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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

12/2014 manuscript  of the month

Salvation of the soul and prudery

Censoring a 15th-century German-language manuscript

In the Hamburg State and University Library, there is a late mediaeval manuscript in German language consisting of a series of very varying texts, two of which were censored, with individual words being deleted. The censor was so thorough in his work that even using the most up-to-date technology, it is still not possible to read these words. What were the reasons for such interventions, and what remains hidden even today?

Fig. 1:The fourth main scribe concludes his entry on fol. 98v (left-hand side) with
thanks to God and a date, “Deo gratias 1463”. The fifth main scribe starts his work
on the following page. The differing style of handwriting of the two scribes is easily
seen without the need for detailed analysis. Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibl.,
Cod. germ. 1, fol. 98v/99r. > Enlarge

In Europe, censorship is in the main a modern-day phenomenon, becoming institutionalised with the formation of the territorial states during the period shortly after the invention of printing. In a system of pre-censorship, all texts intended for publication had to be submitted to the prescribed authorities before they could be published. However, even before this system was developed in relation to printing, censorship was possible as post-censorship. For centuries, manuscripts and even inscriptions were searched for potentially dangerous statements and passages of text. Inscriptions were damaged, passages of text within manuscripts were blacked out and entire books were destroyed.

In the Middle Ages, it was, above all, ecclesiastical institutions that were at pains to suppress the dissemination of heretical world views and practices. Contrary to our popular conception of the medieval period, they tended to condemn only specific ideas, generally after long theological debate involving a hearing with the author, seldom censoring entire books or even the author himself. However, the fact that book owners would censor their own libraries, irrespective of prosecution or legal proceedings, on the basis of theological notions of heresy and superstition is evident in the manuscript shown here.

Fig. 2: Several scribes have tested their freshly cut quills on fol. 1r
in order to check whether they were suitable for the work of
writing (quill tests). Behind the alphabet, there is a second line
including the date of 1573. Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibl.,
Cod. germ. 1, fol. 1r. > Enlarge

Fig. 3: On fol. 57ra (right-hand side), black ink has been applied to
two passages so thoroughly that one is no longer able to read the text
underneath it. The text has thus become incomprehensible. Hamburg,
Staats- und Universitätsbibl., Cod. germ. 1, fol. 56v/57r. > Enlarge

A work known as Codex germanicus 1 is a German-language manuscript in folio format (29 x 20 cm) held by the Hamburg State and University Library. It consists of 214 leaves, which can be dated to the 1450s and 1460s on the basis of entries written by the scribe (see fig. 1) and an examination of the watermarks. The codex is comprised of two parts, the first of which spans folios 1–108 and is a communal production by five main scribes with discernibly different writing styles (see fig. 1). In all likelihood, they would have entered medicinal instructions, household recipes and pigment formulas, an encyclopaedia and a collection of pious sayings one after another over the course of several years circa 1463. The last pages of this part are blank. The second part (folios 109–214) is composed of an older transcription, completed by yet another scribe in 1454, of a collection of exemplary stories called the ‚Sieben Weise Meister‘ [‘Seven Sages of Rome’]. This part was evidently damaged, however, and it is for this reason that another scribe has replaced the outer double folio of the first quire of this part (folios 109/120). Since he used a specific kind of paper to do this that had already been employed for the rear quires of the first part, it must be assumed that he worked alongside the scribes who produced the first part and was able to avail himself of the same supply of paper. It is presumed that the codex was bound for the first time only at the time of production of the first part circa 1463 since the original binding has not survived, and it is thus not possible to be absolutely certain about it. The comparatively large number of scribes involved sequentially allows one to presume that the manuscript originated in a monastic community. Based on the nature of the dialect evidently used in the texts, we can assume that the entire manuscript was executed in Swabia. The numerous addenda and inscriptions and jottings in the margins and on blank folios inserted by a variety of scribes would suggest that the book was heavily used over a long period (see fig. 2).

By virtue of the wide range of subject matter addressed in the writings contained within the book, it is as useful for the purposes of religious instruction as it is as a reference work for medical ailments, or, indeed, as an entertaining book to read. It includes, amongst other things, a cookbook, gardening tips and medicinal prescriptions, it explains the structure of the universe, in the encyclopaedia, and demonstrates how one should pray to the Virgin Mary. It is typical of a so-called ‘house book’, to which one might turn for advice in relation to all questions and problems occurring within the home.

Only two short recipes are censored in the manuscript. In both cases, individual words have been crossed out so thoroughly with black ink that they are no longer legible (see figs. 3 and 4). The first text (see fig. 5) is part of a series of quack recipes. Translated into English, it reads:

Fig. 4: On fol. 64v (left-hand side) there are medicinal recipes in three
different hands behind the text written by the first main scribe, who
continues on the following folio with the insertion of a book about
cookery. In the second column of this folio, one word in the third
recipe has been crossed out in black ink. Hamburg, Staats- und
Universitätsbibl., Cod. germ. 1, fol. 64v/65r. > Enlarge

“If you want to make ██████ sit with you, take the eggs of a crow and burn them to a powder and mix this with olive oil and anoint [your] brows with it. In this way, you will see ██████ ██████ sit with you, as if they were your friends. Whatever you ask them, they will tell you. It helps, truly.”

This recipe is censored in such a way that we are still able to read what must be done, but no longer to what end. One is evidently supposed to rub a mixture of the ashes from burnt crows’ eggs and olive oil into one’s eyebrows in order that one can see someone sit beside oneself, to whom one can pose questions. However, we are no longer able to tell who this is.

The same thing was done to the second text. Translated into English, it reads
(see fig. 6):

“Ditto: if you want to make good water for the ██████, take some red roses that grow in the corn (i.e. field poppies) and crush them and take the juice and put it into a glass until you need it.”

These crossings-out were done so thoroughly that even with the most up-to-date imaging technology, we are still unable to see what they hide. Since different inks absorb light of varying wavelengths, it is often possible to read poorly written or overwritten handwriting by photographing the same page under differing light conditions. However, in this case, although both scribe and censor have used different inks, these are actually of the same type: both men employed iron gall inks, which were generally produced from plant galls, ferrous sulphate, water and a binding medium such as gum arabic. The text written with this ink is as transparent in the near infrared range as the crossings-out. Thus, it is not possible to see beneath the densely applied deletions (see fig. 7).

Fig. 5: Detail of fol. 57ra.
> Enlarge

Fig. 6: Detail of fol. 64vb.
> Enlarge

Fig. 7: Image taken of the censored passage of text on fol. 57r using light at
wavelengths of 625 nm (red light), 780 nm and 940 nm (near infrared). Hamburg,
Staats- und Universitätsbibl., Cod. germ. 1, fol. 57r. > Enlarge

Our technological aids may have hit a brick wall here, but the well-documented herbal in our manuscript has also survived in a similar form in manuscripts held in St. Gallen and Augsburg. Indeed, in the Augsburg manuscript, there is a large passage of the text that the first main scribe had entered in the Hamburg manuscript, including a parallel version of our original text:

“If you want to make devils sit with you, take the eggs of a crow and burn them to a powder and mix this with olive oil and anoint [your] brows with it. In this way, you will see black devils sit with you, as if they were your friends. Whatever you ask them, they will tell you.”

Thus, the person who censored Codex germanicus 1 wanted to prevent readers from falling into the temptation of conjuring devils and asking them questions. From a contemporaneous theological perspective, any communication with devils equated to worshipping them since in order to communicate, a common language was required. Such a language was not natural, according to Augustine, but achieved by means of convention, that is, by means of a covenant or pact. Therefore , if one communicated with a devil, one automatically entered into a pact with him, established a counter-church and was barred for eternity from the divine salvation of souls. Our text was censored to prevent this from happening.

Fig. 8: The manuscript Augsburg, Staats und Stadtbibl., 2° Cod. 572, was secured
with the aid of a book lock. > Enlarge

Another kind of protective mechanism is employed with the Augsburg manuscript. This codex is lockable, so that only people who were aware of its dangers could read it (see fig. 8).

The person who censored the second text presumably did so for more profane reasons. Whilst it is true that this recipe is not to be found in the Augsburg manuscript, the nature of the crossings-out and the rest of the visible text alongside it allow one to speculate. The deleted word is probably zagel, which in Modern High German translates as Schwanz [tail]. Like its Modern High German equivalent, this word was also used to denote the penis. Thus, the reason for this censorial intervention was probably simple prudery.


FANGER, Claire / KLAASSEN, Frank (2006): “Magic III: Middle Ages”. In: Wouter J. Hanegraaf (ed.): Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 724-732.

FÜRBETH, Frank (2000): “Zum Begriff und Gegenstand von Magie im Spätmittelalter. Ein Forschungsproblem oder ein Problem der Forschung?”. In: Jahrbuch der Oswald-von-Wolkensten-Gesellschaft, 12, 411-422.

HEILES, Marco (2014): “Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. germ. 1. Handschriftenbeschreibung”. (accessed on 15/12/2014).

KRUSE, Britta-Juliane (2000): “Zensierter Zauber: Getilgte magische und mantische Texte in einer Berliner Handschrift”. In: Peter Jörg Becker (eds.): Scrinium Beroliense. Tilo Brandis zum 65. Geburtstag. Beiträge aus der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, 10. Wiesbaden: Reichert , Vol. 1, 383-397.

LÁNG, Benedek (2006): “The criminalization of possessing necromantic books in fifteenth-century Krakow”. In: Thomas Wünsch (ed.): Religion und Magie in Ostmitteleuropa: Spielräume theologischer Normierungsprozesse in Spätmittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Religions- und Kulturgeschichte in Ostmittel- und Südosteuropa, 10. Berlin: LIT, 257-271.

WERNER, Thomas (2007): Den Irrtum liquidieren. Bücherverbrennungen im Mittelalter. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.


Hamburg State and University Library
Shelf mark: Cod. germ. 1
Material: paper, 214 folios; 20th-century cardboard cover
Dimensions: 29 x 20 cm
Origin: Swabia, circa 1463

Text by Marco Heiles