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Friday, March 7, 2014

Austrian Manuscript Library Tour, Part 6: Fond Farewell to Vienna 2013



Vienna: where the cows and the dogs play Backgammon. Late medieval mural fragment in the first district.
In December 2013, I was able to visit the capital of Austria, Vienna, and parts of the surrounding province of Lower Austria. Out of that brief trip (about 9 days total), I have constructed a small tour of manuscript libraries where the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (under the earlier name of the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library) preserved medieval codices with cameras. As all good things must come to an end, so too, my trip to Vienna could not go on indefinitely. So, as I toured the city in my free time, I made a point of going past some of the other places where Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, worked in the years 1967 to 1971.


Mechitarist Church, Vienna, Austria.
Date (1874) over the door of the church
in Roman numerals and Armenian.
One of the first places I visited was the Mechitarist Church (seventh district), which happened to be very close to my hotel. Father Oliver visited there in June through September 1967. The Mechitarist Congregation (housed around the corner from the church) was founded in the early 18th century and follows the Rule of Benedict. The foundation in Vienna dates back to 1810. Their collection includes manuscripts going back to the 9th century! HMML filmed nearly 1200 manuscripts here, but that is only about half of the entire collection. When Father Oliver visited in 1967, only about half of the collection had been cataloged. Since the good Father knew no Armenian, he had to rely on the German translations that appeared in the existing published catalogs.


I was fortunate enough to visit briefly with the abbot of the congregation early in my Vienna stay. Of course, with the Advent season upon us, it was difficult for him to get away from his duties for long. In the past decade, HMML has worked extensively with Armenian manuscripts in other parts of the world, especially in Lebanon and Syria. It is one of the central areas of HMML's more recent photographic and cataloging work.


Interior of the Mecharist Church in Vienna, Austria.


In 1967, Father Oliver again demonstrated his diplomacy and resourcefulness. The congregation was very keen to protect their cultural heritage, and was not prepared to share their manuscripts with just anyone:
"We have to do their job during the summer months, as they can give us only an unheated room for work space. We were almost turned down at the last minute here too. When I was here a month ago to make the deal, the Abbot (he is also a titular archbishop) agreed to let us photograph their manuscripts, yielding to my entreaties because he said the microfilms would be in charge of a monastery over there. He added that he would not give such permission to any other institution so far away." (Letter to Julian Plante, dated June 9, 1967, from Vienna.)
There was still some last minute discussion whether to allow the project to proceed. Fortunately, this early photographic ecumenism succeeded in the end, and the two communities--the Benedictines of Minnesota and the Mechitarists of Austria--found a way to collaborate and provide a safety copy of over a millenium of written history. More information about this congregation is available (in German) at their website:



Upon completion of the project at the Mechitarist library--later in 1967--Father Oliver and his team worked also at the Dominikanerkonvent in the first district of Vienna. There they filmed about 250 manuscripts, dating mostly from the 15th century. Unfortunately, with my rather brief tour of Vienna (in December 2013), I was not able to schedule an actual visit with the Dominican community there. I was able to see the church, however.

Dominicans' Church, Vienna, Austria.

 More information on the Viennese Dominicans can be found at:



Toward the end of his stay in Austria, Father Oliver worked at one of the smaller, but very interesting, collections in Vienna: the Minoritenkonvent in the eighth district of Vienna. Although the team was there only about 10 days (February 15 to February 25, 1971), the collection they filmed had a special character.  Of the 232 manuscripts photographed, about 160 were early modern music manuscripts. These included pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries for church music and instrumental music. This makes the collection one of the first filmed by HMML that was not entirely "medieval."  Unfortunately, this is one of the two libraries in Vienna that I missed seeing in December! (The other was the University library.)


The Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv and the Minoritenkirche facing each other across the square.

By the time Father Oliver and his team finished at the Minoritenkonvent (not to be confused with the Minoritenkirche or church), the transition to a new field director was underway--Father Urban Steiner, OSB. Father Urban later continued HMML's work in Spain. The last library that I actually saw in December 2013--but did not exactly visit--was the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, which is across the square from the Minoritenkirche, in the first district. The work here marked the sixth anniversary of Father Oliver's start at the Abbey of Kremsmünster in April 1965. Since HMML rarely photographed archival materials in Austria, the 300 manuscripts photographed here were largely "of special interest for monastic history (mostly dissolved monasteries), also other historical documents ..." (HMML files).


The Haus-, Hof-, und Staatsarchiv in Vienna, Austria.

This concludes the "live" portion of my manuscript library tour in Austria, based on my travels and visits in December 2013. Yet I hope it will not mark the end of such tours in real life! After communicating with these libraries as part of my job for the past twelve years, it was extremely pleasurable to meet the librarians, archivists and their staffs at the abbeys of Melk, Goettweig, Klosterneuburg, the Schottenstift, as well as the Austrian National Library. I can only hope that we will continue to find ways to cooperate into the future. 

In the coming months, I hope to "return" regularly to Austria and retrace Father Oliver's footsteps (or van tours) by making virtual visits to the libraries where he worked. My hope is that we continue to see HMML's partnerships with Austrian libraries as an ongoing process, and not something that ended when the last microfilm frame was exposed over 40 years ago!  When I return to the "tour" I plan to start at the Abbey of Kremsmuenster and then move on to Lambach, Seitenstetten, and thus follow his path chronologically.



Father Oliver at Stift Seitenstetten in 1965.
Matt Heintzelman (the short guy) at Stift Melk in 2013 (with Pater Gottfried Glassner, OSB).


Peace to all on your own manuscript journeys!

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