30 March 2017

Of manuscripts and monks

In the first post from our blog series about manuscript-holding institutions, Arthur Westwell took us on a trip to the largest and perhaps the most famous library in the world, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. But not all manuscripts are kept in libraries as grand and impressive as the one in the Vatican. In fact, there are quite a few places to which you may wish to travel that or on the opposite side of the scale in terms of their size, grandeur and ease of access. A special category in this respect are libraries and archives that are still located within the monasteries in which the manuscripts were once produced (or to which they were bequeathed), and which are still home to a monastic community. You may therefore at some point need to visit a living monastery or convent, and this may require a special approach, for they are unlike the major libraries that are used to a stream of visiting researchers and that are staffed with trained personnel. Today, I will share with you insights about how to get into libraries of this type, as well as some anecdotes I picked up on the way.

First of all, I should mention that no two church institutions are alike and there is therefore no guideline for communication and interaction that would apply to all religious communities alike. It is important to inform yourself about the institution in question well in advance to familiarise yourself with its particularities, and to find out who is responsible for the manuscript collection (this may not always be a member of the religious community in situ) and can therefore grant access to it. In my case, I visited two manuscript-holding monasteries, one in Einsiedeln in Switzerland, and the other in Cava dei Tirreni in southern Italy. Both are original medieval Benedictine foundations that remained in operation throughout the many turbulent centuries of the modern era until today. In the first case, the manuscripts were in the possession of the monastery itself, and I had to contact a librarian – who was one of the brothers – to request permission to enter the monastery (luckily, Benedictines these days have email addresses!). In the other case, even though the manuscripts are kept in their medieval place of origin, the library was transformed into a state institution embedded in the monastic environment, which required contacting the appointed librarian; although I also made sure to send an email to the abbot.

Benedictine abbey of La Trinità della Cava in Cava dei Tirreni.

It is important to keep in mind that different religious communities may observe slightly different calendars because of differences in local custom and religious observance. If possible, check the website of the institution (most of them have websites these days), where you should find the information, which usually includes the visiting hours of the library or archive, and its contact details. It is always a good idea to get in touch with the person responsible a few months in advance and let them know that you would like to consult their collection, clearly stating your intent and purpose, the date(s) of the intended visit and the shelfmarks of the manuscripts you wish to see. In this way, the librarian or curator can let you know whether the library is open to visiting researchers on the day(s) requested; what time they will expect you (which may be crucial – I was once refused a manuscript in a small library because I came in the afternoon instead of the morning); and whether the manuscripts are available (it may be the case that they are scheduled for repair by the conservator, that they are lent for an exhibition or that they are currently being digitised and therefore not available for a consultation). They may also inform you about additional rules and requirement of the library: for example, whether you need a letter of reference or a library pass. If you wish to take pictures of the manuscripts, it is advisable to ask for permission to take photos beforehand, so that you know in advance what rules apply to self-service photography. You may also wish to rehearse your forms of address to Catholic clergy so that you sound polite in your electronic correspondence. If you do not speak/write the language of the monastery, you may wish to find a native speaker and ask them to write your emails for you to prevent misunderstandings and facilitate communication. If emailing does not work – which is possible – you should be willing to make a phone call, for almost all monasteries and convents will now have a phone line.

It is good to know that some religious communities offer lodging for guests on site. This may come in handy in cases when you plan to consult a large number of manuscripts in a short time, the community is removed from the nearest village or town, or if the visiting hours of the library are irregular and you are travelling from afar. Moreover, lodging at a monastery, albeit simple, may be cheaper than a hostel and certainly more adventurous. I made use of this option when I visited the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Cava dei Tirreni, which lies in the mountains above the town of Cava and to which buses go only a few times a day. It was, therefore, convenient that I was able to make use of the famed Benedictine hospitality and sleep over at the monastery’s guesthouse rather than descending to the town for a night’s sleep, especially since the library was open only until 1 pm. If you wish to stay overnight at a monastery, it is good to inquire whether or not this is possible and make the necessary arrangements well in advance (again, the information will usually be found on the website).

Remember that if a library belongs or is attached to a living religious community, you should be prepared to follow the rhythm of religious life in this community. You may be invited to join the church service, or your guardian may need to close the library in order to perform his or her religious obligations. In Einsiedeln, Brother Pagnamenta, their current librarian, had to lock me in the library room with the manuscripts for a while, so that he could rush off for sext or noon prayers (it was in no way an unpleasant experience!). It is also vital that you think about the dress code appropriate for a monastic environment. Short skirts or shorts, sleeveless t-shirts and revealing tops should be avoided.

Town and monastery at Einsiedeln, Switzerland.

Be aware that smaller monastic libraries may not be as well-equipped as large national libraries, so do bring your own ruler or tape measure, pencil sharpener, magnifying glass and any other instrument you may need (see our previous blog post for the names of these instruments in different languages). In Cava, they asked me to wear gloves, but did not have a manuscript stand and did not allow me to take my own photographs. In Einsiedeln, they did not request that I use gloves, had proper cushions, and allowed me to take my own shots of the manuscripts. Their library was much better equipped and the librarian was willing to share manuscript descriptions from an unpublished manuscript catalogue concerning the codices I came to examine there. In both places, it was clear that they are not used to seeing researchers coming in and out often – at least not international visitors – so be prepared to explain your wishes clearly and ask if you need anything (for example, it is always a good idea to ask for additional bibliographical material that may be preserved in the library on the manuscripts you are researching, such as old notes and unpublished catalogue descriptions).

Overall, hunting for manuscripts in a library which is situated in a living religious community can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as a manuscript scholar, both academically and spiritually. My experience with monks in Einsiedeln and in Cava was very positive, in fact much more so than in some of the large professional libraries with their regulations, fees and restricted access to manuscripts. In the case of monastic libraries and archives, the hardest part may be to establish contact and to arrange the travel, but once the monks know about you, they will be probably helpful and friendly. In Cava, I was greeted with the characteristic warmness of southern Italy. Even though I asked only for lodging and brought my own food, to my great horror and shame, Don Domenico, the hosteller of the abbey, arranged a rich meal three times a day in the guest refectory and gave me a tour of the monastery (including showing me their many relics). Since I speak absolutely no Italian and Don Domenico spoke no English, we had to make use of the services of brother Louis, an ancient monk, who was the only resident of the abbey to know any other language than Italian, and who, on learning why I was staying there, congratulated me on my certainly brilliant dissertation and research career (even though I had not yet finished my PhD). I never experienced so much friendliness and kindness during my manuscript trips as in this Campanian monastery.

Many of the Einsiedeln manuscripts are now digitized online at e-codices. You should check this website before you decide to contact the monastery, for it may spare you a trip (the monks may, moreover, be hesitant to let you see those manuscripts that have been digitised). The most recent print catalogues of the Stiftsbibliothek are:

P. Gabriel Meier, O.S.B. Catalogus Codicum Manu scriptorum qui in Bibliotheca Monasterii Einsidlensis O.S.B. servantur. Tomus I: Complectens centurias quinque priores (Einsiedeln: Harrassowitz, 1899) (available online).

P. Odo Lang, O.S.B. Katalog der Handschriften in der Stiftsbibliothek Einsiedeln: Zweiter Teil. Codices 501–1318 (Basel: Schwabe, 2009).

The digitised manuscripts will often be accompanied by a more up-to-date description prepared for the digital facsimiles.

The most recent catalogue of Cava manuscripts is:

L. Mattei Cerasoli, Codices Cavenses: Pars I, codices membranacei (Cava dei Tirreni: Societa tipografica Arpinate, 1935).

I share my insights here to encourage you to travel to even more remote libraries and archives. You should not be discouraged by their lack of formal guidelines, the language barrier or the fact that you would need to communicate with monks or nuns. Visiting monastic libraries is worth it and is likely to supply you not only with valuable research data but also with invaluable life experience.

By Evina Steinová.

Do you have any questions or additions to make to this blog post, based on your own experience? Have you recently used a research library and think you’d like to write a post for us? Get in touch with us by email or on Twitter.

Of manuscripts and monks
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