The Roots of European Culture

The Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland, about 7 kilometers from Lake Constance, was founded by the monk Gallus in 612. Gallus, probably from Irish origin, retreated as a hermit and only built a simple wooden dwelling. Soon after his death (around 650), it was made a place of pilgrimage.

It became one of the most important European centres of medieval religious and cultural life and scholarship that lasted for centuries. Illuminated books, carving of ivory, music, poetry, translations of texts of the ancients, the development and translations into the first written documents of Old High German and adequate concepts of administration are an inseparable part of the blossoming of medieval European society, art and culture.

The monastery plan of St. Gall, around 825, most likely drawn in the Abbey of Reichenau, captures an early medieval (Carolingian) architectural design and life of monks. It is one of the very few drawings from the middle ages. The plan is on display in the library today.

The ecclesiastical architecture bridged the gap between antiquity and present-day architecture. The Abbey was a Benedictine monastery since 749 and the first purpose and the highest aim was a regulated life or prayer, reading, singing psalms and liturgy.

Most relevant for prosperity and the development of European society was the written culture, drawing on the legacy of classical antiquity. This culture developed to serve the monastery and its aims. The monks not only wrote religious works, but were also keepers of secular (legal and administrative) records and they were great administrators indeed.

They also wrote the first historical chronicles and vitae of  founders and saints. Without monks, no Renaissance, no Humanism, no Google and no Internet.

Writing was not an easy task, Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat, ‘three fingers write and the whole body works”. (Source: J. C. King, W. Vogler (Eds.), The Culture of the Abbey of St. Gall ( St. Gall 2000).