Thursday, September 18, 2014

St. Gallen, Switzerland - An Unforgettable Time Amidst Medieval Books

Of course, Switzerland is not all about just majestic mountains, as our long time Swiss friend Rolf pointed out. Given that,  we were pleased to be taken to the northeastern Swiss city of St. Gallen - an urbane center of high education as well as the location for the Abbey Library of St. Gall which is not only a much visited museum but a well -equipped professional library for the study of manuscripts, medieval history and monastic life.

After walking around the city we ventured into a courtyard bearing the sign:

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Which described the history of the Abbey we were about to enter.  The place actually being located on the spot of a hermitage founded in the year 612 by an Irish monk known as Gallus - after whom the city is named.  It was then around the year 719 that the Aleman Otmar extended the original hermit's cell into an abbey which rapidly flourished.  This then grew to become the Benedictine monastery of St. Gall.  Thanks to its schools and library, the Abbey of St. Gall subsequently became one of the leading cultural centers of the Western world.

Things were not always peaceful as we later learned. In the 13th century, the abbey and the town became an independent principality, over which the abbots ruled as territorial sovereigns, i.e. Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. As the Abbey became more involved in local politics, it entered a period of decline.  During the 14th century Humanists were allowed to carry off some of the rare texts. But the Humanists were the least of the Abbey's worries. A vastly more formidable threat emerged with the oncoming reformation spurred by firebrands like Johannes Kessler. Much more of the history can be read here:

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the farmers of the Abbot's personal estates (known as Appenzell, from Latin: abbatis cella meaning "cell (i.e. estate) of the abbot) began seeking independence. In 1401, the first of the Appenzell Wars broke out, and following the Appenzell victory at Stoss in 1405 they became allies of the Swiss Confederation in 1411. During the Appenzell Wars, the town of St. Gallen often sided with Appenzell against the Abbey. So when Appenzell allied with the Swiss, the town of St. Gallen followed just a few months later. (During one dinner in Appenzell we met a waitress who - to this day- will not step foot in St. Gallen because of the vitriol between her reformationist Protestant religion and the Catholics that erupted hundreds of years earlier.)

Today the Abbey Library contains nearly 170,000 works among which are no fewer than 2,100 manuscripts featuring at least 400 that date before the year 1000. The library, in other words, may justifiably be said to be among the most important repositories of ancient manuscripts in the world,

We entered the library through a special entrance on the third floor of the Abbey bldg. after first placing all our belongings (including cameras) in a locker. (The images of the interior you will see on this page came from postcards purchased at the Abbey Library store). We then took an elevator down to the main entrance where we were led to a foyer featuring enormous slippers, and inserted our shoes inside them (one size fits all). From there we could enter the main great Hall greeted by the ancient globe showing the Earth's surface in the early 1500s.
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We then turned to our right to see the entire panorama of ancient manuscripts and books laid out before us:

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Of course, you could not remove any of the books. All were secured behind firm hard wire mesh, though you could identify the authors and usually the titles.  A section of the books I examined (titles, authors only because books were kept behind wire mesh)  can be seen in the stacks on the left sight of the image above. A close up of the book display on one shelf appears below:

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I was able to identify the Omnia Patria of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as a vast series of documents from the ancient Church known as the Patrologia of Migne.  These have actually been digitized and can now be found online here:,_Migne,_Patrologia_Latina_01._Rerum_Conspectus_Pro_Tomis_Ordinatus,_MLT.html

They are interesting to peruse and disclose the mindset of the era. Just seeing the ancient books - even from behind a wire mesh - conveyed the spooky feeling of being lost in time. We must have spent at least the better part of an hour in the library when we left and a group of school children in blazers entered single file.  Rolf told us they were likely from the nearby elite school of the Institut auf dem Rosenberg, e.g.

We were happy to leave the ancient books to these kids and hoped they would soak up as much of the past as we had. After retrieving our belongings in the lockers we repaired to an outside 'bistro' where we enjoyed some delicious Swiss-made coffee with kuchen (bakes).

Rolf felt it important that we see another side of Switzerland and we agreed. He also admitted St. Gallen was partial to him because he grew up here before joining the Spezialdienst or Special Service, the Swiss intelligence counterpart of the American CIA.  On leaving the Abbey, he reminded us we hadn't seen everything. There was still the 'Lapidarium' located in the vaulted cellar of the library wing. This housed an important collection of Carolingian, Ottonian and Gothic architectural sculpture - originating from the former church built on the site.

The whole Abbey library became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. The Library today is administered by the Catholic administration of the Canton of St. Gall.

It is a very special place, and no one who visits Switzerland should miss it. It is one thing to say that one is a part of "Western civilization", it is another to behold the roots of that civilization up close.

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