Knowledge of the World

Early modern aristocracy and its cosmopolitan interest in collecting

Based on the handwritten catalogues of the princely private libraries, this project will document the development of the Wolfenbüttel and Braunschweig collections of the 17th and 18th century. The project focuses on the collection practices and the corresponding cultural and academic interests of the aristocracy.


The project examines the yet unindexed inventories of private libraries formerly owned by women and men of nobility whose collection activities were likely motivated by cosmopolitan interests, reflect the widespread European dynastic network and exhibit particular interest in non-European regions. These will be supplemented by still unindexed private collections of objects, inventories and handwritten estates comprising letters and manuscripts.

Research questions

We are interested in determining in what way collectors had participated in accumulating knowledge about the world since the end of the 17th century. What did they specifically collect, and what was the purpose of these collections? Did their function change over the course of time? What knowledge did they acquire thanks to their collection activities and their use of books and objects? In addition to the direct interaction with the objects, i.e. their material representation and cognitive participation, the collectors’ involvement in academic and political communication networks played an important role, as did their social and cultural patronage. It is likely that such networks afforded them the opportunity to exercise their group-specific social claim to power and representation. In other words: Does involvement in knowledge collections, ownership of exotic things and participation in academic communication represent practices which constitute a contemporary, aristocratic, cosmopolitan habitus?


In the first year of the project, researchers focused their efforts on the libraries of Elisabeth Sophie Marie von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1683–1767) and Philippine Charlotte von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1716–1801). Both women owned large private libraries which they actively used for their continuing education, as can be substantiated by letters, self-produced documents and handwritten entries in the books themselves. Their collections appear especially relevant for understanding the relationship of collections and knowledge.

The first step we wish to take is to virtually reconstruct the collections in their entirety. The goal is to produce a visualisation which would enable us to digitally evaluate the collection as extensively as possible. To this end, we have transcribed the handwritten catalogues and verified the physical presence of the recorded books in the Herzog August Bibliothek in order to clarify further provenances and gain a complete overview. The data obtained in his way will be converted into an XML data model which we have developed, and thereafter visualised using LibReTo. This procedure, which we have tested on two case studies, can be applied to other collections to facilitate their comparison in the long term and to serve as an application-oriented contribution to collection research.