The Vesalius Census


Essays on the Fabrica

The Mobility of the Fabrica

Dániel Margócsy

We visited the Elbląg Municipal Library a few years ago, where we found a highly interesting copy of the 1555 edition. Elbląg (Elbing in German) was an important town and trading post through the early modern period, attracting English and Scottish merchants, and erudite notabilities such as Samuel Hartlib and Ioannes Amos Comenius. It was severely damaged at the end of World War II, yet the old town has undergone restoration since. The impressive church of St Mary now functions as an art gallery, and the late gothic Adoration of the Three Kings altar is worth a visit to the St Nicholas Cathedral.



While the Elblag copy is not annotated, its provenance reveals the typical mobility pattern for Fabricas in the past 450 years. It was once purchased by a private owner, Andreas Morenberg (or Mohrenberg), who then donated it to the local gymnasium, or high school, in 1608. Morenberg, whose family was originally from Wrocław (Breslau), was a city official in Elbląg with a clear interest in cultivating an erudite library. His copy of Plantin’s 1568 Polyglot Bible is also preserved in the Elbląg library.

The Elbląg copy thus belongs to the impressive number of copies that are at the same location today where they were 400 years ago. Path dependence clearly matters for the mobility of these books. If you know where a Fabrica was in 1615, especially if it was in an institutional library, there is a good chance it will be found in the same town in 2015, too.

In the case of the Fabrica, we find that three political events are responsible for setting in motion a good number of the copies. First, in the late eighteenth century, the dissolution of monasteries put a large number of monastic libraries Fabricas on the market. Second, the French Revolution resulted in the nationalization of a large number of copies in religious and aristocratic libraries. And third, the two world wars did not only destroy a good number of copies, but also dispersed private and public collections across Central Europe. Shortly after World War II, the Elbląg copy was also moved to the Toruń University Library, and it took fifty years before it returned to the city where it spent most of its career.

Incidentally, Andreas Morenberg’s ex-libris, preserved in his Polyglot Bible, also confirms my first law of heraldry: If a person’s name refers to black people in one way or another (Morenberg comes from Moor), their coat of arms must contain one, or preferably two, black persons represented stereotypically in the nude.

Daniel Margocsy