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The Book of Zwettl "Bear Skin"
One of the most famous manuscripts of the 14th century
Monastery Archives Zwettl, Hs. 2/1, Monastery of Zwettl, 1327/28

CODICES SELECTI, Vol. LXXIII

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Further Pictures

 

The Book of Zwettl, also called ”bear’s skin” because of its binding, is among the primary Austrian sources of the early 14th century, both in historic and art historic aspects. The enormously rich source material gathered not only informs us about the history of the Monastery itself but, beyond that, about the history of sovereignty and the possession of the Austrian lands. At the centre of this work stands the Kuenring dynasty who founded the Monastery of Zwettl and left their mark on an eventful era of Lower Austrian regional history.

The great significance of this manuscript lies in the effort made by its author to classify the wealth of source material according to a well thought out system. Judging from its appearance, the book constitutes a luxury manuscript and thus a very rare example of a collection destined for practical use which was still lavishly decorated.
Its worth as a representative state codex is underlined by numerous feather drawings and opaque colour paintings of excellent quality and topped by a fascinating full-page miniature in luminous colours which presents the genealogical tree of the Kuenrings in medallions on a golden ground. The manifold initials and picture medallions make this manuscript a valuable art object.


The decorative apparatus

The feather drawings and opaque colour paintings probably go back to an anonymous artist of a profane workshop which must have been located in the surroundings of Vienna. The initials and figural representations melt in perfect harmony with the text and were obviously created at the same time.
Although the text is written in Latin, it also contains sections in the Middle High German language and is the work of several hands. It is decorated with numerous ornamental letters, often outlined in red, as well as with red chapter titles and rubrics, allowing the reader to rapidly find the section he is looking for. The rubrication of the codex was obviously incumbent to the Cistercians who had a very profound knowledge of the subject.
The term of ”bear’s skin” was commonly used from an early stage for the Book of Zwettl on account of its binding, which, contrary to general assumptions, was not made from the skin of a bear but from that of a male pig, known colloquially in Austria as a ”sow bear”.


An important historic monument

We know of very few manuscripts of the early 14th century whose materiality, contents and decoration would match the Book of Zwettl. With the script and decoration of a luxury book, this work is a late example for the combination of historical narrative and documentary source material, as was common around 1200.
The process of organising the rich stocks of the monastery including documents and other source material began around 1315 and in combination with invaluable oral sources and traditions led to the creation of a truly sumptuous manuscript. The result was a comprehensive historical work which not only describes the most interesting history of Zwettl Abbey but also an account of the founding family, the Kuenrings, thus constituting a noteworthy contemporary document of Lower Austrian regional history.

The establishment of a systematic system was first initiated by abbot Ebro. His successors Otto I and Gregory used this preliminary work for their own purposes and Gregory is considered to be the original author of this large format codex. The manuscript contains copies of ancient records of both historical and genealogical importance, the book of rent and two alphabetic indices for easy use.
Both the contents and the decorative apparatus of the codex indicate that the Cistercians not only wished to document the evolution of their territories and the question of tithe but also to ascribe to the Abbey an important place in history. The codex was not least conceived as evidence of a political, economic and cultural heritage. This intended representative purpose is clearly visible in the rich embellishment of the work. In it, the Cistercians were endowed with a valuable book which was indispensable to any important centre of learning.

The commentary volume

The commentary was written by Joachim Rössl and contains a description of the codicological examination and the contents of the manuscript. It also comprises a record of copied documents and observations concerning the scribes and the illuminators of the codex.

   
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