fabrica. Andreas Vesalius gave lessons at Louvain, and at the same time public anatomical demonstrations. A very rare occurrence at that time was the fact that he had been able to procure a complete skeleton at Louvain. The publication of his work raised quite a storm in the scientific world; Charles the Fifth presented to the Library of the University a magnificent vellum copy of the celebrated anatomical treatise, illustrated by numerous plates representing all the details of the human skeleton. We preserved carefully in large cupboards all the relics of the ancient University—the foundation of which dates back to 1425. Until the last few years the papal bull for the building of the University granted by Pope Martin the Fifth had been kept at the great seminary of Haaren in Holland; in 1009, however, on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the restoration of the University, the Bishop of Bois-le-Duc graciously offered this precious parchment to our University, kind we considered it the rarest relic of our glorious past. In these cupboards were also to be admired the seals of the Faculties, the medals, the diplomas, and souvenirs of every kind recalling the most important events and customs of the ancient University.

The following is a curious example. The proclamation of the Primus in Philosophy was a great event in our provinces. The Faculty of Arts at the ancient University consisted of four schools: la pédagogie du Porc, la p&eacuate;dagogie du Faucon, la pédagogie du Lis, la pédagogie du Chateau. At a great annual meeting these four schools contended for the palm to be awarded to the Primus. At Louvain the success of the Primus was celebrated with much pomp, and in the province a reception worthy of a prince or a king was given to the laureate. Discourses were delivered and Latin poems recited, extolling the merits of the victor in ceremonious fashion. We possessed quantities of these verses, beautifully written on parchment and surrounded by very gorgeous illuminations. In 1778 on the occasion of the triumph of the pupil of the pédagogie du Porc a little allegorical picture [*1069] was painted which attracted the attention of all the visitors to the Library. The Pig crowned with a Baron's coronet (the Primus was Baron François de Sécus) occupied the centre of the picture; it was armed with its natural weapons—recalling the Porcus silvestris which gave its name to the college. The two fore feet of the animal rested on the dead body of the Falcon—which was lying on its back discrowned; the hind feet of the animal were just about to trample down two lilies. In front of him the Château was collapsing; this was a two-storied tower tottering to its ruin and from the top of it was falling an enormous crown. The animal had in its mouth a streamer on which could be read the following inscription: ‘Num Portia quaeque pedibus calcavi.’

I do not think it is necessary to enter into further details nor give a more complete description of our different collections in order to show how important and valuable was the treasure contained in the Library of the University of Louvain. I am indeed pledged to make a thorough, categorical, and strict examination into this subject; but this examination I am unable to make while absent from my own country, on account of the lack of material.

From 1432 until our own time the Halles of Louvain have always been the centre of university life. What precious and touching memories were connected with that historic monument, every one of the halls reminding us of the most glorious events of the past of our University and the heroic episodes of our national history! Over these ruins, so stupidly heaped up in one tragic night, we reflect sadly on the scholarly lessons of Justus Lipsius, on the splendid processions which used to escort the sovereigns of our nation through those imposing halls of the Renaissance; our kings and princes signed their names in the golden book of the Library, in which were also inscribed all the great names of the ecclesiastical, political, and scientific worlds. We also reflect on the heroic struggles that the Alma Mater of Louvain had to endure under Austrian domination, and on the resistance which arose in the ancient Halles and declared itself boldly against a foreign and oppressive rule; we reflect that between those venerable walls there burned always that flame of purest patriotism which brought our country to the glorious destiny of 1830 and to the heroic struggle of to-day in defence of honour and liberty! I see again in my mind’s eye the stately fêtes which took place a few years ago on the occasion of the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the restoration of the University. These fêtes were held in the great halls of our Library. Intellectuals from Germany were present in large numbers, and they must have been able in a leisurely fashion to [*1070] compare our ancient monuments—every stone of which evokes a memory—with their colossal libraries which always lack the maturity of years and the memories of a glorious past. The compliments they paid us on that occasion scarcely coincide with the arbitrary statements of one of their principal scientific Reviews.

A monument of the fourteenth century, a model of the architecture of the period in pleasant and harmonious lines, original and varied designs; magnificent halls, recalling by their majestic aspect and perfect sculpture the most beautiful specimens of the Renaissance; treasures stored up by centuries of fruitful labour and patient research, manuscripts, incunables, very rare prints, relics piously preserved by past generations: all that is of little importance in the eyes of the new Kultur that Germany would inflict upon the world; all that is nothing compared with the delirious joy felt by a few hundreds of soldiers, drunk with wine and carnage, in contemplating the tragic spectacle of a town in flames, and in terrorising and massacring an innocent population.

Up till now, said the Germans at Louvain, we have burned only small villages, but we are now going to see a large town in flames. This, and this alone, was the reason for the crime of Louvain; for nine days massacre, pillage, and incendiarism succeeded one another under the direction of the military authorities. Now that the crime has been committed, have the German authorities, and that nation which believes itself to be the sole guardian of true civilisation, expressed regret for it? Do they disown it and look upon it as a punishable outrage of the War—the authors of which must be chastised? No, they understood only too well the horror of the criminal action at Louvain and feared that the reputation of the whole of Germany would be attacked; they have tried therefore by every means to justify the crime.

But I must not wander from time point; of the discussion, as the Germans tried to do. However often, as an excuse. for the pile of ruins left by our enemy's armies in other parts of Belgian soil and in the north of France, the pretext of military operations (frequently, of course, unjustly) may be pleaded, there could obviously be no such pretext to rely upon in the case of Louvain; any statement to the contrary is contradicted by the most glaring facts, and it is equally contradicted by those people in Germany who laid the blame for the Louvain affair at the door of the civilian francs-tireurs this legend, too, the official reports made by our commission of inquiry into the atrocities in Belgium have sufficiently shattered. In vain has the band of intellectuals from beyond the Rhine set itself file task of proving that the German army is guiltless of the hideous crime of [*1071] Louvain, yet now, in order to excuse the burning of the Library of the University and all its treasures, they are fabricating fresh arguments the officials were not at their posts to allow themselves to be massacred, the so-called treasures of the Library were of no value! These are merely so many categorical statements the absurdity and insolence of which leap to the eyes of everyone-and this I hope I have sufficiently proved.

The halls of Louvain will rise again from their ashes; they will become, as in former days, the centre of a school of learning of which the glorious past is a guarantee for the future. In building a new and magnificent Library we wish not only to restore to our professors and students those materials indispensable to all scholarship and scientific work; we wish also to show present and future generations that, if the German intellectuals accept the responsibility for the most odious crimes against reason and civilisation, on the other hand the civilized and right-thinking world knows how to unite in execrating barbarity as it deserves, and in solemnly avenging the intellectual and artistic patrimony of which barbarians have callously robbed it.


P. Delannoy,

Professor and Librarian of the

University of Louvain.


[1] Printed books of the fifteenth century.