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The Ghost Goes West

The Plan of St. Gall

by Walter Horn, by Ernest Born
University of California Press, 982, 1,073 illustrations pp., $725.00 (limited edition of 150 copies)

Historians take much innocent pleasure in detecting medieval renaissances. The renaissance of the twelfth century was a real one; so too was that of the ninth—the renaissance particularly associated with the names of Charlemagne, his son Louis, and his grandsons. For Charlemagne, the political stability of western Europe, especially after he became emperor in 800, hinged upon a Christian ideal. Society was to be reformed, first morally and then spiritually. There can be no question of the immense seriousness of his purpose. He pursued it with relentless zeal, as we can see in surviving legislation, directives, and correspondence; and he pursued it with the help of some very remarkable men, attracted to his court from England, Ireland, Italy, and Spain.

Instruction was his first aim. Clergy at all levels were to be instructed in the performance of their duties to the laity, both as pastors and as teachers. Once themselves sufficiently educated, they were to be taught by their bishops how to teach and what to teach. The books that they were to use were specified; and books, accurately copied and properly written, were to be the lasting memorial of the renaissance. Many survive to this day, and without them we should be short of much of classical Latin literature, to say nothing of the Christian literature of Late Antiquity.

Charlemagne’s anxious supervision of this impossible task was inherited by his heirs. That anything came of it is sufficiently surprising in a world disrupted by Viking, Arab, and Magyar incursions and subject to endemic unrest among landowners uncertain where their loyalties lay. But something did come of it. The secular clergy lived under a constant bombardment of directives from the more energetic bishops; so too the regular clergy, monks, and nuns. The reform of monasteries and monks, the professionals in prayer, was well under way in Charlemagne’s lifetime, though it was under his son Louis that we meet with the most impressive legislation aiming at uniformity of practice throughout the religious houses of the empire. Monks were to observe the Rule of St. Benedict as revised by Louis’s counselor, Benedict of Aniane, and no other Rule.

Opposition was certainly encountered. The lengthy provisions of the two great reforming synods held at Aachen in 816 and 817 go into minute detail about observance of the Rule and the conditions in which monks should live their lives. Monasteries were to be self-contained communities: cities, so to say, in the desert of secularity. Such detailed provision would obviously affect the physical layout of monasteries. For example, provision for bath-houses, for a separate house for the abbot, for intramural accommodation for workmen and craftsmen, for separate quarters for visitors, and for schools. If an ideal reformed Carolingian monastery existed today we should expect to find features such as these. But none does exist. What in fact exists is a groundplan for such a monastery.

The book under review must be the most stupendous monument ever erected to a ghost. To attempt to survey it after a single scanning is mere impertinence. Nobody would attempt a description of Trajan’s column after a single circuit on a summer’s morning. Moreover, this is a lively ghost. It has for many years engaged the attention of Walter Horn and Ernest Born, professors respectively of the history of art and of architecture at Berkeley. Those who visited the Charlemagne Exhibition at Aachen in 1965 will not soon forget their beautiful reconstruction of a monastery from a surviving groundplan. (It was subsequently illustrated as plate 125 of the catalogue.) Mr. Born, now as then, is responsible for the draftsmanship and Mr. Horn for what may be called the exegesis, though in fact they have collaborated throughout.

I say a ghost. But this is not quite fair. The authors believe that what we are talking about is a “tracing from the lost original of a Carolingian plan for an ideal monastic community. This plan was intended by its Benedictine originators to standardize monastic planning throughout Europe, but no single monastic community was ever built as a literal reflection of their work.” No Carolingian monastery now stands above ground to bear witness to the use of the plan. Doubtless none ever did in its entirety. But there at St. Gallen in Switzerland, where it has been since the ninth century, is the manuscript plan—now Stiftsbibliothek MS 1092—of this ideal monastery. It is a sheet of vellum measuring 30 1/2 × 44 inches. To be more precise, it is five sheets sewn together. On its smooth side is drawn, or rather traced, in red ink the outlines of a complex of monastic buildings that include special accommodation for distinguished guests, such as the emperor and his suite. To this have been added many explanatory titles, the work of two Reichenau scribes identified as such by Professor Bernhard Bischoff.

It also has a dedicatory note which tells us why the plan was traced. The tracing was done at the abbey of Reichenau for the neighboring monastery of St. Gall, high in the hills above Lake Constance. The tracing was made, it seems almost certain, from an original plan at Reichenau at the order of the reformer Haito, bishop of Basel and abbot of Reichenau, for transmission to his colleague Gozbert, abbot of St. Gall. This enables us to date the tracing to about 820. It is known that Gozbert rebuilt his abbey church around 830 and perhaps much more of the abbey complex, though this remains uncertain. The inference must be that Gozbert would welcome a copy of the Reichenau plan to assist him in his reconstruction. However, the plan was by no means one that could be applied without severe modification to the site of St. Gall, nestling between two converging streams under the falls of the Steinach. Limited excavations conducted by H.R. Sennhauser reveal that Gozbert’s church certainly, and some adjoining parts probably, did take account of the plan. To this extent we are not dealing with a ghost. Only extensive excavation, now largely impracticable, could provide further information. Nothing of Carolingian St. Gall remains above ground.

Why then did Reichenau have such a plan? Bishop Haito, in the authors’ opinion, seems to have had a copy of what may have been the groundplan for an ideal monastery drawn up by or for the clergy assembled at the two Aachen synods. We may call it the Aachen plan. It looks as if Archbishop Hildebold of Cologne had a copy, though I am not clear why he should have been the author of the original plan because he had been a trusted adviser of Charlemagne, and indeed his kinsman. At all events, Gozbert’s tracing of Haito’s copy at Reichenau is the only copy that survives. Anyone familiar with Carolingian manuscripts will know that a single surviving copy of what was meant to be widely disseminated is no argument against its having been widely disseminated. There is, however, no certain proof that the plan originated at Aachen, though it is not an unreasonable hypothesis that it did so.

The authors thus get their paradigmatic plan to St. Gall via Reichenau around 820 and make a reasonable guess at when and why the original Aachen plan was drawn. We must next see how the present authors arrange their complex material within three volumes. To put it briefly, Volume I surveys the extensive previous literature (still not to be ignored), considers the making of the plan (Aachen-Reichenau-St. Gall), and goes on to a detailed examination of the monastery church, the cloister and abbot’s house, the novitiate and infirmary, and the monastic polity as these are revealed in the tracing. Volume II is devoted to the guest and service buildings and the effect of the plan on later monastic building. Volume III has a catalogue of the extremely important titles added to the plan, an admirable translation of the Customs of Corbie (that is, the monastic directives of Adalhard, a great Carolingian abbot of Corbie) by Charles W. Jones, and an appendix by A. Hunter Dupree on the significance of the plan for the history of measurement. To round it all off, there is a glossary, bibliography, chronological table, index, and list of corrigenda (to which more could be added).

This may be the place to remark that the volumes are lavishly illustrated; there are maps, plans, reconstructions, and photographs as well as evaluations directly bearing on the history and development of St. Gall itself with abundant reference to architectural prototypes of this feature or that in buildings eastern and western, as well as parallels in contemporary Carolingian architecture. Special attention is drawn to Aachen and Cologne. Also there are numerous illustrations (as for instance beautiful plates from manuscripts and photographs of Anglo-Saxon buildings and others further afield) that may cast light on the evolution of Carolingian architecture and of medieval architecture generally, in which St. Gall plainly has its place. The entire architecture of a great building age is brought under scrutiny and related to what had gone before and what was to come after.

As with the illustrations so with the text, the coverage is all-embracing, and one veers between what is highly technical and what is comparatively simple and well known. One may perhaps wonder why, in a work of sophisticated plans that take much understanding, we need in Volume I, page vi the sort of simplistic map of the expansion of monastic life that one expects to find in a textbook for schools. But this comes near to being a quibble. The fact remains that the book is a superb technical production that reflects resounding credit on the University of California Press. What other publisher would have risked such a production in the circumstances of today and at a price, however subsidized, that seems justifiable?

So to the heart of the matter: the dividing up of space into modules based on a standard module of 2 1/2 feet. I am no architectural historian and must accept that these modules really do work. The Reichenau plan as traced for St. Gall was precisely drawn according to a system of measurements that justifies the authors’ claim that what we have is not schematic drawing but a building plan from which a monastery might in ideal circumstances, and allowing for unavoidable local adjustments, be constructed. Spatial requirements for every monastic function are precisely calculated. From it, plans still more detailed of the parts would clearly have had to be prepared; you cannot indicate thickness of walls or the exact position of stairs on a plan measuring 30 1/2 × 44 inches. But everything that matters is included and nearly all of the rest can be inferred. Not only this. The measurements by modular grid and the explanatory titles, both general and specific (e.g., this room above that room), are so exact that one can look at the drawings of barrels of wine and beer in the cellar and calculate the daily consumption of a given number of monks at the Benedictine wine allowance of a hemina a day per monk.

The monastery of the plan carefully balances the parts within a whole, so that segregation is ensured where necessary. Whatever its debt to secular Roman forebears it is quite differently conceived. There is for example no free road running through the complex, no cardo or via praetoria. On the contrary, access from one part of the monastery to another is often very difficult; that is, when it is undesirable. Yet there is clearly a grid and an overall design. The authors believe that this also takes account of the symbolism of sacred numbers so dear to the medieval mind; but of this I am not so easily persuaded, at least at present. There can be no question that the pride of the plan is the abbey church itself. Here we have to face a dimensional inconsistency. Only for the church are dimensions given and they seem not to agree with the drawing. There have been several explanations. Are we to accept the dimensions or the drawing? The authors believe that the dimensions do not explain the drawing but correct it. They correct, if the authors are right, the generous ways of the more conservative reformers at the first Aachen synod and reflect the spirit of a sterner generation at the second. However, the annotator does not correct the drawing; he merely leaves a nasty problem in chart interpretation which we must solve as we can.

But enough of the measurements. Consider the drawing of the great abbey church itself. It is a huge structure of uncommon length, aisled and cruciform, with two detached towers at the west end that seem to have had no other purpose than to house altars dedicated to the two archangels, Michael and Gabriel. They are conceived in a manner quite unlike the Carolingian Westwerk exemplified in the abbey church of Korvei in Saxony. Nor is the church of the plan at all like the empty basilicas of Rome but rather a series of screened-off areas, each for a special purpose. There are no less than nineteen—or is it seventeen?—altars. Of these, the chief are the altar of St. Peter in the western apse and that of St. Paul in the eastern, the Savior’s altar at the crossing where serfs, tenants, and visitors worship, and the high altar dedicated to the Virgin and St. Gall in the presbytery. The tomb of St. Gall was to lie in the crypt beneath the altar. A church built of stone was certainly envisaged, no doubt largely dressed stone within and rubble without. There are parallels to this elsewhere in the Carolingian world. The roof of course was to be of timber, and gabled.

Adjoining the church is the monks’ cloister, the to us familiar quadrangle surrounded by a covered walk and embracing the dormitory, refectory, and other rooms proper to the claustral life. It was where monks lived and from which they seldom emerged. This arrangement had clear architectural forebears—for example, the Roman atrium—but it is not found in its developed form before the Carolingian age. Lorsch had it before the original of the plan of St. Gall was drawn, but not by much. There is no provision for a chapter-house. The north walk of the cloister is broader than the others and the inscription makes it clear that the community were to meet here, seated and facing one another in two rows, for all purposes of deliberation and doubtless to hear the reading of the Rule.

We are thus at a transitional point between the various Antique arrangements for communal life and the standardized model of the medieval cloister, which in its turn was plainly influenced by the kind of plan that we have at St. Gall. Transitional too are certain features of the abbot’s house, which the authors suggest is the earliest visual record of a medieval residence with a solarium. Its rooms are heated by corner fireplaces that release smoke through a chimney. Something similar is described for the royal residence at Annapes. The abbot’s bedroom contained eight beds since he kept company; and his own bed looks to have been nicely near the fireplace. The privy, here as elsewhere in the monastery, is carefully delineated. Indeed, it is possible to relate the number of users to the number of seats. I should infer from the monks’ privy that it would have been well for a monk to be regular in his habits.

In so far as the plan is a ghost, it is not the only one in the Carolingian world. Around it clusters the huge body of ecclesiastical legislation from the mid-eighth century to the late ninth. The authors of this book explore that legislation and frame their plan of St. Gall within it. They do rightly. But how much of this legislation had the desired effect? How far were those provisions, constantly reiterated, for reform and uniformity of monastic practice ever carried out? Here and there in diocesan statutes and collections of sermons one can glimpse a specially vigorous bishop reaching down among his parish clergy. Similarly with monasteries and nunneries. The will to reform and control and standardize is there, but seldom the means of enforcement. Ghosts, therefore, in part. Legislation, like monastic plans, had a future, but ninth-century society was not well adapted for its fulfillment. It sought stability. This was what the St. Gall plan was about. But the wider picture is rather of fluidity; of monks, like laymen, uprooted by invasion and local disturbance, seeking asylum elsewhere for a time and in some cases starting again in more modest ways.

Many of the conclusions reached by the authors are provisional. They invite, and are meant to invite, discussion. Meanwhile, to have read their book only once is to have been brought face to face with almost every issue that confronted the Carolingian reformers, ranging from their ideals of monastic practice to the details of their buildings. No scholar before Horn and Born has so well succeeded in relating Carolingian building in all its manifestations to the purposes for which it was intended. The St. Gall plan, splendid as it is, is only a part of the story. Theirs is a great achievement.

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