Discovering an unknown medieval library must count as one of the unexpected delights in the career of any medievalist. In the case of a group of Birgittine scholars, however, our recent joyful anticipation unfortunately all too quickly turned into anxiety and concern.
In October of 2015 the Extraordinary Sensescape work group ( http://sensescapes.asu.edu ) toured several German monasteries, ending up at the Birgittine monastery at Altomünster, a market hamlet to the West of Munich. Our group is researching the sensorium of late medieval nuns, and we have decided to focus on the Birgittines because of the ways that Saint Birgitta of Sweden founded and fashioned her order with special architecture, art, music, texts and rituals all of which might today be characterized as a “Gesamtkunstwerk.”
The Birgittine monastery at Altomünster was founded in the 1490 and was continuously inhabited by Birgittines ever since, even though it had been secularized by the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1803 and refounded as monastery in 1841. Until recently strict claustration prohibited scholars from entering the vast Baroque building complex of the nuns’ monastery, which also includes a library. About one dozen manuscripts from the library at Altomünster were known to specialists of Birgittine liturgy, in addition to the books that were taken to Munich during the secularisation of 1803. The antiphoners at Altomünster were considered to be the earliest complete sources for the cantus sororum, the office liturgy of the Birgittines, the only liturgy composed especially for women during the Middle Ages.
When our group visited Altomünster we asked Sister Apollonia, the prioress of Altomünster, to see these manuscripts and she gladly brought them to us to peruse. When we inquired what the situation of the library was, if there were more medieval manuscripts and books, she invited several of the colleagues to join her and see for themselves. What they found was a treasure trove of books, many medieval, that were unknown to scholarship. Several of these came from other Birgittine monasteries, including Maria Mai in Maihingen and Maria Troon in Dendermonde. Some of the tomes contained high quality illuminations. This discovery indicates that Altomünster contains the most important repository for liturgical sources of the Birgittine order.
Before the members of our group left for their homes in the U.S., Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, we approached Sister Apollonia and asked if we could inventorize the library and digitize the most important manuscripts for our project. Sister Apollonia approved, and we made plans for a smaller group to return to Altomünster to work on the books.
Unfortunately, however, before we could realize our plans we learned through the press that the Vatican had closed the monastery and had instituted a papal commissar, Sister Gabriele Konrad, to dissolve the institution. We immediately made contact, pointing out the importance of the library and offering our help to secure the undocumented collection through cataloging and digitization. Sister Gabriele declined our offer, has ceased to answer subsequent queries about the plans for the collection or allowing access to our project participants, and has not permitted visitors into the library – neither scholars nor journalists. The diocese of Munich and Freising, named as heir to the monastic buildings and their contents in the papal dissolution document, has likewise refused to communicate with us about the fate of the library.
As informed scholars we feel an obligation that this important collection, which we consider to be our shared world cultural heritage, remains accessible to researchers and is preserved for future generations. In January 2016 our working group wrote an open letter to Sister Gabriele Konrad, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of the diocese of Munich and Freising and to Cardinal João Braz, head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the institution at the Vatican responsible for papal orders. In our letter we voiced our concerns, asking that the collection be transferred to a publicly accessible library. Unfortunately we never received a response.
Almost one year after our discovery of the library at Altomünster the library’s contents are still undocumented and its fate unclear. Since several monastic libraries were sold during the last years – books from the Cistercian Abbey at Himmerod were auctioned as recently as December of 2015 – we felt that our group needed to act. We approached the press to inform the public about the situation, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung published the following article: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/forschungskrimi-der-buecherschatz-in-der-einkaufstuete-1.3132831. Subsequently the topic was also picked up by the Deutsche Presseagentur and distributed to news outlets in the German speaking countries.
As a result of investigative journalism, the ownership of the books has been clarified. The State of Bavaria claims ownership to all books that were kept at monastic institutions secularized in 1803, even if the buildings were sold or came into other ownership in the meantime. However, since in 1841 the entire building complex with all of its contents was sold back to re-create the monastery, the library’s contents today belong to the monastery.
In December 2016 – only a few days ago – Associated Press published a story about the library of Altomünster which was picked up by many news outlets in the English speaking world: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/81cd01800c3f49bab3f959ffe4171863
According to this article, the vicar general, Msgr. Peter Beer doubts the importance of the library and claims the existence of only one hitherto unpublished medieval manuscript. Based on the hundreds of photographs and notes taken by the members of our group who visited Altomünster in 2015, we must refute these claims. The library contains a significant number of elicit manuscripts, many illuminated and of the highest quality. One of them is an illuminated edition of the Revelations of Saint Birgitta, copied in Flanders at the beginning of the 16th century for the brothers’ library at the monastery Maria Troon in Dendermonde. In addition, the scholars from our group found many unknown Birgittine antiphoners dating from the Middle Ages to the 18th century and a significant number of Birgittine processionals.
Beer also questions the qualifications and rights of scholars from the USA with respect to medieval cultural heritage. When asked about the open letter sent by our group and its failure to elicit a response, Msgr. Beer pointed out: “You can be assured that we do not need any help from the U.S.A. to understand how to treat cultural assets of significance for Europe. We have a slightly longer history and slightly longer experience.” As a group of scholars from eight countries, including four U.S. citizens, we must take issue with this statement. Nationality and genealogical background does not determine the scholarly proficiency of individuals or groups nor should it justify the right to determine access to historical materials. Our previously published transdisciplinary work with medieval manuscripts, especially Birgittine books, as well as our current project plans should provide credentials enough. We need to stress that it is not only our right as scholars to urge institutions to protect cultural heritage, but that it is our responsibility to do so. The rarity of Birgittine materials coupled with the uniqueness of this pan-European late-medieval order for women, means that much is at stake here. The safekeeping of the Altomünster library affects more than just Germany and the diocese of Munich and Freising
We were pleased to learn from the Associated Press article that the diocese has no plans to sell the library, but intends to have at least some of the materials digitized so that scholars can access the files in the future. No date has been given by when the digital files will be accessible and through which channels. For scholarly purposes, however, study based solely on reproductions is by no means adequate; accessing the original books is indispensable. The artistic techniques and colors of pigments, the codicological composition and structure of quires, the provenance of watermarks, the quality of parchment and bindings can only be evaluated on the basis of the original.
Reportedly some sorting and cleaning of the books and other materials is currently being carried out. Since the fate of the library has not been decided we feel that the scholarly community should use its influence to demand that any work undertaken be executed according to professional archival standards with the preservation of knowledge and materials as its highest priority.
Please take a minute of your time to sign the following petition to protect the books at Altomünster: https://www.change.org/p/roman-catholic-archdiocese-munich-and-freising-newly-discovered-birgittine-manuscripts-at-risk-monastery-altom%C3%BCnster-germany
Volker Schier and Corine Schleif
Arizona State University