El Escorial

San Lorenzo de El Escorial Travel Blog

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view of the monastery from town

A fellow grad student who I met in Barcelona emailed me one day with some news. She was doing research in the monastic library at El Escorial and had happened upon a 14th-century manuscript containing copies of royal letters pertinent to my dissertation topic. Since I was heading up to Madrid for the conference, I decided to take an extra day to go to El Escorial and have a look.

I had already been there as a tourist, but visiting a historic site for research purposes is somewhat different. It's like getting a "behind-the-scenes" tour. Instead of buying a ticket, I showed my Fulbright ID to the security guard and staff, and told them that I was there to use the library.

another view of the monastery
They didn't escort me or anything; they just told me how to get there. Sure, I could have tried to run around on my own, but since the staff ask for your tickets fairly often, I'm sure they would have busted me. But visiting a monastic library was a treat in itself.

Yes, there was a monk there, but the librarians who interact with the public are laymen. You go and sit in the reading room, consult the catalogs (all printed on paper, of course -- no computers!), then request your book. The librarian brought me my 14th-century manuscript and a hard pillow to rest it on. OK, folks -- this book is from the 14th century. This is from before the printing press, so somebody had to sit down and write out hundreds of pages of it by hand. It wasn't decorated at all, like many famous medieval manuscripts are. It was "just" a collection of royal letters, preserved for administrative purposes, and so didn't merit the gold ink and painted pictures that a religious work or historical chronicle would.

The 14th century is also from the days before legible handwriting! Before the printing press, there wasn't a lot of standardization in the shapes of handwritten letters. In order to write speedily, medieval scribes also used a lot of abbreviations and strange symbols. There's a whole subfield of medieval history called paleography that specializes in identifying, based on handwriting styles, where and when a document was written. Paleographers can often identify the exact monastery a document came from, since many of them had unique abbreviations or peculiar letter shapes characteristic of them.

My paleography sucks, so it takes me a long time to read this stuff. I had the librarians scan the pages for me and print out the scans so I could take them with me, and spent the rest of the day looking through the catalogs for anything else that might be helpful. I didn't get to be a tourist in El Escorial that day, but since I'd been there before, I decided to write a review of it (below) based on my memories, my Lonely Planet, and my vast historical knowledge. ;-)  

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view of the monastery from town
view of the monastery from town
another view of the monastery
another view of the monastery
San Lorenzo de El Escorial Sights & Attractions review
San Lorenzo de El Escorial is still a working monastery today, but it has historically been much more. King Philip II ordered it constructed in the 16… read entire review
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
photo by: Jeroenadmiraal