The Premonstratensian Order (or Norbertines) set up house at this monastery in 1140 and soon after embarked upon their austere programme of silent contemplation and celibacy. The complex, which retains its 12th-century basilica ground plan despite 17th-century remodelling, still carries an air of seclusion, with orchard gardens stretching down the hill to Malá Strana. Since 1990, several cowled monks have returned to reclaim the buildings taken from them by the communists in 1948. They can sometimes be seen from Úvoz street walking laps around green fields and meditating; in a pointed rejoinder to their one-time communist overlords, the Mass is again being offered in the Church of Our Lady.
The Strahov Gallery here exhibits part of the monks' collection of religious art, but the complex's real highlights are the superb libraries, which appear on posters in universities all over the world. The frescoed Theological and Philosophical Halls alone contain 130,000 volumes, with a further 700,000 volumes in storage, and together form the most important collection in Bohemia. Visitors aren't allowed to stroll around the libraries, but they are permitted to look through the doors.
The comprehensive acquisition of books didn't begin until the late 16th century. When Joseph II effected a clampdown on religious institutions in 1782, the Premonstratensians managed to outwit him by masquerading as an educational foundation, and their collection was swelled by the libraries of less shrewd monasteries. Indeed, the monks' taste ranged far beyond the standard ecclesiastical tracts, including such highlights as the oldest extant copy of The Calendar of Minutiae or Selected Times for Bloodletting. Nor did they merely confine themselves to books: the 200-year-old curiosity cabinets house a collection of deep-sea monsters that any landlocked country would be proud to possess.