- Digital Devotion from Carolingian Reichenau and St. Gall
A long-term digitization project (www.stgallplan.org) to bring the Carolingian plan for the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland to life has earned justified praise for its impact. The project calls attention to and increases understanding of Carolingian monastic life at one of the great houses of the time. Whether the library was ever intended to be constructed or whether it was an imaginative conceptualization of an ideal library is immaterial to the light the project has shed on Carolingian spirituality. This article both introduces the project and demonstrates how digitization of manuscripts can increase the data available for studying devotion and the religious emotions that it entailed.
There are few single documents more important for the history of medieval art, architecture, monasticism, and, as we hope to show in this essay, devotional emotions, than the famous drawing known as the Plan of St. Gall.1 This document, now preserved at the monastery’s Stiftsbibliothek in Switzerland, was drawn up for abbot Gosbert of St. Gall by two scribes of the sister monastery of Reichenau, on Lake Constance, around 820. An early and accomplished piece of technical drawing, the Plan measures 112 by 77.5 cm (slightly smaller than A0 paper, for those keeping track) and is made of five pieces of parchment sewn together. It depicts a large monastery complex, centred around an elaborate church, with cloister and refectories, scriptorium and library, alongside breweries, bakeries, a mill, and even a shoemaker’s shop. We do not know why exactly it was drawn up, but the dedication, probably written by Haito, [End Page 292] abbot of Reichenau, indicates that it was given to Gosbert so that he might “exercise your ingenuity and recognize my devotion.”2 Gosbert was undertaking building projects at the time, and so the plan may have been prompted by Gosbert’s desire to begin construction at St. Gall. It is clear, however, that St. Gall was not built from this plan, though some of the buildings there might have been inspired by it (Jacobsen). It is perhaps better to think of the Plan as a very detailed sketch of “the ideal monastery” in the Carolingian imagination, where the whole world is reordered to the service of God (Dey 19–40).
It is an unfailing axiom of medieval history that the ease of access to a document declines in proportion to its importance. This, and the Plan’s unwieldy size, has made it a difficult resource to use. Several years ago, therefore, Patrick Geary, of UCLA, and Bernard Frischer, of the University of Virginia, conceived of a project to make the Plan, and ancillary bibliography and analysis of it, accessible in virtual form. With the cooperation of the St. Gall librarians, extremely high-resolution pictures were taken of the Plan, and displayed using a special java applet, allowing the images to be panned, rotated, and zoomed. The result is actually much more useful and detailed than what one could experience with the large and unwieldy Plan.
In this first phase of the project, ancillary documents were added alongside to help contextualize the monastic environment that produced the Plan. Initially this focused on material culture: for instance, images of hundreds of Carolingian objects (pots, brooches, carvings, etc.) were put online to give a sense of the things used and produced in a monastery like that represented in the Plan. The second phase of the project aims to give a sense of the intellectual environment that produced the Plan by giving access to the books that were present at Reichenau (and St. Gall) when the Plan was produced. The project has acquired digital reproductions of 168 manuscripts present at Carolingian Reichenau and St. Gall.3 These are being presented in the same, high-resolution, zoomable form as the Plan, and are paired with updated descriptions.4 While not all of the manuscripts owned by the monasteries at the time are included, the group selected is a representative gathering of the books present at Carolingian Reichenau and St. Gall. This digital reconstruction of the libraries of Reichenau and St. Gall greatly facilitates contextual studies...