The Manuscript Collection

From the Palace Fire to the Contemporary Age

The National Library suffered a severe disaster in 1697: the Palace Fire. About four fifths of the manuscript collection was destroyed; 1 103 manuscripts burned or disappeared in the melee and only 283 were left, according to an inventory done shortly after the fire.

One of the missing manuscripts returned to the National Library about 100 years later. Queen Christina accepted Siebenhirter’s prayer book as a gift from an Austrian who was serving as a general for Sweden. The prayer book was later stolen in the confusion on Palace Hill, but was eventually found in the possession of a goldsmith and bought back for the National Library in 1825. Damaged by fire and water and redolent of smoke, it is now kept in a beautiful coffer and is one of the more magnificent examples of Late Medieval painting held by the National Library.

Dissolution of the Antiquities Archive

A happier milestone in the history of the National Library’s manuscripts is the year 1780, when the Antiquities Archive was dissolved. The purpose of the Antiquities Archive had been to collect, preserve, and publish documents that shed light on our glorious history – the Archive drew rune stones, searched for old coins, and researched chronicles, poems, and battle songs.

Its collections were divided among the National Archives; the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities; and the National Library. Land and judgment books, older copies of letters, and historical material went to the National Archives. The National Library got the other manuscripts – and suddenly, the National Library was the owner of the largest collection of Swedish medieval manuscripts in Sweden. Prayer books and other manuscripts from Vadstena Abbey came to the National Librarythis way. The same applies to manuscripts of laws and the archeological collection – reports and notes from the 17th century inventory of antiquities and cultural heritage monuments, which are especially valuable sources for Swedish archeology and art history. The collection also includes invaluable memoranda by Sweden’s first National Librarian, Johannes Bureus, written down between 1599-1648 in his notebook, "Sumlen".

The Elder Westrogothic Law (The Västgöta Law) dates from the 1280s, making it the oldest preserved book in the Swedish language. The large collection of Icelandic manuscripts also came into the possession of the National Library on this occasion, as did the spectacular 542-cm long English book scroll from 1412, which is of great interest to medical history. Certain surgeries are still performed today as they are described in the book scroll.

Manuscripts Also Left the National Library

It was fortunate manuscripts were added to the National Library’s collections, since manuscripts also left the National Library over the years. Queen Christina had a habit of giving away manuscripts – her librarian Isaac Vossius was quite simply paid in manuscripts, which are now owned by the university library in Leiden. The queen also took a number of manuscripts with her to Rome, which are now in the Vatican Library.

Important 18th century manuscripts, acquired much later, include the Åkerö Diary kept by Carl Gustaf Tessin during the period of 1756-1767, which is a significant source of Swedish intellectual history. Carl Christoffer Gjörwell’s major collection of letters in 80 volumes is another important source for studies of 18th century Sweden.

The National Library’s current acquisitions concentrate on collections of letters and private archives from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Last updated: 2016-02-09
Contact person: Patrik Granholm, e-mail: firstname.lastname@kb.se
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