History Underfoot

Mapping History: The Abbey Library of St. Gall

by A. C. Williams

Library of St. Gall (CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

The Abbey Library of Saint Gall, known as the Stiftsbibliothek of St. Gallen, is one of the oldest and most illustrious libraries in the world. The Stiftsbibliothek and surrounding St. Gall Abbey precinct have together served for centuries as one of the leading cultural centers in the Western world, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the picturesque city of St. Gallen (Sankt Gallen), Switzerland, in the canton of the same name near the Appenzell at the foot of the Alps, the Abbey Library is a veritable treasure chest of preserved history. It is home to over 160,000 volumes of manuscripts, illuminated or otherwise, with many incunabula (texts before 1500) as well as early prints and books. The current library hall and surrounding Abbey of St. Gall were built between 1755 and 1767. Above the large Rococo entrance door into the library, an inscription in Greek reads Psyches iatreion, roughly translated as “Healing Place for the Soul”. This inscription alludes to the idea of an ancient healing site, such as the Aesculapion of Epidaurus in Greece, or the sacred library of the tomb complex of Ramses II in Thebes. [1] While now one mostly sees an eighteenth-century library, the collecting and scribing of manuscripts and books began almost a millennium earlier.

Around the year 612, the priest-monk Gallus (c. 560 – c. 650), retired from his travels with the Irish monk, Columbanus (540-615), and settled in the Steinach Valley near Lake Constance. There he built a hermit’s cell and oratory that later served as a meeting place for his growing band of disciples. Around 719, the Alemanni priest Othmar (c. 689 – c. 759) expanded the by now well-visited hermitage of Gallus (canonized as St. Gall) into the Abbey of St. Gall. By the request of Karlmann, Ruler of the Franks, in 747 the Abbey began to follow the Rule of St. Benedict and Othmar became the first abbot of St. Gall.[2]  He was later canonized as St. Othmar in 864.

Rococo Doors into Library with Inscription - Psyches iatreion - "Place For Healing of Souls" in Greek (photo A. Williams, 2011)

Books and literacy have always been central to the Abbey of St. Gall. Applied to the Abbey at the outset under the Benedictine Rule, every monk received the scriptures and was obligated to read them as regularly and as best as possible (as stipulated in the Benedictine Rule, Chapter 48, 15). In his bibliography on Charlemagne, Charlemagne: the Formation of a European Identity, R. McKitterick mentions “the remarkable archive efficiency of St. Gallen” in the ninth century. [3]  This period usually marks the terminus of the Dark Ages because of the Carolingian Renaissance, when, near-moribund literacy in Europe was being revived by Charlemagne’s sponsorship of new monasteries with scriptoria for manuscript production. But it is important to remind us that St. Gall was already thriving before Charlemagne. The presence of books, and the ability to read and write, was critical to this order and certainly contributed to the prolific collecting and producing of manuscripts at the Library of St. Gall. Preserving such a vast and richly unique collection of documents has long been the noble enterprise of the library that continues to the present.

Abbey Cathedral of St. Gall (photo A. Williams, 2011)

Examples of St. Gall’s scribal treasures include the oldest complete music manuscript in the world, the St. Gall Cantatorium, produced at the Abbey circa 920/930 (Manuscript 359), as well as the fourth to fifth century Vergilius Sangallensis (Manuscript 1394) containing Virgil’s Aeneid, Georgics, and Bucolics (Eclogues), [4] predating the monastery, and the illustrated travel journal of Georg Franz Müller (1646-1723) to the Far East (Manuscript 1311). [5]  Two vital Carolingian documents include Charlemagnic charters; one documents a gift to the priest Arnaud and another is the agreement between Abbot John of St. Gallen and Bishop Sidonius of Constance, “two of the very few royal diplomas from Alemannia as a whole before 814.” [6]   A famous discovery at the Abbey of St. Gall happened in 1416 when the important Italian Humanist Giovanni Poggio found a rewritten manuscript copy of a Roman text, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratorio (originally from the end of the first century). [7]  The abbey’s abundant collection of the past is endless with unique, historically important documents.

Dr. K. Schmuki with (Replica) Abbey plan in Library Hall (photo A. Williams, 2011)

Perhaps one of the most famous manuscript treasures currently here is the Plan of the Abbey of St. Gall. Noted Stiftsbibliothek librarian and scholar, Dr. Karl Schmuki, described to me that the Carolingian abbey plan (Manuscript 1092), “is the only one of its kind…it is not for another three hundred years that another monastic cathedral plan is known.” This ninth-century plan of the Abbey of St. Gall is the earliest and only surviving major architectural plan in Western history from the Carolingian period. Dating to possibly as early as 817, the document measures 112 by 77.5 centimeters and is constructed of five large pieces of sheepskin parchment  sewn together. [8]  The outlines of the fifty buildings in red Indian ink are labeled in Latin with black ink. Portrayed as an idyllic and symmetrical community for monastic living, it reflects an altogether perfect plan for a Benedictine monastery. The balanced structures of the cathedral, cloister, living quarters, refectory, infirmary, schoolrooms, stables, and lodging for guests, mirror the Benedictine notion of combining daily life and prayer. Although never fully realized, the significance of this plan is incredible. In addition to it being the only document of its kind, the plan clearly shows the importance of the monastery library, as its own building, immediately to the East of the Cathedral apse. Labeled in black ink, the Bibliotheca is a stand-alone structure, with a large library hall and a scriptorium for the scribes under the main level.

Image of Abbey Plan - replica enlarged on wall (photo A. Williams, 2011)

A surprising fact to many, the Abbey plan is also a prime example of one of the library’s many palimpsests. A palimpsest is a piece of parchment whose original text has been scraped off with chemicals or reused on the reverse due to the high cost of parchment or the lack of paper. [9]  Almost lost to time altogether, these pieces are particularly precious as words and images can barely be made out, or they are again, the only known examples of documents. Like the Rex palimpsestorum (Manuscript 908), a codex where the only existing prose of the fifth-century poet, Flavius Merobaudes, are slightly visible, Schmuki pointed out that “on the reverse of the Abbey plan, the History of the Life of St. Martin was written in the twelfth century. Although not erased, the History of the Life of St. Martin was more important than the monastery plan in the twelfth century.”

Enlarged Detail of Library in Abbey Plan (photo A. Williams, 2011)

Today, the Abbey plan of St. Gall is a window into a monastic world that was meticulously planned, although never fully realized. Yet it has preserved for us a slice of history into an ideal life regulated by order and the pursuit of knowledge. The Abbey plan is just one of the many treasures of our past that has been cared for over the centuries at the Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen. It is no wonder that such a house of history is a place that heals the soul.


B. Anderes, The Abbey of St. Gall, The Ancient Ecclesiastical Precinct, (St. Gallen,  2002).

L. Price, The Plan of St. Gall in brief, An overview based on the three-volume work by W. Horn and E. Born, (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982).

E. Tremp, J. Huber, K. Schmuki, The Abbey Library of Saint Gall, translated from German, J. Horelent, (St. Gallen, 2007) (original: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen. Ein Rundgang durch Geschichte , Räumlichkeiten und Sammlungen. St. Gallen: Verlag am Klosterhof, 2003)

Special thanks to Dr. K. Schmuki, Stiftsbibliothek Librarian, for his very informative interview and tour.


[1]    Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheke I.49.3  (where the inscription was putatively recorded in Egypt, although in the Ptolemaic Era if in Greek)

[2]    E. Tremp, J. Huber, K. Schmuki, The Abbey Library of Saint Gall, translated from German, J. Horelent, (St. Gallen, 2007), 9.

[3]    R. McKitterick. Charlemagne: the Formation of a European Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 198.

[4]    K. Schmuki, P. Ochsenbein, C. Dora.  Cimelia Sangallensia: Hundert Kostarbeiten aus der Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen. (St. Gallen: Verlag am Klosterhof, 1998).

[5]    Tremp, Huber, Schmuki,  74, 93, 106.

[6]    McKitterick, 198.

[7]    A. van der Kooij, K. van der Toorn, J. A. M. Snoek, (Leiden Institute for the Study of Religions). Canonization and Decanonization. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998, 47.

[8]    Tremp, Huber,  Schmuki, 52.

[9]    R. Netz and W. Noel. The Archimedes Codex. New York: Da Capo/Perseus, 2007, 15 (definition of a palimpsest).