Boeckh strikes back

You know how research takes a lo-ong time, and publication processes too? Let me tell you a story about it, and one that ends well at that.

A decade ago, when the projet “Berlin intellectuals 1800-1830” started, there were three main focus points reflecting the main spaces of public involvement of, well, as the project title says, Berlin intellectuals around 1800: women-based networks, French culture (rather late 18th than early 19th century), edition circles, and the University, which was founded in 1810. Each of these four hot topics was explored by the members of the junior research group and gave the thematic basis for the digital edition the group produced, Letters and Texts. Intellectual Berlin around 1800.

Partly due to the manuscripts we found and what we could afford to do with them (some of them being too expensive to be affordable for such a little research group as mine, not to mention those manuscripts that private holding institutions refused to concede to a group led by someone who didn’t have a professor title), partly due to the center of interest of the people I hired in the research group, these four topics did not give way to the same kind of publications. One topic proved to be particularly fruitful, and progressively became a hot topic: the first decade at the Berlin University.

When we started working on this project, the University Archive of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin had not started any digitization process on its own. The more I went to this improbable place outside the city, with akward opening hours and barely a bakery in walking distance to take a break from the aching microfiche exploration, the more I realized that the resources were huge and even if we worked only on this, we would not be able to extract but a fraction of the gold these amazing manuscripts had to offer. At a time where reviving the history of the Humboldt-Universität was huge (it was 2010, e.g. 200 years Berlin University), weirdly enough, it seemed like nobody was really diving into all of this. The volumes of the history of the University published back then contained very little novel archive work, so that Lenz’ work on the history of the University, with all of its defaults (especially the fact that he gives no proper indication on the manuscripts he is quoting, making it impossible to retrace the context of his citations easily), still remains the reference in terms of excavating primary archive information on the first years of Berlin University. 

As I have shown in a series of papers (for instance here), the first years of Berlin University teach us a lot about even the institutions that are ours today. My research group focussed on the Philosophical Faculty between 1810 and 1819, and could show precisely how the modern structure of University, whose principle had been elaborated by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1809, were in fact specified and implemented by a task force in these years – a task force that worked both pragmatically, on the basis of the reality of the situation they had to face, and ideally, knowing they had a unique institutional space and, in a sense, an intellectual freedom that extended up to a certain point to the definition of the institution itself. 

We didn’t manage to explore all of what happened between 1810 and 1819, and focussed particularly on one major actor in the process I just described: August Boeckh. You will find several posts on this blog dealing with Boeckh (the post here links back to many others). We were in fact so lucky, back in the days, to be given the opportunity to be in contact with the Boeckh family, who contributed greatly to encouraging our research. And it turned out that beside the many, many documents at the University archive that allowed to reconstruct Boeckh’s impact on this crucial first decade of Berlin University, the Humboldt-Universität also had another major asset: seeing that the University was still in great pain realizing something like a decent University Library by the end of his life, Boeckh donated his entire book collection to the University. Boeckh’s book collection, but also the corresponding catalogue he personally wrote his life long, adding books as they were added to his collection, were also part of the University Library at the Humboldt-Universität.

Analyzing this book collection became the PhD project of Julia Doborosky, who not only transcribed the catalogue and researched all resources and editions mentioned there (which was quite a painstaking work, considering Boeckh wrote the catalogue to his personal use, using abbreviations, and his handwriting deteriorating considerably over time), but also edited it for our digital edition Letters and Texts (the edition of the “Katalog meiner Bücher” is here), and wrote her dissertation about it.

This dissertation is the most recent publication in the collection “Berliner Intellektuelle um 1800” at the Berliner Wissenschaftsverlag. Julia Doborosky’s work is based on an analysis of Boeckh’s concept of philology, and how his book collection reflects the way Boeckh developed and implemented this concept along time. 

Boeckh’s book collection contained not only classical works from Greek and Latin Antiquity, but also many books by living authors he agreed or disagreed with. The analysis of marginalia referring to the major philological quarrels of the first half of the 19th century are part of Julia Doborosky’s work as well as the evolution of his own works, reedited and annotated in the course of time. It is one of the major contribution of this monograph to provide a thorough overview of themes, authors, and domains of knowledge covered by this amazing book collection, and to draw the lines that connect them to the circulation of major concepts and issues of Philology as it becomes a core Wissenschaft through which Germany will influence the whole world.

In case you are stuck at home, you can order the ebook version of the book here. Enjoy!

Spoiler alert: a second dissertation on Boeckh was written in the context of this research project, so be ready to hear from him again soon, as a second book on Boeckh will be published in the same collection in a few weeks.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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