21st-Century Scribes

by Columba Stewart, OSB

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In the early 1970’s, Benedictine monks from Minnesota traveled to the ancient African nation of Ethiopia. They arrived not as zealous missionaries, but as scientists eager to photograph and document fragile manuscripts executed by Christian scribes. The Benedictines had already embarked on similar projects in Europe, but it was fortuitous they came to Ethiopia when they did. In 1974, a Marxist-inspired military coup toppled Ethiopia’s long-reigning monarch. The short-lived Communist era, which lasted until 1991, was marked by multiple upheavals, war, famine and economic chaos. During this turbulent period, many of the 8,000 manuscripts the monks had documented were either stolen or destroyed.

The Benedictines of the Middle Ages are justly famous for their heroic copying and recopying of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts containing the cultural and scientific heritage of classical and early Christian culture. Thanks in large part to these scribes, the foundational texts of Western civilization were preserved for future generations. Today, the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey are continuing this tradition, reaching out to manuscript collections throughout the Christian world and enshrining their microfilm and digital files in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The project began in 1965, when the abbey’s monks began microfilming monastic libraries in Austria, including the famed Armenian collection compiled in Vienna by the Mekhitarist Fathers of the Armenian Catholic Church. The country was on the front lines of the Cold War, and the monks feared any clash between the great powers of the United States and the Soviet Union would imperil the works that had survived the devastation of two world wars. The project soon spread to other parts of Europe – England, Germany, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland – and later to South Africa and Ethiopia.

The slow but steady cataloging of the Ethiopian manuscripts has revealed the oldest known copies of many biblical books and theological texts, as well as important historical information recorded in the margins and fly leaves of manuscripts. With 11 printed catalog volumes completed, this careful study and analysis of each manuscript has dramatically changed the scholarly understanding of Ethiopian Christianity. (And because of his 30 years of immersion in the texts, the Hill Museum’s Ethiopian manuscript curator and former MacArthur fellow, Dr. Getatchew Haile, is recognized as the world’s leading expert on Ethiopian history and literature.)

After 40 years of work, the Hill Museum now boasts the world’s largest collection of manuscript images, with more than 30 million pages. It is also home to the St. John’s Bible, the first handwritten, illuminated Bible commissioned in the West since the invention of the printing press in 1440. Written with quills and traditional inks on large sheets of vellum, the Bible is illuminated with gold, silver and platinum amid bold designs using the best natural pigments.

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Tags: Christianity Africa Armenian Catholic Church