Five hundred years ago, give or take a couple of years, a professor gives a lecture to his students. It’s no ordinary professor, though, and no usual students; no sleepy university campus, either. This is Wittenberg, 1517, we’re talking about, on the cusp of things extraordinary. Spring time – in more senses than one!
Lit up by his recent reading of Augustine Karlstadt has in April just tossed out to the academic world his 151 Theses. (Today we would share our excitements on Facebook). To explain better his intentions – professors always seem to need to do this – and muster support for them, Karlstadt uses his lectures to spell out why Augustine’s insights are so crucial at this time. His students, or some of them, were clearly impressed, made careful notes, and began to circulate them. Samizdat stuff.
So where are these handwritten notes? What hope of recovering them 500 years on? Seems pretty remote, eh? But lo and behold the track leads to a certain London bookseller’s catalogue of 1841. David Nutt, Foreign Bookseller, in Fleet St, is advertising for sale Karlstadt’s take on Augustine’s de Spiritu et Litera and adds: “At the end is a neatly written contemporary MS. Consisting of Extracts from the Works of St. Augustine, with remarks, – the work itself has also Notes in a similar hand.”
Well, well, all this looks remarkably like the vanished notes we’re hunting down! And – stranger and stranger – the lot was bought by a famous Scottish collector, Alexander William Crawford Lindsay, the 25th Earl of Crawford. Today the rich library of his family, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, is housed in the Rare Books Collection of the National Library of Scotland, in George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. We are surely getting to solving the mystery! Another twist, though. It seems, alas, that the hand=written notes have been detached after the good Earl’s purchase of the book, but could they still be stowed away somewhere in the vicinity?
So watch this space! Our sniffer dogs, alias the Scottish librarians and archivists, are hot on the trail. And why is all this important, anyway? Well, it would be truly sensational if this bundle, convolutum, of papers did turn up in distant Caledonia, because it would throw fresh light on the reception of Augustine in that exciting Spring time in 1517 Wittenberg.