Early Modern History, Portugal

Treasures from the Library at Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal (Part 1: Introduction)


Part 1: Introduction

During a trip to Ushaw College Library (in Country Durham) this summer, I came across items from the collection once held at Alcobaça Monastery in Leiria, Portugal. I am now working on a journal article about one of the printed books from Alcobaça (one that also contains several leaves in manuscript), which now resides in the marvelous collection at Ushaw. While I undertake research into that beautiful monastery, its manuscripts, its printed books (and its curious hybrids), I thought I’d share with you some information about the monastery and, in subsequent posts, highlight some of the items known to have been once on the shelves inside Alcobaça’s magnificent library.

Early History of the Monastery

The town of Alcobaça is in west-central Portugal, near the Atlantic coast; eighteen miles south-west o Leiria, and sixty miles north of Lisbon. The town emerged as an agricultural society around its Cistercian monastery.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 6.01.57 PM

The Cistercian order was founded by St Robert of Molesmes at Cîteaux, France, in 1098. Robert was of noble birth, born c. 1029 in Champagne, and entered the Benedictine abbey of Montier-la-Celle (near Troye) at the age of 15. As his spiritual journey progressed, he, like others, became disillusioned with the laxity of his order, and he eventually founded the new order, so that they could follow the Rule of St Benedict more closely. By 1115, a young monk called Bernard, also of Cîteaux, founded another monastery in Clairvaux. It was Bernard who adapted the structures of Gothic architecture as a ‘practical ideal for Cistercian structures’. [Randall J. Van Vynckt, ‘Alcobaça (Leirria, Portugal)’ in Trudy Ring (ed.), International Dictionary of Historic Places, Vol. 3: Southern Europe (Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1995), p. 14.] Bernard saw church buildings not simply as the ‘house of God’ but ‘rather an oratorium, a place for the soul’s communion with God’. [Ibid.]

King Afonso I of Portugal (b.1105-d.1185; ruled from 1139) worked closely with English Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land throughout the 1140s, in order to conquer the Moslem areas of Portugal. He also encouraged resettlement throughout the land by financing and building new monasteries: the first were at Tarouca and Sever. Alcobaça monastery was founded in 1153, initially with at least 12 monks, under the leadership of Abbot Ranulphus.

A quiet moment at Alcobaça, during my first visit (2012)

The monastic buildings were begun in ernest in 1178, dedicated in 1223, and its church consecrated in 1252. The complex was laid to the north of the church, which is Burgundian in its structural system and proportions. The architectural methods presented suggest French masters, since such techniques were not known in Portugal at that time. It is the largest surviving Cistercian church.

The breathtaking interior of the church at Alcobaça

The monastery’s primary charge was to repopulate the region, and provide spiritual, social and economic support to that community. Life revolved around worship and agricultural work, cultivating the neglected land. The monks were known for collecting manuscripts that detailed methods for nurturing the land, and for seeking out botanical specimens that could be propagated in the region. Close to the Atlantic coast, the monastery also took an active role in the country’s seafaring activities, and took possession of a number of ports, first at Pederneira (its nearest), and then at Paredes, San Martinho, Alfeizerão, and Selir.

The monastery steadily began to build a community and a prestigious reputation, founding a second house at Bouro in 1174; a further 11 affiliates would follow. Yet the foundation was by no means secure at that time. The reconquest of what constitutes present-day Portugal was not complete until the mid-thirteenth century, and Alcobaça remained vulnerable, being located near to the Tagus river frontier between Portuguese territories and western edges of the Moslem an-Andalus empire. But by the close of the thirteenth century, Albcobaça had not only survived, it had thrived. Under Abbot Estevam Martins, it founded its first public school in 1269, teaching grammar, logic, and, of course, theology. During the reign of King Dinis (b.1261-d.1325; ruled from 1279), the monastery’s abbot, Martinho II, joined others of his rank in supporting the foundation of the University of Lisbon in 1290, which would later move to Coimbra in 1308.

A library was central to the monastery’s foundation, as was its scriptorium, which made significant contributions to Portugal’s literary tradition. It is particularly noted for its translations from Latin, Italian, and French from the mid-fourteenth and throughout the fifteenth century, and for its likely role in the development of the distinctive Portuguese style of prose that emerged during the fifteenth century. It is to Alcobaça’s rich collection of manuscripts that I will return in Part 2.


Suggested Reading:

Paulo Pereira, Monastery of Alcobaça (The national monuments of Portugal) (New York: Scala Publishers, 2007)

Randall J. Van Vynckt, ‘Alcobaça (Leirria, Portugal)’ in Trudy Ring (ed.), International Dictionary of Historic Places, Vol. 3: Southern Europe (Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1995), pp. 14-18



Take a virtual tour of Alcobaça Monastery

The Monastery of Santa Maria d’Alcobaça: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Monastery Complex

Video: UNESCO/NHK Video about Alcobaça

About Ushaw College

Access to Ushaw College Library Collections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s