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.

Help us Save and Protect the Manuscripts in the Library of the Birgittine Monastery at Altomünster, Germany

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.
            

Volker Schier and Corine Schleif

Arizona State University

Friday, December 9, 2016

Adventures in Belgium Part II: Antwerp, Ghent, and Brussels

Hello again!  Still catching up on all my adventurous posts!!

After Sophia and I conferenced real hard in Bruges, we headed out to explore the rest of Belgium for a few days!  On Sunday, August 21 we caught an afternoon train to Antwerp.  We stayed in a super Airbnb there in an up-and-coming neighborhood, so we stayed around the flat for dinner that evening and went to bed pretty early.

Monday morning, we met Sophia’s friend from UCSB (who now lives in Antwerp) for breakfast.  It was neat to talk to someone who had done research travel during her PhD and then decided to stay abroad!  She showed us to the Antwerp Cathedral, and we gawked at the gaudy Rubens paintings throughout.  Lots of dramatic and theatric Baroque—totally over the top! 

Antwerp Cathedral
Antwerp Cathedral
Antwerp Cathedral
Around lunchtime, we caught a quick train to nearby Ghent to see the cathedral and famous Ghent Altarpiece.  The outside of the cathedral was under quick a bit of scaffolding so it wasn’t much to look at, but the real treasures of Ghent lie within!!

City of Ghent
Ghent Belfry
We made a bee-line for the altarpiece, which is now on display in a small climate- and crowd-controlled room near the entrance of the cathedral.  The altarpiece is behind glass, but you are still able to get quite close to admire all of the sumptuous detail (check out this website that allows you to zoom to see the details).  Of course this is the Holy Grail of the movie The Monuments Men, and is one of the most famous paintings of the so-called “Northern Renaissance.”  In my opinion, it has certainly earned the right to be considered such!  Sophia and I absorbed it for a long while, whispering back and forth about certain details and just staring in silence too.  Truly remarkable. (Unfortunately, no photography whatsoever is allowed.)

Lieutenant Daniel J. Kern and Karl Sieber examining a panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, 1945.
(Thomas Carr Howe papers, Archives of American Art)
In this still from the 2014 movie The Monuments Men, George Clooney lectures in front of a slide of the Ghent Altarpiece.
Photograph (from the web) of the Ghent Altarpiece with wings closed
Photograph (from the web) of Ghent Altarpiece with wings opened
We spent the afternoon in Ghent, took the train back to Antwerp, had some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had at a very sketchy-looking restaurant, and returned to our Airbnb for the night.  In the morning (Tuesday) we had a few hours before our next train, so we split up to make the most of our time.  Sophia visited the Rubens House and I went to the Museum Mayer van den Bergh.  The Van den Bergh is a small(ish) house museum with a SUPER medieval collection!  One sculpture in particular stands out—the sculpture of Christ and St. John is extremely well-known and I appreciated seeing it in person.  So much bigger than I imagined!

Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp
Christ and Saint John, Master Heinrich von Konstanz, ca. 1280-1290
Christ and Saint John, Master Heinrich von Konstanz, ca. 1280-1290
Christ and Saint John, Master Heinrich von Konstanz, ca. 1280-1290
Tuesday afternoon, August 23, we hopped on a train to Brussels.  We arrived around 2:00 or 3:00 and had until 6:00-ish to make it through part of the enormous museum complexes in Brussels!  We decided to focus on the museum of “Old Masters” to really get the bang for our buck.  It was a total feast for our senses, and we did a pretty good job taking our time while also covering a lot of ground.

Sophia in the larger-than-life Rubens Room!
Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1501
Bosch Detail
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562
Bruegel Detail
Bruegel Detail
That evening, our last in Belgium, we went to a totally cool little restaurant called Restobieres.  Finding the restaurant was quite an adventure in itself, but we eventually got there.  The chef was a large, chatty guy who frequented our table to ask how we were liking our meals, and the interior was decorated with all kinds of antique and vintage housewares.  Totally my style!  We splurged a bit for our final night, and headed home happy and ready to crash.



Travel Partner Extraordinaire, Sophia!
Wednesday morning, we got up early for Sophia to catch her flight back to the States and for me to catch my train back to Wolfenbüttel.  From Bruges to Antwerp to Ghent back to Antwerp and then to Brussels—we sure made the most of our week in Belgium!!!

Next time on Frau Bevin’s Adventures: long-time friend Melody joins in the fun in a whirlwind roadtrip across Germany, with stopovers in Austria, Switzerland, and France!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Adventures in Belgium Part I: Bruges

Wow!  I can’t believe I have been home for over a month now!  Where does the time go?  It’s so good to be back with Jeremy, Eleanor, family, and friends.  I have been busy getting back into the swing of regular life in the States, and I’m finally ready to make some more posts about my last months abroad! 

Today, I’d like to write a bit about my week in Belgium!  I was invited to a conference in Bruges, and decided to make a full week of it in Belgium with Sophia.  First, we attended the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference from August 17-20.

Beautiful Bruges

On Thursday, August 17, I woke up early to catch a series of trains from Wolfenbüttel that would eventually take me to Bruges.  It was so long ago now, but I think I was supposed to take something like 5 different connections over about 8 hours…  After a couple delays and set-backs, I talked to Corine and Volker (who were driving to Bruges from Corine’s home near Frankfurt) on the phone.  I was stuck at the train station in Aachen when Corine realized they would be passing through Aachen shortly, and suggested I just leave the train game behind and hop in the car!  Talk about perfect timing!

So once on the road with my trusty Corine and Volker, we decided to take a slight detour through Maastricht in the Netherlands for dinner.  We wanted to visit a church and textile museum there, but it was already closed so we just walked through some shops, stretched our legs, and fed our bellies instead. 

Dinner in Maastricht

We rolled into Bruges Thursday night, and they dropped me off at mine and Sophia’s Airbnb place.  My presentation was first thing Friday morning, so I ran over the paper a couple times before trying to get some shut-eye.  Every time I have to be up for something important early in the morning, I don’t sleep well because I’m so afraid of oversleeping and missing it… So it was a mostly restless night, but I did manage to get a few minutes of rest.

A brief overview of my presentation:  I was invited to participate in a panel with other scholars associated with the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel that also work on nuns during the 14th-17th centuries in Germany.  It was such an honor to be on a panel with such prolific and well-respected scholars as Beth Plummer and Julie Hotchin, and chaired by the one and only Doktormutter Corine Schleif! 

Pics by Volker!

Bevin the Serious Academic

For my paper, I chose to explore some issues that will be central to my dissertation.  I looked at the historiography of the word “Nonnenarbeit” (literally, “nuns’ work”) since its first use (to my knowledge) in the early 18th century.  The definition, interpretations, and connotations of Nonnenarbeit have changed drastically since the 18th century, and I wanted to consider some of these changes.  For example, in the 18th century it seemed to be a neutral term referencing textile and mixed-media objects made by nuns during the 18th century.  Since the 1900’s, it carries a negative connotation referring mostly to manuscript illuminations made by nuns during the Middle Ages.


Images commonly referred to as “Nonnenarbeit” since the 1900’s often include figures with large, round heads, rosy cheeks, and squat proportions, sometimes accompanied with elaborate, colorful patterning and decoration.  These same characteristics were employed by nuns at Kloster Lüne around 1500 in a series of large wool embroideries.  In my presentation, I tried to grapple with the spread of this formal style and its potential connections with the so-called Observant Reform that spread throughout these women’s monasteries during the 15th century.  In the end, I interpret these formal characteristics as an intentional style used by the nuns as opposed to the more popular interpretation of these images as ugly, or as the result of unskilled makers.





That same evening, there was a reception for the American Friends of the HAB at one of the conference hotels.  It was a swanky meeting, with great finger foods and super conversations with the Wolfenbüttel family, and I had the opportunity to express my thanks to such a giving organization.  I was awarded a travel grant from the American Friends to fund my flights to and from Germany, which lifted the burden of having to figure out how I would pay for that part of my adventurous experiences abroad! 

Pics by Volker again-- He calls this one "Bevin in the Limelight"

On Friday, I went with a few fellow members of the Extraordinary Scensescapes project (Corine, Volker, and Edmund) to the Historium Museum in Bruges to meet with the man who created the virtual reality experience at the museum.  You can read about their VR experience here.  Due to the successful historical sensory re-creation of medieval Bruges in the Historium, we wanted the chance to talk with the man behind it all.  He was extremely thorough and generous with all of his feedback, experience, and advice!

We conferenced pretty hard on Friday and Saturday, and I attended a number of panels with other scholars and friends from the library in Wolfenbüttel.  Saturday afternoon, after Sophia’s presentation, we explored Bruges.  The architecture, blue skies, and canal around the city were absolutely incredible!  Such a charming town!!

















(I also ate a lot of delicious waffles, fries, and fine pralines during these few days...)



Saturday evening, we had a rooftop dinner at another Airbnb rented by the Dutch contingency at the conference!  Klazina and a group of her friends rented an entire home in Bruges, with a rooftop patio, so we all convened there for more fellowship and fun!  After a late-night waffle run (literally), we called it a night and toasted to the end of a great conference experience!


 




On Sunday, August 21, Sophia and I got up early to do some tourism in Bruges before continuing our Belgian adventure in Antwerp.  We were elite level tourists, and managed to visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood (they have a relic of Christ’s blood on some gauzy tissue), the “Bruges Madonna” (Michelangelo’s Virgin and Child in the Bruges Cathedral—of Monuments Men fame [watch clip here]), and we saw tons of incredible Hans Memling paintings at the museum in Sint-Janshospitaal. 












Next time on Frau Bevin’s Adventures, I will tell you all about the rest of our Belgian adventures in Antwerp, Ghent, and Brussels!