Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Altomuenster: The Hidden Library, The Impending Closure & The Last Nun

At the end of October in 2015 I had the great pleasure of participating in a symposium with the Extraordinary Sensescapes working group.  You  may recall that our symposium began in Bad Bevensen, journeyed to Ebstorf, Wienhausen, Lueneburg, Gnadenburg, and eventually culminated at the last remaining active German Birgittine monastery in Altomuenster.  Here is a refresher: (link).

Being in Altomuenster, face-to-face with the last German Birgittine monastery and nun, was confirmation that my dissertation about medieval nuns' lives is relevant even in today's world.  We stayed in the old cells, walked the same hallways that women have walked for hundreds of years, and were granted the opportunity to look at some of the manuscripts used in the monastery since the Middle Ages.  Some members of our group stayed an extra day to explore the library, virtually unknown to scholars and largely undocumented.  What they found was a treasure trove of sources that we did not know existed, including illuminated cantus sororum manuscripts, normative texts, and devotional literature dating back even before the founding of this monastery at the end of the 15th century.  We left the symposium planning to return for further exploration of the library and its contents.

Little more than a month after our symposium, the Vatican announced that the Birgittine monastery at Altomuenster would be closed.  Effective immediately, scholars were not allowed into the monastery or the library.  That's when the whole story really heated up.  We were the last group of scholars or "outsiders" allowed into the last Birgittine monastery in Germany, and now it was closing for good.

Among the whirlwind of thoughts I had upon hearing the monastery would be closed, one of the first was, "What will happen to Apollonia?"  Sister Apollonia, the last nun at Altomuenster, was a delightful woman with a broad smile.  Since meeting her while planning the symposium, I was confident she was the best person to act as custodian of the history and heritage of the monastery.  Apollonia proudly brought out some of the illuminated manuscripts for our group to see, and has since been tenacious in documenting the possessions of the monastery, communicating the details of the situation, and resisting the closure of her home.

The Extraordinary Sensescapes group, with efforts spearheaded by Corine Schleif and Volker Schier, immediately set about trying to secure the library and other objects in the monastery.  Among these efforts was an open letter to the Vatican, Cardinal Rheinhard Marx of Munich/Freising, and Sister Gabriele Konrad expressing our concerns (read the German letter here).  Offers to help catalog or digitize the library were rejected and access to the monastery was denied.  The resistance of the Church to acknowledge the important collection at Altomuenster, their hesitancy to let us aid in securing the sources for posterity, and the secrecy about the collection's fate raised eyebrows in our group.  What is essentially a time-capsule of a library is truly a rare resource, and it is imperative that the collection be documented, kept together, and made available to scholars.  We had several close calls with news outlets, including the New York Times, interested in publishing the story to raise awareness about the holdings, but all eventually backed out.  Until recently...

On December 26, 2016 Associated Press published the story written by David Rising.  Read that story here: AP Big Story: Scholars Fret about Fate of German Abbey.  This was our big break!  And the AP story even included one of my photos of Apollonia!  After AP ran the story, it was picked up by hundreds of other news outlets all over the world.

Fresh on the heals of this new publicity, Corine and Volker wrote our story with a petition to the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising (who will be responsible for the monastery assets upon closure) in order to show support for cataloging, digitizing, and protecting the library while raising awareness among scholars and other interested parties.  In just over 48 hours the petition, which we originally hoped could reach 100 signatures, has nearly 800! Please join us in raising awareness and protecting this invaluable library!  Share this blog post or any of the following links!

The full text of the petition, written by Corine and Volker can be viewed here: FULL INFORMATION

You can sign the petition on Change.org here: PETITION

German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung published the story back in August 2016:
Der Bücherschatz in der Einkaufstüte

Multiple influential bloggers and collectives of scholars, medievalists, and humanities researchers have added their input and helped to share our story!  You can explore the Medieval Histories post here.

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