Tue, Dec 26, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Medieval baking instructions and more

More than 1,000 books from the shuttered Altomuenster Abbey provide a glimpse into monastery life in the 15th and 16th centuries, including Christmas recipes

AP, Berlin

This photo shows a 17th century recipe for lebkuchen — Germany’s famous Christmas gingerbread. It was found among a collection of more than 1,000 books that were taken from the Altomuenster Abbey after it closed down earlier this year.

Photo: AP

Take 20 liters of honey and boil it together with 2 liters of water. Add in cinnamon and nutmeg, a healthy amount of ginger and pepper, plus some aniseed and coriander. Mix it all together with rye flour and water.

The result? A perfect batch of 17th-century lebkuchen — Germany’s famous Christmas gingerbread — for a Bavarian monastery housing up to 60 nuns and 25 brothers belonging to the uniquely women-led Bridgettine Order.

The recipe is among a collection of more than 1,000 books that were taken from the Altomuenster Abbey after it was closed down at the request of the Vatican earlier this year, a precious collection that scholars had worried might be locked away or, worse, broken up and possibly sold.

But instead it has been preserved intact at the diocesan archive in Munich and researchers have been given complete access, while work is underway to digitize much of the collection to make it available to anyone.


The rarest and most valuable tomes include manuscripts with colorful illustrations from the late 15th and early 16th century, but experts say items like the recipe books are also invaluable to the study of the Bridgettines, helping tell the tale of what daily life was like behind the closed doors of the monastery hundreds of years ago.

“It’s a great victory for scholarship,” said Volker Schier, a Bridgettine scholar and researcher at the Catholic University Leuven, in Belgium, who was one of the instigators of a petition with some 2,000 signatures urging the preservation of the books. “What happened behind the monastery walls no outsider learned about — what the daily life was, what the food was, the prayers, the daily routine — but this is all described in the books.”

The former Benedictine abbey in Altomuenster, a town on the end of the subway line from Munich, had since 1496 housed a female religious order founded by Saint Bridget in Sweden in the 14th century.

It was one of three monasteries of the original branch of the scholarly, monastic order still operating when it was closed by the Vatican in January after the number of nuns there fell below the three needed to train new novices.

In addition to the library, the order’s collection of 2,300 statues, paintings and other works of art as well as the city block-sized abbey and the acres of forests and fields that make up the monastery grounds are now the responsibility of the diocese of Munich and Freising.

The last nun has been relocated, but the diocese is still engaged in a legal fight with a woman who was training to become a nun at the time the monastery was closed down and is still living there, so nothing can yet be done with the building or the lands, diocese spokeswoman Bettina Goebner said. The art objects have been put into storage and will be examined, catalogued and possibly displayed by the diocese’s museum.

The diocese initially played down the potential value of the library, saying that it only contained a handful of books of interest to scholars and that they had already been studied — raising the scholars’ fears about what might happen to them. The diocese sought to allay those worries when it announced Altomuenster would be closed, saying the books would be digitized and made available to the public. That process is now underway and expected to be complete by the end of next year.

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