Monastic Library in Vyšší Brod

The foundations of today´s magnificent Cistercian library at Vyšší Brod Monastery, that contains about 70,000 volumes, was a small reference library. This library was brought to the monastery by the first twelve monks in 1259, who came from Wilhering.

The books were placed in the abbot's home at that time. A list of those 77 volumes that are in the monastery Vyšší Brod since 1259, was preserved. Partly thanks to donations, partly thanks to the monks who copied the books step-by-step, the monastery has got at least 128 parchment manuscripts. It means that today´s 205 parchment manuscripts present a rare rounded-off collection that proves a systematic and purposive setting up of this library.

Antiphone from the end of the 15th century, music of latin song Four parchment Papers of St. Pavel are the oldest of the entire collection. These are the fragments dated from the 8th century. Each of the Papers has a size of 15 x 21 cm and lower-case letters and red capital letters are on the parchment. At least three other hand-written parchment books are dated from the 11th century. The year 1018 is written on the second last page No. 141 of the book called Psalterium Davidicum. Another book called Dialogi Gregori was written from 1081 - 1082 by Evin (Jan) and also Antifonář (a book of hymns) is dated from the 11th century. All of these books also have red capital letters and the book Psalterium Davidicum contains ten beautifully finished initials and two unfinished ones.

Other parchment hand-written books are from the 12th and 13th centuries. We can mention Comentarius Biblicus, which is written on 179 parchment papers of 24 x 36 cm. Beautiful initials with the different themes of animals on a gold ground are in this book. This hand-written parchment book was also brought to Vyšší Brod by the first monks. The book called Martyrologium Cisterciensa that comes from the 12th century was before it was brought to the monastery of Vyšší Brod in the monastery in Osek.

There are on many pages glosses from the 14th and 15th centuries - mostly the Czech patrons are added. In 1282 a book called Missale Cisterciense containing 207 parchment pages of 23 x 35 cm was written. In glosses there are also quotations from the foundation charter of the monastery of Vyšší Brod that was issued by Wok von Rosenberg.

A very interesting fragment taken from the later parchments is a fragment from the Czech Hymn Book. The parchment paper (35 x 53 cm) has gold corners and a cursive hand. It begins with: A Prophet St. Isaiah ..... And Isaiah is painted in the initial P, a miniature of an angel's greetings is on one side of the page and at the bottom of the page there is a butcher with an ox. From the whole range of original parchments the Decretum Gratiani is a really remarkable piece. It has not only 322 pages of parchment but all 360 first initials are painted on a gold background and 38 illuminated miniatures also on a gold background. One excellent miniature pictures Christ giving The Testament to the Pope and to Emperor. This valuable work is from the 14h century.

A parchment of an other book contains a note that the book was written in 1393 by an abbot who was called Otto from Wyhnanice, the coat-of-arms of the Knights from Drachovec who were the owners of Omlenice is on another one. There is a very interesting note written in Zbraslavská chronicle saying that the Cistercian abbots from Bohemia bought many volumes of books and they cost 200 hřivna of silver (an old weight and coin unit). They bought them on their way back home from the general capitulary in Citeaux in Paris in 1292. The money was given for this purpose by king Václav II. And because the abbot from Vyšší Brod was presented in the general capitulary in 1292, probably some of the books written on the parchment paper that are now in the ownership of the monastic library, were bought from the donation of king Václav II.

The scribes copied the books in a special room furnished with desks called a scriptorium. Before they started writing or copying, the monks - scribes made the marks for each live and column with a piece of lead and made the size of lines and columns using a pair of compasses. They wrote the books with a quill that they dipped into an ink-pot made of a cow-horn. As well as a dark ink the monks also used coloured inks, especially red ones to write the capitals. On a rare occasion they used gold and silver inks that were made of the powder of these precious metals. When the scribe made a mistake it had to be scratched out with a sharp knife.

Vyšší Brod monastery, overview

To make such books where each single letter was very carefully painted took a very, very long time. To write only one page took about a day. So it is very easy to estimate that to write or copy a book took long months, and quite often years. The books written this way are called manuscripts and they are written mostly in Latin. When the book was written, the painter did his piece of work. The scribe had some spaces between the text for the illuminator´s pictures. He first drew contours of the proposed picture and then he applied the colour using a brush. We can learn a lot from these pictures - how life of those times looked, etc. The figures from the Bible are a good example - the painter dressed them in the robes that were common in the time that the picture was made.

A Latin proverb says: Clastrum sine armarie est quasi castrum sine armamentarie, that means in free translation: A monastery without a library is like a castle without the weapons. The work of the scribes was so significant that - according to the rules of the monastery - the monks were allowed to be absent from the prayers when the day light was good. The scribes themselves used to say about their work: "Because we can not announce the Word of God verbally, we want to do it by hand because as many books we write as many witnesses of the truth we send".