The ‘Librije’ is a unique 16th century public library in the St. Walburga’s Church in Zutphen. The Church itself dates from the 11th century. The building and the interior of the library have remained almost unchanged throughout the ages. The greater part of the original collection of books is still in situ.
Some books have been chained to the reading desks since the time of foundation. In medieval times the Chapter of the St. Walburga’s Church consisted of 12 canons. They were not only responsible for the church services but also advised the Duke of Guelders and the town council in legal matters. By the end of the 15th century this occupation had resulted in an unusually large collection of books. So, when in about 1490 the south chapel was built, the decision was taken to construct a ‘liberie’ – a library – over the vestry.
In the middle of the 16th century the churchwardens Conrad Slindewater and Herman Berner planned a large reading room abutting the ambulatory. From the records of Slindewater, well-preserved in the Zutphen town archives, we learn that the ‘Librije’ was intended to be a stronghold against the increasing popularity of the Reformation. Slindewater wrote that, if people read the right books, they would be cured of their errors and become true believers of the Christian faith. To him this meant the Roman Catholic faith.
After lengthy preparations the actual building of the ‘Librije’ started in 1561. It took three years to complete. The design was based on the existing reading rooms in the medieval convents of Zutphen, the Broederenkerk ("Brothers Church", i.e. Black Friars Church) and the Galilea monastry. The shape of the building was adapted to fit in with the adjoining church.
On the pillars Master Wilhelm painted representations of the four Evangelists, St. Barbara, St. Catherine, St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Walburga and several other saints. He also decorated the corbels near the vaults On a pillar near the entrance of the library a figure of Christ is represented as Salvator Mundi (Redeemer of the World) with the words: “Ego sum via veritas et vita”
(I am the way, the truth and the life, John 14: 6). The reading desks (lecterns) date from the 1560s. On the sides of the desks facing the windows are various paintings by Master Wilhelm: the Holy Trinity, the Lamb of God, a martyr, etc. In some of the windows we can see coats of arms of churchwardens. To the far right of the entrance are the coats of arms of Conrad Slindewater and Herman Berner, the founders of the ‘Librije’. The reason for chaining the books was a purely practical one. The ‘Librije’ was open to the general public. Anyone could obtain a key and sit and study the books for as long as the church was open. But the books had to stay where they belonged…
There is room for approximately 300 books on the reading desks. The catalogue contains about 750 titles. The core of the collection consists of acquisitions by Slindewater and Berner in the fi rst half of the 16th century. Another part of the collection was acquired through legacies. Particularly in the 15th and 16th century learned inhabitants of Zutphen left their books to the ‘Librije’. After the Reformation books from the dissolved monastries in and around Zutphen were added to the collection of the ‘Librije’. There are also text-books from the former chapter-school, amply provided with notes by the students. In the 17th century the collection was supplemented with books reflecting the interests of the era: books on Reformation theology and the history of the Netherlands were added. Until the middle of the 18th century donations were made to the ‘Librije’ on a regular basis, mainly by ministers connected with the church. The present collection contains books on theology, law, history and literature – works by Church Fathers, medieval commentaries on the bible, books on the lives of saints, legal commentaries, classical writers like Virgil, Horatius, Seneca, Homer and Herodotus and humanistic authors like the Dutch scholar Erasmus. The collection contains 5 manuscripts and 85 incunabula (books printed before 1500). On the reading desks we find mainly books from the original collection – 15th and 16th century works with beautifully tooled leather covers and silver mountings. In the bookcase we see mainly 17th century books with parchment covers.
In the floor under the reading desks we can see tracks made by the Devil. According to a poem by the 19th century poet A.C.W. Staring, the Devil caught the monk Jaromir eating a chicken in the ‘Librije’ during Lent! The Devil punished Jaromir by locking him up in the ‘Librije’ for one night.
Currently the Foundation Librije Walburgskerk Zutphen is in charge of the ‘Librije’. During the past decades the books were restored in close co-operation with the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (the Royal Library) in The Hague. The preservation of this beautiful heritage is very costly. Gifts and regular donations are most welcome!