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Knowledge of monasteries

Until the Reformation, there was a wide range of monastic life in Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg. This is evidenced by the richly-illustrated monastery book in two volumes, produced at the Kiel chair of regional history.

Monastery of Løgum
© Katja Hillebrand

The former Cistercian monastery of Løgum, Denmark, is located in the northern part of the former duchy of Schleswig. It is considered one of the most impressive Nordic religious buildings.

To date, the monastic landscape north of the Elbe has remained largely unknown. In the course of the Reformation, the monasteries were closed down and the knowledge was lost. "We had to start from scratch, so to speak," explained Professor Oliver Auge from the Institute of History at Kiel University. From 2007 onwards, a team from his Regional History Department has been tackling this "uncharted territory". The aim of the project was to research the monasteries, abbeys, convents and cathedral chapters in the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg and in the Hanseatic cities of Lübeck and Hamburg, to determine their cultural, historical and theological significance and impact.

"The first step was to identify and evaluate the source inventory. Then we examined the remaining buildings, and traced missing artefacts, such as crosses or chalices right through to everyday objects, which were often widely-scattered in other churches or museums," said the architectural and art historian Dr Katja Hillebrand, who played a key role in the project right from the beginning. There are at least 63 monasteries and similar establishments in the area under investigation, which stretches from Lauenburg on the banks of the Elbe to Seem at the Ribe in Denmark. 18 religious orders or spiritual communities were represented from A to Z - including the Augustinians and the Cistercians. After 12 years of research work, the accumulated knowledge about these establishments has now been published in a two-volume reference book, with the participation of numerous experts. With 1,600 richly-illustrated pages, this textbook offers a profound insight into the world of medieval monasteries and convents, as well as their legacy.

Hillebrand said "We have institutions which date far back in history, to the 9th century, such as Cella Welanao near Itzehoe, but also institutions such as an establishment on Helgoland. There is only a vague mention of this, so we have included the establishment for the sake of completeness with a question mark."

A special feature of the monastic history in the north is the Bridgettine Order, said Auge: "While the other religious orders mostly came here from the south or west, such as the Benedictines or Franciscans, the Bridgettines from Sweden established themselves here, and managed to spread throughout Europe." The Bridgettine Marienwohlde Abbey near Mölln is described in detail in the book. "In addition, the Northern Schleswig monasteries, which are now Danish, are also featured. We are dedicated to our regional history, which doesn’t stop at national borders, but works in historical dimensions," emphasised the Kiel historian. The project is also international through the contributions by authors from different European countries.

Among the Dominicans in Hamburg, there was a prior who committed forgery and fraud, to gain an advantage over other monasteries.

Katja Hillebrand

The pre-Reformation monasteries, abbeys and convents have significantly influenced the cultural landscape of Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg. They were places of contemplation, spirituality and pastoral care, centres of science and of scholarly life, and provided important impetus for agrarian development and settlement, as well as for the cultural and artistic development of shelters and workshops. "The Cistercian monasteries in particular were large-scale farms with mills, breweries, fisheries and brickworks," explained Auge.

Naturally, there were also inglorious occurrences. Hillebrand said "Among the Dominicans in Hamburg, there was a prior who committed forgery and fraud, to gain an advantage over other monasteries." And Auge has another anecdote to share: "In Lübeck, the Franciscans fought with the cathedral chapter over the right to conduct burials. Because burials have always been a source of revenue. It is reported that as a result, a body laid out in a church was stolen at night."

Not much is left of the original monastery walls and sacred buildings. The only establishments preserved largely in their entirety are the Franciscan monastery St. Catherine's Priory in Lübeck, the Premonstratensian Abbey of St. Mary and St. John in Ratzeburg, and the Benedictine monasteries Preetz Priory and St. John's Priory, Schleswig. The dissolution of monasteries was particularly comprehensive in Hamburg, which originally housed three monasteries and a cathedral. "The Hamburger Dom (St. Mary's Cathedral, Hamburg), demolished in 1803, was a very important step on the way towards Gothic architecture in the north, and much more important in architectural terms than the Lübecker Dom (Lübeck Cathedral), for example," explained Auge. "To illustrate such facts, with still largely-unpublished drawings and maps, is therefore an important task."

Since there is more "uncharted territory" regarding the monastic culture, a new project is already being planned. "We want to produce a monastery book for Pomerania, covering both sides of the current German-Polish border," revealed Auge. The expertise is available, and there are already promising applications for the funding.

Author: Kerstin Nees

Further reading: Oliver Auge, Katja Hillebrand (Hg.): Klosterbuch Schleswig-Holstein und Hamburg. Klöster, Stifte und Konvente von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation. Schnell & Steiner Verlag, Regensburg 2019.