Building a Monastery the Medieval Way

Plan of St. Gall

Talk about experiencing history!  In Germany, a project is underway to build a monastery in the medieval way.  This means no coffee, no engines, no modern cranes, etc.  It means wearing medieval clothing, working with medieval tools and staying in medieval-style housing.  The work will be done by laborers and volunteers and will take many decades, just as medieval monasteries took many decades to build.

To read more about the project, follow this link, Ox Carts and No Coffee: Building a Monastery the Medieval Way – SPIEGEL ONLINE, to the English article by the German magazine, Der Spiegel.  Visitors can see the progress in the south German city of Meßkirch, where Campus Galli is the site of the future monastery.  It is called “Galli” because of the “plan of St. Gall,” a monastic plan (seen in the photo, above) that was discovered in the library of the Swiss monastery of St. Gall.  Today, St. Gall’s library and church are decorated in Baroque splendor and the library is a UNESCO heritage site.  The monastery, however, was founded in the 8th century and influenced by Carolingian monastic reforms, though the monastery is not built according to the plan that bears its name.

Visitors can visit the project’s website, by clicking on this link: http://www.karolingischeklosterstadt.com/.  (Note, it is in German.)

Despite the fact that the plan does not match the actual layout of St. Gall, it is believed that it was intended, nonetheless, as a general idealized design for contemporary monasteries following the great monastic reforms of Charlemagne and his successor, Louis the Pious (not to be confused with the other successors in the East and South), the first concerted effort towards uniformity and central control.  So, a legitimate question might be asked in how “medieval” the plan of St. Gall is given that it does not appear to have been replicated anywhere, precisely according to plan!  It is the brain-child of medieval authors who are grappling with the contemporary monastic reform movements, but this does not mean that the plan itself represents an authentic medieval design as far as monasteries were designed and constructed.  Still, the Campus Galli’s plan to do the construction and have the workers live and work according to contemporary medieval standards and technological advances is a valuable learning experience for both the public and scholars.

Carolingian monasteries during the era of reform.

Tension had developed between the Carolingian monasteries and secular influence on the monks.  This tension played a major role in the reform movements begun under Charlemagne and continued in the years immediately after his reign.  While Charlemagne’s motives were more on the order of uniformity and his unceasing need for control, the church officials involved in the reform were more directly concerned with their interpretations of the Rule of Benedict (RB), balanced by their responsibilities to the state.

The secondary literature has shown that Carolinigian monasticism had plenty of secular infusion.  If the monastery had once been envisioned as place of retreat—a desert[i] without distractions to focus on one’s contemplation of God—by the Carolingian period it was already highly communal with the world outside.  Various Rules were in use, with each monastery tending towards its own traditions, many abbots served political, even military, roles, and no uniform expectations existed regarding this level of interaction.

The early missionary excursions of St. Boniface on the European continent revealed that the monastic foundations he laid were intended to interact with the pagans who lived there for the purposes of conversion and parochial support.  Later, as administrators of large estates, abbots served in a military capacity for the Carolingian kings.  The issue of hunting and bearing arms among clergymen, particularly abbots and bishops, is consistently raised in Councils (three alone between 506-585).[ii]  At the Synod of Soissons in 744, the decree comes down that abbati legitimi, specifically, were forbidden to go to war.  Lay abbots are conspicuously omitted from the decision.[iii]  Under Charlemagne, in the Captiulare missorum speciale, October 802, bearing arms in war was expressly forbidden “only [to] priests in general, deacons, and the other [lower] clergy.”  Their trust should be placed more in God than weapons.  The higher clergy—episcopi and abbati—were  left out of the prohibition deliberately.[iv]

On the flip side of the coin, Mayke De Jong has proffered a convincing case for the use of monasteries as lay elite sanctuaries.  Rather than exile or other physical punishments, Louis the Pious twice utilizes the monasteries for relocation of certain rebels in his realm—an evolved practice dating back to the Merovingians.  De Jong suggests that those placed in monastic confinement were more likely complicit in their captivity.  Monastic confinement was an honorable alternative for the powerful, but more importantly it was a safe place of refuge to escape to an internal exile.[v]

Thus the monastery was important not just for its lands in an economic sense but was necessary for its royally protected space:

Royal immunity and/or episcopal exemptions helped to reinforce this sense of integrity, but before monastic communities could become the beneficiaries of such privileges guaranteeing the inviolability of monastic space, they first had to become identified with well-defined places that enjoyed a measure of stability through time.  A monastic community moving elsewhere to retain its ascetic standards, leaving its unsatisfactory abbot behind, was of no use to the Rulers and bishops granting such privileges.  They had sacred places in mind, not saintly people.[vi]

For political exiles, it was understood that this was only becoming like a monk.  Monastic exile was linked among contemporaries with public penance.[vii]

Through a growing convergence of two separate traditions, reliquaries and monastic retreat, the Carolingian monastery was a place to which entry was sought after by the pious laity.  It became a particular challenge for monasteries to deal with female pilgrims who were expressly forbidden from entering male monasteries in the traditions of the monastic Rules.  Julia Smith cites sources describing the accommodation of women by means of separate external funerary chapels as part of the monastic complex as early as the seventh century.[viii]  A practice which Charlemagne maintains in his reform legislation of 789.  Later in 794, it is further specified that the monks’ chapel should be intra claustra.[ix]

Benedict of Aniane (Carolingian monastic abbot and reformer) was probably not motivated by a concern for lay access to relics as his two famous monasteries had none, his work suggested a strong influence from the Late Antique writer Caesarius who called for a strict ban and his legislation, built so firmly on the RB, and who would not have encountered an obvious opportunity to consider such problems.  Neither Benedict of Nursia (the author of the RB) nor Caesarius could have foreseen the transfer of the cult of relics to the monastic setting.  Evidence collected by Smith suggests that the ban of women in monasteries was ultimately based on the disposition of the abbots.[x]

Aniane’s sentiments, however, were perhaps bolstered by new directions in monastic design.  Carolingian monasteries excluded women from relics because of their particular location in monastery churches—near the altars—a  challenge further compounded by a greater interest in maintaining separation from lay people and the suggested development of ideas like the Plan of St. Gall with central cloisters.[xi]  These changes may have affected not only women but all of the laity.

There was also the challenge of novices and child oblates in monasteries.  These individuals represented an odd group of “tweeners,” being part of the monastic complex, but segregated away from the monastic community until the time of full membership.  It is the express intent to bring in an outsider, for the purpose of growing in the community, and converting him to the life of a monk and insider.

The challenge of maintaining enclosure in the monastery was one of the pressing issues of the reforms.  Many of the problems arise from the looseness of the RB itself.  While not all of the concerns above are directly acknowledged by the reform, they do demonstrate the extent of the challenge posed.  Just as Benedict of Nursia could not have foreseen reliquaries in monasteries, neither is it likely that he foresaw the vast wealth that would become attached, nor the importance of the abbot in matters of both church and state.  When Benedict explained the procedure for monks who were going outside of the monastery and missing regular prayers he did not deign to give examples for why they may be leaving.  Such open-endedness became the source of debate and disagreement during the reform era as the push for a standard understanding of monastic behavior and life was sought.

Walter  Horn, the great scholar of the Plan of St. Gall, makes a compelling case for an economic need to redesign the monasteries.  He hypothesizes that the Carolingian cloister grew out of the monastery’s greater economic value, revealed in the amassed land-holdings of the royal monasteries, and was thereby needed to protect the monks from the secular influence surrounding them in order to maintain the estates.[xii]  Space and its designation (such as “sacred” versus “profane”) was ever important and relevant.  Whether or not more evidence emerges from the archaeological record to support the hypotheses of Horn and Born remains to be seen.

Regardless, it is not hard to understand the conflict of relics and cloistered space mentioned above.  The designation of the space within the cloister is dominated by silence and oration, per the RB and reform movements.  The Carolingian monks needed to balance this with the cacophony of pilgrims.


[i] While the desert provides an evocative image of isolation, the amount of contact from various authors during the late antique suggests that even inEgypt there was less withdrawal than is normally assumed.

[ii] 303, Prinz, “King, Clergy and War.”

[iii] 305, ibid.

[iv] 316-7, ibid.

[v] 298, ibid.

[vi] 299, ibid.

[vii] 322, ibid.

[viii] 174, Smith, “Women.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] 177, ibid.

[xi] 175, ibid.

[xii] Horn, “Origins.”

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

One response to “Building a Monastery the Medieval Way

  1. Pingback: A Medieval Castle in the Making | Brush off the dust! History now!

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