Abbey’s Medieval Treasures
Captivate Ohio State Expert
(April 16, 2003)
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Bill Eichenberger, Dispatch Book Critic
the time the news reached the Abbey of St. Gall it was almost too late. The
Magyars had crossed the Austrian border into Switzerland and were headed west,
the abbey directly in their path.
monks of St. Gall scrambled into the abbey library -- one of the greatest in the
medieval world -- and began stuffing manuscripts into their robes to be carried
into the neighboring mountains and safety.
forward a thousand years to an abbey library routinely invaded by 100,000
visitors each year, including Anna Grotans, an Ohio State University associate
professor of German. Instead of carrying swords and spears, though, these
visitors don big, fluffy felt shoes before entering the library -- to protect
the old inlaid wooden floor.
library has 2,000 (handwritten) manuscripts dating from the eighth to the 11th
century,’’ Grotans said. “That’s a lot of manuscripts in one
-- whose specialty is Old High German -- said the monks preserved their
collection for centuries despite incursions by the Magyars and Saracens and a
fire that burned down the library.
of the abbey libraries from the time,’’ Grotans said of the Carolingian and
Ottonian periods, “were eventually secularized and their collections
dispersed. So St. Gall is special.’’
Smith is a professor and head of rare books and manuscripts at the Ohio State
been an enduring trait of humankind to spread ideas, to spread knowledge, from
the beginning of language to the present,’’ Smith said.
scribes spent years copying Latin works by Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, Horace and
others. In most cases, the originals have long since vanished.
didn’t just preserve the great writers. They learned logic from Aristotle. The
scribes really saved all this stuff for us, for later generations.’’
abbey library also has a manuscript in Old High German of The Our Father. Dated
circa 790, it is the oldest example of German on the page.
look at the script,’’ Grotans said, excitedly pointing to a reproduction of
a different manuscript page. “That script is basically Times New Roman, the
same script we use today.’’
manuscripts are often ornate, brightly colored and laden with gold gilt.
Dark Ages is a misnomer when it comes to the abbey,’’ Grotans said. “They
were illuminating manuscripts in the Dark Ages.’’
first studied the manuscripts to learn about Old High German but became
fascinated with notes written in the margins, evidence of the life of the abbey.
abbey had both an internal and an external school. They taught their own
students but also taught the children of the local nobility, to make extra
came across 1,000-year-old pages filled with schoolboy doodles.
at this,’’ she said. “This student drew caricatures of the monks with
balding heads. And there are doodles of swords and warriors fighting.’’
Another is of a young boy, his face full of what look like pimples.
page depicts a beer vat and includes a poem about beer,’’ Grotans said.
“It was written by a famous monk, Akkehart, to a friend fond of drink.’’
library also houses the architectural plan for the abbey, a plan “detailed
down to the last toilet.’’ A history of the abbey, written around 1050,
sheds even more light on the daily life of its inhabitants.
manuscripts are not entirely unlike computers. They really engage the
senses,’’ Grotans said. “They are made of leather and stink like it. . . .
The pages are medieval versions of hypertext. You have a main body, ornate
embellishments, marginal notes. There are several different ways into a
wanted to know what it was like to live at the abbey, how Latin was taught, how
students were disciplined and what the monks made of their sources.
to another facsimile page, she said, “See how all the words are run together?
That’s because no one read silently. You added the breaks as you read aloud.
can really reconstruct this medieval world by letting the manuscripts
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