Medieval manuscripts and Xmas recipes, abbey library a trove

BERLIN — Take 20 litres of honey and boil it together with 2 litres of water. Add in cinnamon and nutmeg, a healthy amount of ginger and pepper, plus some aniseed and coriander. Mix it all together with rye flour and water.

The result? A perfect batch of 17th-century Lebkuchen — Germany’s famous Christmas gingerbread — for a Bavarian monastery housing up to 60 nuns and 25 brothers belonging to the uniquely women-led Bridgettine Order.

The recipe is among a collection of more than 1,000 books that were taken from the Altomuenster Abbey after it was closed down at the request of the Vatican earlier this year, a precious collection that scholars had worried might be locked away or, worse, broken up and possibly sold.

But instead it has been preserved intact at the diocesan archive in Munich and researchers have been given complete access, while work is underway to digitize much of the collection to make it available to anyone.

The rarest and most valuable tomes include manuscripts with colorful illustrations from the late 15th and early 16th century, but experts say items like the recipe books are also invaluable to the study of the Bridgettines, helping tell the tale of what daily life was like behind the closed doors of the monastery hundreds of years ago.

“It’s a great victory for scholarship,” said Volker Schier, a Bridgettine scholar and researcher at the Catholic University Leuven, in Belgium, who was one of the instigators of a petition with some 2,000 signatures urging the preservation of the books.

“What happened behind the monastery walls no outsider learned about — what the daily life was, what the food was, the prayers, the daily routine — but this is all described in the books.”

The former Benedictine abbey in Altomuenster, a town on the end of the subway line from Munich, had since 1496 housed a female religious order founded by Saint Bridget in Sweden in the 14th century.

It was one of three monasteries of the original branch of the scholarly, monastic order still operating when it was closed by the Vatican in January after the number of nuns there fell below the three needed to train new novices.

In addition to the library, the order’s collection of 2,300 statues, paintings and other works of art as well as the city block-sized abbey and the acres of forests and fields that make up the monastery grounds are now the responsibility of the diocese of Munich and Freising.

The last nun has been relocated, but the diocese is still engaged in a legal fight with a woman who was training to become a nun at the time the monastery was closed down and is still living there, so nothing can yet be done with the building or the lands, diocese spokeswoman Bettina Goebner said. The art objects have been put into storage and will be examined, catalogued and possibly displayed by the diocese’s museum.

The diocese initially played down the potential value of the library, saying that it only contained a handful of books of interest to scholars and that they had already been studied — raising the scholars’ fears about what might happen to them. The diocese sought to allay those worries when it announced Altomuenster would be closed, saying the books would be digitized and made available to the public.

That process is now underway and expected to be complete by the end of next year.

The Lebkuchen recipe is one of several from eight cookbooks in the collection, according to the diocesan library’s senior archivist, Roland Goetz.

Aside from the recipes, Goetz said his favourite find so far has been a green wooden case, about the size of a shoebox, filled with tiny prayer books each about the size of a cigarette package. The nuns would put it out in their dining area for mealtime prayers, then pack it back away.

“It shows how the sisters lived with these books, that the books were a part of their daily life,” he said. “There were some very special things in the monastery.”

Aside from books’ content, the notations in them showing who wrote them, where they came from and other information have already proved important in revealing how the Bridgettines of Altomuenster were connected with the world around them, said Corine Schlief, an art historian at Arizona State University who went through the books with Schier in Munich this summer.

“We do live in one big world together, and that was also the case in the Middle Ages, and that’s kind of exciting,” she said. “This isn’t just German history or the Munich diocese but it’s of interest to all of us.

She said she still regrets, however, that scholars weren’t able to study the books and art objects in their original context before they were removed from the Altomuenster Abby.

“A women’s monastery is a very significant repository of history, women’s history but also religious culture from the culinary to the devotional, where art and music came together,” she said. “They kept the culture going for 500 years… that happens in so very few places in our history that it’s very important, and here it was kind of a missed chance to preserve something.”

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