Knowledge as a weapon

By Max van Steen

In December 1622 the Greek librarian Leo Allatius began organising his momentous journey from Heidelberg across the Alps into the heart of Catholic territory. He led almost 200 mules fully loaded with codices across the narrow mountain paths, transporting the greatest Humanist library ever assembled. It would take two years for the Bibliotheca Palatina to reach its final destination within the collosal Vatican library. Set in the context of the brutal Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the abduction of the Humanist Palatinate library from Protestant territory is widely interpreted as a symbolic slap in the face of the Protestant forces, taking away their most prized humanist texts and obliterating centuries of collecting a body of knowledge that explained and underpinned the rule of Protestant princes. Throughout history many examples of ‘knowledge thefts’ have been recorded. But if plotted on a grand arch of knowledge thievery beginning in the ancient world and running all the way up to the theft of intellectual property in contemporary society, what is the significance of this particular case of pillaging the Bibliotheca Palatina?

A Center of Humanism

Walking up the walled Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Way), the mighty Heidelberg castle across the Neckar river slowly emerges into view as a stark reminder of the town’s military prowess. Tracing its modern history to the 5th century AD, Heidelberg has been central to many conflicts and was conquered and destroyed multiple times. During the Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance, Heidelberg’s development has been tied up to its famous university and to the evolution of Humanist thought in Europe.

Figure 1: Historic views of Heidelberg, Germany, 1620

In 1386 Rupert I, elector Palatine, saw an opportunity to acquire a Papal bull in order to find Heidelberg university in the midst of the confusion resulting from The Great Schism of 1378, when two (and later three) popes simultaneously claimed to be the rightful heir to the holy Papal seat. At its creation the university included four faculties: philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and medicine. The university quickly grew into a renowned centre of learning in the area. Apart from this gradual  intellectual evolution, if you would put on your walking sandals and head north for about 80 kilometers you would reach Mainz, the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg and his movable type – invented around 1439 – which proved invaluable for the dissemination of scientific, philosophical and religious knowledge across Europe and for breaking the primacy of religious institutions in interpreting old wisdoms and holy texts.

Besides material conditions like the development of the printing press, philosophical development added to the challenge posed to the leading Catholic dogma at the time. Based on similar ideas developed earlier in Italy, Renaissance Humanism started flourishing north of the Alps from the second half of the 15th century onwards, later to be assimilated into the broader more powerful and religiously inspired school of thought championed by the Reformation. The main representatives of Humanism in the north were teachers like Rudolph Agricola, Johann Reuchlin and Desiderius Erasmus, who emphasized rationality and empiricism over the acceptance of pontifical scholasticism. A bit later on, Heidelberg university was central to the development of a full scale open rebellion against the church when Martin Luther was allowed to give the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. Here Luther began to have occasion to articulate his views for a wider audience. Intellectually speaking, Heidelberg was to grow into a hub for rebellious activity against Catholic faith.

Knowledge as a Weapon

The University Library kept growing in size throughout the 16th century. Eventually it was assembled into the Bibliotheca Palatina, and it became the grandest Humanist library of its time holding around 8500 books and manuscripts in 1622. The library itself became of symbolic value for the Calvinist princes ruling different areas within the Holy Roman Empire. The acquisition of knowledge was to become a demarcation between classes as a display of power and nobility.

Seen in this light, it comes as no surprise that the library was one of the primary booties taken from Heidelberg after the sack of the city in 1622 by Johan Tserclaes, the Count of Tilly. Tilly owed allegiance to the leader of the Catholic League, Maximilian I of Bavaria, who intended to bring the library to his home in Munich to extend his collection. Maximillian had to fend of emperor Ferdinand II’s claim to the spoils of the siege of Heidelberg. In his capacity as the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand attempted to wriggle the library from Maximilian’s possession to bring it to the centre of the empire in Vienna. Eventually Maximilian prevailed, only to be overruled by the newly elected Pope Gregory XV, who, in a seemingly offhand way, let Maximilian know that he would see the gift of the library as “an extraordinary proof of piety”[1], thereby laying claim to it in order to unite it with the books and manuscripts in the Vatican library. The threat and potency of dissenting knowledge is captured well by the Pope’s response to Maximilian’s gift, when Gregory XV stated that “the very fabric of heretical impiety could now be transformed into weapons of Catholic faith”[2].

Figure 2: Portrait of Pope Gregory XV (Alessandro Ludovisi, 1554-1623)

The transformation of knowledge into weapons, taken literally, had, of course, been practiced prodigiously before Gregory XV wrote his aggressive phrase. Take, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s pioneering work on the engineering of war machines and city defences. Perhaps Da Vinci himself was aware of the possibility that his ideas could be stolen as some of the weapons he designed in his notebooks had some obvious flaws that would prohibit their functioning[3]. Technological developments in weaponry had been a major concern for European warring parties in Medieval times, and advancements in this area were continuously tested on the battlefield. However, this purely practical and mechanical side of turning knowledge into weapons might not capture what Gregory XV was thinking about.

On a different reading, Gregory XV could be interpreted as alluding to the way in which knowledge of government, policy and warfare can be turned into military and cultural dominance. Most emblematic of this type of knowledge-weaponry is the work of Nicolò Macchiavelli, the Florentine diplomat and political theorist. In The Prince, and later more elaborately in The Discourses, Macchiavelli set out to analyse the politics and diplomacy of his day; he promoted republicanism, taught modern warfare techniques and gave advice to ambitious result-oriented rulers who wanted to make a mark during their lifetime[4]. Macchiavelli’s understanding of warfare, diplomacy and types of government could be used to gain importance as a ruler and decide on policy implementations. Perhaps Gregory XV wanted to use the knowledge of Palatinate library in this sense; theoretical knowledge about society can be turned  into a tool to take decisions in practical affairs.

Be this as it may, the most natural reading of Gregory’s wish to transform heretical impiety into weapons of Catholic faith may be found in the symbolic religious realm. Following this line of thought, one might argue that analysing the foundations of Protestant dissent may lead to a better understanding of it, thereby making it easier to attack Protestant teachings from a religious perspective. Perhaps in our current day and age it is difficult to imagine the ferocity of religious debate in Europe in the 17th century, as Christianity shaped the most fundamental ways in which reality and humanity were understood. The arguments in religious disputes matteredfor convincing the pious folk, and by gaining access to knowledge held by the enemy, one could devise a counterattack (or, as it turned out, a Counter-Reformation) which could tip the scales of power in one’s favour.

Apart from these three readings, the looting of the Biblioteca Palatina was clearly an attempt to destroy the intellectual heart of the Reformist movement. Not only were the codices and manuscripts taken;  documentation about the way in which these items were shelved was destroyed to make it much more difficult to recreate the library as it was before[5].  In this context, we should not forget to mention the symbolic importance of humiliating the enemy for the Catholic League. Furthermore, as Arthur Tompkins notes in his book Plundering Beauty, the Thirty Years’ War was a war of annihilation, intended to create a new world order and exterminate the enemy [6]. Thus, taking the library was not only about using its contents for the good of the Catholic cause. The pillaging of knowledge may simply have been inspired by the damage it would do to the other side[7].

Figure 3: Bookplate placed by the Vatican in books from the Palatine Library: the inscription reads ‘I am from the Library which, after the capture of
Heidelberg, Maximilian Duke of Bavaria . . . took as spoil and sent as a
trophy to Pope Gregory xv.’ (Tompkins 2018, p. 54)

The pillage of the Bibliotheca Palatina may have been a last chiming of the bells in the history of a particular kind of knowledge theft. With the advent of the printing press and the dispersion of knowledge attached to its development, the public role of religious, scientific and cultural knowledge changed rapidly. If carried out at a later time with the same intention, the theft of the library and the destruction of its shelving plans would have been seen as a completely futile attempt at putting a Reformist genie back in the Catholic bottle. However, within the context of the Thirty Years’ War, the looting of the Palatinate Library was extremely significant. The pillaging of knowledge was to be turned into a weapon of the Counter Reformation while at the same time it inspired later Protestant rulers to fight for their ideas. In this way, the looting of a library helped restructure the nature of European society.


In our current era the theft of knowledge has moved into the digital domain, with intellectual property rights violations and cyber attacks abound. The type of knowledge stolen is of immediate practical importance, be it to invent new weapons, gain a competitive market advantage or discredit another faction’s elections. The process of weaponizing knowledge has become much more efficient itself, and the prestige of a nation is not measured by the depth of its knowledge about phenomena, but rather by the way in which this knowledge can be turned into an achievement (take, for example, the space race). The theft of knowledge may have lost its symbolic dimension since the intellectual revolution that started with the discovery of the printing press and the advent of Humanism. Libraries containing mystical knowledge of times past have turned into data centers containing massive amounts of seemingly mundane information. However, as data gathering keeps growing as an integral part of a global capitalist enterprise, we find ourselves now facing the fact that stealing and manipulating data becomes one of the main ways in which rulers can influence the world.

[1] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London, p. 53

[2] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London, p.53

[3] Isaacson, W., (2018), Leonardo Da Vinci, The Biography, Spectrum, Utrecht

[4] Nederman C 2019, Nicolo Machiavelli, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford, viewed 06 August 2019 <;

[5] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London

[6] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London, p.47

[7] Seen from this perspective, Gregory’s quote may have been a propagandistic attempt at providing meaning to an event which was not originally there and we should keep this in mind while taking the intentions of the Pope at face value when he claimed the library as a spoil of war.