The Town That Builds a Medieval Monastery

They wear homespun clothing made from flax. They use wicker baskets for transportation. Workers in the German city of Messkirch have started building a monastery. The technology is exclusively medieval. The template for the monastery was provided for in the never realized a plan dating to the 9th century intended to be built in St Gallen, Switzerland. Is it a gimmick, tourist attraction, or archaeological research?




In summer 2013, a unique archaeological experiment has been started near the German city of Messkirch. The plan is to build a complete monastic community using techniques and crafts known in the early Middle Ages. The medieval monastery town should be finished in 40 years. No modern building techniques are used for shortcuts or to speed up the building process.

The idea originated with journalist Bert Geurten from Aachen. He is one of those crazy people who never give up on their youthful dreams. 50 years ago in Aachen, he saw a scale model built according to the plan for the monastery of St Gallen. The plan was the ideal of a settlement in 9th century Europe, and Bert Geurten couldn't forget it. The plan was never realized, and he decided it was about time to do so.

The blueprint is a floor plan with a large abbey church in the centre with 51 buildings around it. The plan is drawn on a 112 times 77 centimetres large parchment dating from the 9th century. The plan shows details for all important buildings of a convent city, from crafts through housing to educational institutions.

It was the first known architectural plan since antiquity and would remain so into the 12th century. And it is still in remarkably good condition. The document got the name "St Gallen Monastery Plan" because it was a gift from Abbot Haito of Reichenau to Abbot Gozbert of St Gallen. It is unknown if it was ever planned for a specific building plan. It might just have been a blueprint for 'how to build a monastery'.

A 8.5 hectare large forest area next to the city Messkirch has been dedicated to the project. A dozen or more workers employed under an unemployed working project make a start on the necessary essentials. They weave willow baskets for transport, sew work clothes from flax, put the first shovels  together and produce the first roof shingles. Each chisel, every instrument for woodturning, all ox carts and even the mortar are produced according to the knowledge of the 9th century. This is important to initiator Bert Geurten because the project is labeled as "experimental archeology". The organizers and the city expect that the monastic city will become an important source for bachelors' and doctoral theses.

Archaeological science has recognized the value of the huge project. Five universities and 18 scientists are involved in projecting, supervising, and documenting the work. The experiment will bring insights into Carolingian architecture and engineering of which little is known due to lack of written accounts. Another scientific expert involved Ernst Tremp as curator of the Abbey Library of St Gallen. He hopes that the building of the monastery town in Germany will turn a profit for the Unesco  world heritage site of St Gallen, too.

Initially, the project will be financed by the European Union, Baden-Württemberg, and Messkirch. Running costs should eventually be covered by the sale of admissions to the developing building site which is under administration of Campus Galli, a charitable organisation set up for the purpose. With increasing awareness of the extraordinary project under way, they expect 150,000 visitors per year. This is a realistic estimate as the nearby stilt house settlement in Unterhuldingen draws 300,000 visitors a year.

To attract as many visitors as possible, the initiators guarantee that building the monastery will be consistent with the resources available in the 9th Century. There will be exceptions. To comply with 21st century health and safety rules, helmets and steel capped shoes will be used for the safety of the work force.

The city of Messkirch can be found to the North of the Swiss city of Schaffhausen near Lake Constance. You can get directions from the homepage of Campus Galli or from the one run by the city of Messkirch which is also available in English. As 40 years sounds like a sort of long term plan to me, I would advise you to go and look at the building process. I understand that there will be activities to take part in the process while you're there.

Further reading
Town of Embroidery: St Gallen
Queen Edith of The Eastern Franks
Cologne Cathedral: Shrine of The Magi

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