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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 050-132-E
Division Number: V.
Professional Group: Rare Books and Manuscripts
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 132.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Codex Argenteus
From Ravenna to Uppsala
The wanderings of a Gothic manuscript from the early sixth century

Lars Munkhammar
Uppsala University Library
Uppsala, Sweden


In April 1997, Uppsala University Library opened new and fortified doors to its exhibition hall in Carolina Rediviva, its main building. Through the new doors you enter quite another exhibition hall than the former one on the same premises. This is the result of two years planning and building. The security measures have guided the architects and the builders, and æsthetics has been adapted to these measures. But æsthetics has indeed not been neglected. The exhibition hall of today is a dark treasury, where the jewels of the library are exposed in an exciting chiaroscuro.

The high altar in this hall of devotion is the show-case of the Silver Bible, the Codex argenteus. The ancient manuscript has its own crypt in the exhibition hall. And it is the Silver Bible, that has made it possible to rebuild the exhibition hall radically. In 1995 the Silver Bible was the subject of a violent robbery, where a double leaf and the silver covers of the manuscript were stolen. Very soon great demands were made upon higher security for the Silver Bible and the other treasures in the exhibition hall. And suddenly it was much easier to raise money for rebuilding the exhibition hall. When the stolen parts of the manuscript returned to the library one month later, the library was indemnified in regards to the Silver Bible, and moreover it was richer through the expectations of money for a new exhibition hall.

The Silver Bible is perhaps the greatest highlight for tourists in Uppsala. Though it does not look very impressive today, about one hundred thousand persons a year come to look at it. Why is it so attractive?

Let me first tell you a little about the Silver Bible, the Codex argenteus, in general. This manuscript is the most valuable book treasure in Sweden, and one of the most famous manuscripts in the world. It is not a complete Bible, and never was. It is a record of the four Gospels, an evangeliarium, in the Gothic language. The translation of the Gospels from Greek to Gothic was made in the fourth century by the Gothic bishop Wulfila, who even constructed the Gothic alphabet. The manuscript, the Codex argenteus, is probably written in Ravenna during the Ostrogothic empire, and probably for the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, in the beginning of the sixth century. It is written on very thin purple-coloured vellum of high quality with gold and silver ink. The silver text is dominating, and therefor the manuscript is called the »silver book«, or » codex argenteus «. It was made to be an admirable book, which may be difficult to see today, when hastily looking at its roughly handled remnants in Carolina Rediviva in Uppsala. Probably it originally had a splendid binding with pearls and precious stones. The text of the Silver Bible is one of the oldest and most comprehensive documents in the Gothic language known today. Beside the Silver Bible, there are very few text lines in Gothic handed down to posterity.

The Silver Bible was known in the sixteenth century, when it was kept in the Benedictine monastery in Werden upon the river Ruhr in Germany. It later went to the emperor Rudolf II, and was in Prague when the Swedes forced the city in 1648. As a piece of Swedish war-booty it was brought to Stockholm, where it found its place in Queen Christina's library. After the queen's abdication, it went to Isaac Vossius, one of the royal librarians, who brought it to Holland. From Vossius in Holland it was bought by Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, the Swedish Chancellor and Chancellor of Uppsala University. De la Gardie donated it to Uppsala University in 1669.

Originally, the Silver Bible had at least 336 leaves. 187 of these are kept in Uppsala today. Another leaf is kept in Speyer in Germany. This leaf was sensationally found in 1970 in the cathedral of Speyer together with some hidden relics of an early saint. Judging from the size and other characteristics of this leaf, it has sometimes travelled on other ways than the leaves in Uppsala, before it came to light again in 1970.

Between Ravenna in the sixth century and Werden in the sixteenth century the Silver Bible has a history of more than a thousand years, which mainly is covered by darkness. This does, of course, stimulate our fancy. There are, however, beside fancies some facts as well as qualified guesses and scientificly based theories about the fates of the Silver Bible during this millennium.

The text of the Codex argenteus is edited several times. The latest and most importand edition was made in 1927. It is a photographic facsimile edition made by means of the most advanced technology and equipment of that time. One of the scientists behind this edition was the Swedish Nobel Prize winner The Svedberg.

Some words about the Goths. The Goths were a Teutonic or Germanic people, which we think once emigrated from the southern parts of Scandinavia. At the time of the birth of Christ they lived as farmers in the north of Europe. At the end of the first century, they began to wander southwards and became a people of warriors. In the second century they operated around the Black Sea. They were often in war with the Romans. Sometimes they were victorious, sometimes not. At the end of the second century they were divided into two main groups: Visigoths and Ostrogoths, or Westgoths and Eastgoths. The Visigoths went into Dacia in today's Romania, where they stayed for about a hundred years. Later they became the rulers of what is now Southern France and Spain. When the Arabs came in the early eighth century, the Gothic hegemony was broken in these areas. The Ostrogoths went into today's Ukraina and became for a time dependents under the Huns. When they were free from the Huns, they went to Italy. They settled down in Pannonia under protec-to-rate of the Eastern Empire. Soon they were permitted by Constantinople to settle down in all Italy and rule the land.

The Goths were a Germanic people and the Gothic language was a Germanic language. As the Goths were wandering, many foreign words were adapted to their language. And as the Goths met the Romans very often and lived together with Romans for long times, the influence of Latin was important to the Gothic language. The Goths were not a writing people, and our possibility today to study their language is very limited. What the Goths left to posterity of literature is a translation of the Bible and more-over very few fragments of text. Even the Bible translation is very fragmentarily preserved: the Silver Bible, a Gospel book, even that in fragments. Then we can understand the great importance of this manuscript as a source for philological research!

Beside the Silver Bible, we can find Gothic text today in a few palimpsests, some marginal notes in a manuscript, and some small fragment of a Gothic manuscript. The palimpsests are the Codex Carolinus in Wolfenbüttel, the Codices Ambrosiani in Milan, the Codex Taurinensis in Torino, and the Skeireins in Milan and in the Vatican Library. The marginal notes are found in the so called Codex Veronensis, and a short fragment is for instance the Codex Gissensis, a Gothic-Latin dubble leaf found in Egypt and destroyed by a flood in Giessen in Germany in the nineteen-forties.

The Gothic bible translation was made by the Visigothic bishop Wulfila. His name means »the little wolf«. Wulfila, who died in 381 or some years thereafter, was bishop of »Gothia«, for those Christians who lived in the Gothic settlement north of the river Danube. Wulfila was an Arian Christian, and the Goths were Arians. We cannot deal with the concept here, but it meant that Wulfila did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity such as it had been stated at the Council of Nice in 325. Wulfila translated the Bible from Greek, and he seems to have used several Greek versions. The tradition tells that he translated the entire Bible except for the books of Kings. They were too martial, and the Goths did not need any martial encouragement. One important task for Wulfila beside the translation seems to have been the Christian mission. Like many other missionaries after him, Wulfila was a typographic pioneer, if we can use this term for the era of hand-writing. Probably it was he, who constructed the Gothic alphabet, and probably he did it for the Gothic Bible translation. The Goths had earlier used the runic alphabet. The runes has also contributed to Wulfila's Gothic alphabet with some characters, but on the whole this is based on the Greek alphabet.

So, back to the Ostrogoths in Italy! Theodoric the Great was the Ostrogothic king during the first period of the Gothic hegemony in Italy. He was born in the middle of the fifth century, and he died in 526. He was the king of the Goths in Italy, but also the king of the Romans in Italy. He used the title Gothorum romanorumque rex. He was the leader of a tribe of barbarians, warriors and Arians the Ostrogoths were still Arians as bishop Wulfila once had been. But Theodoric in Italy is not just a king, he acts like a Roman emperor. He builds churches and palaces, he stamps coins with his own picture, he uses the purple colour with permission from the Eastern Emperor. He builds his capital Ravenna with Constantinople as a pattern. He gives the Romans panem et circensem, and they call him »Trajan« and »Valentinian«. The civil administration in Theodoric's Italy was Roman, and its language was Latin. Theodoric's prime minister was Cassiodorus, a noble Roman magistrate, later one of the early cloister founders in Italy.

It was a question of great Gothic national prestige, that the Arians should have as splendid churches as the Catholics. But the ecclesiastical life required not only impressive buildings and beautiful liturgical dresses. It also required the sacred Scriptures, preferably in magnificent books. The Silver Bible was such a book. Perhaps the most beautiful one, but we do not know for sure. And so Ravenna began to be a center even for book-writing.

Within thirty years after Theodoric's death in 526 the Gothic empire in Italy was over. The Eastern Empire had conquered the land during the long so-called »Gothic war«. What happened to the Silver Bible? We do not know. In the monastery Werden upon Ruhr the manuscript was discovered in the middle of the sixteenth century, probably by two theologians from Cologne, Georg Cassander and Cornelius Wouters. At least they knew about it, which we can see from their correspondence with other scolars. How did the manuscript wander from Ravenna to Werden? We do not know. This is the Mystery of the Thousand Years. Many scolars have been occupied with this mystery, and when the Speyer leaf - or the Haffner leaf, as it is called after its finder was discovered in 1970, the speculations started again, and were much connected to the question of how and when the Haffner leaf was separated from the manuscript. There are in principal three main theories.

One is the theory of the early separation, which means, that the Haffner leaf was taken away from the rest of the manuscript in the early Middle Ages. Representatives for this theory are Piergiuseppe Scardigli in Italy, and Jan-Olof Tjäder in Sweden. Tjäder, for instance, thinks that the Silver Bible went southwards in Italy as a part of the Gothic Crown Treasury, when the Gothic empire was falling, and that it found its way to Formia. There the Haffner leaf was separated from the rest of the manuscript, and put together with the relics of the Holy Erasmus. It went with the relics on roundabout ways to Werden, and the rest of the manuscript was found in Italy by the Holy Liudger, who brought it to Werden, to the monastery that he founded in 799.

A representative for the theory of the late separation is Margarete Andersson-Schmitt in Sweden. She argues, that the Haffner leaf very well could have been together with the rest of the manuscript on its way to Werden. If the Silver Bible was rebound in the late eight century or in the early ninth century, which Tjäder thinks that it was, it is very unlikely, that it should have been so roughly cut, she maintains. The marigins of the Haffner leaf are about two centimeters wider than the marigins of the Uppsala leaves. During the Carolingian Renaissance, the book bindery was not on such a barbaric level. Andersson-Schmitt thinks, and so had also Frans Haffner thought, that the Haffner leaf was still left in the manuscript in Werden. But from Werden it was probably sent to Mainz in the early sexteenth century. Perhaps they wanted in Werden to get an expert statement concerning the nature of the manuscript. Perhaps they wanted to sell the manuscript to Mainz, and sent the leaf as a sample. After some years, the leaf in Mainz was forgotten, and the manuscript in Werden got a simple binding and was put back on its shelf.

Tjäder had thought, that the Silver Bible hardly could have been bound in Werden in the early sixteenth century, because Arnold Mercator some decades later found the manuscript there in a miserable condition. But Andersson-Schmitt means, that it very well could have been in a miserable condition, even if it was rebound some decades before. The Haffner leaf was probably put together with the relics of Erasmus, she suggests, when archbishop Albrecht's property was put in order after his death in 1545.

A carbon 14 analysis, made of some binding-threads from the Silver Bible last spring, shows that the manuscript has been bound at least once during the sixteenth century. This does not prove Andersson-Schmitt's theory, and it does not disprove Tjäder's. But it shows that the theory of the early separation is unnecessary to explain the difference in format for the Haffner leaf and the Uppsala leaves.

A third theory about the Silver Bible wanderings during the Thousand Years is that of Lars Hermodsson in Sweden. This theory does not deal with the separation of the Haffner leaf from the others. Hermodsson thinks, that the Silver Bible was still in Ravenna when Charlemagne visited the city. Charlemagne was very fascinated by Ravenna and Theodoric the Great. Hermodsson means, that the Silver Bible was brought together with other manuscripts from Ravenna to Aachen by Charlemagne. And from Aachen the way was short to Werden.

These three theories are the main explanations of the Thousand Years Mystery. I have my own theory, of course. Why shouldn't I? Everyone must. I shall not develop it here. I tell about it in my book about the Silver Bible, which comes this autumn.

From Werden in the late sixteenth century, before 1600, the Silver Bible was taken to Prague, to the castle of Rudolf II. We do not know if Rudolf borrowed the manuscript or bought it, or perhaps just took it. However, the manuscript came to be a part of the emperor's gorgeous and enormous collection of art, books, curiosities, and just anything. In the castle was even a magic book collection, and perhaps the Silver Bible looked magic enough to get its place there. As I told earlier, the Silver Bible became a piece of Swedish war-booty, when Prague was captured in 1648. The manuscript went to Queen Christina's library in Stockholm, where it lived quite a retired life, so to say. Isaac Vossius got it from Christina. Franciscus Junius, uncle of Vossius, made the editio princeps of the codex, printed in 1665. But Vossius himself, who was a great lover of manuscripts, was not interested in barbarian books, only in classical manuscripts, especially Greek ones. So he sold the Silver Bible to De la Gardie, who made it a gift to Uppsala University. And there in the library it has been ever since.

When De la Gardie bought the manuscript, he did so through the Swedish minister Peter Trotzig here in Amsterdam. In order to get the book to Sweden Trotzig put it in an oakwood box or case. The case was sent with the ship S:t Joris from Amsterdam on the 28th of July, 1662. But a tempest broke out and S:t Joris stroke the ground by Zuiderzee. Trotzig is badly frightened. He sends a boat to the ship to fetch the book case. The case is intact and Trotzig praises God in Heaven. He makes a new try. He puts the oak case in a lead case, which he seals with solder, and sends it with the ship Phoenix on the 12th of September. This time he is successful. The Silver Bible comes to Sweden, and De la Gardie gets it.

Why is the Silver Bible so attractive? For many reasons, as we can see. But are not the mysteries around this book important parts of the answer? Rumours, adventures, and exciting stories surround this book. What is true and what is myth? Gothic treasures, hidden relics, magic libraries, war-booties, shipwreck, and robbery, all this has real basis. But further. It is told, that when the old librarian Schröder died in the nineteenth century, two leaves from the Silver Bible were found in his bed. It is told, that what you can see of the Silver Bible in Carolina, is not the entire manuscript, and that what you cannot see is kept in a secret place, known to very few persons. It is told that this place is somewhere under the Swedish mountains. And many other things are told. What is true? Of course, the mystifications are effective parts of the security measures around the Silver Bible. But do they not have their own value? The hidden is tempting!


The article is a general presentation of the Codex argenteus. The manuscript is a Gothic Gospel book made for Theodoric the Great in Ravenna in the early 6th century Today it is kept in Uppsala University Library. Beside its philological interest, its attraction seems very much to be connected with its wanderings, and the hidden parts of its history. What happened between Ravenna and the monastery Werden in the 16th century? That is the Thousand Years Mystery. Different theories about this period are described. Adventures and rumours surround the codex. What is true and what is fiction?