As early as the 14th century, a new spirit of intellectual rebirth began to sweep across Europe. Located half-way between the major intellectual centres of Italy and the Netherlands, Sélestat played a key role in the dissemination of new ideas. The Latin School of Sélestat was one of the most highly-regarded in the Holy Roman Empire.

At the forefront of educational innovation, the school educated hundreds of pupils in the new philosophy. For almost a century, from 1440 to 1526, Sélestat was at the heart of Europe’s overlapping networks of intellectual exchange.

Many centuries later, Sélestat is still home to a unique, living icon of this fascinating period: the Bibliothèque Humaniste. The library’s collections now house the works which formerly constituted the parish library as well as the personal library of Beatus Rhenanus, enriched by acquisitions and donations of historic books over the subsequent centuries.

Parish library

The parish library was founded in 1452 thanks to the donation made by Johannes von Westhuss, rector of the Sélestat parish church.

This act of generosity inspired a series of donations of books, many of them from alumni of Sélestat’s Latin School

The parish library thus contained liturgical works as well as books studied in the Latin School. Housed in the church of St. George, the books were chained to their shelves in order to deter would-be thieves.

Although no catalogue of the parish library in this period has come down to us, a study published in 2002 identified 160 volumes belonging to this collection, with a mixture of manuscripts and printed works reflecting the advent of printing technology. Very few parish libraries from this era have been so well preserved.

The library of Beatus Rhenanus

A Sélestat native and graduate of the Latin School, Beatus Rhenanus bequeathed his library to his home town upon his death in July 1547. The collection comprised some 423 volumes, containing 1,287 works and 41 manuscripts compiled in various collections, along with 33 historic manuscripts and 255 handwritten letters.

The collection also includes unfinished projects, school books and lecture notes. Together these documents offer a precious insight into the workings of a humanist education.

This remarkable collection is testament to Beatus Rhenanus’ unquenchable thirst for knowledge, his work as proof-reader and editor for some of Europe’s leading printers, and his friendships with the leading thinkers of the age, including Erasmus of Rotterdam. The diverse array of languages present – not to mention the range of themes, authors, periods and places of publication – bears witness to the spirit of universality which epitomised Renaissance humanism.

First housed in the municipal chancellery alongside the town archives, and later transferred to the customs house, in September 1757 the library of Beatus Rhenanus was finally merged with the parish library in the Church of Saint George.

Enrichment and recognition

In 1840, the collections of the parish library and the Beatus Rhenanus bequest were housed on the second floor of Sélestat town hall, converted into a public reading room.

In May 1889, the whole collection was transferred to the old corn exchange. It was in this period that the Bibliothèque Humaniste first came to be seen as a tourist attraction, a new status reflected in tourist guides of the late 19th century. In 1958, the renovation of the main hall with new windows made it possible to put some of the most remarkable artefacts from the library’s collections on public display. With the foundation of the inter-municipal multimedia library in 1997, the Bibliothèque Humaniste was free to concentrate exclusively on its work to preserve and promote its historic collections.

The collections continued to grow throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks to successive purchases and donations. The library is now home to 460 manuscripts (ancient and modern), 550 incunabula (books printed in Europe before January 1, 1501) and almost 2,500 printed works from the 16th century.

In 2011 the library of Beatus Rhenanus was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register in recognition of the universality, originality and quality of this historic collection.

“There can be no doubt as to the authenticity, the exceptional quality and the unique, irreplaceable nature of this collection”
UNESCO – Memory of the World committee


Reorganisation of the Bibliothèque Humaniste

In 2014, the Bibliothèque Humaniste embarked upon a vast programme of renovation and reorganisation, scheduled to last for 4 years.

The architectural vision for this renovation project was entrusted to Rudy Ricciotti, an internationally-renowned architect perhaps best known for the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) in Marseille.

The renovation has preserved the Neo-Romanesque character of the corn exchange, while expanding total floor space by adding a pink sandstone extension and restructuring the underground levels where the reserve collections are held.

The task of creating the permanent exhibition space was entrusted to design agency Atelier A Kiko.

An architectural vision "combining tradition and modernity"
Rudy Ricciotti