The Learned Correspondence of the Brothers Pez: Catholic Enlightenment in Austria

The following lines were held as a presentation at the 9th Congress of the European Society for Textual Scholarship in Amsterdam, on 24th Nov. 2012.

The Learned Correspondence of the Brothers Pez: Catholic Enlightenment in Austria

 Many examples can be given to illustrate the period commonly known as „Enlightenment“. Prominent figures like Isaac Newton, John Locke, René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz create the impression, that the centre of „Enlightenment“ lay in the (mainly protestant) territories of Northwestern Europe, whereas the southern part of the Empire as well as the monastic field seemed to be barely touched by it.

A counterexample for „Monastic Enlightenment“ in this area at around 1700 is to be found at the monastery of Melk, situated in Lower Austria and one of the biggest and most important Benedictine monasteries of its time, namely the work of the two historical-critical scholars Bernhard and Hieronymus Pez.

Bernhard and Hieronymus, who were also brothers in real life, were born into an innkeepers family in Ybbs an der Donau, a small town inLower Austria, at the end of the 17th century. After being educated by the Jesuits inViennaand Krems, they both entered the Benedictine Order, each of them at the age of 16, and became monks at Melk.

As soon as Bernhard Pez became librarian in 1709, he developed the idea of creating a bio-bibliographical encyclopaedia: the „Bibliotheca Benedictina Generalis“. This work was intended to cover all Benedictine authors from the foundation of the order to its present, giving detailed information on their lives and works.

From a certain point on, Bernhards role model in the field of monastic scholarship were the monks of the Benedictine congregation of St. Maur inFrance. Jean Mabillon, Edmond Martène and others had developed a critical method of examining medieval sources and using them in a more appropriate way according to the new demands of their time, so that they can be seen as the founders of modern historical auxiliary sciences. They had published a variety of historiographical works and were famous for their edition of the works of the church fathers. In this context, Bernhard and Hieronymus Pez as well as other monastic scholars in the southern part of the Empire, who imitated this manner of scholarship, are often referred to as „German Maurists“.

But Bernhard Pez did not only adopt the maurist way of working on material, but also of acquiring it. On several journeys he and his brother Hieronymus, who focused his studies on Austrian historiography, travelled the monasteries ofAustriaand southernGermanyto search the libraries for interesting material and manuscripts. Besides this active research outside their monastery, which was limited as it recquired permission from the abbot and meant an exemption from their monastic duties, the brothers established a network of correspondents throughout wide parts of Europe to gain additional material in the form of e.g. catalogues of manuscripts possessed by the monasteries or transcriptions of individual works or authors. In three letters entitled „Litterae encyclicae“ sent to monasteries in the present-day territories of Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, France, Switzerland and Italy, Bernhard Pez asked for assistance for his project. The responses were not always to his fullest content because as the „Bibliotheca Benedictina“ should not have been limited to e.g. a single congregation or authors of a special period, but was intended to be a general encyclopaedia, it competed with similar projects of other monks, e.g. Mariano Armellini’s works on the congregation of Monte Cassino. Others, however, were quite willing to support Bernhard Pez. When e.g. Felix Egger, a monk at the monastery of Petershausen, who was working on a similiar project, was informed about Bernhards plans he gave up his own and sent his materials to Bernhard.

Until his death in 1735 Bernhard Pez had been in contact with more than 300 correspondents. But his network was not limited to monastic scholars alone. A few years after his first circular letter he extended his network to secular scholars connected to the Imperial Court of Vienna like the imperial diplomat Johann Christoph Bartenstein or Johann Benedikt Gentilotti, the prefect of the Imperial library.

At about 1715 Bernhard also came in contact with learned men in the Protestant territories of the Empire, especially at Hannover andLeipzig. Due to dynastic connections between the house of Habsburg and protestant dynasties, their common interests in foreign politics, conversions and the role ofViennaas institutional center of the Empire interdenominational contacts were nothing unusual.

Men like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’ former secretary and successor Johann Georg Eckhart or the publishers Johann Gottlieb Krause and Johann Burkhard Mencke opened a new dimension of scholarship to Bernhard, and the fact, that he published several articles in learned periodicals shows that he emerged from being a monk and librarian to a member of the „Res Publica litteraria“. However, his efforts for higher scholarship also gave rise to criticism for those who thought that monastic life and secular scholarship should not be combined and served his own reputation more than the reputation of his monastery.

Although Bernhard Pez was soon confronted with a vast amount of usable material, which quickly proved to be too much to work on, he never gave up his plan of converting it into his „Bibliotheca Benedictina“ and all his actually published works have to be viewed as additions to this unfinished project. Whereas Bernhard’s „Bibliotheca Benedictino-Mauriana“, an encyclopedia on the Maurists, gives us an idea of what a finished „Bibliotheca Benedictina“ might have looked like, his „Bibliotheca Ascetica“ and the „Thesaurus anecdotorum novissimus“ were intended to provide the edited works of authors described in the encyclopaedia.

The fact that many of the discussed medieval works have never been worked upon since as well as the fact that 70% of the works edited in the „Thesaurus“ were used by Jacques Paul Migne for his „Patrologia Latina“ show if not the quality, then at least the actuality of Bernhard Pez’ works, especially because many of the original manuscripts have gone lost since.

Today the monastery of Melk preserves about 1000 letters addressed to Bernhard and Hieronymus Pez, while about 150 letters written by them are to be found in various libraries and archives throughout Europe. Besides the written correspondence we also find remains of their work in 58 manuscripts and 11 archive boxes in Melk, which contain copies from manuscripts, catalogues of libraries, notes, concepts, summarized histories of monasteries and general working papers either collected by the brothers themselves or sent to them by their correspondents.

In the 19th century the learned correspondence of the brothers Pez started to be of interest for the scientific community and since then has been subject of several research projects, the latest being established in 2008 entitled „Monastic Enlightenment and the Benedictine Republic of Letters“. The project, which won a START award and will end in 2014, is financed by the Austrian Science Fund and affiliated with the Department of History at theUniversity ofVienna and the Austrian Institute of Historical Research.

Primary aim of the current project is the thorough publication of all letters of the Pez correspondence in four volumes. The first volume was published in 2010, the second one is currently in progress and will be published next year. The letters, dating from 1709 to 1762, are presented in chronological order and reproduced in their original language (which is mostly Latin).

The first line of each edited letter names sender and addressee of the letter, its date and the place it was sent from. This is followed by an extensive German summary, to give readers with minor skills in Latin the chance of fully understanding the letter. A third section contains editorial notes concerning the location of the original letter, its connection to other letters, a selected bibliography and comments. The main part consists of a transcription of the original text with critical notes, as far as it is available: we also integrate those letters in the Pez correspondence, which are mentioned but have not been preserved.

For a better understanding of the Latin text, punctuation and orthography are normalised to a large extent and abbreviations are resolved. This reflects our primary interest in the context of the letters as compared to their precise textual form. The last section contains a detailed commentary, offering information about mentioned authors and manuscripts as well as discussed people and events. The reason for this editorial choice lays in the practices of historical-critical scholarship, which only become visible when the assertions in the letters are contrasted with the state of current research. Each volume also contains two separate indices (a general one also providing bio-bibliographical information on books and scholars, and one containing quotes from the Bible and classical authors as well as keywords like “res publica litteraria”); the indices are followed by biographical sketches of the correspondents and various appendices (among which a list of mentioned letters outside the Pez correspondence, and one of materials and books sent along with the letters). These editorial choices enable us to situate the scholarly efforts of the brothers Pez within the larger context of theEuropeanRepublicof Letters.

The printed edition of the letters is published in a new series of the Austrian Institute of Historical Research explicitly dedicated to the edition of historical sources. The first volume is available as a printed book and, since 2011, as a free PDF document on the homepage of the project.

As the comprehensive publication of the letters seems within reach, but that of the mentioned working materials cannot be accomplished – I remind you of the mentioned 58 manuscripts and 11 archive boxes –, a database has been established to provide access to the digitised manuscripts and working papers of the brothers. The database is part of the Unidam platform of theUniversityofViennawhich was established to collect and distribute material for researchers and teachers at the university. At present 17 university departments are connected, and also connecting to other universities, using a similar programme, is possible.

The access to the database is free and possible either via the homepage of the project or the Unidam page itself. The section on the brothers Pez contains about 1000 records in over 50 000 images. Within it each item is provided with a detailed description of its content and connection to the letter it was sent with or is mentioned in.

The letters, manuscripts and working papers of Bernhard and Hieronymus Pez do not only give us an impression of their methods and efforts, they also represent their level of knowledge as well as the knowledge of their time. Especially concerning monasteries which no longer exist, the catalogues, notes and transcriptions in Bernhard and Hieronymus Pez’ collection allow us to reconstruct their history, their libraries and answer other questions of interest.

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manuelamayer (2012, 4. Dezember). The Learned Correspondence of the Brothers Pez: Catholic Enlightenment in Austria. Ordensgeschichte. Abgerufen am 22. April 2024, von


2005 - 2010 Geschichtsstudium an der Universität Wien 2012 - Masterstudium "Geschichtsforschung, Historische Hilfswissenschaften und Archivwissenschaft" an der Universität Wien seit 2011 wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin des START-Projekts "Monastische Aufklärung und die benediktinische Gelehrtenrepublik"

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Eine Antwort

  1. Homepage des Projekts “Monastische Aufklärung und die benediktinische Gelehrtenrepublik. Die Korrespondenz der Brüder Pez”:

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