Access Denied?! Recently discovered Birgittine manuscripts kept away from scholars. An interview with musicologist and Birgittine scholar Dr. Volker Schier
It seemed as if the great dream of every medievalist had come true for Dr. Volker Schier and his colleagues: In September 2015, they discovered a whole collection of valuable Birgittine manuscripts during a symposium at Altomünster Abbey (Upper Bavaria/Germany). However, only a couple of months later, scholars and journalists were suddenly prohibited from accessing the library with no satisfying explanation provided. Volker Schier has recently launched a petition to save the monastery’s treasure (see link below). I wanted to know more about this fascinating collection and the on-going campaign to protect it for present and future generations.
1. Dr. Schier, you recently launched a petition on change.org in order to save recently discovered Birgittine manuscripts. Who exactly are the Birgittines and why is it important to save their collection?
The order of the Most Holy Savior was founded by Saint Birgitta of Sweden in the mid fourteenth century. Resulting from the popularity of the founder and her Heavenly Revelations, the order spread quickly from Vadstena in Sweden over northern and central Europe. Saint Birgitta had compiled a program for her order, spelling out many details for the construction of the monastery, the liturgy, and the life of the nuns and clerics. Each monastery consisted of up to 60 nuns and 25 clerics, priests and deacons, who lived in separate buildings. The whole monastery was controlled and administered by the abbess, the confessor general had a say only in spiritual matters – a radically new gendering of roles in Western monasticism. The Birgittine cantus sororum, the weekly office liturgy,
is the only medieval liturgy specifically compiled for a female order. Following the Reformation the monasteries in the Nordic and Baltic countries were abolished and large parts of their once famous libraries were lost. Others, such as Maihingen, were plundered during the Revolution of 1525 and they never recovered. Additional losses occurred in the 17th during the Thirty Years war in Germany, when, for example, the important monastery of Gnadenberg was burned down by Swedish forces. Sources for the Birgittine liturgy, especially early ones, are rare. Finding a hitherto unknown cache of Birgittine liturgical sources in the library of Altomünster is therefore a small sensation. Reformation and war did not affect Altomünster. In 1803 the monastery was secularized by the Kingdom of Bavaria and large parts of the brothers’ library were either taken to Munich or sold (the catalog of Altomünster manuscripts in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek was published in 2016), but the sisters’ library does not seem to have been affected. On the contrary, it seems that some important books from the brothers’ collection might have been hidden there. The Birgittine nuns were never forced to leave the building, and in 1841 the structure was purchased back from the state by relatives and supporters and was officially reinstated as a Birgittine monastery.
2. What kind of manuscripts are these and how old are they?
Art historian Eva Lindqvist Sandgren and musicologists Michelle Urberg and Karin Strinnholm Lagergren spent a day in the library of Altomünster following the symposium of our working group Extraordinary Sensescapes (http://sensescapes.asu.edu) in October 2015. We still do not have a full picture of the collection, but the colleagues took copious notes and hundreds of photographs that allow us to make informed statements. Birgittine antiphoners that contain the office liturgy are especially important for our project, but also the processionals used by the nuns when processing in the cloister every Friday and on high feast days. Whereas the church was a shared, even though segregated space for nuns, fathers, and visitors, the cloister was the liturgical space used exclusively by the women. In addition, the scholars from our group found normative texts of the order, such as the rule and comments on the rule, but also devotional texts. Some of the manuscripts are actually older than the monastery of Altomünster itself, which was settled in the 1490s. These books must have been brought by the founding nuns from the monastery in Maihingen. We think that the oldest manuscripts in the collection were copied in the second half of the 15th century, but the library also contains Birgittine manuscripts that were written as late as the 18th century. What makes this library special is its completeness, documenting the liturgy of a working monastery over five centuries. Whereas, in other cases, scholars have to piece together the often scarce surviving books of former monastic libraries that are now dispersed all over the world, Altomünster allows us to investigate a collection that grew over time, which is a very rare situation. For this reason everything has to be done to keep this collection together.
3. Can you tell us a little bit about how you discovered them? And how many of them did you actually find?
About half a dozen late-medieval and early-modern antiphoners from Altomünster were known to scholars. The Swedish musicologist Viveca Servatius had published these in 1990 in her dissertation on the antiphons of the Cantus Sororum. Corine Schleif and I first came to Altomünster in 2004 to look at these documented antiphoners when we did research for our book Katerina’s Windows, Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen in the Writings of a Birgittine Nun (Penn State Press, 2009), which focuses on the letters and life of the Maihingen nun Katerina Lemmel. Since the library was within the enclosed part of the monastery and thus only accessible to the nuns, we were not able to see what else the library contained. There was no catalog for this library! In 2015 Corine Schleif, Karin Strinnholm Lagergren and I organized a tour and symposium for the members of our working group Extraordinary Sensescapes. Together we visited women’s monasteries in northern and southern Germany. Our final destination was Altomünster. We had asked the prioress, Sister Apollonia Buchinger, to show us the antiphoners referred
to by Viveca Servatius, and she kindly brought those books to us in the meeting room we had used for our presentations and discussions. When we approached Sister Apollonia and asked her whether there were any more medieval books in the collection she invited several scholars to join her and to see the library for themselves. What these colleagues reported to the group caused a lot of excitement, and we immediately knew we had to act to explore these books, preserve them, and make their content accessible for scholarly research. When we discussed the matter with Sister Apollonia she gave us permission to catalog and photograph the most important manuscripts for our project. Our work group left Altomünster expecting to return within a few months to start this project, once we had received funding for travel, board and accommodation, for which we wanted to apply as quickly as possible. As for the number of manuscripts: We didn’t have time to count them, but we estimate that the library contains more than 500 books, manuscripts, incunabula and later printed books.
4. Only a short time after your discovery, scholars and journalists were suddenly not allowed to access the Birgittine manuscripts. Even the nuns in the monastery are not allowed to enter their library anymore. Do you know what happened?
Early in December 2015, about four weeks after our working group had left Altomünster, a news report alerted us that the Vatican had closed the monastery at Altomünster and a papal commissar, the Franciscan nun Gabriele Konrad, had been appointed. We immediately contacted her. I reached her by phone, informing her about the find of the library and its importance. I urged Sister Gabriele that this collection needed to be secured and that our group upheld its offer to do this. Since we had several of the leading experts for Birgittine manuscripts among us we could have done this quickly and efficiently since we are accustomed to the unique characteristics of Birgittine liturgy and book production. Sister Gabriele explained that she could not decide this matter on her own but needed approval from Rome and would contact me later. When we had not heard back from her by January 2016 I sent her an email, asking her what had been decided. The response I received informed me that we could not access the library since archival and library work needed to be undertaken first. When I followed up, asking what kind of work, by whom, and for which purpose it was undertaken, I did not receive any answer. From then on all contact broke off, neither Sister Gabriele Konrad, nor the archdiocese of Munich and Freising would communicate with us. No church official responded to our emails, letters, or phone calls. Due to the fact that a number of monastic libraries had been auctioned and sold in recent years, the group decided that we needed to act and make the situation known: In January 2016 Corine Schleif drafted an open letter to the Vatican, the archdiocese of Munich and Freising, and to Sister Gabriele, signed by all the members of our working group and stating our concerns (https://www.academia.edu/30699204/Offener_Brief_Die_Kultursch%C3%A4tze_des_Klosters_Altom%C3%BCnster_m%C3%BCssen_erhalten_bleiben._21._Februar_2016). To this date we have not received any official response. What happened subsequently we only learned through the informal reports of witnesses: Dividing walls of plywood with steel doors were put up in the long hallways of the monastery; access to large parts of
the building was thus prohibited to the remaining nuns. Art objects throughout the monastery were removed and locked up in empty cells. The books were purportedly taken to the sealed off area. According to the information we received no work took place in the library until the summer of 2016. At that time a book restorer seems to have started some kind of basic cleaning campaign, which makes us very weary: several people who were able to witness the process told us about a suction device that was used to remove dust, a potentially destructive process, since lose pigments and gold leaf might be removed unintentionally.
5. In August 2016, the major German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung mentioned that your discoveries were in miserable condition from a conservational perspective. What could be done to save the manuscripts?
As said before, we do not have a complete picture at that moment and therefore it is difficult for me to assess the overall physical state of the books. On the other hand, the medieval books that I could access were not in bad shape at all. True, the centuries left their traces but I did not see any damage that necessitated immediate action. I am of the opinion that benign neglect often protects manuscripts better than overzealous cleaning or restoration. In Altomünster the medieval books were not used for long periods and remained more or less untouched on their library shelves. This protected the manuscripts from daily wear and tear. Dust is not a danger per se and most of the time it is best to leave the books on the shelf until informed decisions concerning their restoration can be made.
It is my opinion – as is the usual approach in such cases – that a concrete plan for the conservation of the library needs to be drawn up in collaboration with the historic preservation authorities of the state before any kind of work can begin. In art restoration, it is highly unusual to undertake a project without preliminary documentation and analysis of the condition of the object followed by a specific plan for cleaning and restoration and then finally a call for competitive bids. Because of the large number of books a thorough restoration campaign would take years and certainly cost a small fortune. Since it is unclear what will happen with the extensive monastic buildings in the near future – other dissolved monasteries were sold and turned into conference centers and health spas – it seems more important to tackle the issue of permanent housing rather than undertake some quick cleaning. I would urge the administration of the monastery to make all plans for cleaning and restoration public, so that these measures can be assessed and discussed and that they stand up to the scrutiny of the experts in historic manuscript conservation. I hope that it is not already too late for some very basic conservation procedures and that damage was not already done: For example, the condition of all tomes and their place in the library should have been carefully documented before moving them even within the monastery. Since many of the shelf numbers glued to the spines of the books were already missing or about to fall off the placement of the books on the shelves might have provided important information. We certainly have large numbers of photographs which could serve to document potential loss in the future, but not all of the books were documented.
We are also concerned about the secrecy surrounding recent activities in Altomünster. Is there anything the administrators need to hide from scholars and the press? The names of those working in the library have not been revealed, nor is it clear what the official work orders say. Taking all this into account, we cannot conclude that the whole matter has been handled in a professional way. For example, we do not know who is actually making the decisions and assuming responsibility. What can be done? The decision makers should consult with experts. Scholars should be involved already in the planning stages. We are also of the opinion that the collection should be given to a public scholarly library for protection, restoration, and scholarly access. Only libraries such as the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek or the Library of the Ludwig Maximilian Universität can handle a collection of this importance requiring substantial research and care.
6. If your petition should be successful, what would be the next step?
A round table discussion with participants including Prioress Apollonia Buchinger, diocesan administrators, Birgittine scholars, manuscript experts, library officials and representatives of state agencies for art conservation would be a first step.
Protecting the books is a priority, but before any measure can be taken we need to know what has been done so far. What would come next is a decision about the future of the entire library. Where will the books reside? As said before, it is important that the entire collection stays together. Also, access to the books must be granted to scholars as quickly as possible; digital images aid scholarly work, but they do not suffice. Currently several scholars need access to the books for a variety of projects. The Extraordinary Sensescapes Project relies heavily on this library since it contains the sources we need to re-enact parts of the medieval Birgittine liturgy for an audience of today through an audio-visual virtual reality reconstruction. Funding agencies for these projects also need to be assured that access will be facilitated. I believe that the future administrators of Altomünster must honour previous commitments of the prioress of the monastery.
7. Last, but not least: How long can supporters sign your petition?
I must admit that I am a total newcomer to online petitions and their specifics. In the past I signed a few petitions but this is the first one I organized myself, learning from every step I take. Most importantly, let me thank the many supporters who signed the petition and left important comments. The comments clearly show that there is a large public concern for cultural heritage and its protection. I was impressed that we could connect to the relevant scholarly communities, such as history, art history, musicology, and library science and that the colleagues from all over the world seconded our concerns and supported our views. At the moment there are still many signatures and comments coming in so that we will keep the petition active for at least one more week.
You can sign the petition Newly Discovered Birgittine Manuscripts at Risk: Monastery Altomünster, Germany here: https://www.change.org/p/roman-catholic-archdiocese-munich-and-freising-newly-discovered-birgittine-manuscripts-at-risk-monastery-altom%C3%BCnster-germany