14 September 2021
“Take their books! They’re useless propaganda. Get rid of them!”
This actually happened. “Duh,” you’re thinking, “everybody knows how the Third Reich banned books.”
Not so fast. This did take place in Germany, but I’m not talking about the book burning of the Nazis. They didn’t invent openly regressive politics. This event occurred during the secularization of 1802/1803, a historical development that had drastic consequences. Including for books.
Secularization arose out of the Napoleonic Wars. Its goal: to break the back of the Catholic church. Harsh, but considering the power this institution had amassed over the centuries, only severe measures would effect change. The church had amassed huge amounts of land and riches over the centuries. But all the while, the power of the secular state had been growing, too. State rulers had made many attempts over the years to curtail the power of the church with measured success.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic conflicts, their time had finally come. The Corsican general’s conquest of Europe shifted the balance of power in favor of secular rulers. Elector Max IV Joseph of Bavaria seized the opportunity to wrest lands and power back from the church, including cathedrals, churches, nunneries and monasteries. At long last, secularization had arrived.
I am visiting one such monastery in Metten, Lower Bavaria. This quiet village lies off the beaten path, just north of the town of Deggendorf. It’s hard to imagine this was the site of any kind of uproar, but it, too, was subject to secularization, a fancy Latin word for expressing what Arnold Schwarzenegger put much more succinctly in Terminator 2: “I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle.”
Our tour guide is a stern-faced Benedictine monk who leads the way into the heart of the monastery. We fall in obediently behind him, mesmerized by the rhythmic swishing of his black cassock as he strides evenly down the imposing, vaulted stone hallway. Hazy images float before me of the bygone days of the Spanish Inquisition, mingled with more vivid pictures of Sean Connery in “The Name of the Rose,” who definitely cut a better figure as a monk than our guide.
The only sound is the echo of our footsteps as we embark on our pilgrimage to the Baroque library. The only sound, that is, until I detect a soft, regular squishy-squeaking. I look down and notice that our monk is wearing sandals – with socks. His right sandal emits a small squeak with each step.
Ah, I think. This is a relief. He’s a modern German monk after all. Only Germans wear socks together with sandals. It’s airy yet comfortable while keeping your feet clean. But seriously? Chalk it up to German pragmatism. I can’t help pondering: The black cassock is a uniform; the footwear was his big chance to express his fashion sense. And this is all he managed to come up with.
My musings about alternative monastic footwear are cut short by our arrival at the entrance to the library. Our guide opens the door. We step inside.
All at once, we are immersed in an explosion of color, drama and movement. I take a deep breath. This is exquisite!
These are the kind of Baroque paintings you see on the ceilings of churches and cathedrals, bursting with action and emotion. Mary is about to faint. Jesus’ body is more twisted and marred than ever. Saints gyrate heavenward in rapturous poses. Pure ecstasy in bold colors. At the height of the Baroque era, artists used every technique imaginable to evoke a maximum of religious devotion and elation.
But this is not another Baroque cathedral, of which I have seen many. Here, the painted ceiling hangs low. No sooner do I enter, I find myself face to face with an angel dangling just above my head. I turn and see eye to eye with Thomas Aquinas, the religious philosopher that I studied back at Georgetown, a Jesuit university after all. Facing him is another religious philosopher, the Italian medieval Franciscan monk Bonaventure.
Other, secular themes reflect the nature of the library as a place of study. Hieronymus (not Bosch, but the original Hieronymus), one of the four great fathers of the church from late antiquity, is reading Cicero. Odo of Cluny, the second abbot of the Benedictine monastery in France, is studying Vergil.
Our tour group is tiny. There’s a reason for that. The monastery isn’t exactly trying to scare visitors off, but they’re clearly not wracking their brains trying to attract them, either. Their densely-packed website extolls the history of the monastery and the church, offers an online book catalogue, explains the methods of conserving books – basically including anything and everything academic.
But how the hell (oops! I mean heck, of course) can you visit the famous Baroque library? It requires monastic tenacity to find what you’re looking for: click, click, clickclick, clickclickclickclickclick – eureka!
There it is: Library tours. A tiny link at the bottom of the page. On that morning, just one other couple had the requisite obstinacy to find it.
Brightly colored ceilings and walls. Figures wrapping themselves around marble columns, holding up vaulted ceilings edged with bas reliefs. Gilded shelves holding tomes from previous centuries. Some are matching sets, some are individual volumes. Four people in awe, gazing upwards trying to take it all in.
As we stare reverently at the ceiling, our monk glances at his watch. Only one hour, and so much history! He takes a deep breath. And begins the story.
In the sweep of secularization, the Bavarian Elector Max IV Joseph ordered that all books from monastic libraries be confiscated. Not for burning (that was that other guy), they were too valuable for that. Instead, they were to be used as raw material for paper mills. The Elector sent his servants, Hans and Franz, off with a horse and cart. In a few weeks, they returned with crates of books. A lot of crates. Hundreds of crates.
It looked as if the library’s entire collection, carefully preserved over the centuries, was doomed.
But one powerful man at the Bavarian court knew these books were more than a mere source of raw material. He saved thousands of them, rerouting them to the storage room of the royal library of Munich. And as with all upheavals, over time the fury of secularization subsided. In a few years, the harsh measures eased. Selected ecclesiastical properties were reinstated or given to new owners as rewards; some monks and nuns were allowed to return to their monasteries and nunneries.
In 1830, the librarian of the Metten monastery saw this window of opportunity. Maybe the current ruler of Bavaria, King Ludwig I, had softened.
“Sire? I was wondering, do you think we could have some of our books back? Bitte? Our library shelves are completely empty.”
“Books? No problem. You can have books. I know just where to get some.”
The king sent for his servants. Hans and Franz had retired by this time, and it’s a good thing. We all know that frustrating feeling of having your successor undo all the projects you worked so hard on. But Max and Moritz were new. They were oblivious and happy to oblige the king’s orders to reverse his predecessor’s book-bashing project.
“Max! Moritz! Go get some books for the Benedictines in Metten!”
Max and Moritz went obediently to the storage room. They loaded crate after crate onto their cart and delivered them to Metten.
And so it came about that the monks in Metten got some books.
But not necessarily their books, just books. Any books.
There is no sign here today of this drama. Books sit mute on the shelves, as books do. Our sandal-clad monk finishes the story. The monastery did get some of their original books back, but it was pure chance. Most of them came from monasteries in Swabia. Max and Moritz had just grabbed whatever crates were closest to the door.
After all, the king just said books, not which books. Proof that even back then, bosses had trouble giving clear instructions.
What became of the rest of the royal library? Bavaria lost its brief status as a kingdom in 1918, so there’s nothing royal around anymore. But the books are still there. You can find them in the Bavarian State Library in Munich.
Exactly one hour after beginning his shtick, our monk looked at his watch.
Time’s up! He fixes his stare on me. Ahem.
I look up from a display case. I’m trying to decipher a document written in an old script I cannot read, save for the name Asam. Later I learn it is a receipt dated 1715 issued to Cosmas Damian Asam for the 500 guilders he was paid for the painting on the high altar. Asam is a well-known name in Munich; the Asam brothers built the Baroque church that bears their name near the Sendlinger Tor city gate.
Our party of five exits the library quietly. The monk, whose name we never learned, bolts the door fastidiously behind us. The Baroque splendor is once again locked up.
We follow our monk back down the echoing stone hall. Straight to the gift shop. No photography was allowed inside, so we rush to buy one of the beautiful, hardcover books full of gorgeous pictures of the library. Or two, in our case.
At least they’ve got that figured out.