The library of the Abbey of St. Gall.

The Abbey Library of St. Gall: One of the Oldest Working Libraries in the World

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Founded during the 8th century, the Abbey of St. Gall has served both the Church and scholars over the years. Its library has a particular draw because it is one of the oldest and most important monastic libraries in the world.

The Abbey of St. Gall was an important monastery located in St. Gallen, a town in the northeastern Swiss canton of the same name. It continued to serve its monastic function until it was secularized in the early 19th century. Several decades later, the former abbey church was consecrated as a cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Gallen.

St. Gallen, the abbey church.

St. Gallen, the abbey church. (Dguendel/ CC BY 3.0 )

Establishing the Abbey

The story of the Abbey of St. Gall begins with the Irish monk St. Gallus, a follower of the Irish missionary, St. Columbanus. According to tradition, in the year 612/613, St. Gallus was travelling southwards from Lake Constance into a forest when he received a divine sign (though various versions exist, most of them involve a bear). As a result of this, the monk decided to establish his hermitage on that spot.

It was, however, only about a century later that the Abbey of St. Gall was founded. During the 8th century (various dates have been given), St. Othmar established a community of Benedictine monks centered on St. Gall’s hermitage and he became the first abbot of the site. Thus, the Abbey of St. Gall was established. As the Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages were known for their scholarly and literary pursuits, a school of scribes and translators was also founded by St. Othmar.  

St. Gallus (Public Domain) and St. Othmar (Public Domain) – two key figures for the Abbey of St. Gall.

St. Gallus ( Public Domain ) and St. Othmar ( Public Domain ) – two key figures for the Abbey of St. Gall.

Destruction Befalls the Abbey

It was during the 9th century that the Abbey of St. Gall became a major Benedictine abbey, as well as one of the most important centers of learning in Europe. The earliest evidence of the existence of a library at the Abbey of St. Gall also dates to the 9th century. A plan of the monastery dating to around 820 shows that the library is attached to the abbey’s main church.

In 937, a great fire destroyed much of the abbey, as well as the settlement that grew up around it. Fortunately, the abbey’s library was spared. In the following centuries, the fortune of the Abbey of St. Gall rose and fell, until it was finally secularized in the early years of the 19th century.

The Abbey of St. Gall in 1769 on a contemporary engraving.

The Abbey of St. Gall in 1769 on a contemporary engraving. ( Public Domain )

The structures that can be seen today at the site of the former abbey date to around the middle of the 18th century. During this time, most of the abbey’s remaining medieval structures were demolished, so that the complex could be expanded. Austrian architect Peter Thumb was commissioned to design the new complex and the abbey was rebuilt in the Baroque style.

The interior of the Cathedral is one of the most important baroque monuments in Switzerland.

The interior of the Cathedral is one of the most important baroque monuments in Switzerland. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

A Center for Learning

One of the most notable parts of the rebuilt abbey is its new library, which was constructed between 1755 and 1768 and belongs to the Rococo style. Today, the Abbey of St. Gall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only parts of this complex opened to most visitors are its library and its cathedral, which used to be the abbey church.

The abbey’s library has continued its mission of collecting written works, which it still does even today. As a result of this continuous enterprise which has lasted 12 centuries (and counting), the library of the Abbey of St. Gall boasts a collection of over 150,000 pieces of work.

The library. (Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen

The library. (Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

This collection includes a large number of priceless manuscripts dating to the Middle Ages, including 2,100 that are pre-1501. The 9th century plan of the abbey is one example. Other notable works include the St. Gall Cantatorium , a 10th century cantatorium (a collection of chants for Mass), which is regarded to be the earliest known complete music manuscript in the world, as well as the 4th / 5th century Vergilius Sangallensis , which contains Virgil’s  AeneidGeorgics, and  Eclogues (known also as Bucolics ).

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