A “monastery without a library is like a castle without an armoury”.
This adage is perfectly accurate as books have represented the ‘tools’ of clerics since time immemorial. They are required for use during the liturgy and for spiritual study, for purposes of scientific research, teaching and administration.
The history of the library at Admont begins with the foundation of the Abbey in 1074. There can be no doubt that the tiny group of monks who made their way from Salzburg in autumn 1074 to establish a monastic presence in Admont would have brought with them a basic inventory of books from their parent foundation St. Peter’s Abbey. This would then have been supplemented by the early donations of books by Admont Abbey’s founder, Archbishop Gebhard von Salzburg.
Primary among these was the massive three-volume Bible dating to c. 1070, which its founder personally presented to Admont, his favourite monastery. There is also a richly illuminated Book of the Gospels that has its origins in the same epoch. From the mid-12th century, Admont Abbey was able to produce and copy manuscripts itself in its own scriptorium; these were not only made for use at Admont but many were supplied to other monastic foundations.
In the years around 1300, Abbot Engelbert, probably the most accomplished scholar ever to be a member of the community at Admont, augmented the Abbey’s holdings with a large number of works he had himself written. The extent of the holdings of the library grew by leaps and bounds following the invention of printing. By the late 16th century, more than 3,000 volumes produced on a printing press were very probably already in Admont’s library.
Today, Admont Abbey owns some 1,400 precious manuscripts of which more than half were produced in the Middle Ages. It also owns 530 incunabula ‒ books printed before 1500 ‒ together with 400 works printed in the years 1501 – 1520. In the early 20th century, the manuscripts and more than 930 early printed works were removed from the actual library room itself and they are currently stored in an acclimatised secure archive.
The bookcases decorated in white and gold in the late Baroque library of the Abbey are filled with some 70,000 volumes that were acquired in the period from the 16th century to the early 20th century.
The diversity of a medieval library
The original nucleus of Admont Abbey library is represented by the sumptuous Bible manuscripts presented to the monks by the monastery’s founder in 1074. The Bible itself is actually a compendium of more than 70 different books produced over a period of more than 1000 years. It is no wonder that in his Rule, St. Benedict designates the Bible the ‘Bibliotheca’ par excellence.
It was around this core that a significant collection of codices began to grow. In part, these were produced in the Abbey’s own scriptorium; others were obtained through donation, exchange and acquirement.
As early as the 12th century during the ‘Admont resurgence’, clear outlines of the intention to form a more comprehensive collection, a ‘universal library’ or bibliotheca universalis can be perceived. At this time, the library not only contained a large number of works on theological and historiographic subjects, but also a selection of major works by ‘heathen’ authors of antiquity, natural history literature and important writings on law.
The holdings of the library in all subjects subsequently grew significantly with the addition of textbooks, philosophical treatises and, specifically, medical volumes, so that it soon came to cover the full spectrum of the classical disciplines and the ‘septem artes liberales’ – the seven liberal arts. Admont’s extensive book collection thus represented a significant portion of the stored knowledge that was otherwise only to be found in major urban educational centres.
The diversity of the ‘new’ library in the light of the ‘old’ library
The core elements of the medieval library clearly anticipate the main thematic classification concept used for the more modern book treasures present in the large library space. The books in the 18th century library have been arranged in accordance with this in the three rooms of the library. The printed books are ordered in 13 divisions (there are almost 100 times as many books in the library as there were codices in the medieval library). The size of display cases of the also three-chamber ‘Manuscript Room’ are such that the identical number of volumes can be shown. Further information to exhibition in the Manuscript Room 2016.
In the south wing are six book divisions of ‘secular’ subjects: medicine, natural sciences, world history, civil law, works by authors of classical antiquity and textbooks. In the north wing are to be found books related to five theological disciplines: canon law, devotional writings, collections of sermons, ecclesiastical history and systematic theology. In the central room are works of Biblical exegesis and editions of the works of the Church Fathers that naturally exhibit close thematic correspondences.