Books in Heaven
I took this picture as I was about to enter the library of Monte Cassino on a cold morning last February. While most of my trips to study medieval books lead to university libraries, some are still held in monasteries. These are the best visits. The journey up the mountain to Monte Cassino had been long and winding, but there I finally was, in one of the oldest functioning European abbeys. The prior (also the librarian) picked me up at the gate. As we walked up the steps to the library he gestured I should turn around - and this is what I saw.
It is called the Heavenly Courtyard and that is just what it was for me. Not only because of the view, but also because the stairs I was climbing pretty much led to heaven: the abbey’s library. Monte Cassino is known for its extensive medieval book collection. I am co-author of a book about an eleventh-century medical manuscript made in the abbey and for three days I sat in the library looking at other books copied by “my” scribe. The prior worked across the table from me, alternating between typewriter and MacBook Pro. From time to time he wheeled in my tiny books on an oversized wagon. It was quite something.
When I was about to leave on the last day he gestured I should follow him. He walked me through the abbey and showed me a hidden mural painting, the long corridors with rooms for guests, and St Benedict’s crypt. With my hands still smelling like parchment I absorbed it all. It was not difficult to imagine my scribe walking here almost a thousand years earlier. Marvelling at the same things as I did. It was truly divine.