An excursion into carolingian times

Welcome to a place of great historical significance: Lorsch Abbey actually used to be one of the most influential centres of cultural and religious life - not only in carolingian times but also a few centuries later. In 1991 Lorsch Abbey was admitted in the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). With that the United Nations Committee honoured not only a more or less conserved historical edifice but most of all the essential importance of an early medieval monastery like Lorsch for the development of most of the criteria of European civilization.


Church with atrium and „King's Hall",

Having had a first look on the few buildings that have remained one must be disappointed - aren’t there a lot of better conserved monasteries in Germany? Why Lorsch? And what can be done to illustrate the former significance?
We can say that Lorsch is the only place in Europe where an early medieval monastery still could be studied - no modern buildings were built in the area where the monastery stood; archeological examinations have taken place in the church-area, but not in those parts of the ancient monastery where the monks and their servants lived and worked.

 

South view of Lorsch Abbey (1615)


In the early middle ages the term „civitas monastica“ existed - the monastery: a town, a microcosm of social reality, a focal point of history. Lorsch Abbey is an example of the importance of the medieval monastery for European culture. And we have the chance to continue scientific researches with modern methods. In 1995 we started to examine the area with a radar. The next step will be a new and fascinating reconstruction of the monastery with computer-aided design (CAD) - this way of reconstructing vanished buildings has been developed up to a high grade of perfection by a local company.

No one knows how modest everything began here in the early sixties of the eighth century, when Count Cancor and his mother Williswinda founded a little monastery on their own property.

In 764 they gave it to their relative Chrodegang, the archbishop of Metz, better known as a very loyal follower of the carolingian dynasty with best contacts with the Roman Church; he is also known as one of the most influential reformists of monastic and clerical life, as the founder of a few monasteries like Gorze or Saint-Avold and - of course - as one of the godfathers of the carolingian dynasty. From Gorze, now in France, the first monks were sent to Lorsch. They were led by Gundeland, the brother of Chrodegang.

One year later, in 765, Chrodegang gave the relics of Saint Nazarius to Lorsch, Roman relics, which were given to him by the Pope as a symbol and reinforcement of the close ties between the Frankish Kingdom and the Roman Papacy. Chrodegang's relic-gift meant the beginning of a breathtaking progress of our little monastery which suddenly became a well known place of pilgrimage. Thousands of pilgrims came to worship the relics, and most of them didn't come empty-handed. Within one century only the property of Lorsch Abbey grew rapidly and became one of the most important and efficient factors of monastic history in central Europe. Under the reign of the second abbot of Lorsch, also the religious community grew remarkably, and thus the abbot decided to transfer the monastery from it's original place a few hundred meters from here up to a dune nearby - to the place we are standing right now.

 

seal of Lorsch Abbey
(c. 1350)

suggestion of reconstruction by rudolf Adamy (1891)


First the small monastery had been the private property of a noble family which belonged to the most influential and powerful clans of Frankish aristocracy in that time - with extensive social connections all over the Frankish Kingdom. It was Gundeland, a member of that family, who managed to dissolve the existing social ties with the founder's family and presented the monastery to the King in 772. This handing-over of an abbey was the first of this kind in Frankish history; but it's example was imitated quite often - especially in those regions of the Kingdom, where military tensions had to be expected or in difficult legal situations. Gundeland gave his monastery to Charlemagne because he had to fear legal claims of his own family. In 772 he transferred the abbey into the property of the Frankish Kingdom. From now on Lorsch was a royal monastery with all rights, privileges and duties - a remarkable status which enabled the King's abbey to grow and expand further.

Among the duties of a royal monastery were the duty to pray for the King's and his family's health and welfare, to send any support needed by the king for his military actions every year, and, last but not least, the duty to give certain tributes every year. These annual gifts, as these taxes are called by the official sources, represented an important part of the royal income because many monasteries were huge economic complexes and economically very often much more efficient than the King's own royal estates. Lorsch Abbey for example received it's incomes from the Netherlands as well as from the south of Switzerland, from thousand of wide-spread and hardly connected domains which formed as a whole a complicated organism requiring a very detailed and well structured administration. The better off a monastery was the better the King could rule his Kingdom.

The King supported monastic activities in very different areas - first and foremost he promoted the development of unexploited resources as there were the huge forests like the Odenwald which were much more comparable to jungles than to forests as we know them today. The exploitation of new land was an important consequence of monastic ideals such as the positive assessment of manual work. The most important duty was the prayer. Seven times a day a monk had to interrupt anything he was doing because he had to rush to the church where the prayers were performed. At Lorsch the church was a big basilica, consisting of an rectangular apse in the east, three naves and an unknown architectural complex in the west, which may have been a sort of upper gallery reserved for the king.

At the main or western gate of every church in the early middle ages we have an atrium, a court, which was used for burials and also as the place where penance had to be done. At Lorsch Abbey the first atrium we know, was a little court with simple walls around, no covered walks as they were wrongly reconstructed. In the south of the church we normally find the enclosure, the cloisters. Big buildings formed a rectangular court; and here the monks worked and lived. Normally they were not allowed to leave this area without the abbots special permission. So everything the monks had at their disposal had to be inside the enclosure - the dormitory, the refectory with the kitchen and the storerooms, a special sick bay, the workshops and cellars.

In the north of the church we usually find the cemetery or graveyard. From excavations we know that this was also the case at Lorsch Abbey. Very often cemeteries were combined with gardens which had an important role in every monastery. Not everything could be brought into the kitchen from outside the walls that surrounded every monastery. Many products had to be produced inside this area, such as fruit and - very important - the herbs for spicing the meals and for preparing drugs and medicine. From carolingian sources we know quite a lot about the different plants and their use in the middle ages. It might be interesting for you that here at Lorsch the oldest pharmacopoeia was compiled - a collection of medical prescriptions, most of them taken from antique, classical sources.

The importance of the Lorsch - Pharmacopoeia doesn't consist only of the fact, that classical prescriptions were collected in a medieval manuscript and that this collection most probably is one of the oldest we know from the middle ages; we also have two very interesting aspects for the assessment of the reception of classical thoughts in the era of Charlemagne, which very often has been called the „carolingian renaissance“. Right at the beginning of the Lorsch - Pharmacopoeia we find a justification of medicine and medical practice, a very first attempt to come to terms with the Christian scepticism towards medical doing. Successfully the unknown author of this passage tries to convince his public that professional medicine is not against but in the true sense of Christian convictions.

 

extract of the pharmacopoeia of Lorsch (written c. 795)

 

The heart of every monastery in central Europe can always be described as an arrangement consisting of church and enclosure. Growing wealth, modifications in the liturgical practice as well as changing architectural fashions very often resulted in structural changes. For Lorsch Abbey this moment had come with the decision of Louis the German, the grandson of Charlemagne, to transfer his residence from Regensburg in Bavaria to Frankfurt.

The Lorsch Gospel

magnificent manuscript of the four gospels written in golden lettres and decorated with splendid illustrations (c. 810)

As a matter of consequence he then looked for an abbey where he and his successors could find a worthy burial-place; his choice was Lorsch, and connected with his decision there must have been essential architectural steps to be taken.

First of all the little courtyard in front of the church seems to have vanished in favour of an enlargement of the church itself. In that moment the big building at the western main entrance must have been removed. Half a century later for the first time we hear about the new buildings which at that time already were in bad conditions and had to be repaired. The first enlargement of the carolingian church - ruin.

With the disappearance of the first atrium the necessity came up to construct a new atrium in the west. Most probably the big courtyard with it's two big covered walks on both sides was built at that time, the last quarter of the ninth century. Together with this courtyard the famous "King’s Hall“ which has nothing to do with the monastery's gateway, was erected - probably at the same time as the funeral chapel, the so called „ecclesia varia“, which was connected somehow to the old rectangular apse. All these changes can be dated between 876, the year Louis the German died, and 882, when the next burial in the funeral chapel was mentioned. Of course the date of construction of the "King’s Hall“ remains uncertain. Since the beginning of the 19th century it is known that the building is the only remaining relic of the carolingian era.

The "King’s Hall"

Model of the "King's Hall" - architectural state about 875

Because we don't know the function of the building as a whole we also cannot say anything about the use of this the room in the upper floor. We can only exclude it's utilization as a chapel in carolingian time. The neutral mural paintings don't allow such a conclusion anyway. However, it is in fact one of the monuments and places which are specially protected by the UNESCO. Originally the building had a much lower roof ridge. It was in gothic time, at the end of 14th century, that the gabled roof was made as steep as is now.

During restoration works it was found out that we have to distinguish nine different layers of painting. Rests of the first one build a group of letters which was painted briefly after the wall was constructed and roughcast. It is not possible to explain this strange inscription. According to a scholar's theory it may be a part of a devotional phrase which was meant to be covered by the final layer of plaster. Regarding the type of scripture it is possible to date the inscription between 830 and 880.

The second layer is also carolingian. It is an architectural decoration consisting of a sort of balustrade wit painted columns on it. These columns with their Ionic capitals divide a white space where no painting was found. Carrying a sort of architrave these columns remind of ancient classical mural painting and also of the decoration of the facade of the „Gateway“.

The church ruin at the ground of Lorsch.

Some centuries after these paintings were carried out a new romanesque layer was painted over it. Rests of the new layer were found here, and this might be a figure with a head with a round nimbus and garment with folds or pleats. Unfortunately we cannot distinguish more details of it. The fourth layer is of late gothic origin. We can see an angels' choir on both sides - angels, singing the praise of Mary. Most probably the western broadside of the room once showed scenes from the Mary’s life.

Some 300 years later, at the end of 17th century, a new layer was attached to the walls. Unfortunately the workman picked holes into the wall in order to stabilize the last layer which had been cleared away sixty years ago. From the end of 17th century until the thirties of our century the upper floor did not exist. The „Gateway“ or „King’s Hall“ was one room only. The three eastern arcs were closed with wooden gates, the western ones with walls. In front of the middle arc there was an altar with a high top part which was linked to the wall here in this zone.

In the thirties the baroque arrangement was totally destroyed in order to reconstruct the original architectural situation. In progress of these measures the carolingian paintings were restored for the first time.

The Church Ruin

This is the ruin of the nave; in carolingian time there was a little atrium right here. After 1090 when the church had to be restored after a horrible fire the abbot decided to enlarge the carolingian church which was a basilica, in other words a nave flanked by two aisles. From that romanic measure we know the height of the carolingian building which actually must have been impressive anyway. Nowadays the ruin serves as store room for a lot of stone fragments from all periods; very often we don't know where exactly and when they were found so that a systematic evaluation of the material is quite difficult.

The sarcophagus of Louis the German - datet back to 876 - is shown at the church-ruin.

Certainly the most interesting objects in here is this stone coffin of high quality. One easily can realize the close relationship of it's decoration with the paintings in the upper floor of the „Gateway“ and outside in the facade. We know that this coffin was found in the funeral chapel and it seems very probable that Louis the German was buried in it in 876. In assumption that the coffin was made around that year the conclusion is quite obvious that there also is a close chronological connection between funeral chapel, Gateway and this coffin. With the funeral of Louis the German Lorsch became a royal burial place of the late carolingians. This fact underlines the importance of Lorsch at the end of the 9th century, especially after the divisions of the empire had been taken place in 843 and 870. As a result of these divisions the carolingian territory to the east of the river Rhine began to go it's own political ways. This is the beginning of German as well as French history.

Apart from the coffin of Louis the German there is another coffin here, not comparable to the quality of the first one but nevertheless interesting in its style. Formed like a trapezium it belongs to a well known type of early medieval stone coffins in this region. Quite unique are the decorations inside - the risen symbols of Christianity - the cross and the fountain of life. According to the legend it is the coffin of Siegfried, Kriemhild's husband, who was supposed to be buried at Lorsch after his assassination which caused the disaster of the Nibelungs. Very often legends have some elements of truth. Here it may be the uncertain memory of a king buried here, combined with the Nibelung legend which is tightly linked to this region near Worms.
Beside, there is a tessellated floor which can't be dated exactly. From the literal sources we know that the beginning in the carolingian era up to the Romanesque period several mosaic works were carried out in the monastery church.

Considering the sophisticated technique of these fragments we can conclude that the floor really had been as magnificent as the whole décor of the church with its covered ceiling, its mural paintings and liturgical objects made of gold and silver; from the funeral chapel we also know a few fragments of a glass window - they are some of the earliest examples of glass windows in central Europe and still to be seen at the National Museum at Darmstadt. There is also the fragment of an old tombstone dating back to the late 9th century (now in the museum). Though the first lines are missing we discovered that it covered the tomb of a monastery teacher. Unfortunately we don't know his name any more; but the existence of this stone is enough for substantiating the fact that the monastery had a school.

Outline of Lorsch Abbey (c. 1150)


  1. western gateway
  2. atrium
  3. nothern covered walk
  4. southern covered walk
  5. The „King’s Hall“
  6. Romanesque frontsite
  7. porch
  8. carolingian Westwerk
  9. basilica
  10. cloisters
  11. funeral chapel
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