Krista's Journal: Manuscripts of the Past and Insights for the Present

January 15, 2009

There is a grand synchronicity in the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and the sweep of the 1500-year-old tradition of the order of St. Benedict. Across Europe's Dark Ages, Benedictine monks hand-copied Latin and Greek texts from literature to mathematics, from philosophy to theology, literally sustaining Western civilization. A thousand years later, on this acclaimed Benedictine campus on a stretch of Minnesota prairie, photographers and scholars tend and decode the world's largest archive of medieval manuscripts on microfilm. They have in more recent years digitally recorded more than one million files, making these accessible online to scholars worldwide. There are worlds in this place on palm leaf and papyrus, in microfilm and pixels — stories of ordinary life as well as the rise and fall of civilizations from Ethiopia to Ukraine, from Romania to India. In the voice and stories of Getatchew Haile, we comprehend the human and geopolitical significance of such artifacts, especially for post-war and post-colonial peoples reconstructing their own identities. Columba Stewart has stories of secret passageways that would work in Hollywood. But more moving and thrilling are his descriptions of moments of trust — when guardians of endangered traditions turn to HMML for help, and this library becomes a vital link in a chain of accumulated history, memory, and meaning. If you have never looked at the visuals on our Web site, please come with me as I speak with Fr. Columba Stewart. During our conversation he showed me a selected collection of manuscripts from different centuries and exotic geographies. We filmed it. While he described an 18th-century Ethiopian Psalter housed in a wonderful goatskin carrying case, I could actually smell the smoke from the charred edges of vellum and fire. He then pulled out a beautiful 12th-century Italian gospel penned in the tiniest of script; then another from Egypt originally written in Greek and later augmented with Arabic translations; then intriguing fragments of history in Samaritan Hebrew, and much more. This is an intimate glimpse of precious objects well worth viewing. I was always drawn to the Benedictines' long view of time. It's a perspective that keeps them vitally open to modernity even as they live out a sacred commitment to preserve what is beautiful and meaningful from the past. Benedictines draw intellectual vitality and ethical sustenance from a generous, sacred, not-quite-linear view of time. The conversations and experiences of creating this program somehow broaden that capacity in me.

I Recommend Viewing:

Here are several other multimedia elements — part of our SoundSeen series — we produced for this program. Slideshow: Arca Artium» Arca Artium [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.

Video: The Maltese Bookworm» The Maltese Bookworm [video, 14:24] Theresa Vann's descriptions of crude repairs and bookworms tunneling through fleshy parchment come to life, including rare pages from the Knights of Malta's first pressings.

Video: The Process of Creating the St. John's Bible» The Process of Creating the St. John's Bible [video, 5:50] This short video introduces you to the latest global project to emerge from St. John's — the first illuminated, handwritten Bible since the invention of the printing press.

Voices on the Radio

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.