“I’m afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience. It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them any more. There was also the thrill of adventure—I was very scared of being found out.”
In 2003, Stanislas Gosse admitted to the theft of over 1,000 ancient and rare books from a locked private library in a monastery perched 2,500 feet up in the Vosges mountains in France. In order to accomplish this feat, he climbed exterior walls and hidden stairways into a long-forgotten medieval passageway with secret access behind library cupboards. He then sneaked into the library, chose his victims, and left through the same route. He was not a professional thief out for money — all the books were found safely in his tiny apartment. He was a local teacher who stumbled across a map to the secret passages in the city archives and couldn’t resist the thrill.
The picturesque and remote Mont Sainte-Odile is encircled by 10-kilometer walls, the ruins of fortifications called Mur Païen. The monastery/convent dates to the 7th century, and is dedicated to St. Odile of Alsace, who was born blind, but miraculously gained her eyesight after angelic intervention. The buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times, most recently in the 1600s, and again in 1853. None of the monks nor staff at the building were aware of the existence of secret passages until the books started disappearing.
The theft of the books had not gone unnoticed, but since the room was firmly locked and off limits to the public, for two years the means and method remained a mystery. It was only after the exterior windows were blocked, and locks replaced, that police determined that there must be another entrance to the room. Finally the secret was discovered when a section of bookcase swung back to reveal the secret space. Rope ladders led up to the roof and then out into other rooms more commonly open to the public. It is thought that the secret passages may have originally been built to allow senior members of the monastery to listen in on monks’ conversations inside what was then the common room.
After setting up hidden cameras to catch him in the act, police arrested Gosse, still carrying climbing rope and three suitcases full of books. He received a fine, a suspended prison sentence, and was assigned community service—helping catalog the books in the library at Sainte-Odile.
Know Before You Go
Located southwest from Strasbourg.