Columba Stewart and Getatchew Haile —
Preserving Words and Worlds

Saint John's University and Abbey in rural Minnesota houses a monastic library that rescues writings from across the centuries and across the world. There are worlds in this place on palm leaf and papyrus, in microfilm and pixels. And the relevance of the past to the present is itself revealed in a new light.

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is the executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John's Abbey and University.

is a MacArthur Fellow and the curator of the Ethiopian Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John's Abbey and University.

Pertinent Posts

This six-minute video introduces you to the genesis and process of creating the illuminated, handwritten Bible.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

Fragments of History

A behind-the-scenes look from Krista's interview. Here, Fr. Columba shows centuries-old manuscripts in Ge'ez and Samaritan Hebrew, Latin and Armenian, and Greek with Arabic translations. It's an intimate perspective of precious objects well worth viewing.

The Maltese Bookworm

Historian Theresa Vann's descriptions of crude repairs and bookworms tunneling through fleshy parchment come to life. And she shows us rare pages from the Knights of Malta's first pressings.

Arca Artium: Rare Relics of Parchment and Press

[audio slideshow, 6:54]

HMML's rare book archive holds a vast collection of medieval manuscripts and sacred texts. Here, watch a guided tour of some its most prized possessions of parchment and press.

About the Image

Boys in Yeha, Tigray Province, northern Ethiopia, learn to read the ancient language of the Ethiopian Church, Ge'ez, by reading from a manuscript while a monk tutors in the background.

Photo courtesy of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

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Krista Tippet talked about the topic of preserving manuscripts. Throughout the hour, she interviewed with three different people, the first of whom was Father Stewart. Father Stewart is the executive director at Hill museum of Manuscript Library.

To begin, a manuscript is described as a piece of writing that is hand written. It is a document that is original and historical. Manuscripts can really be seen as artifacts in that they are one of a kind. When reading a manuscript, you are really able to get a sense of when that historical period. During the interview, Ms. Tippet and Fr. Stewart talked about how manuscripts allow you to see the binding, the ink in writing, and the side notes left by its readers. They gave an example of a manuscript of Psalms, in which they could see the edges were somewhat fringed as though it was left by a campfire, and said that it even smelled of campfire.

I think that this example really shows how different of an experience you can actually get out of reading an actual manuscript versus a printed copy. Mr. Haile, the second interviewee on the broadcast said that “I have a problem in living which century I live. When I read those manuscripts, I’m taken away there. Sometimes I’m totally taken with them.” Mr. Haile is sharing how when he reads a manuscript, he get a real feel for the exact time in which it was written, which I think can allow for a whole different meaning and appreciation for reading it.

One of the current problems with manuscripts is that they are valuable, and poor people in Ethiopia (which is the last place that used manuscripts) will take manuscripts from churches or monasteries to sell them for money. When a manuscript is taken like this, often times, that piece of history is gone forever. Once gone, they are often resold for larger amounts of money, and are sometime broken up.

When listen to this broadcast, it really made me think about how important it is to have original manuscripts. If we did not have manuscripts of anything that was written in the Bible, it would be really hard to get a good idea of when, where, and why it was written. I think that this is the importance of having original manuscripts. If you have a piece of original writing, it allows you to get a more complete understanding of it – when it was written, where it was written (in terms of language), and a feel for the actual time period that it was written in. I think that this broadcast really gave me a greater appreciation for original pieces of writing, especially for manuscripts.

Your interview of May 6th brings to mind Shakespeare's sonnet LXV: Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o'er-sways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? O, how shall summer's honey breth hold out Against the wreckful siege of battering days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays? O fearful meditation! where, alack, Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? O, none, unless this miracle have might, That, in black ink my love may still shine bright. Drew Hanna

Walking through the MSP airport this morning, I noticed advertisements for the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the Science Museum. I had just listened to the SOF podcast on Preserving Words and Worlds a Few days ago. I'm wondering how museum curators of religious artifacts interpret, or navigate the distance between very academic topics and the knowledge base of the general public--I suppose a more general question is, how is a balance achieved between rigorous science and theology and popular religious consumption?