Library of the Middle Ages 2.0

Around 25,000 medieval manuscripts can be found in monasteries and libraries around Austria. They are now being analyzed and digitized for the online platform manuscripta.at. "This gives people from all over the world access to our cultural heritage," explains OeAW scientist Christine Glaßner.

Bibles, cookery books, travelogues, medical papers, sermons, and textbooks. "You can find everything imaginable in the 25,000 medieval manuscripts, although the majority, of course, concern theology", says Christine Glaßner from the Institute for Medieval Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW).

Until now, this literary treasure trove from the Middle Ages could only be viewed and analyzed in the respective institutions in Austria. With around 1,200 manuscripts each, the libraries in Melk and Klosterneuburg are among the largest monastic collections. But also public libraries, such as the university libraries in Graz and Innsbruck, and especially the Austrian National Library, house many medieval literary treasures, which are not easily accessible to everyone. "We want to change that and allow researchers and interested parties from all over the world to access the manuscripts directly via the manuscripta.at platform," says Glaßner, who heads this comprehensive long-term research project at the OeAW.

Manuscripta.at gives people from all over the world direct access to medieval manuscripts.

The first books went online in 2010, and since then the "online library" has been growing continuously. "Austria really has an incredibly large and unique collection and our goal is to record all of the manuscripts in the database and to make as many of them as possible digitally available." Currently, you can virtually browse more than 500 manuscripts from Austrian monasteries, such as Admont, Klosterneuburg, Melk, and St. Peter in Salzburg.

Unique literary treasures

Among the latest additions is one of the most important manuscripts in Austria: the “Annals of Melk” from the 12th century. This manuscript contains a calendar with all the festive days, as well as a list of the dates of death of those people connected with the monastery at certain times. "This is very important for us because it reflects the personal environment and network of the monastery and includes the most diverse groups of people: lords as well as monastic students." For example, one entry refers to an anchoress (inclusa) Ava, who is therefore the first female poet in the German language to be known by name, and who must have been closely connected with Melk, explains Glaßner.

Equally important is the second part of the manuscript with the actual “Annals of Melk”. This is a directory created in 1123, which registers for each year notable events in the national, regional, and monastic history, beginning with the birth of Christ and continuing into the 16th century.

In addition, the Melk fragment of the Nibelungenlied, which was only discovered in 1998, is one of the highlights of the online collection. "This can now be studied in detail from your desk." Worldwide, about three dozen manuscripts of this most famous German heroic epic exist, only a third of them with complete text, says Glaßner. "The others are fragments – single pages or parts of pages. Austria has five fragments in Klagenfurt, Linz, Melk, Vorau, and in the National Library in Vienna, where there are also two complete manuscripts."

Detective puzzle work

However, the team's work goes far beyond high-resolution digitization of the on average 500-page manuscripts. Rather, it involves re-cataloging each book and describing the content accurately. "Even the smallest details are important", stresses Glaßner. "We thus bring a complicated puzzle together. What we see and what we can infer from different details, we put together to form an overall picture, from which future research can draw."

Often, even small notes are of great importance; for example, if there are observations about earthquakes or floods, with the exact date and place. "A researcher who studies weather phenomena in the Middle Ages can quickly find all the relevant entries via the platform and, in the best-case scenario, also look at a digital image of the corresponding manuscript page. This is especially important if the texts are illustrated with pictures."

Our goal is to record all manuscripts in Austria in the database and to make as many of them as possible digitally accessible.

Deciphering short notes is just one of many challenges, adds Glaßner. Many of the manuscripts contain numerous abbreviations and use unfamiliar typefaces. "Often it is not obvious at first glance which text it is, who wrote the manuscript, and who possessed it through the centuries." Was it permanently in the monastery or did it change hands? Also, there is usually no table of contents that would facilitate orientation in the manuscript. "Our work is sometimes like detective work because you have to look very closely and follow many leads. Only then can you connect all observations into a consistent overall picture. Experience is particularly important: who knows more, sees more."

Research for further research

Today, the Austrian manuscript portal manuscripta.at is one of the most comprehensive and well-structured in the world, explains Glaßner proudly. To further facilitate research on the historical works, the Germanist and her team have linked relevant publications to the individual manuscripts. Currently the portal counts more than 10,000 publications that refer to Austria's manuscripts. "We really see ourselves as basic researchers who analyze and make available all the details of a medieval manuscript on site, in our libraries. With the help of our research results, you can then ask further research questions or solve open questions."