Project traces books looted by Swedes

Illustrative photo: Martina Schneibergová

Over 25,000 books were looted from the Czech lands by the Swedes at the end of the Thirty Years War. Today these valuable prints and manuscripts are scattered in libraries all around Sweden, but also elsewhere in Europe. A new project by the Czech Academy of Sciences attempts to trace all the books that have survived and create a digital catalogue accessible both to researchers and the general public.

Illustrative photo: Martina Schneibergová
The website, called Švédská knižní kořist or The Swedish book loot, was launched by the Academy of Sciences at the end of last year, and currently features some 900 titles. Apart from the digital catalogue, it also contains original inventories of the stolen library collections, maps and other details concerning the Swedish war booty.

Lenka Veselá, the woman behind the project, outlines the background of the greatest book theft in the history of the Czech lands:

“The Thirty Years War was the first military conflict which saw a systematic and organised confiscation of books and art collections. This happened not only in the Czech lands but in the whole of Europe.

“However, most of the looted books came from the Czech lands, specifically from Prague, Mikulov and Olomouc. It happened in two waves, first in 1646 in Moravia and then, in 1648, in Prague, after the Swedes seized Prague Castle.”

Hundreds of valuable illustrated objects and rare manuscripts were stolen from the Imperial Treasury at Prague Castle, among them the world-famous manuscripts, Codex Gigas and Codex Argentu.

The Emperor’s library, which contained works mainly from the time of Rudolph II., was also looted, and so was the Strahov monastery, the Jesuit College and several aristocratic palaces.

By order of the Swedish Queen Christina, the books were packed and shipped down the Elbe to the Baltic coast.

“Most of the books ended up in the Royal Library in Stockholm, but quite a few of them were donated by the Swedish Queen Christina to various institutions and many of them ended up in private hands.

“For instance the court librarian, Isaac Vossius, received several book collections as compensation for unpaid salary. These books have since been scattered all over Sweden, as well as abroad.

“When Queen Christina abdicated her throne and converted to Catholicism, she took most of the books with her to Rome. Today, they can be found in the Vatican Library.”

Battle on Charles Bridge in 1648,  photo: Petri Krohn,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Although the Swedes kept a detailed inventory of their haul, many of the registers have disappeared over the years, so it is not entirely clear how many books were stolen from the Czech lands. According to Lenka Veselá, it could have been up to 25,000. However, only around 3,000 are believed to have survived to this day.

Most of the looted books that remained in Sweden eventually perished in fires. The biggest disaster was the fire of the Royal Palace in Stockholm in 1697, which destroyed three quarters of the Royal Library.

Historian Lenka Veselá from the Czech Academy of Sciences got involved in mapping the Swedish war booty of books during her study of the Rožmberk library, which was one of the most significant libraries in Central Europe in the 16th century.

Tracing some of the books from the valuable collection led her to Stockholm. Eventually she decided to trace all the books looted during the Thirty Years War. She started about two years ago and hopes to complete her work within the next five years.

Her investigation has taken her to libraries all around Sweden but she also traced books in other European cities, such as St Petersburg or Madrid.

“My Swedish colleagues, especially in smaller libraries which own large collections from the Czech lands, are extremely helpful and they let me borrow more books than is common. And I have had the same experience in other countries as well. Of course in the Vatican Library rules are much stricter.

“The Swedish Academy of Sciences also helps me to cover the travel costs, which is really crucial for the project, since the costs are quite substantial.”

To trace the books’ origin, Lenka Veselá looks for all kinds of information, including the provenance, a record of ownership or location of the book, but also other documents, such as handwritten notes, inscriptions or ex libris. She says that even seemingly insignificant records can reveal a great deal about the book’s history.

“One of the typical examples are these large numbers written in red crayon on the books’ bindings. For me, it is a clear sign that these books went through an auction, held by the Chapter of Strängnäs in the 18th century. The chapter sold around 1,000 books from the Czech lands. Most of them ended up in Copenhagen and eventually became part of the Royal Library.”

Codex Gigas,  photo: Kungl. biblioteket,  CC BY
Among the most valuable books looted by the Swedes in the Czech lands was Codex Gigas, one of the largest medieval manuscripts in the world, known as the Devil’s Bible. It was created in the 13th century in a small Benedictine monastery in east Bohemia and is considered to be the oldest Czech chronicle written in Latin.

However, Lenka Veselá says she enjoys discovering more "ordinary" books, which reveal the existence of previously unknown libraries.

“We have discovered for instance books that belonged to the canonised Moravian priest Jan Sarkander and his brother Mikuláš. These books were part of the Jesuit library in Olomouc.”

“We have also found books that belonged to the well-known physician Jan Jesenius, who played a key role in the Protestant revolt and was executed on the Old Town Square along with other Czech noblemen.

“We knew that his book collection was scattered all around the world, but we didn’t expect to find some of the books in Sweden. And we have made many other interesting discoveries of this kind.”

In 1878, Sweden returned 21 manuscripts to Brno in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The deal was secured by Beda Dudík, a Moravian historian and Benedictine monk, who published a catalogue of Czech manuscripts in Swedish libraries.

“He was one of the first Czech explorers who set out to Sweden in search of the looted possessions. The generation of 19th century researchers were looking mainly for books that were related to the history of the Czech lands and the Czech language. Thanks to his private contacts, he eventually managed to negotiate their return as a symbolic gift of the Swedish King.”

Apart from the manuscripts, none of the other looted titles have returned to the country of their origin. The question of restitution has arisen many times over the years. However, war booty was a recognised method of acquiring property in the 17th century and present-day law can hardly be applied retrospectively, says Lenka Veselá.

Illustrative photo: Anton Kaimakov
“The war loot happened in accordance with the law of that time. I think that today, when it is possible to digitalize rare manuscripts and create virtual libraries, it wouldn’t make any sense to open up the question.

“I see the books as a joint cultural heritage. They spent part of their life in the Czech lands, but a significantly larger part of their life in Sweden.

“I think it is important to create a space where we can study the joint European heritage. This was one of the reasons I decided to create the website.”

An English version of the website dedicated to the Swedish book loot should also be launched in the near future. Lenka Veselá, who has so far processed around 900 titles, hopes the digital catalogue will be completed within the next five years.