Of abrogans and Nibelungs 2021

Of Abrogans and Nibelungs

Of Abrogans and Nibelungs

Sensational finds of German literature in Austria's monasteries

The discovery of the fragments of the Admont Abrogans in the manuscript magazine of the Benedictine Abbey of Admont made more than just a headline. 1200-year-old documents, inscribed with German words to boot, previously undiscovered in a cardboard box? It's safe to call this a sensational find. 

Even today, monasteries are real treasure troves when it comes to old and rare written material. Time and again, something new and noteworthy comes to light: this was a welcome opportunity to bring together sensational finds from Austria's monasteries in an exhibition. 


Admont Abbey - Of Abrogans and Nibelungs 2021 - Father Prior Maximilian

Who hasn't heard the stories of Siegfried and the Nibelungs, the dragon fight and a wondrous sword? The three oldest manuscripts of the 'Song of the Nibelungs', which are located in Munich, St. Gallen and Karlsruhe, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2009; the heroic epic is therefore on a par with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Beethoven's 9th Symphony and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg.   


New finds are not all that common, but are always accompanied by great media interest. This is why the fragment of the Song of the Nibelungs found in Melk Abbey in 1998 is one of the great sensations of this exhibition. The "Nibelung fragments" found a few years later in Zwettl, which were heavily exploited by the media, turned out after closer examination to be an early tradition of the 'Erec' (a heroic novel about a knight from King Arthur's circle) and were thus relegated to their place, so to speak, although they certainly deserve their superlative in scholarship.

The importance of Austrian monasteries 

However, this exhibition is also intended to draw attention to the importance of the monasteries that are still alive today for the cultural and literary heritage of our society. The nine monasteries involved here hold texts from almost all areas of high medieval courtly literature. Not only the great heroes such as Parzival, Willehalm, Iwein or Alexander are represented, but also the oldest written records of a minstrel song by Walther von der Vogelweide, written down in an old psaltery of Kremsmünster Abbey. These pieces would definitely be worth a sensational report.  

Walther von der Vogelweide, the great poet and singer of the Middle Ages! How much has been speculated about him, how many places have appropriated him for themselves? Here you will find the written records closest to him in the world. 

The Admont Abrogans 

In 2012, Martin Haltrich discovered a partially German fragment in Admont. It consists of two pieces of parchment (each approx. 12 cm x approx. 9-10 cm), which were part of a sheet that was used as a cover for a book and cut up for this purpose. 

This seems barbaric to us today, but it was not uncommon in the past: People recycled the sturdy parchment because they were no longer interested in the content (or no longer understood it). Our fragment was detached in 1963 during the restoration of a book, photographed and added to the fragment collection - it could have been read a long time ago, but wasn't until it was found again. But when it was read, the surprise was great: the words on the leaf remnants belong to the oldest German-language book, the 'Abrogans'.


Of abrogans and Nibelungs 2021

The Benedictine monks established the cultural technique of writing in today's German-speaking countries and this script was Latin as a matter of course. This new culture of writing opened up the possibility of writing down the German language in Latin letters and so, from the 8th century onwards, we encounter German words, sentences and small texts as guests in Latin manuscripts. Until then, runes had been used as characters for the vernacular, primarily for ritual purposes, but runes were not used to write books, only inscriptions. Literature, on the other hand, was recited orally, not written down, and so the tradition of heroic songs, for example, is as good as lost to us.

The sporadic beginnings of German-language writing in the margins of Latin manuscripts then slowly developed into a systematic interest, which eventually led to the first German book, the 'Abrogans'. This 'Abrogans' was originally a Latin-Latin dictionary. By translating the Latin vocabulary collected there into German, more precisely into 'Old High German', it was possible to produce a German dictionary for the first time and this sensational idea was realised in the middle of the 8th century in the southern German-speaking region.

Unfortunately, the 'original' of this endeavour has not been preserved, but three manuscripts have come down to us, all dating from around 800. These manuscripts are now kept in St. Gall (Abbey Library, Cod. 911), in Paris (Bibliotheque Nationale, Ms. lat. 7640) and in Karlsruhe (State Library, Cod. Aug. CXI). With the Admont fragment, we now possess another very early piece from the period around 800, which exhibits completely unique characteristics.



Museum newspaper 2018

Museum newspaper 2019