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Papal Bull from the Early Years of Heidelberg University Discovered in the USA

Press Release No. 27/2014
3 February 2014
Medieval document from 1387 found in the attic of a house in St. Louis
Urkunde über die Genehmigung zur Gründung der Universität Heidelberg aus dem Jahre 1385

Photo: Heidelberg University Archives

The papal bull missing since the end of World War II was found in the attic of a house in St. Louis. Outwardly, it resembles the document establishing Heidelberg University in 1386, which is pictured here. How the parchment found its way to St. Louis is a complete mystery to the finder.

A papal bull from Pope Urban VI concerning Heidelberg University has come to light in the United States. The document dates from 1387 and had been given up for lost after the end of World War II. It has now been discovered in the attic of a private house in St. Louis. The finders contacted Heidelberg University Archives via the internet. The Archives arranged for the medieval document to be entrusted to the German consul general in Chicago. The Heidelberg archivists are now debating how best to organise the safe return of the document, which was found to be missing from the holdings of the Archives some 70 years ago.

In late January 2014, consul general Dr. Christian Brecht received the papal bull in person from the sister of the finder, who had discovered it in the attic among her mother’s possessions. She was surprised to come across a document in Latin in her mother’s house. To find out more, she approached the Institute of Jesuit Sources in St. Louis, which identified Heidelberg University as the home of the bull. How the document came into their mother’s possession remains a mystery to the sisters.

“Unfortunately there is no evidence to suggest how the document got from Heidelberg to the USA in the chaos immediately after the War,” says Dr. Ingo Runde, director of the University Archives. During a verification of the holdings of the Archives in December 1947 and January 1948, eight medieval documents were found missing. Alongside the newly rediscovered papal bull, the other items that disappeared in that period were two papal documents and five documents issued by the county palatine in the early years of the University. They date from 1386 to 1389. “The dates of issue are so close that it seems likely that the documents were kept in the same place and thus may indeed have found their way across the Atlantic together as well,” says Dr. Runde. The Heidelberg archivist hopes that the chance find in St. Louis will perhaps bring clues to light about the whereabouts of the other documents.

The rediscovered document is dated August 1387. In it, Pope Urban VI confers on the clergy associated with Heidelberg University the privilege of absenting themselves from their prebendary lands for a period of five years. The papal bull is a parchment original. In arranging the return of the document to Heidelberg, the University Archives have joined forces with Frieder Kuhn, head of the Institute for Preservation of Archival and Library Material at the Baden-Württemberg State Archives.

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Latest Revision: 2014-02-11
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