Picture it: gleaming marble floors, frescoed ceilings, and centuries-old texts lining halls so hushed you can hear the crinkle of pages turning. Welcome to the monastic library.
While book lovers may consider any library hallowed ground, monastic libraries hold another level of mystery. Many of these cloistered, ornate spaces have safeguarded texts for centuries. Steeped in history and often guarded by those who have taken vows, the monastic library has captured many an author’s imagination. The monastic library of novels is often a repository of secrets and great power. It’s no surprise that these cloistered spaces have been the setting of many a novel’s intrigue and hidden secrets. Think of the monks in Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose, or the monk-like maesters of the Citadel in Game of Thrones. (The GoT show filmed the Citadel scenes at the Monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants, in Girona, Spain.)
Today, many of the once-sequestered monastic libraries are open to the public. Ornate as jewelry boxes and as valuable as many museums, these monastic libraries offer a glimpse of a time when every book was treasured and rare.
Reading as Prayer
For many Christian monks, reading was a form of prayer and meditation. The Rule of Benedict, followed by many monastic orders in medieval Europe, required monks to read in the morning during Lent, and all day on Sundays. To enable all this required reading, monasteries began collecting and copying books. Monastic libraries were documented as early as the 6th century. By the medieval period, monastic libraries were important centers of learning and reading.
In addition to safeguarding books, many monastic libraries had a scriptorium, (Latin for “place of writing”) where monks copied religious and secular texts. Before the printing press, the monks’ painstaking transcription helped preserve and disseminate books throughout Europe.
Opening to the Public
While monastic libraries were important to monks’ spiritual practice and scholarship, their book collections were often inaccessible to the public. Research suggests that monasteries rarely lent books to lay readers. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, many governments disbanded the abbeys as the influence of the church waned across Europe. The disbanded abbeys’ books were often sent to universities and private collections. When many of the abbeys later reopened, monks were tasked with restocking the libraries. Some abbeys recovered treasured texts or assembled new collections of manuscripts and printed books. Though the libraries were reassembled, monasteries were no longer the critical vaults of knowledge that had advanced scholastic tradition from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. Universities, private collections and state-owned libraries made books available in wider circulation.
Lucky for literary tourists, many of the remaining monastic libraries have now opened to the public. Adventurous bibliophiles have captured the hallowed halls and shared glimpses of the venerated libraries on social media. Other abbeys have made virtual tours available online. These photos make it easy to imagine spending the afternoon tucked away in a reading nook with volumes older than the libraries themselves.
Melk Abbey (Austria)
Built at the beginning of the 18th century, Melk Abbey overlooks the Danube River in Austria. Umberto Eco named the narrator of The Name of the Rose “Adso of Melk” after he was inspired by the famous abbey’s library. The wood-paneled library holds over 100,000 volumes.
Kremsmünter Abbey (Austria)
Located in Austria, Kremsmünter Abbey’s “new” library was built between 1680 and 1689. Scholars have used the Abbey’s collection of books since the eleventh century. The library has about 160,000 books and gorgeous frescos on its ceilings.
Admont Abbey (Austria)
Admont Abbey’s resplendently Baroque library was built in 1776. Located in Austria, the Benedictine monastery has the largest monastic library in the world. The decadently carved shelves extend 75 yards down the main hall. The abbey has over 200,000 books. Its most valuable one is a text from 800 AD. If you want a 3D experience, the abbey raises money through virtual tours on its website.
El Escorial (Spain)
The Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, located northwest of Madrid, is one of the grand royal monasteries of Europe. Part palace, part monastery, El Escorial boasts three libraries. The show-stopper is the Royal Library (pictured above) whose design inspired the halls of the Vatican Library. When El Escorial’s library was designed, the King insisted on a placement of texts that reflected how close he deemed their subjects to be to divinity. Texts on history and botany were considered the least holy, while theology and geometry were deemed the closest to God and worthy of placement closer to the most sacred spaces of the monastery.
Wiblingen Monastery (Germany)
While monks may have a reputation for modesty, abbey libraries across Europe are examples of decadent architecture. The gold trimmings in Wiblingen Monastery’s library, coupled with the blue and pink marble, are signature late- 18th century Rococo, a style known for sumptuous flourish and excess. The former abbey, located in Ulm, Germany, became an army barracks from 1848 until the end of World War II. Now the church and library are open for public tours.
Strahov Monastery (Czech Republic)
Strahov Monastery has been rebuilt several times times since its founding in 1140 Prague. Finished in the late 17th century, its library is one of the most beautiful spaces in Prague. Under Communism, the library was incorporated into the Memorial of National Literature. After the Czech revolution in 1989, the abbey and its library were returned to its religious order, who renovated it to its original splendor.
Metten Abbey (Germany)
Found between the Bavarian forest and Danube River, Metten Abbey (also known as St. Michael’s) has had a library for over 700 years. Its current Baroque style library is a mere 300 years old. When the German government disbanded the Abbey in the early 1800s, this gorgeous library stored grain instead of books. Eventually, the Abbey was reestablished and books reassumed their rightful place on the ornate shelves.