Van Buchell collection

The rich legacy of a miser

Portrait of Huybert van Buchell from 1574.

Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck, Hubert van Buchell. If we are to believe his nephew Aernout van Buchell (see the Buchelius collection), his uncle belonged to the same category as the first two. Hubert only ate one meal a day, often just an egg, under the pretext that a frugal diet was the secret of good health. Throughout his life he was extremely careful with his money and he excluded his family members from his will, much to the frustration of his nephew. A part of the legacy of Hubert came into the hands of Utrecht University Library. A remarkable book collection, which required some hanky-panky to get hold of.

On the run

Hubert van Buchell (1513-1599) was born in a well-to-do family, and when the became canon in the Utrecht Chapter of St. Mary's his future was safe. As a canon he was part of a community that was connected to St. Mary's Church. This meant that he did not have to take the vows of poverty, as monks had to do. St. Mary's Church was a rich church, and the canons led a relatively wealthy life. In the 1560s this kind of life ended abruptly. The Reformation and the Eighty-Year War created turmoil, and after the 1566 iconoclasm, the Chapter of St. Mary's decided to safely store its large library among some canons. Hubert was one of them.

In 1569 the Spaniards marched into Utrecht, and Spanish troops were billeted with Hubert. Very soon he got fed up with the parties, prostitutes and violence in his house and in 1570 he fled to Cologne where he had studied Law in his younger days. He took his library with him, together with the (Catholic) medieval manuscripts of St. Mary's Church which he had under trust. They had become almost useless because books were printed by then, and besides: their contents did not reflect important matters of the Reformation. Hubert also tended towards Protestantism and in 1584 renounced his rights as canon.

Cologne bookbindings with recycled endpapers

From the collection of Van Buchell: UBU 109 E 6 with title on the cut

In Cologne Hubert devoted himself to his two great passions (apart from eating eggs): buying books and reading books. During this period printers sold their publications as loose-leaf quires to booksellers. The latter bound the publications in simple or more expensive bookbindings and joined one or more publications in a single bookbinding, according to the wishes of the customers. The bookseller also put in endpapers to protect the title page and the back page. These endpapers were usually made of parchment, taken from redundant medieval books.

As Hubert did not like to spend money, he usually had several publications bound in one bookbinding. And the endpapers he supplied himself as he had a considerable supply of medieval manuscripts from St. Mary's Church that were of use to nobody. And so it is that a part of the medieval library of St. Mary's Church can be found in the Cologne bookbindings of Hubert van Buchell's books.

Uit de collectie van Van Buchell, UBU E fol 45, schut- en titelblad

Books hanky-panky

As early as 1579 Hubert had stipulated in his will that no relative of his would inherit a single item of his fortune. He donated everything to the poor of the parish of the Utrecht St. James' Church, home of the reformed vicar Hubert Duifhuis (1531-1581). Both Huberts had probably met in Cologne. Van Buchell left his book collection to the library of St. James' Church. After his death in 1599, the Utrecht city council was interested in his book collection, but did not want the books housed in St. James' Church.

In 1584 the Protestant city council had closed down the Catholic cloisters and housed their book collections in the new city library in St. John's Church. However, that collection was half as large as Hubert's. Two city libraries was considered a bad idea, so the executor in Cologne was told that the books would be housed in St. James' Church (if that condition was not met, the executor would have been forced to sell the books). In reality the books went straight to St. John's church. In this way they became available to the Utrecht citizens, which had been Hubert's express wish.

A complete private ollection from the sixteenth century

We may be grateful to the city council and its complicits that they did not execute Van Buchell's will to the letter but to the spirit of the law. Because now Van Buchell's entire book collection of almost a thousand volumes and 2500 titles was moved to the city library almost as a whole. When the University of Utrecht was founded in 1636 the city library became university library and as a result it now owns the Van Buchell collection.

In the Netherlands this is a remarkably large private collection from this period and it is also very special as Hubert bought books because he wanted to read them and not because he was particularly interested in the value of the books themselves. In many books we find traces of being read, such as underlinings, annotations and corrections. It is typical or Hubert that he often noted down how much the book and its binding had cost - information that is relatively rare. Also his choice of which publications he had bound and in which order tells us something about the way he treated books and texts, apart from what he found interesting to read.

The manuscript fragments from St. Mary's Church

Loose pages from Van Buchell's books taken from a manuscript of the Mariakerk, now UBU Hs 709

By means of the more than thousand manuscript fragments bound in Hubert's books we are able to reconstruct al large part of the library of St. Mary's Church. Utrecht University Library owns 45 volumes with medieval manuscripts from this church, only a fraction of what its library once must have been. Some of these manuscripts miss sections of which we find leaves acting as endpapers in Van Buchell's books. Other manuscripts were taken along by Hubert, completely cut to pieces, ending up scattered as endpapers in dozens of books from his collection.

Author: Bart Jaski, June 2020

Schut- en titelblad van UBU H qu 205 uit de collectie van Van Buchell.