Abbey Library of St.Gall
Abbey Library of St.Gall

Incunabula

The revival of the Abbey of St. Gall under Abbot Ulrich Rösch during the second half of the 15th century also led to the acquisition of the first printed books. These books form the basis of the library’s present collection of incunabula. Although the term “incunabula” refers only to works printed before 1500, the early prints and incunabula kept at St. Gall are listed in the same catalogue and are also displayed in the same area of the Baroque hall. Works printed up to 1520 are referred to as early printed works or post-incunabula. This collection contains 1650 works, many of which are incorporated into anthologies.

To the modern visitor, the books in the Baroque hall present a surprisingly uniform appearance. This is because, during the 18th century, most of the old bindings were removed and the books were bound into new, identical book covers. Yet the uniform appearance belies the rich variety of the books, which can only partly be categorised into distinct groups.

Down the centuries, the collection has been continually enlarged through new purchases and donations, but book collections were also acquired from private owners. For example, the estate of Matthias Bürer (who died in 1485) contained manuscripts and books, as well as two single-sheet woodcuts: a letter of indulgence and a bookseller’s advertisement dating from 1473. Together with several other single-sheet woodcuts and four block books, these form a special subgroup in the collection of incunabula. Towards the end of the 18th century, the librarian Fr. Johann Nepomuk Hauntinger further enriched the library collection with the acquisition of a large number of manuscripts and incunabula dating from before 1520, which had hitherto been kept at the convents situated in the abbey’s territory. In return, he provided the convents with contemporary devotional literature.

The main subjects covered are theology and the (mainly Latin) classics. However, there are other secular works, such as Die Schöne Melusine (1480) or the first dated and illustrated Boccaccio edition of De mulieribus praeclaris (1473). There are seven different German editions of the Bible dating from before Luther. The ninth German Bible, an illustrated Koberger print dating from 1483, is particularly beautiful. These volumes also contain interesting indications as to their former owners or readers’ comments. The Abbey Library possesses a number of works that were either used or compiled by the St. Gall reformer Joachim von Watt (Vadian), e.g. Libri de situ orbis (1518), a revision of Pomponius Mela’s ancient treatise on geography.