The adventures of Baron Münchhausen, the German nobleman who had the habit of grossly exaggerating his experiences, have been reprinted many times and translated into a wide range of languages. Stories such as that of the stag which the Baron shot with a cherry-stone, and which he afterwards found with a cherry-tree growing out of its forehead, although originally written for adults, have found lasting popularity in revised versions for children.
Less well known is the collection’s original compiler, Rudolf Erich Raspe. Raspe had been librarian at Kassel from 1767 to 1775, where he had been in charge of the Landgrave’s collection of antique gems and medals. He had to leave Hesse in great haste when he was detected removing and selling valuable items from the collection, and he spent the last nineteen years of his life in England.
Despite his notoriety Raspe found powerful patrons in the Master of Trinity and the Regius Professor of Greek, so that when he came to Cambridge in 1779 he readily gained access to the “publick library”, as the University Library was then called. He showed particular interest in a 13th century manuscript of the monk Theophilus, De arte pingendi, from which he concluded that oil-painting had been known at the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century, long before the time of Van Eyck, the artist to whom the invention of the technique was traditionally attributed. Raspe kept detailed records of his Cambridge visit in a diary, which by the end of the 19th century had found its way into the library in Jelgava in Latvia. He noted the manuscript’s classmark, Ms.Ee.6.39.3, and the items with which it was – and still is – bound. Only the binding has changed in the intervening 235 years, the volume having been spendidly rebound by Douglas Cockerell and Son of Grantchester in July 1970.
The University Librarian Richard Farmer refused to allow Raspe to take the Theophilus manuscript away for private perusal and transcription. The first initial is considerably faded, suggesting that despite the Librarian’s caution Raspe may have carried out some experiment to discover the composition of the paint. He admits to carrying out experiments on the Library’s Egyptian mummy (acquired in 1743 and subsequently transferred to the Fitzwilliam Museum) in order to discover the nature of the pigment and varnish used on the cases.
By chance Raspe located another copy of De arte pingendi at Trinity College, where he was given “better encouragement” than at the University Library. In his A critical essay on oil-painting … (Hh.13.30), which he published in 1781 as a result of his investigations, he gratefully acknowledges the assistance which he was given at Trinity, but is less complimentary about the catalogue –
The numerous manuscripts of this beautiful library, are very imperfectly described in the printed Catalogus Manuscriptorum Angliæ. Many, and amongst them that of Theophilus, are absolutely passed over in silence: a great many others appear under erroneous titles; and none of them are described in a satisfactory manner.
In the same publication Raspe also seized the opportunity to take his revenge on librarians in general, which is rather ironic considering that he had once been a librarian himself –
Librarians have very often happened to keep the most instructive manuscripts in darkness for various reasons; either in consequence of their partiality to particular sciences and opinions, or by an effect of their torpid ignorance, or of their more mischievous and shameful jealousy.
The Master of Trinity suggested that Raspe should remain in Cambridge to deliver a series of lectures to the School of History, and Raspe even began to gather material together, but the proposal was turned down by the University and he left Cambridge in May 1779, never to return.