This convent flourished under the father of Rodolphus Agricola
Selwerd is now a district in the city of Groningen. It is likely to have sombre associations for many people. This is not because it is a desolated district, but because the Selwerdhof cemetery and crematorium are located on its northern side. The former Benedictine convent of Selwerd was once located on these grounds of Selwerdhof. It was probably founded between 1150 and 1200 from the monastery in Ruinen (Drenthe), although hard evidence and a specific date are lacking.
The convent obviously maintained contact with neighbouring convents and monasteries, even those belonging to different orders, as was the case with Yesse. Some written evidence of these contacts has been preserved. For example, we know that the abbot of Selwerd had to issue a ruling in 1268 on a dispute between a nobleman from Groningen and the convent of Yesse. The abbot had to determine whether Yesse had legitimately sold a few properties in Kropswolde to the abbey in Rottum. He ruled in favour of Yesse. The last abbot of Selwerd, Henricus Lontzenius, mentions Yesse multiple times in his cash book. For example, in 1562, he notes: “Ontfangen eyn koecke van Essen in gratiarum actionem 1 daler”, i.e. “Received a cake from Essen as thanksgiving worth 1 daler.”
Beginning in 1302, Selwerd had ties with Baflo, which is located 14 kilometres to the north. In the Middle Ages, many convents and monasteries played an important role in the agricultural economy, and thus also in the politics of the regions surrounding the city of Groningen. A large share of their income came from agriculture, livestock farming and the reclamation and clearing of land. This was also the case for the convent in Selwerd. More specifically, in 1302, this convent leased a farm in Baflo from the bishop of Münster. The annual proceeds from this farm constituted one source of income for the monastery.
The ties with Baflo became even stronger in 1444, when Hendrik Vries was elected abbot. In Baflo at that time, he was a persona—an important ecclesiastical position that placed him directly under the bishop of Münster. Tradition has it that, on the day of his election as abbot, Hendrik also received the news that he had become father of a son: Roelof Huesman a.k.a. Rodolphus Agricola, who would become the first important humanist in the Netherlands and a hero of Erasmus. Hendrik is said to have stated: “Very well, today I have become a father twice.” Strictly speaking, Agricola was an illegitimate child, because his father was a priest and his parents were not married. Agricola took his mother’s family name.
Upon Hendrik’s death on 1 October 1480, Agricola stood at his father’s deathbed as the new secretary and ambassador of the city of Groningen. This we know from a letter written by Agricola himself. On 19 October, he wrote to a friend: “My lord and father has also died, on 1 October. I buried my mother on 7 April. Would you not say that this fate has befallen me as the result of a firm order of God: that I should return to our fatherland after such a long sojourn abroad, only to find as the painful fruit of my homecoming that I would have to close both of their eyes within such a short time?”
The prosperity of institutions, even if they are well-organized, is often dependent on the people operating the organization. Hendrik Vries provides a good example. Under his leadership, the monastery flourished in both religious and economic terms. He ensured both greater discipline and more money. One source of income was the production of hand-written books for third parties, more specifically, for religious individuals and institutions, as well as for wealthy secular patricians outside the monastery who were able to afford and use (i.e. read!) such a costly luxury product.
Under abbot Hendrik, the convent in Selwerd developed into an important scriptorium. One of its magnificent fruits is the massive lectionary that is now preserved in the University of Groningen Library as manuscript 26. A lectionary is a book intended for reading aloud. In this case, it contains texts for the matins—the first prayers of the day, before sunrise—for the entire liturgical year. At the end, the texts to be sung (responsoria) have been added, along with melodies. This book was thus used in the liturgy. Although no date is included, the contents establish that it must have been written between 1469 and 1488. The current binding was applied somewhat later (in the early 16th century). This might have been done in Selwerd, as there is evidence that bookbinding activities were also performed in this convent.
This book is incomplete. We can see that several pages have been cut out. They were probably the most beautifully decorated pages. These types of practices, driven by commercial considerations, have unfortunately proven all too common, even today. The manuscript nevertheless still contains lovely illuminated pages. They are characterized by the lush, brightly coloured flowers, leaves, vines and fruits in shades of orange, green, yellow, blue and lavender, often combined with gold. Another typical feature is the absence of figurative representations.
It is interesting to note that the ownership of this manuscript is noted on the cover page in the front of the book (see image). The following is written on that page: “In zyloe, ad sanctam catherinam prope groeningen. Toe zelwert.” Zyloe, or Siloe, was the Latin name of the convent in Selwerd, and St Catherine of Alexandria was its patron saint. Her name thus also represented the monastery. We do not know the name of the person who wrote this manuscript. In some cases, such scribes do mention their own names, often in the colophon with which the text is concluded, but that is not the case for this manuscript. Because of this practice, however, we do know the names of five nuns from Selwerd, including Wendelmodis Roltemans and Agnes Martini (1478).
From the period 1470-1510, more than forty hand-written books are known to have been made in Selwerd. Over time, the versions of these books became increasingly plain. The oldest known manuscripts consist of parchment pages, many of which are richly illustrated, but the production of paper books gradually increased, with richly illustrated parchment pages inserted here and there.
The convent in Selwerd was dissolved in 1595. At that time, around 30 nuns were still living there. Ten years earlier, the convent had already purchased a building in the city of Groningen as an additional refugium (branch), as the regular refugium—the Vrouwe Sywenconvent, which was located next to it, on the site where the Academy Building now stands—would not be able to accommodate all of the inhabitants once the convent had closed. The end was apparently in sight as early as 1585. The additional refugium would later serve as a court of justice, and it is now a part of the University of Groningen (Oude Boteringestraat 36). The convent in Selwerd was demolished in 1601.
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- A.S. Korteweg, ‘Tellen en meten: Noordnederlandse getijdenboeken in de database van het Alexander Willem Byvanck Genootschap’ in: Boeken in de late Middeleeuwen [...], ed. Jos.M.M. Hermans & K. van der Hoek (Groningen 1994), 313-324
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