Abbey of St Gall and its library

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Volume 21

Above: Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen (the Abbey Library of St Gall)—boasts an extensive collection of original manuscripts dating from the seventh century onward.

Above: Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen (the Abbey Library of St Gall)—boasts an extensive collection of original manuscripts dating from the seventh century onward.

St Gallen is a small city in the north-east of Switzerland with a 1,400-year-old history. Its surprisingly close link with Ireland, which has continued to the present day, dates back to 612, when an Irish monk named St Gall (var. Gallus, Gallen) established a hermit cell in the dense forest of the Steinach Valley. The site would become a monastery that flourished in the ninth and tenth centuries, influenced by later generations of Irish monks who made the perilous pilgrimage from Ireland to the saint’s tomb and stayed on in the abbey. By then the Benedictine monastery was already a renowned centre of learning and literature, with a scriptorium and an extensive library that dates back to 719. Today, the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen (the Abbey Library of St Gall) is a World Heritage Site recognised by UNESCO and located in the heart of this modern city.

The library boasts an extensive collection of original manuscripts dating from the seventh century onward, including the Precentor’s Book (c. 920), which includes an early example of musical notation accompanying the Gregorian chant (MS 359), the Abrogans (c. 790), the oldest extant book in the German language (MS 911), and many more treasured manuscripts that are invaluable early medieval sources for the languages of Greek, Latin, Old High German, Old Irish and even for the early pre-Christian alphabet of Ireland, Ogham. In particular, the library is home to one of the largest collections of Irish material on the Continent, with fifteen manuscripts and fragments, eleven of which were written for liturgical purposes. Preceding the oldest inventory of the library (c. 885), there is also a list recording books that were written in the Irish script style, Libri Scottice Scripti, all of which have been lost except St John’s Gospel (MS 60).

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