Eberbach, Cistercian Abbey of the Virgin Mary

The abbey of Eberbach, lying only a few miles north-west of the cathedral city of Mainz, was originally established as a house of Augustinian canons, but was re-founded in the 1130s by monks from the Cistercian house at Clairvaux. The large new Romanesque church was consecrated in 1186. By the end of the twelfth century Eberbach had established four daughter houses of its own, and was the pre-eminent Cistercian house in the Rhineland, with a community of some sixty monks and two hundred lay brothers. Situated only a few kilometres from the Rhine, the abbey lay at the centre of the finest vineyards of the Rheingau, some of which were donated to the abbey.

A new monastic foundation needs books, and in the twelfth century Eberbach had its own scriptorium to produce them. Manuscripts also arrived from elsewhere. In 1233 monks from Eberbach were sent to reform the abbey of Lorsch; although the reform was unsuccessful, this was the route by which some twenty Carolingian manuscripts from the abbey of Lorsch came to be incorporated into the library at Eberbach. There is considerable evidence for the connections which existed between Eberbach and Paris, and their consequences for the abbey’s book collections. A Master Hugo who had studied in Paris brought with him (perhaps when he entered the abbey) manuscripts including the sermons of Maurice of Sully and the works of Hugh and Andrew of St Victor (Bodleian MS. Laud Lat. 105) and glossed biblical books (Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 102). In the fourteenth century monks from Eberbach were sent to the Cistercian college in Paris. There Peter Santbecher bought a copy of the De eruditione praedicatorum by Humbert of Romans (Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 379), and brother Wilhelm commissioned a volume of Franciscan sermons in 1340-41 (Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 281).

The most significant original composition to be associated with the house (found in Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 238) is the Exordium magnum cisterciense (The Great Beginning of Cîteaux) of Conrad of Eberbach, a narrative of the beginning of the order with edifying miracle stories compiled at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries, whilst its author was a monk at Clairvaux; he was to become abbot at Eberbach for a few months before his death in 1221. Other authors include Prior Gebeno, who in 1220 composed a Pentachronon or Speculum futurorum temporum, an eschatological collection drawing on the prophecies of Hildegard of Bingen. In the 1330s or 40s Master Gisilbertus composed a Summa de dignitatibus et virtutibus clericorum et laicorum, a florilegium of legal and patristic texts surviving in only one manuscript (Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 632), with extensive marginal notes in the author’s hand and a miniature of Gisilbertus presenting his work to the Virgin Mary. There was something of a revival of learning in the last quarter of the fourteenth century under Abbot Jakob von Eltville, who had taught in Paris and who entertained the theologian Heinrich von Langenstein at the abbey.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the abbey had amassed a library of some 2,500 volumes. The library catalogue of 1502 (Wiesbaden, Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Abt. 22, 436, fols. 107r-113v: first edited by Nigel Palmer – for details, see below) was compiled under Abbot Martin Rifflinck, who had studied at Heidelberg and was himself a humanist and book collector. It reveals how texts were shelved, which were chained, and which could be borrowed. Palmer identifies ninety manuscripts with certainty, with further probables and possibles. He also lists over fifty manuscripts (together with large numbers of fragments) which can be identified as coming from Eberbach but which are not identifiable in the catalogue. Few liturgical books survive from Eberbach, but there is separate evidence for the observance of saints’ cults at the abbey and the hundreds of relics it possessed.

During the Thirty Years’ War in the early 1630s the house was occupied in succession by Swedish and Hessian troops; the library suffered great losses, though the exact process of dispersal is unclear. The agents of Archbishop Laud, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, acquired some of the manuscripts for the Bodleian, and today the largest single group of manuscripts to survive (over one hundred) is in Oxford. Those now surviving in London were acquired by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. Others are to be found still in Germany, in libraries in Giessen, Wiesbaden, and Wolfenbüttel. Despite these depredations, the house was rebuilt and received major accessions of printed books to its library until shortly before its secularization in 1803, when it housed about 8,000 volumes. Today the abbey is in the hands of a charitable foundation, the Stiftung Kloster Eberbach.

  • Martin Kauffmann

Further Reading

Nigel F. Palmer, Zisterzienser und ihre Bücher. Die mittelalterliche Bibliotheksgeschichte von Kloster Eberbach im Rheingau unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der in Oxford und London aufbewahrten Handschriften (Regensburg, 1988)