Monday, June 1, 2009

A Medieval Library

Battle Scene

Above: Battle Scene. From Book of Maccabees I. Saint Gall, Switzerland, second half of 9th–early 10th century. Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, Cod. Perizoni F.17.

I have often been struck by the ways in which monastic libraries have enthusiastically embraced modern technologies. The monks at Mount Sinai, for instance, have been on the forefront of using digital technology to record their holdings. Closer to home, the monks at Hill Monastic Library in Minnesota continue to preserve microfilm copies of manuscripts from around the world. In both instances, these institutions are continuing the monastic tradition of preserving knowledge.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of this living witness to the bookish concerns of a medieval monastery is the library of Saint Gall, near Lake Constance in Switzerland. The library has remained in continuous use since the Middle Ages, and the collection, though now housed in a Baroque building, retains many of the works created at and for the monastery since the eighth century. It has also provided a model virtual library: Visitors to the virtual library are able to page through hundreds of manuscripts and even to examine the book covers—a particularly useful feature for books that retain their original, medieval binding.

In “flipping” through the library’s holdings from the eighth to the eleventh centuries, I notice how many of its books are illustrated with drawings instead of painted works. This preference probably speaks both to a monastic value placed on austerity as well as to the suitability of simple line drawings for learned texts that would have been housed in a library (as opposed to sacred or liturgical texts that might have been stored in a church sacristy). One of the most famous medieval drawings is the ninth-century plan of Saint Gall, which lays out the features of an ideal medieval monastery. But even one of its sacred texts—a lovely Psalter known as the Golden Psalter (cod. 22) for its profusion of gold decoration—still relies on a graphic aesthetic for its figures.

The current exhibition features several works from the Abbey of Saint Gall, including the first volume of the Book of Maccabees (see image above). With its thirty full-page illustrations, it is a tour de force of Saint Gall draftsmanship. The starkness and dynamism of its angular forms conveys the energy of battle without suggesting the gruesomeness of war. Its dramatic palette of blues, oranges, and greens certainly adds to that dynamism, but, interestingly, the color may not have been a feature of the original manuscript. There is a fascinating account in one of the Saint Gall chronicles of the monks shipping off their most important tomes to the nearby Abbey of Reichenau for safekeeping in the face of early tenth-century Hungarian invasions. The account, as it was written about a hundred years after the incident, complains that the Reichenau monks did not return all of the Saint Gall books and, in some cases, substituted their own inferior versions and kept the Saint Gall copies for themselves.

The Book of Maccabees featured in this exhibition, which is now housed in the University Library in Leiden, may well have been one of the books caught in the dispute. Long ago, scholars noted the addition to the book of several drawings and initials that matched the house style of the tenth-century Reichenau scriptorium. More recently, one scholar has suggested that the punches of color now present in the battle scenes may also have been added at Reichenau as a way of enlivening the text. Apparently the Reichenau monks liked the book well enough to keep it . . . and even improve upon it.

In any case, the Saint Gall virtual library has me wondering about other examples of modern technology being used to carry on centuries-old traditions and knowledge. Are there other fields in which this same marriage between modernity and history is taking place?

—Melanie Holcomb

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Comments (5)

  1. Alex Says:

    Just today, I came across a site, Rare Book Room (, that displays almost 400 digitized books. The collection covers a variety of topics and there are a number of religious texts scanned including this illustrated “Paupers’ Bible” from the Netherlands, 1465 (

    I’ve lost quite a bit of time looking through the collection on both the Rare Book Room and Saint Gall’s virtual library.

    I’m looking forward to the next post here.

  2. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Alex,
    A lot of libraries are now putting their collections on line, which has been a boon for students of medieval manuscripts. The Museum’s Delicious account includes a list of those sites that I found invaluable in organizing this exhibition. Many of them provide entire online facsimiles of the some of the works in the exhibition. So you can have a sense of what the pages that aren’t on view look like.

  3. Darla Says:

    Unrelated to earlier comments, but I love this work. The action is so real and orange?!? Orange doesn’t seem a usual color in the middle ages…

  4. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Darla,

    I think the vivid colors found in the early medieval manuscripts in the exhibition have taken a lot of people by surprise–especially that extraordianary orange, which you’ll find in a number of works on view. There’s will be a post in a few weeks on some of the inks used in the manuscripts, so stay tuned.

  5. Anne Bobroff-Hajal Says:

    “has me wondering about other examples of modern technology being used to carry on centuries-old traditions and knowledge. Are there other fields in which this same marriage between modernity and history is taking place?”

    This makes me think of the wonderful thread in the film the Red Violin. In it, monks in a monastery that had owned the violin centuries earlier bid in international auction for the spectacularly valuable violin, a work of sublime art in itself. The ascetic monks are seen against a spectacular view of the Alps outside their windows, bidding electronically in the auction taking place thousands of miles away. I remember how strange and yet compelling this contrast seemed to me, between the still-medieval-seeming monks and the modern-day auction, with its electronic security and international bidding. The monks felt the violin should be returned to the place where it was first played (by a very young child prodigy, an orphan).

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