Right down to the text

Library and Scriptorium of Abbey Lorsch – An Introduction

The Significance of Abbey Lorsch

Abbey Lorsch lies close to Worms, by the river Weschnitz in the Bishopric Mainz and on the plain between the Rhine and Odenwald. Soon after its foundation in 764 it experienced a rapid increase in importance. In 765 it had received the relics of the martyr St Nazarius from Italy and took on his patronage. After the Abbey was bestowed upon Charlemagne in 772, the now royal monastery of Lorsch soon became a central economic and administrative base in the Carolingian dominion on the Middle and Upper Rhine.

Under Abbot Richbod, a member of Alcuin’s circle and since around 794 bishop of Trier, the monastery received its own scriptorium, and both Abbot Richbod and his successors promoted a determined expansion of the monastic library. Thus, Lorsch also became part of the educational enterprise of the Carolingians, and maintained contact with the cultural centres of the times, that is the court school and other monasteries. With its scriptorium and its extensive library Lorsch achieved a leading position amongst these centres of knowledge, and according to some even the foremost position. After its prime in the 9th century a second flourish of importance followed in the 11th century, and even at the end of the Middle Ages humanists praised the old library on the river Weschnitz, and sought it out for its collection of precious manuscripts.

Development in the Carolingian Age

A basic collection of books for the liturgy and monastic readings are part of every monastery. In Lorsch these were systematically expanded through acquisitions and transcriptions in the scriptorium under Abbot Richbod (784-804), and even more under his successor Adalung (804-837), then the growth tailed-off under Abbot Samuel (837-856). According to four surviving library catalogues (Vatican, BAV, Pal. lat. 1877, foll. 1r-34r, 44ra-66vb and 67ra-79vb; Pal. lat. 57, foll. 1r-7v), compiled between 830-860, around 500 codices were collected in Lorsch in the 9th century.

The structure of the latest and most comprehensive inventory shows that the Lorsch library was spread over three locations. The liturgical books were kept in the sacristy, or rather placed on the church’s altars, the armarium held the actual library, whilst the grammarians and other books were kept in the school where they were required. Although with the compilation of this latest catalogue the prime era of the scriptorium had come to an end, the Abbey had succeeded, almost a hundred years after its foundation, in creating one of the most important monastic libraries, not only in the Carolingian Age but also in the Early and High Middle Ages. Alongside the biblical works, the primary focus of the collection lay in the comprehensive unity and complete collections of writings by the fathers of the church.

Some Outstanding Works

The monastic library of Lorsch held important manuscripts, amongst them also some from late antiquity, from Italy and other scriptoria of the Frankish Empire. The palimpsest codex Pal. lat. 24 from the Vatican Library originally contained texts by Roman classics, and after they had been erased the parchment was covered with writings of the Old Testament. The codex holds the remains of several manuscripts, some of which reach as far back as the 4th century, and thus are regarded as some of the oldest parchment manuscripts from the Occident in existence. Today, numerous Lorsch manuscripts are still amongst the most important written testimonies from authors of Antiquity, as for example the famous “Vergilius Palatinus” (BAV, Pal. lat. 1631), which was written in the 5th/6th century on the Apennine peninsula. Some of the antique as well as early medieval works have survived only in Lorsch, one such example is the books 41-45 by Titus Livius (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 15), the Roman historian from the Augustan Age, or the writings of Carolingian scholars such as the Longobard Paulus Diaconus (BAV, Pal. lat. 1746, foll. 27r-40r), or the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin (BAV, Pal. lat. 290, foll. 1r-34r).

Signs of usage in Lorsch codices indicate that they were used in school lessons. However, apart from a few liturgical texts and a chronicle listed in the “Codex Laureshamensis”, Lorsch did not excel with own literary accomplishments even though it accumulated great knowledge. Yet it is possible that Abbot Richbod was as one of the authors of the “Annales Laureshamenses”. A definite allocation can be made with regard to the “Lorsch Pharmacopoeia” (Bamberg, SB, Msc. Med. 1), which was compiled in the Lorsch scriptorium from different drafts already at the end of the 8th century. This medical compendium is introduced with an original, but anonymous, defence of medicine (foll. 1r-5r). In June 2013 the manuscript was listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

A further valuable product of the scriptorium on the river Weschnitz is the “Lorsch Rotulus” (Frankfurt/M., StUB, Ms. Barth. 179), a Litany of the Saints for the East-Frankish King and grandson of Charlemagne, Ludwig the German, who was buried in Lorsch in 876. Another testimony for the relationship of Lorsch with the Carolingian Court are the “Lorsch Gospels”, which were compiled there around 810. The magnificent codex, written with gold ink and bound in ivory plates, was kept in Lorsch’s library from the 9th until the 15th century. Today this gem of Carolingian book art is split into several parts: the first part of the manuscript is held in the National Library of Rumania (Branch Alba Iulia, Biblioteca Documentară Batthyáneum, Ms. R II 1), the final part in the Vatican Library (BAV, Pal. lat. 50), and the valuable ivory plates are part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (Inv.-Nr. 138-1866) and the Vatican (BAV, Pal. lat. 50).

Manuscripts from Lorsch, amongst them the “Lorsch Confession” (BAV, Pal. lat. 485, foll. 2v-3v), the “Lorsch Bee Blessing” (BAV, Pal. lat. 220, fol. 58r) and High German glosses in numerous codices, contribute to the knowledge of the oldest form of the German language. Furthermore, the “Codex Laureshamensis” (Würzburg, Staatsarchiv, Mainzer Bücher verschiedenen Inhalts 72) – a book of records compiled in the 12th century, in which the Abbey primarily listed its possessions and claims of ownership – provides an insight into the feudal economy of the imperial monastery, and is the basis for the foundation dates of numerous towns on former monastic estates, which are dispersed from the North Sea down to the present borders of Switzerland.

Fate in the Post-Carolingian Age

Although Abbey Lorsch experienced an economic decline from the 11th century onwards, and the scriptorium too lost its outstanding position of significance in the 10th century, the scriptorium still managed to achieve a second height of fame. Under Abbot Udalrich (1056-1075) Abbey Lorsch distinguished itself in the production of gospel manuscripts. Furthermore, he was identified by Bernhard Bischoff as the donor of a group of manuscripts, which are distinguished through magnificent miniatures and initials, and bear the donor’s inscription of Oudalricus peccator.

Even though Udalrich was at first able to stabilize the situation of the Abbey in economic and political respects, the old imperial abbey faced a continuous decline. Also the library suffered many losses. Several books were taken from the monastery, presumably by reform monks from Hirsau. They had twice attempted to introduce their customs in Lorsch, between 1077 and 1108. It was probably during the next unsuccessful attempt, this time by the Cistercians, to take over the Abbey Lorsch, between 1231/32 and 1245, that a large number of Lorsch codices mainly manuscripts with patristic content landed in the Cistercian Abbey Eberbach on the Rhine. Presumably after Lorsch had been transferred into a monastery of the Premonstratensians in 1248, at least three manuscripts from the 9th century were taken to their monastery Arnstein on the Lahn. The collection of books most certainly continued to diminish in the following years, but nevertheless references by humanists in the 15th and 16th century who turned to the manuscripts as a basis for their editions, praised the old library, and thus testifying that the Lorsch Library still held many treasures.

Under the Elector Palatine Otto-Henry (1556-1559) Abbey Lorsch was finally dismantled and its book collection integrated into Heidelberg’s Bibliotheca Palatina. With it the Lorsch manuscripts were presented by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria to Pope Gregor XV as a gift, or spoils of war, and were transferred to the Vatican Library in Rome in 1622/23.

Reconstruction of the Library Collection and Research on the Scriptorium

According to the compilation by Bernhard Bischoff and Hartmut Hoffmann, more than 300 manuscripts from the 5th up until the 15th century from both the library and the scriptorium have survived. Some of these are only fragments, or combined manuscripts with several fascicles, not always from Lorsch. As numerous codices contain several Lorsch fascicles, which were only later bound together, the number of existing Lorsch manuscripts adds up to 331, which are distributed over 309 shelfmarks.

It is estimated that approximately 200 codices and fascicles (or fragments) from the 9th century, as well as the last decades of the 8th century, have survived. There are about 60 manuscripts from the 11th century. Over 10 manuscripts, compiled before the foundation of the scriptorium, have been preserved up to the present. Furthermore, around 20 codices from the 10th as well as from the 12th to 15th century have also survived.

Today the former Lorsch codices are dispersed over 73 libraries in Europe and the USA. With 130 manuscripts, and manuscript fragments, the biggest contingent is in the Palatina-Fonds of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. A large number is held in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, also in the Austrian National Library of Vienna and in the Collection of Archbishop Laud of Canterbury (1633-1645) in the Oxford Bodleian Library: in each case comprising about 20 manuscripts. The latter manuscripts first landed at the Cistercian monastery of Eberbach, and only later arrived in England. The codices mentioned above, which were formerly held at Arnstein, today form part of the Harley Collection at the British Library in London.

Due to the thorough research of Bernhard Bischoff, who summarized his results for the first time in 1974, we are relatively well informed about the history and fate of the Lorsch manuscripts. Since the second half of the 19th century preliminary work was done, in particular by August Wilmanns, Franz Falk, Theodor Gottlieb, Paul Lehmann, Wallace M. Lindsay and Chauncy E. Finch.

Besides identifying Lorsch’s library holdings through exlibris, i.e. notes by former owners in some manuscripts, the manuscripts’ provenance from Lorsch can often be identified through a note in the library catalogues from the 9th century, which for those days are unusually detailed. These inventories were at least partly known to the humanists, and were edited for the first time in the 19th century, albeit inadequately. A further possibility to determine the origin of the manuscripts is by analysing the contents. For example the high-lighting of the name of St Nazarius in the “Lorsch Rotulus” with golden ink is a clear indication for the scriptorium of the monastery sancti Nazarii, quod nominatur Lauresham.

The methodical palaeographic studies of Lindsay, Lehmann and Bischoff enabled them to link manuscripts with a higher certainty to scribes from Lorsch, by comparing the script of various manuscripts. Lindsay based his research in particular on reference and correction signs, abbreviations or ligatures. He also employed the use of abbreviations as the main way of reconstructing a rough time line.

Bischoff increasingly referred to changes in the script itself, and split the first century of the Lorsch scriptorium into four phases. The first phase, the “Older Lorsch Style”, was developed between 781/83, the time in which the Godescalc Evangelistary were compiled, and shortly after 800. The “Older Lorsch Style” reveals resemblances both to the script in use at the court of Charlemagne and the script of the scriptorium in Metz. It shows a strong Anglo-Saxon influence and is characterised by a certain unevenness in the shape of letters. Over 20 manuscripts written in the “Older Lorsch Style” have survived until today. After two brief phases, the so called “Transitional Style” and the “Saint-Vaast-Style” (named after similarities to the script of the Abbey Saint-Vaast in Arras, in present-day north France), the fourth phase was introduced. This “Younger Lorsch Style” was created under Abbot Adalung possibly after 820. The regularity, a characteristic of this script, was thought by Bischoff to be inspired by the minuscule shapes, in which the Capitulare evangeliorum of the “Lorsch Gospels” (BAV, Pal. lat. 50, foll. 116r-124v) compiled at the court of Charlemagne is written. The style was employed in Lorsch until the end of the 9th century. Around 100 manuscripts written in the “Younger Lorsch Style” have survived until today.

The research by Bischoff was supplemented by that of Hartmut Hoffmann, as in his research on south-western German scriptoria of the 10th and 11th century he also focuses on Lorsch: after the scriptorium lost its importance in the Ottonian Age and a “diluted variety of the Younger Lorsch Style” was employed in the second half of the 10th century, the script was reformed following the style of Carolingian examples. In the 11th century the calligraphy in Lorsch was brought to a new height after an independent form of manuscript illumination had been developed already since the end of the 10th century. This new form of book art, including miniatures and initials, derivated from works by the Ottonian illuminator, the Master of the Registrum Gregorii. Furthermore, Hoffmann also discovered scribes which had been trained in Lorsch in Bavarian scriptoria.

Finally, in 2002 a modern edition of the Carolingian library catalogues was published by Angelika Häse. In her introduction she summarizes the current state of research not only for the Lorsch inventories but also for the Carolingian library and scriptorium in general. The last comprehensive overview of these was provided by Marc-Aeilko Aris in the 7th volume of “Germania Benedictina“ in 2004. In autumn 2012 the symposium “Karolingische Klöster. Wissenstransfer und kulturelle Innovation” was held in Lorsch as part of the Sonderforschungsbereich “Materiale Textkulturen” of Heidelberg University financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The proceedings of the conference were published in 2015: Tino Licht focuses on the Carolingian Lorsch scriptorium and suggests pre-dating the Older Lorsch Style as well as separating the manuscripts written after around 860 from the Younger Lorsch Style grouping them under the term “Later Lorsch Style”. Furthermore, Natalie Maag identifies traces of Alemannic minuscule in the initial phase of the Lorsch scriptorium, and Julia Becker underlines the significance of the Lorsch library as a centre for the transmission of writings by the church fathers.

Universitätsbibliothek HeidelbergUnesco Welterbestätte Kloster LorschBundesland Hessen