The weight of manuscript no. 326

We met pater Justinus outside the Hofpforte at ten in the morning. It was still cold and grey outside, and we had laboriously ascended the steep slope that divides the abbey from the worldly Klosterplatz below with a horizon of hotels attentively gazing up onto the church. We followed pater Justinus to a small door behind which a long, whitewashed cloister corridor led us to a staircase, and suddenly we stood outside the doors of the library. It was impossible not to feel that we were on some secret mission, hurrying in concentrated silence through the white corridor after the long Benedictine monk in his long, black garment. The whole sojourn in Einsiedeln so far had been about waiting for this moment, and somehow my senses had been put on hold until now. But when we proceeded into the abbey, an ocean of emotions and piercing sensuous signals started to rush forth. Everything stood out in detail, the black and white of our surroundings, the light falling in from the windows on the left, a glimpse of a basket field outside, photographs from anno dazumal exposed on the wall to the right (an early 20th-century student in sport clothes, posing with a cigarette; men in masquerade outfits; the notion that a certain sense of humour seemed to prevail inside the abbey walls). It was as if our hasty walk through the corridor was the detail-filled narrative of a story, stylistically meant to catch the interest of the reader and to rise the expectations of what was about to come. Yes, it felt like acting out a story that magically wrote itself while we were living it. And the doors to the library was the final page to turn.

When pater Justinus opened the door, I immediately knew that I was entering one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever seen. I knew it because of the smell. It was like being inside the most luxurious pastry-shop in the world. The aroma of sugar and sweet vanilla and meringue simmered in the air amongst the bookshelves, where parchment and leather bindings gleamed as brightly as ever the macarons of Ladurée. The light on the wooden floor was so merry, the stucco decorations so joyfully applied, the shelves in a rococo dance along the walls and whirling up towards the ceiling. All my fears of the Cloister Claustrophobia vanished into thin air. This was a place of pure happiness.

The Einsiedeln library (Wikimedia Commons)

The Einsiedeln library (Wikimedia Commons)

Pater Justinus told us briefly about the story of the library and the importance of library work for a Benedictine monk. According to the rule, a monk is supposed to spend two to three hours each day reading or writing – so it was in the tenth century, when the abbey was founded, and so it is now, though pater Justinus admitted that he seldom got that much time each day; he had far too much to do. As an academic, it is easy to relate to the reading and writing being the core of one’s everyday existence, but it struck me as a beautiful way of focusing on the process, not the goal. The hours spent reading are worth something in theirselves; the hours spent writing is an action that has meaning in every stroke of the pen, not only in the finished result or the final publication. It is so easy to feel that whatever you write, you are always too late. You should have been writing it weeks ago, the deadline has already passed, and you should be writing something else instead, or you discover that someone else already wrote that. But for the writing in an abbey library, all that is of less importance. The true value lies in the aim and the action, and the greatest value of all may be to carefully copy what someone else has already written.

”But now”, pater Justinus said, ”I am going to fetch the manuscript for you”. He went away for a brief moment and returned with a cardboard box that he placed on a long wooden table. His white hands disappeared into a pair of white cotton gloves, and he picked up a small book from the box. The Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326. When pater Justinus displayed the first pages, and carefully placed a thin cotton-clad metal chain onto the book to keep it open, I already knew what it would look like: the manuscript is consultable online, on the homepage of the Virtual manuscript library of Switzerland, where it is reproduced so well that the pages actually look better that in reality. I already knew on which pages the itineraries through Rome are described, and on which pages the inscription collection is transcribed. On some of the pages, a later hand (the anonymous scribes are technically referred to as ”hands”) had sketched an actual picture of a hand, pointing to interesting parts of the text. And as pater Justinus turned the pages, and my un-gloved hand pointed to other interesting passages of the text, past and present hands, imaginary and real hands, visual and textual hands mingled together, all pointing in the same direction: to the oldest preserved guide to the city of Rome.

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Pater Justinus told us that there for some reason had been an enhanced interest in this manuscript recently. He had already shown it to specialized visitors several times this year; it had been to Aachen and to St. Gallen for exhibitions, and it was going to Salzburg for another exhibition soon. We asked how it is transported when on loan, and pater Justinus said that he usually wraps it up carefully and puts it in his briefcase, delivering it to its destination (when it went to Aachen, though, it had been transported in a safety box). To imagine pater Justinus on tour with this little book, a book written to be on tour and written for travellers, added yet another layer in the millefeuille-story that is the manuscript no. 326.

When time was up and we had to conclude the manuscript examination, someone said: ”Anna, you should hold the manuscript just once before we leave!” Pater Justinus agreed, lent me the gloves and I was given the book. I did not dare to open it, and I probably should not have done so anyway since it was not resting on the table, so I only held the small volume with both hands. My only thought was: ”It is rather heavy to be so little”. When I touched the book, it became suddenly only physical, a small block of tigthly pressed parchment pages, a square object of a certain weight. Suddenly, it was not the object of my research and the core of our study on the history of guidebooks to Rome. It was a square, weighty object, which had been carried, held and lifted by so many before me, known and unknown, by Einsiedeln monks, by Pfäfer monks and Reichenau monks before them (when the manuscript yet had not come into possession of the Einsiedeln library), by a certain Ulricus de Murtzuls in the 14th century (whose signature is in the book, and thus is the only identified owner of the manuscript), and perhaps even carried into and out of the city of Rome.

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When we left the library and walked out of the abbey through the same little door where we entered, these were the impressions that stayed with me, imprinted into my senses rather than my memory: the sweet smell and the bright colours of the library, and the weight of the manuscript – at the same time both quite literal and deeply symbolical. A couple of hours later we boarded the train towards Zürich and Geneva, and when we started to descend through the mountains and the Zürich lake appeared, the sun broke through. It was going to shine all the way to Geneva.


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