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The Mysterious Book Thefts from the 8th-Century Convent of Mont Sainte-Odile

The thefts of hundreds of priceless historic books from the 8th-century convent of Mont Sainte-Odile including dozens of 15th century illuminated manuscripts is a great mystery story. I love books and who doesn’t love intrigue especially a locked room mystery in an 8th century monastery perched on the edge of a peak in Alsace, France. It’s an irresistible combination.

From the Guardian in May, 2002:

The 8th-century convent of Mont Sainte-Odile towers over the picturesque small town of Saverne in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. One of the most popular attractions in Alsace, tens of thousands of people a year tour its abbey, church, chapel and cloisters, dine in its hotel and restaurants and admire the stunning view across the plain to the river Rhine and, beyond, the Black Forest.

Among them, from August 2000, was a curiously well-informed thief. From that date, a succession of immensely valuable works, including precious early religious texts and several dozen heavy 15th-century illuminated manuscripts bound in wood and leather, began disappearing from the abbey’s first-floor library. Police were flummoxed.

Mont Sainte Odile has an exciting history dating from the 2nd century until the present. In 1992, the mountain was struck by an airplane. The monastery, however, is named for an event from that supposedly happened in the 7th century:

In the 7th century Etichon, a merovingian duke, resided in Obernai. His wife Bereswinde, niece of Saint Léger, bishop of Autun and King’s councellor, gave birth to a daughter who was blind . Odile was brought up in Balma Burgundy (Baume-les -Dames) recovers the sight on the day of her baptism.

How did someone steal more than 1000 books from a locked library in an ancient monastery on top of a 2500 foot mountain in France? From the prosecutor as told in the Guardian:

“It was one of those frustrating but also rather thrilling cases,” Madeleine Simoncello, the Saverne public prosecutor, said yesterday. “Quite extraordinary items were vanishing, sometimes singly, sometimes by the dozen. By last weekend over 1,000 had gone, yet the room wasn’t even open to the public and as far as we knew nobody could get in.”

Like a movie, the police went in the library and thumped on the walls and floor searching for a secret passage. One officer, pushing on a plank of wood at the back of a bookcase discovered a secret room. The thief was entering the monastery with tour groups and quietly making his way to a corridor that led to the secret room. From there, he entered the library and quietly chose his books. He piled them neatly on the table in the secret room and came back in the evening to collect his prize. But, with a hidden camera installed, the thief was captured with a suitcase full of priceless medieval manuscripts. The young man had not tried to sell any of the books. Every missing manuscript was found in his home. He wanted them for his own enjoyment. One part of the mystery remains: How did he know about the secret room? From the prosecutor:

“It seems it is mentioned in a highly specialised review,” she said. “This particular issue dealt with some of the oddities of Mont Sainte-Odile. The suspect, who quite clearly adored the abbey, came across it in Strasbourg University library.” The man was one of very, very few people to know of the passageway’s existence, she said.

While no one could approve of stealing these books, it must have been tremendously thrilling. Imagine coming across the information about the passage and the secret room. You would wonder if it really existed. Then, making the trip to the monastery and finding the room and realizing you’re the only one there who knows about it would be too much to bear. Such temptation would be hard to resist.

[tags]Mont Sainte-Odile, 7th century, 8th century, medieval manuscripts, illuminated manuscripts, mystery book thief[/tags]