Mystery Worm Book

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 5/26/2018

Categories: F1RST Magazine F1RST Summer 2018 Faculty and Staff

Origins of Rare Religious Text Hard to Pin Down

Author unknown

Mystery worm book cover

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but one can usually identify a book by its cover. That’s not the case for the “mystery worm book,” as it’s known by Carroll library staff.

It’s old, this book, with onion-skin-brittle pages and a tinder-dry wooden cover. It’s thick and heavy, with six bony ribs protruding from its spine. The front and back covers are sheathed in velum and embossed with an intricate design. 

But there is no sign of a title, no author, no publisher. It’s been called the mystery worm book because the cover is dotted with worm holes and because, well, everything else about it is a mystery.

There are some clues. Actual wooden covers and ridged spines were used in book binding in the 16th century—the use of wood began to disappear in the early 1600s. It’s likely very old. The book’s outdated call number, BX1757 .T72, classified it thus: “Religion–Christian denominations–Catholic Church–Moral theology. Casuistry. Cases of conscience.”

Library archivist Sue Riehl says the book was donated by a William C. Schnitzke (or someone associated with him) around the early 1960s, though it may be earlier. However, no William C. Schnitzke ever attended Carroll. So, who was he?

An online search turns up a William Carl Schneitzke (Schneitzke and Schnitzke both appear in searches), who was born in Waukesha in 1888. He moved to South Dakota in 1910 and, later, continued west to California, where he passed  away in 1959. His parents, August Schnitzke, a farmer, and Augusta Timm, were both born in the Kingdom of Prussia in the early 1860s. Today, that region is divided between Germany and Poland. 

The book may have been passed down through the Schnitzke or Timm families, as it’s written in German and Latin. Dr. Kimberly Redding, an associate professor of history at Carroll and a German language reader, notes that more than 500 years ago German theologian Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, in part by insisting that Latin texts be translated into local languages, and that all believers study holy texts. His writings spread quickly thanks to the invention, 75 years earlier, of the modern printing press by Johannes Gutenberg (think Gutenberg Bible). The criticisms of Luther and other reformers caused a split in Western Christianity that eventually led to the Thirty Years War (1618–48), in which the German lands lost 25 to 40 percent of their population. 

Redding noted that the book is divided into four sections, with titles relating to Moses, Gideon, the Creation story and the Ark of the Covenant. Each section includes Latin texts, which were translated into German well before there were standardized spellings. Pointing out printed references to specific Bible verses, Redding surmised that the Latin included both holy texts and scholarly commentaries. The German text seemed to link those older works to “current events” from the 1600s.

According to Dr. Scott Hendrix, an associate professor of history at Carroll with an expertise in medieval times, the Renaissance and the Reformation, that period in European history saw many religious texts published, according to Hendrix, some quite apocryphal. Our mystery scholar seems to have supported the Catholic position. He describes, for example, the exploits of a Polish abbot named Augustinus Kordecius, who “had far more experience in prayer than in battle,” yet “freshened up his own courage with that from Heaven” and rallied the inhabitants of his small Polish monastery to hold off an enemy assault. The attackers were apparently particularly incensed that the monks sang joyfully throughout the battle.

A small breakthrough in our search for answers occurred when Redding stumbled across a German website referencing a “rare edition Tractat De Creatione Mvndi” (the title of one our book’s four sections) coupled with a name: Hermann von Geldern. This suggests some connection with the noble family that held significant land along today’s German-Dutch border—near the town of Geldern.

And that name turned up on another site that, believe it or not, lists licensed booksellers in Munich during the 1600s. Those sellers often also published books. The connection is still speculation, but it seems our mystery worm book may be a collection of essays published in the late 17th century in Munich. Or maybe not.

Anyone have Indiana Jones’ phone number? 

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