Missionaries and Monasteries

The origins of monasteries

Organised catholic monastic communities started to appear, soon after the Romans stopped the persecution of the Christians. This ended the period of hardship and in order to fulfill the message of the New Testament that calls for contemplation, austerity and humility new forms had to be explored.

It started in Egypt as early as in the 3rd century (the tradition itself comes from the Middle East and even from further in Asia and was not Christian in its origin).  Even already at the time  of Constantine several believers rejected the official Church and moved out in the deserts of Egypt to live what they believe was a true Christian life. It is important to realise the harsh situation in these desert regions and this also had its impact on the religious flavour that came out of this region. Early monks in the late 3rd and early 4th century were true hermits such as Anton of Alexandria and Pachomius  (the name monk comes from monachos- living alone/hermit). Another interested group of ascetics  were the Stylites in Syria who lived on poles, the most famous of them Simeon, who has said to been living on a pole fr0m 423 onward for the next 37 years. The 4th century Greek Church Father Basilius the Great of Caesarea in the Middle East was one of the first to actually preach communal monastic life  (Monastery/Cloister comes from claustrum – closed of area).

These early desert fathers and mothers  were frequently visited by the people from for example Alexandria and they were consulted in a way that would be similar to how shamans were consulted in previous times.

The hermits were not necessarily well educated but they were seen as being close to God.  They were seen to have special powers, because of their ascetic live and could  work as intermediates between God and the people.They earned a reputation of holiness and started to form communities around them which came to be called monasteries.

Monastic life itself was not something that stems from the scriptures, but was more of a grassroots development from people trying to follow the life of Jesus Christ (which was often very different from the often corrupt and greedy way the official Church hierarchy operated).

The ‘intellectual’ works from the Latin Church Father  St Augustine (354 – 430), the bishop of Hippo, did address many of these structural/organisational issues of the early church. Furthermore, from North Africa he also spread the idea of monastic life (hermits) to Western Europe. He also might have set up some rules for the priests attached to his episcopal church and as such this might have been the start of canons, religious men who didn’t withdrew themselves from worldly affairs and who were in charge of pastoral care.

The African flavoured form of Catholicism that came from Egypt bred a world of no compromise, especial if it encountered paganism and heretics, fuelled by martyrdom, this was a fanatic movement. There was very little room for the ‘self’. Group thinking and group behaviour was the norm. From here the movement spread into Europe especially in northwestern Spain.

The first monastery in Gaul  was founded by Martin of Tours in Liguge, France in 361.  Martin started his life as a cavalier in the Roman army. Liguge is south of Poitiers, he and his followers also founded monasteries in Marmoutier near Strasbourg (372) Lerins, near Cannes (410), and Auxerre in Burgundy (422). The first monastery in the Netherlands – St Servatius Abbey – was established in Maastricht (it is unknown when this was built but was first mentioned in the 9th century). One of the advisers of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, Einhard the Frank became in abbott  in 814.

During our ‘Burgundian’ tour in 2006 we visited the Auxerre monastery in September 2006 (unfortunately it was closed). It is believed that the Irish St Patrick also studied at monasteries set up by St Martin. However, the impact of these first monasteries on the overall spread of Christianity was very limited.

Vivarium of Cassiodorus

Cassiodorus (ca 485-580),  founded the monastery of Vivarium with a monastery school on the Ionian Sea. When his proposed theological university in Rome was denied, he was forced to re-examine his entire approach to how material was learned and interpreted. He found the writings of the Greeks and Romans valuable in their ability to portray higher truths where other arts failed. He connected deeply with Christian neoplatonism, which saw beauty as concomitant with the Good. This inspired him to adjust his educational program to support the aesthetic enhancement of manuscripts within the monastery, something which had been practiced before, but not in the universality that he suggests.

Before the founding of Vivarium, the copying of manuscripts had been a task reserved for either inexperienced or physically infirm devotees, and was performed at the whim of literate monks. Through the influence of Cassiodorus, the monastic system adopted a more vigorous, widespread, and regular approach to reproducing documents within the monastery. This also became a turning point for monasteries from places of austerity to places of knowledge.

The Celtic Church

Muiredach’s High Celtic Cross 10th C. – Monasterboice, Drogheda, Ireland – 2014

Ireland holds an interesting position in the Christianisation of Europe. It was never conquered by the Romans so it also was not exposed to the structures of the Church that were developed since  Emperor Constantine.

Possibly early Christians from Roman Britain were the first to spread the word to some of the Irish tribes. Also Christian influences from Gaul would have entered Ireland. Being outside the Roman Empire also meant that other flavours of Christianity entered Ireland, which were classified heretic by the orthodox church.  However, without a system of bishoprics in place there was little the official Church could do about it.   Perhaps it was through these connections that the monastic ideas from Egypt also reached Ireland.

Roman civilisation was totally eliminated from England and during the following invasions of the Angles and the Saxons many of the old Roman intellectuals and Christians fled to Gaul but some also to Ireland and  Britain referred back to paganism.

Pope  Coelestinus did send Palladius to Ireland to align the Irish church more to the one of Rome, but a distinct Celtic flavour of Christianity remained an important element. It was Patrick who had the most influence on the Christian development in Ireland, rather than following the Episcopal system, he developed a network of monasteries,  most probably this was also influenced by his exposure to the activities of Martin from Tours in Liguge, where he had studied. The Egyptian monastic tradition had a great influence on the development of monasteries in Ireland and  fitted well in the tribal organised regions of Ireland and continental Europe.

These early  monasteries were very basic, sometimes not much more than a cave or a hut on an uninhabited island. In search for remote places, the Irish monks went in search for the ‘desert in the ocean’, they are believed to be the first Europeans to reach Iceland, they had already established two communities on the east coast, before the Vikings arrived in the 860s.

These monasteries  represented a different form of ascetic work, known as perigrinato – wondering through foreign regions and in the meantime preach the gospels, along the lines the apostles had done that. This was rather different from the Rule of St Benedict whose monasteries had a far more fixed nature, where monks stayed inside to pray and contemplate. By the late 6th century this had become the predominant church structure in the country.

Christianity on the British Isles only survived in Ireland and it were these monasteries that were able to save the remnants of  Roman civilisation,  the Latin language and early Christian knowledge. The Irish monasteries became the cradles for the bulk of the missionary work in continental Europe and from here these early Roman Christian works arrived in north western continental Europe.


Celtic Renaissance

Missionary work required access to the texts of the scriptures and also here Ireland played a key role as most of the early scriptures were translated and copied in their scriptoria and than taken with missionaries to Britain and continental Europe.  The scribes saw their task as an act of devotion and turned their work into the most beautiful documents.  Being a scribe was seen as an elite function in the monastery, where most others worked on the land. Producing manuscripts was team work. While one of the monks would write the text a team of artists and craftsmen were involved in the illustration and the decoration as well as the binding of the books. The Irish monks were also the first who only used books (no scrolls or wooden or clay tablets). Over the next 500 years Ireland established itself as the literary hub of Western Europe. Their Celtic heritage created not only great works of litterature but also great work of arts. The Book of Kells is most likely the most beautiful decorated manuscript ever produced.

Building on the work of Saint Patrick, his colleague Columcille (Columbanus 543 – 615) organised the first large scale overseas missionary tour with 12 monks to France and Germany. In all Irish monks founded some 150 monasteries outside their own country.

Aachen Cathedral – 2007

As the Catholic church was already well penetrated in the old Roman occupied territories, the missionaries started in the border region and beyond. Brabant, Flanders and Rhineland became an important region in these early developments as the centre of  the new secular Merovingian power lay in the area Paris – Aachen. Places such as Doornik, Kortrijk, St Denis, Auxerre, Tongeren, Maastricht, Cologne, Trier and Metz were all frequently visited by these travelling monks. They established a close relationship with the Merovingian kings and their nobles.

Conversion was never an individual activity in those days. Once the local leader converted, all of his tribe/followers automatically were counted as converted as well. One of the first well documented mass conversions happened when Clovis was baptised around 500. A well known forced mass conversion was forced upon the Saxons by Charlemagne, some 300 years later.

The impact of these mass conversations was initially very limited. This was also the reason that paganism was able to continue for many centuries. 150 years after Clovis conversion, Amandus was still busy converting the pagans in the heartland of the Merovingians.

The collapse of the Roman Empire had undermined the unity of the Church as popes lost their vital communication with their bishops and abbots. They became isolated in Rome where they were under siege of the local feudal rulers.

The original Celtic Monasteries in Ireland, Britain and Merovingian Europe were so far removed from Rome and the Church bureaucracy that they were able to develop their works  independent of the institutional hierarchy. This also allowed them to experiment with their literature works and bring artistic innovations into their work. The ‘Celtic Church’ operated for all that time more or less independently  from the Church in Rome, these were grassroots operations more based on individual contemplation rather than institutional dogmatism [1. Glut, Alex Wright, 2007].

However, at the Synod of Whitby in 664 England formally accepted the Roman version of the Catholic Church (a key element was to except the date set for Easter by Rome – based on a 19 year cycle, cut off from Rome for such a long time this differed from the one the Irish monks had established – based on a 84 year cycle.

Despite this decision the Celtic flavour continued in Ireland and on the continent and increasingly this brought them in conflict with the official representatives of the pope, the bishop. However, in the early Middle Ages the bishopric hierarchy was often corrupt and had more to do with the creation of power and wealth that with faith. So instead the monasteries remained the grassroots for the spread of Christianity. However, also here – as is evidence in the many attempts of reform – corruption was rive in the monastery structure, with many Abbots, like bishops being lay people appointed by kings in exchange for financial or military favours.

Most monasteries, bishoprics and emerging parishes all had their own catholic flavours based on different ideas and different principles. There was very little unity in the Church of the early Middle Ages.

Furthermore, monasteries were largely closed communities and this meant that – together with the deplorable situation  of the church structure –  that outside the walls of monasteries there was very little evidence of a christian population or a christian culture.

Benedict Rule

Abbey church New Norcia – 2003

Benedict of Norcia (480 – 547) was born  of substantial parents and was educated in Rome. At young age he felt attracted to ascetic life, which he first practiced in Subiaco, not far from the ruins of Nero’s palace.  Because of his many followers he started to write downs the rules of communal life, grounded on the fundamental principles of humility, charity, obedience, stability poverty and faith in providence.  Not all that different from other monastic groups, but Benedict combined all of these principles and put them down on paper. Interestingly Benedict never was a priest, but similar to many other monks he was a miracle worker. He also didn’t insist on strong ascetic life as was practised in Africa and was also spreading from Ireland into northwestern Europe.  He did however; preach strong discipline under a paterfamilias (abbot) very much along the line of the old Roman family tradition. The strong discipline was not welcomed by all and legend has that because of this some of his early followers had tried to poison  Benedict however, he was miraculously saved . His motto was “Ora et labora’ pray and work. His strict rules divided the day in three parts: 8 hours to work, 8 hours to pray and 8 hours to sleep. Reading the bible was done in a meditating way.

A few years after Benedict’s death Pope Gregory (the Great) received a copy of the Rules and he himself being an uncompromising and disciplined person liked what he saw. His own biography was largely based on Benedict’s literary works. He went into great detail of the miracles from the ‘Italian Fathers’ and he put great effort in collecting information and verifying the miracles, in doing so he became one of the most important founder of medieval hagiography.  By this propaganda literature of miracles and new Christian mythology the minds of the pagan barbarians could be won. This propaganda became for example important during the war against the Saxons, with hagiographies such as for example around Lebuinus (see below) – of course written all after the events – which states that he had  warned them at their tribal meeting at Marklo, that unless they would convert to Christianity they would be killed by Charlemagne. [2. Communiceren met een heiligenleven: Lebuinus en de lezre, Lauran Toorians, Madoc #4, 2012]

The disciplined  Benedict rule was used over the next few centuries to suppress, in  a more violent way, the pagan tribes of Europe, a practice that reached its peak under Charlemagne when newly conquered tribes (such as the Saxons),  who refused baptism, were simply killed.

Outside the Merovingian kingdoms,  the Rule of St Benedict  had already become the predominant rule for a rapidly expanding system of European monasteries. Under his rule most monks were trained to spread the gospel through Europe. This was also aimed at counteract the spread of Celtic Catholicism, which was seen as Gnostic and allowed for a far more gentle form of missionary work.

In the southern Low Countries the Rule of Benedict was preached and implemented by Gerard Brogne, a native of Staves (Namur), he was a member of one of the noble families  of Lower Austrasia. Originally a soldier, he rebuilt a family chapel into a large church and later became a monk at Saint-Denis. He was then ordained priest. He returned to Brogne, where he fought the laxity of clerics there and replaced them with monks. He retired to a cell near the monastery for mortification.The Archbishop of Cambrai asked him to reform the community of Saint-Ghislain in Hainault. He replaced the canons with monks. With the support of the Duke of Lotharingia and the Count of Flanders he  became head of 18 other abbeys in the region of present-day Belgium including Saint-Baafs and Saint-Pieter in Gent, the Saint-Bertinus Abbey near Sint-Omaars and the abbeys of Mouzon and Elnone (nowadays Saint-Amand-les-Eaux). He also traveled to Rome to obtain a papal bull to confirm the privileges of Brogne Abbey. At the end of his life, he retired again to Brogne where he died in 959.

The  communal monasteries were more durable than the individual or communal ascetics. The Rule of St Benedict was strict but monastic live was doable, especially in the impressive and rather comfortable  monasteries that were being build made possible through the generous donations they received.

Monks and Nuns

Monasteries also increasingly accepted a large number of semi-religious persons. Some donated their possessions to the monastery and in exchange the monastery looked after them. Others did not do their monastic vows but pledged obedience to the Abbot or Abbess. It is important to note that monks are not priests, some later on were ordained but the majority stayed monk.

Other occupants were the oblates, children who were by their (mainly rich) parents donated to God to lead a religious life. With the child the parents also donated the inheritance that belonged to the child to the monastery. This was – at that time – a well respected and general accepted phenomenon and was not unlike the common law that also saw parents arranging the marriages of their children. As we will see below Willibrordus start his religious life as an oblate. However, a regular complaint was that children were donated who had disabilities or who couldn’t for whatever reason be married out.

Without dispensation bonded or otherwise unfree persons were not accepted in the monasteries. In general the inhabitants of monasteries were coming from the higher or middle class of society. There were also specific monasteries (more so in Germany) that were exclusively for the nobility.

Throughout history monasteries and monastic movements swung between their ascetic origins and the realities of secular world around them.

Because of its popularity  a variety of monastic communities started to emerge those of monks, nuns and clergy (canonici). What they did have in common was the liturgy (Eucharist)  and the Book of Hours (vita communis). It’s major purpose was to daily praise God through prayers and songs during several church services. These early communities were also known as ‘munster’, ‘minster’ or ‘münster’. By the 13th century we see that lay persons object to the fact that you have to be a monk or nun to be in the position to have the best chances  to obtain salvation. By that time the upcoming merchant class started a lay piety movement and established their own  lay congregations. Also women started to establish their own lay congregations.

The Merovingian boom period

The rulers of that time still followed the barbaric tradition of raiding and feuding which involved wars and killing, this was needed in their society to survive and to rule. In this process they indeed became powerful and wealthy.

At the same time, the good news message of an after life in heaven had great appeal; the monks  in this period were typically pilgrims with a mission.

Under the Christian tradition that these rulers  had accepted,  they committed severe sins and these two institutions (of rulers and monks)  started to form a sort of symbioses.  The praying routine required seven praying sessions which overtime developed into very powerful spiritual sessions and outsiders were very impressed with this and started to see them as very powerful centers of spiritual power generation.  This wasn’t unlike similar developments that occurred around the ascetics, as mentioned above. Monks were seen as negotiators between the supernatural and the worldly and as such had a key social function for which secular rulers were prepared to pay a significant price.

The rulers donated part of their wealth and properties to the monasteries and the monks prayed for the souls of the rulers.

As we will see below the Merovingians indeed  did get out of their way to shower the monasteries with immunities (privileges) and gifts,  in penitence of their many misdeeds, especially those taking place within their violent family feuds and raiding trips.

Similar privileges were also issued in the previous period – including in the Late Imperial period – but it is most likely that this period of Merovingian peace led to the further developments of this system, and perhaps even started to replace some of the ‘in kind’ giving Frankish  tradition.

The need for better protection of  church properties became apparent when, after the division of the Merovingian Empire under the grandsons of Clovis, church boundaries changed and secular rulers  seized the opportunity to confiscate church properties. At the Council of Clermont(535)  many Frankish bishops gathered and wrote a letter to King Theodebert I, asking him for better protection. The bishops used the punishment of ex-communication if the rulers would not adhere to the church immunities.

On the other hand secular rulers complained – as happened earlier at the Council of Orléans in 511 – chaired by Clovis – that the clergy far too loosely misused their church punishments to increase their own wealth. Nevertheless, slowly but steadily, more and more immunities were issued. [3. Jaarboek voor Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis, Frederik Keygnaert,  12|09, p22]

The reason why  these immunities were issued is sometimes stated within these documents. Here is the last sentence of an immunity handed out by Charlemagne in 777.

For the congregations may be better pleased to even more attentively pray for the Lord’s mercy for the king, his heirs and his wife [4. Based on a translation of the document by Barbara H.Rosenwein in her book ‘Negotiating Space’ p115].

These early privileges provided monasteries with the security that there would not be any interference in their affairs by either the kings or other earthly rulers, nor by bishops.

Monasteries and the Frankish inheritance system

However, these ‘gift’s were not simply for pious reasons only. The Frankish inheritance system led to a splintering of their properties and by donating them to monasteries – where they often were in charge of appointing abbots and abbesses – they were able to better manage these properties.

As these ecclesiastic domains  never got subdivided,  many of these monasteries – as we will see below – rapidly became important economic centres for agriculture, trade, education, art and so on. Many grew rich and powerful but at the same time did stick to their strong tradition of hermitage and piety.

However, these monasteries also led the colonisation of the land from where slowly farming communities and villages started to emerge, they also provided the administrative and clerical skills to the nobility landowners and provided education to their children. They also were the architects and builders of the first stone churches in the new colonised lands, which interestingly saw a spread from early Lombardi Romanesque architecture into northern Europe.

Their power  also caused  problems for the nobility, they had given away so much property that the abbeys became richer than themselves. This in turn led to continuous (re)secularisation of these properties, especially under Charles Martel, which in turn led to an impoverishment of the Frankish Church.

Interestingly, unlike his forbears Charlemagne never was a big supporter of establishing new monasteries, despite his initiatives in improving agriculture and infrastructure he never saw a serious role here for the monasteries.

The immunities that had been handed out to the monasteries under the Merovingians became now ‘protections’. This basically took the power away from the monasteries and made the kings the rulers over the monastery but they did have the obligation to protect the monasteries. In this slightly different ‘Carolingian’ format immunities became an administrative  routine affair this period. When the Viking raids started Charles the Simple  extended the immunities to include the outlaying areas within the ‘fortification’ of the monastery and perhaps this even included some form of jurisdiction. With the decline of central governance, the royal palace increasingly was by-passed and finally this ended the role and the value of immunities.

The concept of immunities can also been seen as an early form of what would grow into city privileges.

The leading role of the missionaries.

Christianity was already introduced in regions under Roman rule such as the Moselle Valley and Gaul. Therefore when the first missionaries started to arrive,these lands already had significant substrata of ‘Christianity’. This would have included some of the heartland of the Merovingian Empire such as the Moselle Valley (Metz) and Toxandria (Tournai).

As mentioned above, with zealous enthusiasm the new Merovingian rulers used the catholic faith as another tool to concur new territory especially if this included pagan lands. There was a clear advantage for religious and secular powers to work very closely together in this pursuit.

The new God and their saints were not all that different from the pagan traditions of the local people and the missionaries built churches where their old temples and sacred sites had been, their springs were used for baptism. Pagan festivals and traditions were Christened and integrated in the ’new’ religion, wh

Willibrordus well – Oss – Drawing Jan van Roessel 1982

ile no longer seen as religious activities many pagan traditions are still with us, some in their original format, others as cultural festivals and traditions.

In this broader context it is obvious that the missionaries did not work in isolation. It can easily be concluded that these missionaries were implementing a Christian infrastructure together with or in cooperation with these noble families

Missionaries also initiated many of the first church buildings on the (donated) properties of the nobility and were often built as their private burial places, it was only later that churches were built specifically for the worship by the local population; Willibrord was one of the most profuse builders of local churches often replacing the pagan cultus places.

Merovingian women carried the early torch

Despite their subservient treatment, aristocratic women often  played an active and leading role in peace negotiations, heritage issues, etc. They were often referred to as ‘Peace-Spinsters’. After they had fulfilled their task and for whatever reason had lost their ‘value’, for example after the death of their husband, they often ended up in monasteries. When that happened they donated land and other goods to that monastery, which greatly enriched these estates.

It is interesting to observe that, between 550 and 750, early Christianity in Austrasia was greatly supported by these aristocratic women:

  • Saint Clothilde Notre Dame Paris – 2014

    Clotilde, the Burgundian wife of Clovis was instrumental in the baptism of her husband, the first christened kings of the Franks.

  • Brunhilde, despite her violent character was instrumental in the founding of new monasteries.
  • Itta the wife of Pippin I and their daughter Gertrude founded Nivelles, one of the most important monasteries in Austrasia, as well as in Susteren and Aldeneyck.
  • Begga a daughter of Pippin founded monasteries in Andenne (with the seven churches) and Lobbes.
  • Wulfetrude the daughter of Pippin’s son Grimoad became the 2nd abbess in Nivelles.
  • Irmina von Oeren, the mother of Plectrude, the first wife of Pippin II, donated part of the Villa Epternacus (Echternach) to Willibrord. She later became the abbess of St Maria in Oeren in Trier.
  • Bertrada, another daughter of Irmina, founded the monastery and church of Prüm.

Knowledge now was totally in the hands of the Church and unlike during Greek and Roman times, knowledge had since the collapse of the Roman Empire been monopolised by theology. All knowledge was used for that purpose and could only be used for that purpose.  Knowledge was not disseminated beyond the Church.

It were the missionaries who brought this ‘knowledge’ into northwestern Europe. Here it were the women at the Merovingian Courts who became the first outside the monasteries who were brought in contact with this knowledge.  The missionaries spend significant time at the court while travelling through northwestern Europe and spend time with these women when the husbands and brothers went out on war, they were allowed to do so as they were not seen as a (sexual) threat to these women and these ladiers had rather free access to these often intellectual  persons.

Obviously these missionaries must have been very persuasive and were able to impress these women with the new religion. In turn it were often these noble women who then persuaded their husbands, fathers and brothers to support the emerging monasteries and the Catholic Church in general.  The men saw the political advantages to align themselves with the new religion as that gave them the legitimacy to plunder neighbouring lands under the banner of conversion. The most successful of these rulers to use this tactic was Charlemagne.

Knowledge –  in this limited theological format – became a permanent element of the Merovingian and Carolingian Court system from here it became the knowledge-based structure for medieval Europe.

These leading women were also receptive to the more mystic and ‘pure’ religious experiences from the eastern Egyptian tradition brought to them by the Celtic monks from Ireland

A key element in the persuasive argument from the missionaries was the importance of the afterlife – also a key element in pagan traditions – salvation could be reached through good works, piety, looking after the poor and the sick, etc. This also had another interesting element to it. By looking after the poor and the sick, these people in turn were asked to pray for those who had given them alms. This in particular occurred during official ceremonies, where also food was made available to attract the maximum number of people who would than also participate in prayers for their benefactors; the spiritual power of such masses was highly valued by the nobility.

As monasteries grew and rulers demanded more and more religious services the monasteries started to recruit new people, members of the nobility also ‘donated’ children to these monasteries (oblates). As more monasteries started to emerge and to grow, busy and rich noblemen were of course a key target for  support for the growing  financial needs of these communities. Until the Late Middle Ages it were only children/persons from well to do families and the nobility who were allowed to enter monasteries.

After the influence of Rome increased and the Benedictine Rule moved further away from mysticism, Christianity became important as a tool to create power and wealth and it was at that stage that men took over the role of women in the spread of Christianity.

Nevertheless many of these ‘noble’ abbesses gave themselves names such as ‘Princesses of the Holy Roman Empire’.

Conflict between monasteries, bishops and kings

In an attempt by the Pope in Rome to stem the ‘heretic’ Irish, Roman Catholic campaigns were launched to deliver the true Catholic faith. However, interestingly, for the conversion activities amongst the Celtic and Germanic pagans, the pope actively recruited Rome-aligned Irish missionaries. Pope Gregory also used the assistance of Bertha the great grand daughter of Clovis and wife of Kentish Aethelberht I to convert pagans to Catholicism.

However,  from the 8th century onwards we see efforts from both the state (Carolingians) and the Church (Boniface and the Pope) to unify the church under the Episcopal system. Another key reformer in this process was Chrodegang of Metz (see: Christianity steps into power vacuum).Many monasteries had also started to offer pastoral service and missionaries had started to built small wooden churches  in local villages and this brought them in conflict with the episcopal system that claimed pastoral work was under their jurisdiction.

Two major Councils in Aken in 816 and 817 under the leadership of Emperor Louis the Pious tried to provide more clarity to bishops, abbots and secular leaders. These reforms were the start of the process that lead to the gradual undermining of the independence of the monasteries as the above mentioned Benedict Rule  became far more firmly  implemented.

This also led to the development of two distinct  streams, monasteries who increasingly were urged/forced to follow the Rule of Benedict which had a more contemplative function (the monastery was seen as a portal of the heaven) this was in contrast to the Celtic Church which had a perigrinato (missionary) structure.

Separate from the more rural based monasteries the Council of Aken also confirmed a different stream of ‘monasteries’ : the  Collegiate Chapters of canons (clerics) they were mostly linked to cathedrals and churches. Their work also included church services, church administration, education and looking after the sick. However 100 years later those Chapters  had lost most of their community functions and under the Reforms of Cluny (910), they became secular chapters, in charge of the daily liturgy in their churches and cathedrals, increasingly their position became more important as they became the ‘senate’ of the bishop or the cathedral, secular canons could have possessions and own property. The elaborate Chapter Houses next to  cathedrals are evidence of their wealth and importance. This is where they held their meetings and were in a more religious context they also red their rules, the bible and made their (public) confessions.

Chapter of the St Goedele in Brussels

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula Brussels – 2013

A good example of such a chapter is the one of the collegiate church of the St Goedele in Brussels.

The key function of the chapter is look after the adornment of the church service in the cathedral. However, as secular clergy their main tasks were outside the chapter, at the court.

The chapter was established by Count Lambert II of Leuven in 1047, with 12 secular canons. With these people becoming more involved in a range of other services for the counts and dukes, a 2nd college  was established by Duke Henry I of Brabant in 1226 with 10 canons. This secured that the adornment of the church service could remain a priority task of the chapter. The first college remained the most important: canonici maiores, the 2nd college held the canonici minores.

While in first instance the Chapter was led by the Proost (Dean), by the 13th century this function was replaced by a committee. Since that time, the management of the chapter was in the hands of three dignitaries:

  • The Decanus –  in charge of the spiritual care of all of the secular clergy of the city and the chairman of the chapter.
  • The Cantor –  final responsible for the orderly process of the church service.
  • The Thesaurarius – treasurer responsible for the chapter staff, the management of the church treasure and responsible for the archives.

These functionaries were elected by the canons. However from 1537 onward the decanus was appointed by the king.

The canons of the 2nd college had to have a full ordination. This was not required from the canonici maiores. They both often had university degrees and/or came from noble families. While the last two were not compulsory in Brussels, most canons had at least one of the two pre-requisites. It also created a competitive environment that kept the quality of the charter at a high level. Other charters such as for example the one in Leuven made nobility or a university degree  compulsory. These pre-requsites were of course more important outside the chapter

Two other important functions were:

  • Plebaan in charge of the pastoral care of the parish connected to the cathedral
  • Scholaster – the head of the charter school (and the overall educational system of the city).

These dignitaries were further supported by vicarri.

The charter was funded through prebendaries, made out of donations mostly in property and privileges.

The first chapter of canons were appointed by the Count or Duke the 1st  chapter appointed the members of the 2nd chapter.  The establishment of the 2nd chapter allowed the Duke to keep the most attractive canons as his own advisers; they occupied leading positions at the court and even held diplomatic positions. The majority of the canons spend more time outside the chapter than within the walls of it. It is therefor questionable to call these dignitaries canons as very little if their work had actually to do with services linked to the church.

Source: De dignitarissen en grote kanunniken van het kapittel van Sint-Goedele en Sint-Michiel te Brussel (1430-1559), Bram van Hofstraten, Jaarboek voor middeleeuwse geschiedenis 2010.

Despite all of these reforms it would take until the 10th and the 11th centuries before a more cohesive religious structure started to develop. Officially the Celtic Church (and most of the monasteries in north western Europe) didn’t become fully part of the Roman Church until 1172. By that time new orders had started following the Orthodox Roman structures and older monasteries  had now also fully adopted these structures.

At the same time these developments started to see a shift away from the monasteries as the religious, social and economic powerhouses to the bishops and the city-based powerhouses they built around them, the cathedrals being their ultimate show of power. It was in Paris where Abbott Suger rebuild the abbey church of Saint Denis into the first Gothic  cathedral fitting for the rich and famous citizens of Paris; the kings and nobles. In contrast the far more sober Romanesque churches were mainly abbey churches. The Gothic architecture  hardly ever made it into the monasteries.


Monasteries as knowledge centres

While the Rule mentioned the need for monks to be literate it didn’t establish the monasteries as knowledge centres.  The early monasteries where very austere and primitive. After the end of persecution monasteries developed beyond that stage and became and important infrastructure of the Catholic Church and there was significant traffic between these places and this also resulted in the spread of books (scrolls). At that time some of the ancient learning institutions still existed and most likely they were the source of some of that very early knowledge that started to spread through the monasteries further into Europe.

As mentioned above these ancient documents even reached Ireland. The form of monastic live that developed here was different (perigrinato) and for that purpose these writings needed to be copied so that those travelling monks could take them with them on their missionary work.

While the monastic system of St Benedict was rather different and more contemplative based on  praying and working (ora et labora), St Benedict also wanted monks to be able to read (the often had to do this as penitence).

Thanks to these very slender threats a large number of the ancient writings survived.  From the period 550-750 only 264 manuscripts survived.

Already at the early monasteries  children (oblates) from the nobility  received their education and at the same time they could pray for the souls of the rest of the family. As these monasteries became richer and more powerful and wealthy, entry into these places became  more and more restricted to the nobility and other wealthy people, the nature of these institutions started to change.

This brought with it a mentality that had been popular among the ancient Roman nobility, who lived a live of  leisure and dignity. The leisure part was perhaps not what these well to do people  found in these places but what started to happen was that the concept of dignity assisted them in building up knowledge that started to make these monasteries the prime institution for learning during the early and high Middle Ages.

Benedict Monastery Ravenna San Vitale – 2016

This also increased the interest in learning and in order to better understand the Bible again the works  from Plato and Aristotle were needed and it was Charlemagne who started to make a organised effort to bring these ancient writings together again, for that purpose he did send officials to the monasteries in Italy (Mone Cassino, Ravenna and Rome) . New monasteries were established or existing ones extended  with an added purpose of learning (Lorsch, Aachen, Corbin, Tours, St Gales, Reichenau).

Monasteries also became the new knowledge centres for agriculture, architecture, construction, land reclamation and soon to follow  rudimentary forms of medical and social services. They also functioned as production and trading centres.

For most of the first millennium it were the monasteries that carried and promoted not just the bulk of the Christian faith but also the dissemination of knowledge. Monks and manuscripts traveled throughout Europe and beyond and with them the new innovations as developed by the worker-monks.

Learning also led to questions and a difference of opinion.  Throughout the centuries that followed it were often  monks who directly but more often indirectly questioned  the church or at least asked serious questions; the most important one perhaps being Martin Luther, but also people like Erasmus and Thomas van Kempen.

The Monastery-economy and serfdom

As mentioned, with the ‘official’ church more and more taking over control of the monasteries, this secured the continuation of slavery (serfdom). Under Roman rule the first popes joined the Roman nobility in owning slaves. When the church slowly started to take over control of the monasteries we also saw them starting to own slaves and later serfs.

Between 800 and 1200 an elaborate serf system was established by  both secular and ecclesiastic lords as well as by the rapidly growing monasteries.

The ownership was codified in canon law and even those monasteries that resisted slave ownership were more or less forced to join the system.

Under the monastic structure,  monks were forbidden to own any worldly property, including slaves. But this  rule didn’t really catch on – especially when the ‘official’ church started to exert more and more control over the monasteries – serfdom would continue for many centuries. In the domains of the monastery of Wietmarschen this continued till 1870.

St Marienrode Monastery Wietmarschen – 1998

So slowly but steadily the monks working in the field of the monasteries were replaced by serfs and with a gradual change towards a money driven economy, serfs became tenants and many of the privileges (milling, bakeries, tolls, etc)  that were under the control of the monasteries were leased out to often secular powers and a few hundred years later there was not much left of the original principles of the early monastic movement. All the hard work was now done by the serfs, tenants and others and money had replaced agriculture produce as the basis for the emerging city based economies. Increasingly monasteries asked their beneficiaries to make, instead of in-kind or land donations  –  financial donations such as income from of excise duties, property taxes, etc. This also resulted in a significant growth of the role of monasteries as administrative centres. The Urbar in the monastery in Wietmarschen is one such example.

Several abbeys used this new found income to buy so called refuge houses in cities that allowed the monks to fled to the safety of the walled city in situations of wars and raids.

However, the rents the monasteries received from their tenants was  not indexed and this led to widespread bankruptcy, most monasteries were totally oblivious of the effects that the new city economies had on their rural/agriculture based economy. With now also many small farmers going out of business larger tenants started to consolidate the small landholdings and many monasteries – especially in the urban centres – lost control over their extensive properties, monasteries in rural areas fared – in general – better. However, by 1000 also many of the large rural monasteries had already reached a serious state of neglect.

Throughout the Middle Ages there is a continued hate/love relationship between the monasteries and society. Sometimes there is great attraction followed by rejection; isolation followed by influencing world affairs. The economic activities of the monasteries often also competed with the private enterprises.

Monastic Reforms

Economic boom favours the monasteries

The Medieval Warm Period led to an increase in agriculture produce, this led to an increase in population and the surplus in agriculture production led to an increase in wealth. Perhaps the largest portion of this wealth ended up with the monasteries, and thus at least indirectly to the church. This was desperately needed for the rebuilding and restoration of churches and monasteries. However, the increased wealth did much more than that, with the increase in population there was also an increase in the number of settlements growing into villages and towns.

Under the leadership of the Benedictines massive infrastructure projects were undertaken, especially in the villages around Europe where on a massive scale the wooden Carolingian churches were replaced by new Romanesque churches built in stone. Local villages had little knowledge about building in stone and also in particular in the Low Countries very little natural stone material was available. Until the ‘re-invention’ of the production of (Roman) bricks,  churches were built in volcanic tuff blocks or sandstone, again materials not available in the Low Countries, this had to be imported by ship from Germany (Bentheimer stone via the Vechte). It was the monastic network that assisted in providing the skills – including from the 13th century onward brick production – as well as the labour and the organisation to built hundreds and hundreds of tuff and brick churches, they also undertook large scale land reclamation and built hundreds of kilometers of dikes along the rivers in the Low Countries and the coast of Frisia. They undoubtedly formed the teaching bases for the many lay trade persons who start building the castles and  later on built the famous Gothic Cathedrals [5. A study of Romanesque Church Architecture in Friesland, Theo Lambooy].

Fontenay Abbey – 2006

It is quite staggering to think about the knowledge that was required for these large scale project and included an understanding of weather patterns, the effects of storms and floods, hydraulics, soil engineering both for reclamation and dike building, architecture, engineering, production of building materials and so on. The fact that a thousand years later many of these churches still exist and that the original dikes are often  still the foundations of later works that have been added to it is a testament to the high level of skills applied by these monks and doubtlessly many others that assisted them at those times.

The Romanesque style indicates a continuation of Roman architecture, but also includes Byzantine influences. There is strong evidence that the style that spread through Europe originated in Lombardy in northern Italy – where the typical blind gallery (Lombard Band) first appeared – and through the international monastic network spread throughout the continent. For the introduction of the Romanesque style in the  Low Countries, Frécamp Abbey in Normandy and Fontenay Abbey have been influential. The last one is mentioned as the example for Klaarkamp Abbey in Frisia.

Cluniac Reforms

While most monasteries started of as places of austerity, with hard working God-obeying monks, that situation had changed. As we saw above gone were the days of hard working monks, instead serfs were used for that and the missionary status of the monasteries rapidly disappeared. The monasteries were no longer the basic centres of piety and work (ora et labora)  and instead had become secular and were only looking after themselves. While all monks were supposed to be equal, the abbots had become lordly, eating the best food, having luxurious rooms, servants and all the trappings of richness.

Formerly town house of the abbots of Cluny in Paris (Hôtel des abbés de Cluny) – 2014

These unwanted developments led to the Cluniac (Clunian) Reforms, this was a series of changes within medieval monasticism, focused on restoring the traditional monastic life, encouraging religious art, and caring for the poor. An important impetus of the reform was on corruption within the church, particularly in relation to  simony and concubinage. At least as significantly as their social consequences, the reforms demanded greater religious devotion.

The reform was largely carried out by Saint Odo (c. 878 – 942), the second Abbott of Cluny,  and spread through France (Burgundy, Provence, Auvergne, Poitou), England, and much of Italy and Spain. Among the most notable supporters of the reform were Pope Urban II, Lambert of Hersfeld, and Richard of Verdun and they received large numbers of new immunities and other privileges.

During its height (c. 950–c.1130) the Cluniac movement was one of the largest religious forces in Europe. The Cluniacs supported the Peace of God, and promoted pilgrimages to the Holy Lands. The Abbots of Cluny had also great influence on the policies issued by the popes of this period.

It is also during this period the the ideas of crusades started to get form and were eventually proclaimed and as such can also be seen as an important result of this reform movement, protecting the interests of the Church.

An increasingly rich liturgy stimulated demand for altar vessels of gold, fine tapestries and fabrics, stained glass, and polyphonic choral music to fill the Romanesque churches.

These monasteries  grew again  more and more elaborate by the day, thanks to heir increased wealth they were able to abstract from their immunities and other privileges. Monks lived her in seclusion, quietly and very much at ease in these comfortable cloisters.

 Bernard of Clairvaux

It has been argued that St Bernard was more powerful in the Roman Catholic Church that the pope, the former knight was an astute politician and he was able to recruit tens of thousands of ordinary people as well as armies of kings and knights. He strongly believed that Christians had  to use military force if needed in order to fulfill their Christian duties. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Knights Templar.

It was also the richness what appalled Bernard of Clairvaux when he launched his monastic reforms from the Monastery of Cîteaux in 1112. He preached a return to basics and the Cistercians (Latin for Cîteaux) spread this message through Europe . By the middle of that century the order numbered almost 350 houses.

By 1200 most of the reforms had once again faded away, many of the monasteries had again become extremely wealthy and very little was left from the good intentions from people such as  St Benedict, St Odo and Bernard. This led to some severe set backs in the following centuries.


Carthusian monastery of Champmol – 2006

An interesting development was headed by Bruno of Cologne, who in 1084 founded the Carthusian monastery in the Carthusian Alps near Grenoble. He wanted to go back to the old desert tradition and founded his Order in an inaccessible mountain area. Her he lived with his five fellow monks in total isolation in the loneliness of this ‘desert’. In this way they could fully concentrate on an inner experience with God. This lifestyle became known as the ‘exploration of the individual’. They were among to first to do and consequent developments over the next few centuries in relation to mystics and spirituality (Brethren of the Free Spirit). While Bruno was forced a few years later for practical reasons to move a bit closer to civilisation, the reclusive lifestyle remained until today.

Mendicant Orders

As the Praemonstratensian Abbott Philippe of Harvengt noted in 1170, many monks had lost most of the rigour and where slacking the reigns they were no longer supporting their work with their own hands. This unease with the wealthy monasteries and many of the other other malpractices occurring elsewhere in the Church  also led to another wave of reform this time led by the mendicants or friars.

Once cities (communes) started to evolve during that period,  the more feudal based monasteries – who were important rural economic powerhouses- started to loose some of their powerful grip on society to the bishoprics, which were gaining power in a more urbanised society.

However, also in the cities new monasteries and new orders started to emerge. The Franciscans and Dominicans started to provide pastoral services in these rapidly growing cities. These monasteries played a key role in various social aspects of life such as education and looking after the sick and elderly. The number of monasteries in cities grew sharply during the high and late Middle Ages. By 1526 Den Bosch had eight male and nine female monasteries with a total of 1100 monks and nuns. This means that 6% of the population of this city were monastics. In Brussels and Gouda that was around 3% and in Antwerp just over 1%.

Some monastic orders went back to their basic working roots and became involved in reclaiming land and  building dikes and waterworks.   In particular the Cistercians and Nobertines were leading these new ‘back-to-basic’ movements.

An obvious frontier was Frisia where the difference between land and water was often hard to see. Massive water works were undertaken. The Cistercian Monasteries  Klaarkamp,  Wittewierum, Mariëngaarde, Lidlum and Aduard were among the most prominent. Aduard, 8 kms northwest of the city of Groningen, founded in 1192,  became one of the most important centers of learning in this part of the world. These centres also produced several  prominent pious people such as the hermit Dodo van Haske, Frederik and Siard van Mariëngaarde and Richard van Aduard. In the 15th century Aduard also was a meeting spot for early humanists. At the height of its powers it housed 100 monks and several hundred lay brothers. It was by far the wealthiest monastery in the region, with some 6000 hectares of land under cultivation.[6. De abtenkroniek van Aduard Studies, editie en vertaling. Middeleeuwse Studies en Bronnen 121, Jaap van Moolenbroek en Hand Mol en Jacob Loer, 2010]

The Norbertine order was in particular active in Brabant, Gelre and Limburg were they received significant donations from the Dukes (eg the Munster Abbey in Roermond – see video clip). However, once land was reclaimed this often led to new tenant based systems as mentioned above, the system in Wietmarschen is a good example of this.

While the city based monasteries saw a rapid growth during that period, very few new monasteries were founded in regional and rural areas. Here the old monasteries maintained their position, dominated by the Benedictines. These city based developments also created the opportunity for secular people to become more involved in religious activities and large numbers of people with active spiritual and religious interests moved into these new monasteries and started to play key roles in religious life in the cities.

In particular this allowed women to play active roles in this process. Unlike in southern Europe where girls depended on a dowry, in north-western Europe all girls, married or single, participated in the heritage of their parents. This provided them with more independence what for example allowed them to play an active religious role. Christians were morally obliged to look after these religious persons and these people could as such built an independent sustainable life. In exchange these pious people prayed and performed penitence, some were highly respected for their advice – many of the Lords, counts and dukes sought their services, others were well respected for their  prophetic skills. Hildegard von Bingen is perhaps one of the best examples of these powerful women. The top of these women were able to generate large sums of money which went to their own monasteries and surpluses to local churches and of course bishops.[7. Stedelijk verleden in veelvoud. Levende heiligen in de middeleeuwse stad, Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker, 2011] The more wealthier women could afford to become beguines, they lived in one of the many beguine courts in the cities.

While it were the monasteries who basically formed the core of the church in north western Europe for most of the first millennium, the official church system followed a different path and started to catch up from 1200 onward. Many bishops became powerful secular rulers; they went to war and established personal fiefdoms (Utrecht, Luik, Munster) and as such were often able to position themselves in the church hierarchy above the Abbots.

Both in the rural areas and in the cities however, most of the lower clergy – put there by the bishops –  remained largely illiterate and were often kept as poor as the local farmers. This certainly didn’t contribute much to the development of their parishioners. This stood in contrast with the often much better educated monks. For hundreds of years these monasteries keyed a play role in social and religious life in the cities. They were the intellectual centres of the city. Here they were supported by the increased number of secular people joining them in activities such as education, social services, healthcare and so on. Many cities soon also had their own independent schools and hospitals.

Hospices de Beaune – 2006


The origin of these places is linked to the word hospitality. Providing hospitality for travelers but soon also for the ill, infirm and the poor. It was in general a large hall with beds arranged along the wall. There is always a chapel attached to it and everybody was expected to visit the chapel on arrival and on departure as well for mass. They are also know as Maison Dieu. One of the most famous and magnificent ones is in Beaune, Burgundy.

Collisions with secular interests

Especially at times of economic downturn monasteries were loathed for their privileged position, they had huge properties and wealth but were exempt from taxes. In Den Bosch monasteries owned approx one third of all the land in the city. In Groningen 25% of the land was in the hand of monasteries, in Friesland 20%.

As had been laid down in the  Codex Justianius from 530 Church and Monastic property remained in their hand in perpetuity. These goods were described as mortmain (dead hand) they didn’t participate or contribute to the economy. In Britain already in the 13th century laws were passed that prohibited mortmain and in continental Europe similar laws were passed in the following century. In 1446 Philip the Good limited mortmain in Friesland and Holland.

Furthermore, their economic activities were sometimes in direct competition with the local guilds. Initially monasteries were a source of cheap labour for emerging cloth manufacturers and other entrepreneurs. However, when these commercial operations started to grow the cheap labour monasteries became unwanted competition. The caricature of the fat monk that is seen on so many pictures, tells the story on how the people saw them.

Laws were passed in many city to limit the economic activities of the religious institutions and in other places voluntary arrangements were achieve. In Den Bosch in 1470 the weavers guild signed an agreement with one of the monasteries that saw a voluntary limitation of the number of looms. However, in that same city 50 years later a public revolt erupted in protest of exemption the monasteries enjoyed in participating in contributing to the city expenses. These revolts were not as serious as the iconoclasm that led to the Reformation, nevertheless significant changes were made that started to reign in many of the privileges these monasteries had enjoyed over the previous 1,000 years. [8. Middeleeuwse Kloostergeschiedenis van de Nederlanden, Peter Nissen, p179-197].

Inquiries were also instigated regarding the discipline in monasteries there was wide spread alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct between monks and nuns, some abbots had concubines.

By the time Luther appeared on the scene the majority of the population hated the catholic clergy and the monks sufficiently to open the doors for the Reformation, as was for example  stated by the staunch catholic Stadholder of Friesland in 1567.

The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch also clearly shows his disapproval of the misbehaviour of monks and other members of the clergy. The fact that he was allowed to paint tells a story in itself and one of the great admirers of his work was the none less than the rather fanatic catholic, King Philip II of Spain.

Monasteries after the Reformation

Luther’s Reformation also attracted many  (good) monks from the various monasteries who were equally troubled by the many misconducts within the Church. Most monasteries disappeared in Germany and in the northern Netherlands after the Reformation.

Reliquary martyrs of Gorcum Church of St Nicholas Brussels – 2008

It is interesting to note that already before the Reformation monasteries had  started to loose their appeal. The number of monks and nuns leaving the monasteries around the middleof the 16th century varied to between 25% and 50%. Erasmus left monastic life in 1493, aged 25, disillusioned according to his own words and in 1525 he remarked on the antipathy towards monks of standing.  [x. The Dutch Republic, Jonathan I.Israel, 1995, p78].

Obviously the Dutch Revolt that followed soon after this led many religious people to fled their monasteries. In 1572, plundering troops of Willem of Orange, killed all together more than 50 monks in Enkhuizen, Den Briel, Gorcum, Roermond and Alkmaar. The Catholic religion was officially banned in 1580, however, often ageing monk and nuns were allowed to stay in their monasteries till they died and some monasteries were simply changed into Protestant monasteries such as the one in Weerselo (see below).

Netherlands National Archives of Monasteries – Crosiers Monastery St Agatha – 2018

When also Brabant and Limburg were occupied by the Dutch Republic also here freedom of religion ended. However, the remnants of medieval feudal Europe enclaves, not under the control of the Republic, became refuges for the Catholics. In Brabant,  Megen and Ravenstein flourished around the activities that brought this with it. The Crosiers (Order of the Holy Cross)  of St Agataha in the Land of Cuijk – part of the Republic – were only just able able to withstand the persecution. With- in 1840 –  only  4 remaining members left in Europe they remarkably were able to rebuilt their order . See also video clip. In 1743 the Crosiers also moved to Uden, part of the Land of Ravenstein, here they started a Latin School. There is still another  monastery of the Order in existence, be it as a museum, it is the one in Ter Apel in the province of Groningen. It was built in 1464 and is the only remaining rural monastery in north west Europe. See videoclip. Catholic services were forbidden here in 1594 which meant the end of the Order in Ter Apel. The early history of the Crosiers is rather nebular, but there is agreement that they originated during the Crusades and that they possibly played a role in the Holy Land, in France (Albigensen/Cathars) and in Livonia (Teutonic Crusades). They followed the austere rules of St Augustine of Hippo.

On the other side of the coin, in some areas not touched by the Reformation some of the feudal elements were carried on to well into modern times. In some of the rural areas in Germany(Wietmarschen), north-eastern Europe (notably Russia), Italy and France, the monasteries were able to hold on to the serf system to well into the 18th and even the 19th century.

Monasteries in the Netherlands around 1500 (men and women)

Benedictines 35
Cistercians 53
Norbertines 56
Crosiers (kruisheren) 15
Franciscans 50
Dominicans 24
Carmelites 11
Augustans 10
Military Orders 54
Others 23

(Source: De Middeleeuwse Kloostergeschiedenis van de Nederlanden)

Not included in this table are the semi religious and secular communities.

The leading missionaries in NW Europe

There were two major Anglo-Saxon missionary waves into continental Europe. The first was was led by Irish monks under Columbianus and the next wave was led by English missionaries Willibrord and Boniface. The major difference between the two groups that the English missionaries maintained close links the the papacy. This was also influenced by the fact that there were increasingly closer links established between the Carolingian powers that ruled this region and the papacy. The monasteries founded by them didn’t develop into the same powerful centra as those established by the Irish missionaries. Under the influence of the papacy it were the bishops who became the most powerful promoters of the Catholic religion.

The most important missionaries in relation to northwestern Europe are discussed below.

Patrick and Palladius

Saint Patrick was a Romano-Briton and Christian missionary. He was born c. 387. When he was about 14 he was captured from Britain by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family. After entering the Church, he returned to Ireland as an ordained bishop in the north and west of the island, but little is known about the places where he worked and there is no contemporary evidence for any link between Patrick and any known church building. It is believed that he died around 493.

St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin – 2014

Modern historians seem to agree that the life of Patrick has been mixed up with that of Palladius who was the first Bishop of the Christians of Ireland, preceding Saint Patrick. It is believed that he is the same Palladius that is earlier described as the deacon of Saint Germanus of Auxerre. If this is the case, then he was the son of Exuperantius of Poitiers, of whom the contemporary pagan poet Rutilius Claudius Namatianus wrote: “Exuperantius now teaches the inhabitants of the Armorican coastal regions to love the restoration of peace; he re-establishes laws, restores freedom, and prevents the masters from being slaves to their own servants.” Exuperantius was apparently praefectus praetorio Galliarum (“Praetorian prefect of the Gallic provinces”) when killed in an army mutiny at Arles in 424. Palladius probably died ca 457/461. [9. Wikipedia – Palladius]


Building on the work of Saint Patrick, Columcille (Columbanus 543 – 615) organised the first large scale overseas missionary tour out of Ireland with 12 monks travelling through Britain, France and Germany. He might have been a prince from (northern) Ireland. Who landed on the northwestern Scottish island of Iona, where he established the first monastery on the British Isles.

When Columbanus refused to accept the concubines of King Theodrik he wanted to king to either expel them from the court to establish a legitimate relationship. He refused and Columbanus was exiled by Theodrik’s mother Brunhilde  to Italy he established a monastery in Luxueil in the Vosges Mountains  – from where in 750 the famous Sankt Gallen monastery was founded. Colombianus himself also founded  the famous monastery of Bobbio near Milan.

It was also in Bobbio that Pope Honarius in 626, issued the first ever papal immunity to Bertulfrus, Colombanus’s disciple and the abbot. It freed Bobbio from the jurisdiction of its diocesan bishop, Probus of Tortona.

After Brunhilde’s violent death Columbanus was welcomed back and was very well supported by the Merovingian kings Clothar II (the grandson of the baptised Clovis) and his son Dagobert and his court in Paris.


After Columbanus’s expansion the time was right for more monastic activities. Amandus and Remaclus played a key role in Austrasia. Amandus was born in Poitou, Aquitaine,  and was consecrated bishop of Maastricht after a pilgrimage to Rome in 628.

Clothar II asked if Amandus could come and preach amongst his subjects. He started in 628 first in Ganda (Ghent).  Ganda/Góntia was the name of the local Celtic goddess of the moon she was worshiped  at the confluence of the rivers Scheldt and Leie.  In Ghent Amandus  was joined by Saint Bavo and from here he went further into Flanders. He established two small monasteries Mount Blandin (the first in what’s now Belgium) and a few years later St Bavo.

Amandus was also a close confident of Pope Martin and Amandus regularly was asked for his diplomatic services, including asking King Sigibert of Austrasia to send a delegation to Contantinople to lobby for approve the decrees of the Council of Lateran (649).


Ghent and Saint Bavo Cathedral – 2007

Amandus  is still remembered in the magnificent St Bavo cathedral which we visited in both 2006 and 2007. There is still the Blandijnberg (Mount Blandin) where one of the monasteries were situated. The current St Peter Abby evolved from this small beginning, marking a spot of close to 1400 years of continuous catholic religion. Still during the life of Amandus the remains of Bavo were brought to the new church in Ganda, this church also had a small abbey attached to it. This currently is the site of the majestic St Bavo. This cathedral also hosts the baptismal fond where in 1500 the later Habsburg emperor Charles was baptised.

One of the advisors of Charlemagne and Louise the Pious, Einhard the Frank became in abbott of the Abbey of Saint Bavo (and of Saint Peter see below). A century later the Abbey  was also instrumental in the development of Holland. In 922 the Frisian lord Dirk in what is now Holland received, from the West Frankish King Charles III the Fat, lands at Egmond (within his area of Kennemerland) to found an Abby. The foundation took place from the St Bavo Abbey in Ghent, from where the relicts of St Adalbert were transported. The Abbey became one of the most important centra of learning in the Northern Low Countries.

Dirk’s son came back to Ghent and occupied the local fortress. His son Arnout was born here and when he died on the battlefields his wife Liutgard donated some of the properties of the Count to the St Peter Abbey in Ghent for the soul of her husband.

Back to Amandus who – in 630 – fell out of favour and was expelled by Clothar’s successor Dagobert; he apparently had tried to hard to turn this king from his sinful life. He was later pardoned but decided to continue his missionary work amongst the Wends (common collective name for all the Slavic-speaking  people, east of the Elbe). This proofed to be very difficult and it was not until 832 that the Picardian Ansgar (see below) became the archbishop of the newly formed diocese of Hamburg. Only after that was it possible to christen the Slaves in northern Europe and the Germanic tribes in Scandinavia.

Cut of from the usual nobility circles, it was during this period that he was in particular successful in his missionary work amongst soldiers, prisoners and serfs.

But a lack of success in the north saw him coming back to Austrasia and around 649 he served briefly as bishop in Maastricht, Tongeren and Liège. The pope also asked him to call councils in Neustria and Austrasia.  He forged close ties with the Austrasian Mayor Grimoald I. It was Amandus who in 640 persuaded the widow of Pippin, Itta (the mother of Grimoald), to establish a monastery on her lands in Nivelle (see below).

In 650 he arranged with Grimoald for the election of Remaclus as bishop of Tongeren/Maastricht.

He died in his monastery of Elnon (later Saint Armand near Doornik) at the age of ninety.


Saint Pirmin/Priminius (ca. 700 – Hornbach 753) was a monk, strongly influenced by Celtic Christianity and Saint Amand. He originated from the surroundings of Narbonne, possible of Visigothic origin, many of whom had to flee to Francia after the conquest of Spain by the Arabs  in the beginning of the 8th century.

From 718 onwards, he was abbot of the monastery Quortolodora in Antwerp (Austrasia) and, together with its pupils, the minister of the church inside the fortress, het Steen. Later he was invited by Count Rohingus to stay at his villa in Thommen, near Sankt Vith in the Ardennes.

He gained the favour of Charles Martel. He was send to help rebuild Disentis Abbey in Switzerland. In 724, he was appointed abbot of Mittelzell Abbey at Reichenau Island, which he had founded. For political reasons he was banished to Alsace. In 753, he died in the abbey at Hornbach, where he was buried.

Pirmin’s missionary work mainly took place in the Alsace and the upper area of the Rhine and the Danube. Besides actively preaching and converting, he also founded a great number of monasteries, such as those at Amorbach, Gengenbach, Murbach, Wissembourg, Marmoutier Neuweiler, and Hornbach.

He had gained the favour of Count Odilo of Bavaria, where he was asked to set up  Niederaltaich Abbey.  One of Pirmin’s books is of special importance to the development of Christianity. His Dicta Abbatis Pirminii, de Singulis Libris Canonicis Scarapsus (“Concerning the Single Canonical Book Scarapsus”) is “a collection of quotations from Scripture and the Church Fathers to be used in putting together the sermons a missionary should preach in his evangelistic work.” Written between 710-724, provides the earliest appearance of the present text of the Apostles’ Creed.


St Eloy opaline tableau Jan Schoenaker 1959

Saint Eligius/Eloy (ca. 588-590 – December 1, 659 or 660) was born at the “villa” of Chaptelat (modern Cadillac?), six miles west of Limoges, in Aquitaine into an educated and influential Gallo-Roman family. His father, recognizing unusual talent in his son, sent him to the goldsmith Abbo, master of the mint at Limoges. Later Eligius went to Neustria, where he worked under Babo, the royal treasurer, on whose recommendation king Clotaire II, is said to have commissioned him to make a throne of gold adorned with precious stones.

He became the saint of the gold and silver smith and my grandfather in his gold and antiques workshop in Ootmarsum had a glass artwork made of St Eloy by the famous stained-glass artist Jan Schoenaker from Oldenzaal; this now features in our house in Bucketty, Australia.

After the death of Clotaire in 629, Dagobert appointed his father’s friend as his chief councillor. Eligius’ reputation spread rapidly, to the extent that ambassadors first sought out Eligius for counsel and to pay their respects to him before going to the king. He made some enemies. His success in inducing the Breton prince, Judicael ap Hoel, to make a pact with Dagobert, at a meeting at the king’s villa of Creil (636–37) increased his influence.

On the death of Dagobert (639), Queen Nanthild took the reins of government as the king, Clovis II, still was an infant. During this regency, Elegius launched a campaign against simony in the church. On the death of Acarius, Bishop of Noyon-Tournai in 642, Eligius was made his successor. So the unwilling goldsmith was tonsured and constituted guardian of the towns or municipalities of Vermandois which include the township as well as Tournai (Doornik), Noyon, Ghent and Kortrijk.

Most of the inhabitants of his new diocese were pagans. He undertook the conversion of the Flemings, Frisians, Suevi, and the barbarian tribes along the North Sea coast. He made frequent missionary excursions and also founded a great many monasteries and churches. In his own episcopal city of Noyon he built and endowed a nunnery for virgins.

Eligius died in 659 or 660 and was buried at Noyon.


Saint Remaclus (Remaculus, Remacle, Rimagilus) was a Benedictine missionary bishop. He grew up at the Aquitanian royal court and studied under Sulpicius of Bourges. He became a monk in 625 and was then ordained a priest. He was the first to head the monastery of Solignac after being appointed by Saint Eligius. He joined Amandus in his missionary work in Austrasia.

In 643 he was named as an advisor to Sigebert III of Austrasia and convinced this monarch to establish the double-monastery of Stavelot and Malmedy  in the Ardennes a few years later, he served here as abbot. He was also bishop of Liège.

St Servaas Basilica – Vrijthof Maastricht

He was appointed missionary bishop of Maastricht in 652 where he served until 663. Inhabitants of this troubled diocese had murdered some of his predecessors. However, Remaclus successfully spread monasticism in the region he worked here together with Saint Hadelin. He served also as the spiritual teacher to Saint Trudo, Saint Babolen, Saint Theodard, and Saint Lambert.

He subsequently retired to the abbey of Stavelot  where he died in 663.


Another important Irish missionary for Brabant has been St Foillan (Feuillen). He travelled with his brother Fursey and Ultan from Ireland to England around 630 where they worked as missionaries.

During a war between the Mercians and East Angles around 650, the monastery of Cnobheresburg where he and his brothers stayed was destroyed,  most of the monks were killed, captured or dispersed. Foillan ransomed back his brothers, collected the surviving relics, books and liturgical equipage from the hous

Shrine St Gertrude Nijvel – 2007

e, and travelled to France.

He was welcomed and encouraged in their missionary work by the Merovingian King Clovis II. Foillan founded a monastery at Fosses in the diocese of Liège, around 653 on land donated by Itta and Gertrude of Nivelles (see below). He served as its abbot, and the area around it grew to the modern town of Le Roeulx, Belgium. He also functioned as the chaplain and spiritual advisor to Gertrud. He preached among the people of Brabant. He was murdered in 655 in the forest near Nivelle, their bodies were found three months later and buried at the abbey of Fosses. His remaining brother, Saint Ultan, then took over as abbot of Fosses.

In July 2007 we visited the church of St Feuillen in Aachen.


Willibrord was born about 658 his father -Wilgis – was an Anglo- Saxon noble who had only recently converted to Christianity.  As a six or seven year old youth was sent to live – as on ablate – in the monastery at Ripon in Yorkshire, under Abbot St Wilfrid of York.  The Celtic monastery introduced the Rule of Benedict in 661 and this led to a split in the community and as a result Wilfrid and Willibrord were deposed and exiled in 677. Willibrord became a disciple of St Egbert in Ireland.

In 688 he was ordained priest and in 690 Egbert sent him and 11 companions to convert the pagan Frisians, recently conquered by the Carolingian ruler Pippin the Young. Willibrord obtained a papal com­mission for this work and in 695 went to Rome to be consecrated Archbishop of the Frisians (based at Utrecht), and on this occasion the pope, St Sergius, named him Clementius (although this name did not stick). In 716 and 719 he also operated from Antwerp.  Willibrord also established in Utrecht the first monastery in the northern Netherlands.

Echternach – 1968

However, his interest seems to be more focussed on the foundation in 698 of the Abbey of Echternach (now in Luxembourg) rather than on the Bishopric of Utrecht. This is evident in  the  donations of all the properties that he had received from the Frankish nobles which he directed to the Abbey of Echternach.  The extend and the effects of these donations lasted for many centuries as we will see below. There are no known  records that shows that he donated any of them to Utrecht. This might also have something to do with the fact that he never had any serious impact on the conversion of the Frisii.

One of the his companions was Adelbert, he travelled with Willibrord to the Low Countries and became venerated by the early Counts of Holland. His relics were buried in the Abbey of Egmond.

From Echternach other follwers and companions  began an outreach to Denmark and to the Frisian islands of Heligoland  (an important pagan centre) and Walcheren. A pagan revolt undid much of his work, but  their conversion work was started again in 719. Willibrord  died on November 7th , 739 and was buried in Echternach, where he soon was venerated and proclaimed a saint.

There is also a strong Willibrord tradition in Oss. Legend has it that he also preached in this region, very close to the area where since ages Celtic people had buried their dead. During archaeological research in the 1930s the foundations of a small chapel and an old creek bed were unearthed. Only 50 meters from the so called St Willibrord Well, tradition has it that it was here that Willibrord baptised the first locals in this area.

The first church in Oss was also named after him as well as the church in neighbouring Berghem another settlement close to the old Celtic tumuli site.

Other properties where the city centre of Oss currently is as well as properties to the north of it were most probably also donated to him.

In 2009 we stayed in Hammelburg, Lower Franconia (Bayern)  situated at a strategic point at the river Saale and the Castellum Hamulum as it was called in 716 was donated to Willibrord by Duke Heden.

Places like Oss, Echternach and Hammelburg shows the extend of the area that was either travelled by Willibrord and/or that there was a high level of communication throughout this area that allowed for these events to be coordinated and administered.


Willibrord was joined by a Benedictine priest, a nobleman from Wessex called Wyn­­frid or Wynfrith (born in Devon about 675 and educated under St Aldhelm), who had already attempted to begin mission work among the Frisians and had, the previous year, been commissioned by Pope Gregory II to carry the gospel to the pagan Germans east of the Rhine. Gregory also changed his name to Bonifatius, or Boniface – and this name stuck. He largely operated as a travelling missionary and bishop who never settled down for a prolonged period of time.

In 722 Boniface branched out and established, in what is today Hessen, the first of many Benedictine monasteries. His success as a missionary resulted in a call to Rome, where Gregory consecrated him a missionary bishop and also gave him letters of recommendation and safe conduct to leading figures including Charles Mar­tel, master of the Merovingian kingdom.

The reputation of Charles  Martel’s (martel = hammer) among the local population probably helped Boniface in the dramatic destruction of the sacred oak of the god Thor at Geismar, near the present-day university town of Göttingen, in Niedersachsen. Like Elijah challenging Baal, Boniface called on Thor to strike him down if he were indeed a god, but Thor, naturally, failed to intervene, and the wind pushed it down, causing it to fall in four sections. Boniface used the wood of the oak to build a church dedicated to St Peter, legend has it that it was soon filled by those who had seen the tree fall.

Marienberg Wurzburg – 2009

Boniface spent the years 725 to 735 in Thuringia, where he converted pagans and consolidated the haphazard work of earlier Irish missionaries. He was also joined by many English Benedictines, men and women, who helped him found four more monasteries. In 735 Pope Gregory III sent Boniface to Bavaria, where he created three (later four) bishoprics as well as another three in central Germany.

In 742, Boniface also appointed the first bishop of Würzburg, Saint Burkhard, this Eastern Franconia diocese developed over the next centuries into one of the most power Prince-Bishoprics in the Holy Roman Empire. In 2009, we visited both the bishop’s impressive fortress Marienberg, on the hill above the city as well as the World Heritage Listed Residence of the bishop in the town itself.

Eastern Franconia was the most remote area of the Frankish Empire and it shows how well Boniface was organised and able to establish Roman Catholic authority throughout the rapidly emerging Frankish Empire. The bishoprics and monasteries he founded here  secured that for centuries to come his successors held on to a monopoly on temporal offices in Franconia.

Boni­face’s authority over these bishops was confirmed when he was made Archbishop of Mainz and Primate of Germany in 751.

He was also instrumental in getting the support of the pope for a church reformation; aimed at ensuring control of the church through the Episcopal system. His aim was to unify religious control over the various institutions (monasteries and dioceses). He also very seriously warned against layman control of the church, be it the emperor, kings or counts. The opposite happened the Carolingian saw themselves both as secular and religious rulers. With the state and the church now being one, powerful bishops from the aristocracy and closely linked to the royal family would also run the church like a state.

Boniface was also instrumental in providing the Carolingian with the crown of the Franks. He negotiated with the Pope that the Merovingian king was replaced by a Carolingian king.

At the age of 75 Boniface retired and went on a last mission to Fries­land. He met his end in Dokkum (Frisi) at Pen­t­ecost (5 June), 754, when a band of pagan Frisians killed him as he was reading the Scriptures to a group of converts. He was buried at his request at the famous monastery of Fulda, which he had founded. The land on which the monastery was built was donated to Boniface by Carloman in 744.

In 787 a contemporary of Boniface, who was in Dokkum from 775-777 wrote down the history “Life of Boniface”. After he left, Liudger (see below) took his place and re-built the church that the pagans had burnt down. Recent archeological excavations have revealed parts of this structure and even the remnants of a small burial chamber that could have been intended for the depository of the 754 murdered monks or even of Boniface himself.

Willibrord is remembered as the Apostle of the Frisians and patron saint of the Netherlands, and Boniface, Apostle of the Germans, together they established a strong English/Irish cultural influence in the realms of the Carolingian and their successors, the German kings – the future Holy Roman Empire – and consolidated mission­ry efforts there by establishing the authority of Rome. It could be said that they had laid the foundations for the Empire’s holiness.

There was an obvious vested interest for both the missionaries and the Carolingian to work closely together.

Werenfried (Werenfridus)

Merovingian Coins Dorestad

Irish missionaries from the Monastery of Rathmelsigi travelled with Willbrordus around 690 to the Low Countries. According to tradition he settles in Wervershoof (the hof of Werenfridus) in West Frisia. From here he travelled to Dorestad and from here further east to the Betuwe (Elst)

He also travelled to the Vechte Valley where he visited Nordhorn; where he founded the church in nearby Uelsen. Legend has it that in the Middle Ages all children born in the Nordhorn region had to be baptised in this church.

He died on August 14th in Westervoort and was buried in the church of Elst. Recent archaeological excavations revealed that this church was built on the remnants of two Roman temples and during this activity also the sarcophagi of the saint was discovered.


Probably the most important successor of Willibrord and Boniface amongst the Frisii was Liudger Thiadgrimzoon, most probably he was born in Zuilen near Utrecht around 742. His grandfather  Wursing came in conflict with the Frisian king Radbod and had to flee to Liège where he came in contact with the catholic faith. After his studies in Utrecht and York, Liudger started his missionary work from Deventer in 777. His work became easier after Charles the Great in 783 had defeated the Saxon king Widukind. This allowed him to expand his Frankish empire past the Lauwers (river border between the Frisii and Saxons).  As we saw above Liudger also rebuilt the church in Dokkum destroyed during the murder of Boniface.

Bronze plaque showing St Ludgerius the founder of Emsburen. – 1999

There are also strong suggestions that Liudger translated the Latin Bible that he had brought with him from York, had translated in Old Saxon or Frisian. Parts of the Old Saxon version have survived. This translation became known as ‘Heliand’ (Heiland in German/Dutch – Savior in English).

And in turn this allowed Liudger to also move further east. I also came across this saint while researching the Budde family history. The old church of Nordhorn was named St Liudger, it is unclear if this  church was established by him, or shortly after this period. At that time it was a rather large parish and included Bakelde, Frensdorf, , Bookholt, Bimolten, Hesepe and in the very early time also Wietmarschen and Brandlecht.  Slowly the local (pagan) population started to change their traditions. They stopped burying their death in the old pagan sites. The fact that this didn’t happen smoothly is indicated by a charter issued by Charlemagne who  ordered that people had to bury their death at the Nordhorn church and that they no longer were allowed to cremate their death [10. Nordhorn, Geschichte einer Grenzstadt, 1979, Heinrich Specht]

He is also the patron saint of neighbouring Emsburen, where possibly the Budde ancestors from Wietmarschen came from, also here, as is the case in Wietmarschen, the decedents of the Buddes are still living on the original farm.

In 796 he founded the abbey of Werden (see below).

Liudger went on to become – in 804 – the first bishop of Münster. He died near Billerbeck (within his bishopric) in 809.

The name of the 2nd church in Utrecht Oudmunster (St Salvator) could also be a remnant of the link between Liudger and Utrecht. Together with the Dom the formed a so called double catherdral.

Many of the Werden properties along the river Vechte (including some at Nordhorn) were handed over to the Bishop of Utrecht during the 11th century.

Lebuinus, Marchelm and Plechelmus

Like Willibrord and Boniface, Lebuinus was also an Irish monk (Liafwin = dear friend) in Wilfrid’s monastery at Ripon (Britain). After his ordination he proceeded in 754 to Utrecht, and was entrusted by the bishop with the mission of Overijssel, and gave him as a companion Marchelm (or Marcellinus), a disciple of Saint Willibrord.

He preached the Gospel among the tribes of the district, and erected a little chapel at Wilpon on the IJssel. He also built a large church in Deventer, where he was buried in 785 (?).

However, Lebuinus’s success aroused hostility among the local population, they formed an alliance with the Saxons and burned the church in Deventer.

Marchelm, also known as the apostle of Twente, founded the wooden church in Ootmarsum, legend has it that a drawing from 732 of the church was based on a description of the monk Beda Venerabilis, however, there are no indication that this very famous British monk ever set foot in continental Europe.

It could well be that in the early Middle Ages the centre of the community was what is now called Oud Ootmarsum. Perhaps the early timber church was situated here in the forest of what is now called Springendal. There are records indicating that this is how those early churches were established, cut trees in the forest and use them to build the church. The Irish monks had established that it was best to cut some of the trees on an angle so that they could be used for the roof and on top of that branches and straw was placed.

During a campaign from Otto van Gelre in 1195/1196 the timber church in Ootmarsum was burnt down again. After this event the current church was built and it was perhaps around this time that the current township evolved. Marchelm died in Oldenzaal in 762.

St Plechelmus Basilica – Oldenzaal – 2014

The 3rd apostle of Twente is Plechelmus an Irish monk who around 750 arrived in this region. He also founded the church in Oldenzaal (perhaps the St Sylvester in 765). He was buried in St Odiëlenberg near Roermond. In 954, Bishop Balderik from Utrecht brought the remains over to Oldenzaal and at that event the church was renamed St Plechelmus basilica.  This church also had a Chapter, the chapel of Weerselo belonged to this Chapter. In 1142 this chapel was donated to Knight Hugo van Buren who founded the Stift Weerselo, which was linked to the Monastery St Marienrode in Wietmarchen.



St Lambertus Church – Linden (Brabant) – 2018

Saint Lambert or Landebertus (c. 636 – c. 706) was the bishop of Maastricht (Tongeren) from about 670 until his death. Lambert was born in a noble family of Maastricht, a protégé of his uncle, Bishop Theodard of Maastricht. When Theodard was murdered soon after 669, the councillors of Childeric II made Lambert bishop of Maastricht. Lambert was an opponent of the Arnulfings. After Childeric was murdered in 673, the faction of Ebroin, major-domo of Neustria and the power behind that throne, expelled him from his see, in favour of his own candidate, Faramundus. Lambert spent seven years in exile at the recently-founded Abbey of Stavelot (674 –681). With a change in the turbulent political fortunes of the time, Lambert was returned to his see.

In the company of Willibrord, with whom, in 691, he had come from England, Lambert preached the to the pagans in the lower stretches of the Meuse.

Shortly after Lambert’s nephews had murdered Dodo, a domesticus of Pepin of Heristal, Dodo’s relatives murdered Lambert out of revenge, on his estate, the Gallo-Roman villa that had expanded into the town of  Liège.

This was one of several political murders – which included several bishops – that happened during a period of weak secular leadership when bishops were able to increase their secular powers.


Saint Hubertus or Hubert  was born between 656 and 658, probably in Toulouse.

As a youth, he was sent to the Neustrian court of Theuderic III at Paris, where he became an official of the palace. However, the above mentioned tyrannical conduct of Ebroin, mayor of the Neustrian palace, caused a large scale emigration of nobles and others officials to the court of Austrasia at Metz. Hubert soon followed them and was warmly welcomed by Pippin of Herstal, mayor of the palace, who made him almost immediately grand-master of the household. About this time (682) Hubert married Floribanne, daughter of Dagobert, Count of Leuven. Their son Floribert would later become bishop of Liège.

After a revelation during a hunting expedition, Hubert went to Maastricht, where Lambert was bishop. Hubert renounced his very considerable possessions, and also renounced his birthright to Aquitaine and handed that to his younger brother Odo, whom he also made guardian of his infant son, Floribert. On the advice of Lambert, Hubert made a pilgrimage to Rome in 708, but during his absence, Lambert was assassinated by the followers of Pippin. Hubert was appointed as the next bishop of Maastricht.

Hubert moved the remains of St. Lambert’s from Maastricht to Liège and the following year, the see was also moved from Maastricht to Liège, at that time only a small village. This laid the foundation of the future greatness of Liège, of which Saint Lambert is honoured as patron, and Saint Hubert as the founder and first bishop.

Hubert actively preached among the pagans in the extensive Ardennes forests and in Toxandria.

Hubertus died peacefully in Fura (Ter Vuren, near Brussels) on May 30, 727 or 728. He was initially buried in the collegiate church of St. Peter in Liège, but in 825 his remains were exhumed and moved to the Benedictine Abbey of Amdain (“Andagium”, in French “Andage”, the present-day Saint-Hubert, Belgium) in the Ardennes .

Ansgar (Anskar)

Ansgar – Christened the Vikings in Hedeby – 2018

After his mother’s early death Ansgar was brought up in Corbie Abbey, Picardie – founded in about 659/661 by Balthild, widow of Clovis II, and her son Clotaire III., the abbey followed the Irish tradition.

After Saxony with Christened, Denmark became the new frontier. In 822 Angar was send among a group of monks to Jutland and in 822 where they founded the abbey of Corvey (New Corbie) in Westphalia. For a very short period in 826 he preached in Hedeby, Denmark.In 829 in response to a request for a mission to the Swedes, Emperor Louis the Pious appointed Ansgar as the missionary in charge. With an assistant, the friar Witmar, he preached and made converts at the important trading port of Birka.

In 831 he returned to the court of Louis the Pious at Worms and was appointed to the Archbishopric of Hamburg. This was a new archbishopric and he was given the rights to send missions into all of the northern lands and consecrate bishops in the new region. He also founded a monastery and a school in Hamburg; the school was intended to serve the Danish mission.

After Louis died in 840, his empire was divided and Ansgar lost the abbey of Turholt, which had been given as an endowment for his work. Then in 845 the Danes unexpectedly sacked the newly founded Saxon fortress Hammaborg (Hamburg), destroying all the church’s treasures and books. Ansgar now had neither see nor revenue. Many of his helpers deserted him, but two years later, the new king, Louis the German, awarded him the vacant diocese of Bremen.

Despite the political turmoil, Ansgar continued his mission to the northern lands. He was able to secure recognition of Christianity as a tolerated religion and received permission to build a church in Schleswig. He did not neglect the Swedish mission, and spent there two years (848-850). Ansgar died in Bremen in 865.


Monasteries instrumental in shaping organisational strategies

In the 7th century alone more than 200 new monasteries were established in Gaul/Francia. The Frankish nobility and the missionaries it supported played a key role in establishing these religious houses

The system that was used to empower these monasteries is known as ‘immunities’ (See: The Merovingians). These privileges  were also issued in the previous period – including in the Late Imperial period – but it is most likely that this period of Merovingian peace led to the further developments of this system, and perhaps even started to replace some of the ‘in kind’ giving Frankish  tradition. The monasteries were the largest beneficiaries of the privileges.

These immunities  typically included:

  • No cleric, bishop or king could usurp or diminish any property that had been given to the monastery
  • When the abbot died the congregation was to elect his successor
  • For blessings and concentrations the monks can select their own bishop to do this (i.e. from outside the local bishopric)
  • No one has authority over the property, the ordination, or dues belonging to the monks
  • No bishop is allowed to have access to the ‘secret enclosure’ of the monastery without invitation.
  • If required monks behaviour should be corrected by their abbot

Monasteries often also had secular functions often linked to their secular beneficiaries. They were ideal places to imprison those of the nobility who had (temporarily) fallen from favour or unwanted contenders to the throne or unmarried (ladies in waiting) or widowed female members of the family.

They increasingly also became the intellectual centres for the king.

Capital columns” “Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine Vézelay – 2018

In some monasteries (Cluny, Vézelay) the immunities were under the control of the pope, which led to a different sort of power dynamics. Under Charlemagne the Merovingian immunities were changed from ‘non interference’ to ‘protection’; thus giving the kings much greater powers over them. The Episcopal immunities created far greater freedom for the Abbey as the pope was too far away to have any form of serious control. These immunities were later also used by the pope to bypass some of his bishops [11. Negotiating Space,  Barbara H Rosenwein, 1999].

Immunities only started to arrive in England after the Normans conquered it in 1066.

Below follows an overview of some of  the most important monasteries in north west Europe.

Auxerre 6th century

This Bededictine abbey was founded by Queen Clotilda the wife of Clovis, on the site of an oratory where St Germanus, the 5th century bishop of Auxerre was buried. Clotilda was also responsible for the foundations of the Saints Peter and Paul church in Paris and personally served after the death of her husband at the basilica of Saint Martin in Tours. The Abbey in Auxerre firmly remained under Carolingian control, which included direct control (protection) by Charlemagne.

The town Auxerre started off as a Gaulish village (Autricum) and evolved as a Roman city (Autessiodorum) through which passed one of the main roads of the area, the Via Agrippa (1st century AD) which crossed the Yonne River (Gallo-Roman Icauna) here.

During the reign of the French King Charles the Bald the abbey hosted one of the most famous schools. St Patrick was one of the school’s most famous students, another student Remi of Auxerre became the tutor of St Odo of Cluny.

We visited Auxerre in 2007. However, we were a bit unlucky here as the abbey and its famous Carolingian crypt were closed.

Nivelles (Nijvel) – 640

As mentioned bishop Amandus – amongst many other missionaries and bishops – built up a closer relationship with the Merovingians and their Mayors.

A key person here is Pippin of Landen (Pippin I also Pippin the Elder). He was appointed mayor of  palace by Clothar II. He was very powerful and very rich with lands throughout Austrasia and Brabant. He was married to Itta, sister of Modoad the future bishop of Trier, an equally influential and wealthy person. He lost his position as Mayor under Dogobert, but after his dead in 639, Pippin was back in favour and he recouped his position at the palace in Metz. Pippin died suddenly in 640.

Collegiate Church of Saint Gertrude Nijvel – 2013

Amongst the properties of Pippin was the old Roman villa in Nivelles, he had recently rebuilt the villa and Amand suggested that Itta should found an abbey in their villa. As a result she founded, following the Irish fashion a double monastery, the female monastery was for noble unmarried girls who could stay and study here until a husband was found for them. The male monastery was possibly smaller.

There were also three small churches. In 2007 we visited the remnants of these churches under the current basilica.

After the death of Pippin,  Itta and her 14 year old daughter – who didn’t want to marry –  Gertrude withdrew to Nivelle.

After the death of her mother in 652, Gertrude became the first abbess of this monastery; she was reportedly very learned and very religious

At this stage the monastery was still based on the Columbanian rule which preached poverty. Already at a young age she had indicated that she would not marry other than to Jesus Christ and in Nivelle, Itta became a nun and assisted Gertrude in her work as abbess, she died in 652. Gertrude’s life of poverty resulted in a form of religious anorexia and Gertrude died in 659 at the age of 33 (the same age that Jesus had reached). Soon After her death the Columbanian rule was replaced with the Benedict Rule, which rules were less focussed on poverty. Already during her life Gertrude was venerated as a demi-saint and was proclaimed as such soon after that.

Pippin was followed up by his son Grimoald as mayor of the palace and his daughter Wulfetrude became the next abbess until her death in 669.

Gertrude, Pippin and Itta were buried in Nivelles. During our visit we also saw their graves which were unearthed after archaeological excavations after most of the abbey and cathedral were destroyed during German bombardments in 1941.

Saint Gertrude churches

Geertruid Church – Geertruidenberg – 2007

I also visited Geertruidenberg that year; legend has it that St Gertrude founded a monastery here on a hill; however there has been no archaeological evidence found of this. Nevertheless, the town and the church bare her name. Also the church in Bergen-op-Zoom has her as the patron saint and legend has that in 654 Gertrude founded the church here.

The current church in Geertruidenberg dates back to the 14th century and became a protestant churched after the Reformation. It is well known for its memory boards, beautiful decorated shields commemorating important citizens that have passed away.

The church in Bergen op Zoom was built in 1370, it became a protestant church in 1586 but was given back to the Catholics in 1810. The church is also closely linked with the important noble Dutch family the Margraves van Glymes.

In 1003 Count Lambert of Leuven was the guardian of the Abbey. After his death in 1015, his son Henry I took over this position.

The growing influx of pilgrims necessitated the construction of ever-bigger churches, which culminated in the huge Romanesque structure which we visited in 2007. The dedication of the church took place in 1046, within the presence of distinguished guests such as Emperor Henry II, Wazon Bishop of Liège (to which Nivelle belonged) and the Count of Leuven (the emperor’s local representative). This was the golden age of the Nivelles monastery, which  now owned properties as far as Friesland and the Moselle and  Rhine region.

In the 13th century, the city that grew around the church became part of the Duchy of Brabant. The population was mostly made up of artisans and guild members, who did not hesitate to fight the abbesses and the dukes to obtain their rights. These rights were finally granted by Joanna, Duchess of Brabant in the 14th century. In 1647, an important uprising by the thread manufacturers resulted in many of the city’s entrepreneurs leaving for France, leading to the city’s economic decline. The wars of the 17th century between France and the Spanish Netherlands made the situation worse as Nivelles went through successive sieges and military occupations. The Austrian and French regimes of the 18th century brought religious and administrative reforms to the city.

At the start of World War II, on May 14, 1940, the entire city centre was destroyed by the Germans, leaving only the walls of the collegiate church standing. The rebuilding of the church was completed (financed by Germany) in 1984, a year that marked a new beginning for Nivelles and its inhabitants.

Archaeological Crypt

Crypt Collegiate Church of Saint Gertrude Nijvel – 2013

The archaeological crypt under the abbey is one of the most amazing I have ever seen. After the bombing of the church in 1940 the foundations of the first three churches founded by Itta and Gertrud as well two later churches and several tombs became exposed. The oldest remnants are from a Merovingian sanctuaries from around 650: the church of St Paul – this church was reserved for the men of the double monastery, and the earlier church of St Peter, – who was rapidly becoming a new cult in those days in Austrasia – this was the funeral oratory of the community. In between the foundations of these churches are the foundations of the Our Lady church, the parish church of the township that had formed around the monastery.

There are the graves of Itta, Pippin and Gertrude. There is also the grave of ‘Ermentrude’ and it has been speculated that this could be the first wife of Charles the Great. There is also the grave of Hugh Carpet’s granddaughter. Hugh was the duke of Hainault at that time. Furthermore there is the grave of a child who died in 1001.

Interestingly the present domain covers an area of 6000 hectares, not too much different from the original donation which covered a total area of 7800 hectares.

St. Bertin – Saint Omaars (Omer) (7th century)

This was a Benedictine abbey in Saint-Omaars (Audomar), northern France, at that time part of Flanders. The Abby was founded on the banks of the Aa in the 7th century by St Omer (+670) – Burgundy-born bishop of Thérouanne (Terwaan) – and Saint Bertin was its second abbot.

St Omer sent the monks Bertin, Momelin and Ebertram from Omer to proselytise among the pagans in the region. The Abbey of St. Bertin soon became one of the most influential monasteries in northern Europe.

William Clito was buried here in 1128 as well as other Counts from Flanders.  The abbey had its greatest flourishing until the 13th century, though it survived until it was closed down during the French Revolution.

The Abbey also held a critical position in the foundation of the Knights Templar in northwestern Europe.

Echternach – 706

Irmina von Oeren  the mother of the Preclude, the first wife of Pippin II (also named the Middle or van Herstal) founded, in 706, rather central within their territory,  a monastery for travelling monks on the ruins of the old Roman stronghold. This hill overlooked the strategic area of the river Sauer and was also used by the Romans to defend the area against the raids of the Germanic tribes who lived in the area. There was also a large Roman villa not far from this stronghold.

Irmina had met Willibrord when he visited them in Trier. In 698, after the death of her husband Hugobert – one of the leading families in Austrasia – Irmina donated this monastery and part of the Villa Epternacus (Echternach) to Willibrord, this also included a small church.

Pippin and Irmina made it clear by charter that the monastery was under their protection and defense.

Echternach – 2007

At the moment the site also hosts the Peter and Paul parish church –situated on a hill in the middle of Echternach. The crypt of the parish church is built from the roman building materials and also contains the original water put. The current church, which was built around 1000, also hosts the sarcophagus that was used from the 17th century till 1906 for the remains of Willibrord.

At the foot of the hill, Willibrord built a new larger church and a new monastery according to the rule of St Benedict. Plektrudis donated a few years later, with the approval of her husband Pippin, also the rest of the property in Echternach to Willibrord.

We visited Echternach in 2007.

Soon after the inauguration of Emperor Charlemagne the abbey received the title ‘imperial abbey’.

In the crypt of the basilica we also saw the well where according the legend Willibrord baptised the locals who converted to Catholicism. The crypt itself was probably built around 800 and included the original grave of the bishop. The Merovingian tomb has been placed in a new monument made of white marble.

As mentioned above Echternach was one of the most powerful landowners in the Middle Ages, there are indications that they had processions in Oss, but also in the what must have been extreme wet country in those days they had possessions in what is now Egmond (Holland). These possessions were disputed by the Counts of Holland but after 150 years the issue was finally settled in 1156.

Echternach and Oss

In a local history book written in 1932 it was stated that according to documents at he Abbey of Echternach, Engelbert had provide property in Oss to the local priest Docfa. This was witnessed by the Frankish noblemen Volcbaldus, Framundus, Aeumlaus and Nandinus on March 1, 712.

In 1972 this was rebuked ‘ in loco deosne’ was interpreted as Oss (old spelling is ‘Os’) and was now seen as Diessen by Tilburg. It also mentioned other town such as Baclaos, Fleodrum and Durinum. Bacleos was initially (1932) interpreted as two towns Bakel and Oss, but later (1972) dismissed. There were a few other mistakes made in these early interpretations, but this would go beyond the scope of this story.

In later documents from the Abbey the same places are mentioned (1147) and now ‘os’ appears as a separate name, this is the first time the place is mentioned in historic documents.

In 2008 I checked this with Marios Costambeys Senior Lecturer in Medieval at the University of Liverpool (UK) he has written a book ‘An aristocratic community on the northern Frankish frontier’. He confirmed the conclusions made since 1972. He could also add that Docfa was a scribe in Echternach who recorded the transaction.

Until 1856 Oss had a Willibrordus Church

There are good reasons to believe that the properties mentioned in 1147 would have been in the centre of Oss where the church stands and where the Abbey traditionally had most of its properties. However, the Abbey had also properties outside the centre of town, just north of the Heuvel, where since 2000BCE farmers had been living. One of the early properties here was called ‘Vranckebeemd’ and was first mentioned in 1389.

I would suggest that this name refers to the Franks, either to indicate newcomers to the area who settled here among the local population or that it refers to property held by Franks which than in turn could refer to Frankish noblemen, who – as was traditional – donated land to Frankish Abbeys such as Echternach. However, as far as we know none of the documents in the Liber Aureus or Golden Book in which all properties belonging to the Abbey from before the beginning of the early 12th century are listed mentions Oss.

After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire new warlords started to take some of these ‘vacant’ Church properties for themselves, this could have happened during the time the Duke of Brabant started to expand its territory in the region along the river Maas during the last quarter of the 13th century. His military leaders often received land in fief in exchange for military services. I am speculating here but perhaps a trusted vassal of the Duke, such as Jan van Cuijk, received property in Oss which could previously have belonged to the Abbey, some of this property, he in turn – around 1305 – made that available to Gijsbrecht and Jan van Aemstel who had to flee Amsterdam after the murder of Floris V. This could well have been Vranckebeemd.

Most properties belonging to the Duke were situated in the north (Ussen, Frankenbeemd, Katwijk, Ussen, en Kortfoort).

Prüm – 721

Another daughter of Irmina, Betrada (the Elder)  founded, in 721,  together with her son Charibert, the later Count of Laon, the monastery and church of Prüm, which we visited in July 2007. The first monks came from Echternach. Betrada donated her part of the heritage to the monastery consisting of properties between Switzerland and the river Mosel.

The grandson of Pippin the Middle, Pippin the Young (III) was crowned king by the missionary-bishop Boniface in Soissons in 751. His wife, Bertada (the younger also Bertra) a daughter of Charibert, most probably to indicate their gratitude to the church for the recognition by the pope, made a 2nd donation to establish the Monastery of Prüm; not much had happened since the first donation, it was not until 762 before a serious start was made. The new buildings in Prüm were finally consecrated in 799 in the attendance of Charles the Great.

Pippin donated large parts of his kingdom to the monastery and this perhaps also included the manor in Oldenzaal (Aldensele) which became an immunity.

Court of Oldenzaal

Oldenzaal in Twente is also mentioned in documents from 893 onwards, parts of the royal domains  Pippin III held here, had been donated to  Prüm. These donations also made it possible for Plechelmus to do his missionary work in Twente. The basilica in Oldenzaal is named after him. The Monastery established here was a central domain (hof) with full court functions. By 1049 the domains and related feudal rights were handed over to the Bishop Baldric of Utrecht who had become an important protégé of the Emperor Henry III. Most of Twente was now under the control of the Bishop.

Prüm Abbey – 2013

In all Prüm had over 373 properties and over 100 churches.  This extended also into the Low Countries, in 893 their serfs in Arnhem had to pay 10% of every 100 litters of rye, four carts of wood, one chicken, five eggs and two pigs at the value of  five pennies. On top of that they had to pay 27 pennies and in spring and autumn they had to work a fortnight for the lord.

The significance of Prüm was highlighted when Pope Zacharias donated to Pippin a very important  (reliquiae, the sandals of Jesus. Consequently other Carolingians such Charles the Great and Lothar I made very significant donations the monastery, making it one of the most important religious centres of their kingdom.

Abbot Marquard went to Rome in 844 and also brought priceless reliquiae back with him to foster a devotion amongst the Saxons to the Catholic Church. Emperor Lothar donated in 852 the so called Prümer Gospels, the book is one of the most precious medieval treasures and is kept in Berlin.

Grave Lothair I Prüm Abbey – 2013

Charles (the Bold) son Louis the Pious in 816 confirmed the borders of the monastery this, together with subsequent donations from the various Carolingians eventually turned Prüm into an independent Monastery-Princedom.

The 2nd abbot, Tankrad of  Bouillon became an influential advisor of the Carolingians and was a personal friend of  Louis the Pious as well of  Charles the Bold. The abbot also became the founder of the development and education of science at the monastery.

Monasteries were also conveniently used by the nobility to ‘park’ unwanted family members. The son of Charles’ the Great, Pippin the Hunchback was put in Prüm after he rebelled against his father. Charles the Bold was also forced into the monastery by his jealous step-brother but this didn’t last long.

Shortly before his dead,  Emperor Lothair I moves into the monastery in 855 and shortly after dies here. We visited his grave in the basilica.

An interesting decision made by Abbot Regino in 915, had long lasting effects that even touched my ancestors in Wietmarschen. He ruled that monasteries had the right of justice over its serfs and other subjects, the Abbess at the Monastery Marienrode in Wietmarschen held on to that right until the French Revolution.

Lorsch Abbey – 764

This is one of the most famous abbeys from Carolingian times (now mainly ruins) they put are on the UNESCO World heritage List. They are situated near the city of Worms.

It was founded by the Frankish Count Cancor (possibly of Hesbaye) and his widowed mother Williswinda. Cancor’s nephew was Chrodegang, Archbishop of Metz, son of Cancor’s sister Landrada. Cancor established at Lorsch  a proprietary church (Eigenkirche) and monastery on their estate, Laurissa. They entrusted its government to Chrodegang who dedicated the church and monastery to Saint Peter and became its first abbot. He was one of the driving forces behind the early Carolingian reforms under Pippin III and can be seen as an early starting date for what became known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

In 766 Chrodegang resigned the office of abbot, in favour of his other duties as Archbishop of Metz. He then sent his brother Gundeland to Lorsch as his successor together with fourteen Benedictine monks. To make the abbey popular as a shrine and a place of pilgrimage, Chrodegang obtained from Pope Paul I the body of Saint Nazarius who had been  martyred at Rome together with three of his  companions under Emperor Diocletian. The abbey and basilica were then renamed in honour of Saint Nazarius, the whole complex  was consecrated by the Archbishop of Mainz in 774, in the presence of Charlemagne.

A main focus was on the systematic study of patristic texts (study of the early Christian writers and writings). This is evidence in the still existing documents from the monastery.

In the course of the ninth century the library and scriptorium of Lorsch made it one of the cultural centres of Germany. It was declared a Reichsabtei (a sovereign principality in its own right, subject directly and solely to the emperor). The abbey’s importance is highlighted by the fact that two Carolingian kings, Louis the German and Louis the Younger, were buried there.

  • The Reichenau Abbey in the Lake of Konstanz on the important road from the centre of the Carolingian Empire in the north to Italy in the south – founded most likely with the support of Charles Martel in 724 – was another important political, cultural and religious centre. It too had an impressive scriptorium which even had its own floor heating system. It has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Werden Abbey – 799

Near what is now the modern German city of Essen, Saint Luidger founded a monastery in 799 and became its first abbot.

Many of his family’s property in Utrecht were gifted to this abbey, in particular his family estate in Werinon (Nederhorst den Berg). In 804 Charlemagne donates thirty manors (hoven) in Twente (including two near Ootmarsum: Vasse and Mander) to the abbey of Werden to finance the education of priests.

Ootmarsum – 2014

In the 9th century the Werden Monastery had 45 properties in Twente, including: De Lutte (Monninkhof and Elfterheurne), Denekamp, Beuningen, Zenderen, Mander, Rossum, Lemselo, Lonneker, Albergen, Neuenhaus and Nordhorn. The properties are about 10  kilometers apart and connected by a good system of roads. A hof was a well defined property during these Carolingian times. These farms often had a wood or stone tower that functioned as the living quarters, a range of farming and trade buildings and depending on the geography, sometimes a watermill

In 804 Liudger became the first Bishop of Münster.  From 877 the abbots of Werden are imperial princes and had a seat at the imperial diet. The Abbey – a territory of 125 square km – remained its independence till its secularisation in 1803.

It was a wealthy abbey with possessions in Westphalia, Frisia (Utrecht) and eastern Saxony.

Vézelay – approx 850

This Benedictine abbey was founded  on land that had been a late Roman villa of Vercellus (Vercelle becoming Vézelay). The villa had passed into the hands of the Burgundian Count Girart de Roussillon.

Together with his wife he established two convents but they were looted by Viking, he than established a new monastery for women on the more defendable hilltop. He fully subjected it to the apostolic see – most monasteries during the Merovingian and Carolingian period were subjected to the king.  It was consecrated by Pope John VIII in 878. The subjection to the See was far more comprehensive that the subjection that happened at Cluny where the subjection was provided for protection, not for domination [12. Negotiating Space,  Barbara H Rosenwein, 1999, p159].

It was therefore no surprise that Vézelay was chosen by the pope to launch, at Easter 1146, the campaign for the 2nd Crusade, this was done by the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux.

Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine – Vézelay – 2006

We visited the energy radiating Maria Magdalena church where, since around 1000,  relics of her have been kept in the crypt, Louise in particular felt this very powerful energy spot. There have been rumours and legends for millennia that Maria Magdalena, with or without her lover Jesus had moved to France. Vézelay has been a key pilgrim destination for more than a thousand years it is the beginning of one of the four major routes through France for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in the north-western corner of Spain.

The church also has 138 unique and very interesting and entertaining capitals based on stories from the scriptures and The Golden Legend.

Frome here, in 1190, King Philippe-Auguste of France and King Richard the Lionheart of England left for the 3rd crusade. (See: Dukes of Burgundy)

St Francis from Assisi founded here in 1217 the first of his French monasteries. The first Franciscan monastery in the Low Countries was established in Den Bosch and Maastricht in 1228, the monastery in Utrecht and Middelburg followed around 1242.

Cluny – 910

William of Aquitaine founded the first Cluny monastery in Burgundy in 910 with the novel stipulation in its immunity that the monastery would report directly to the pope rather than to a local lord. This meant the monastery would be essentially independent, since the pope’s authority was largely theoretical at that distance.

Further, the Abbot of Cluny retained authority over the daughter houses his monks founded. The immunities provided by William allowed for Cluny to expand  its territory way beyond the abbey itself and as such it created its own ‘holy space’. It also was granted privileges such as the ‘Peace of God’ which basically could be used to declare an end to violence. This provided them also with secular powers over the communities that had grown around Cluny [13. Negotiating Space,  Barbara H Rosenwein, 1999, p156].

By the twelfth century the Congregation of Cluny included more than a thousand monasteries. The (third consecutive) church that had been built in the meantime was the largest in the world.

The abbey was one of the most powerful catholic institutions of its time. It also famous for the Cluniac (Clunian) Reforms (see above).


Affligem Abbey – 1061

This Benedictine monastery was founded in 1061 or 1062. It was the most important monastery in the Duchy of Brabant and therefore often called Primaria Brabantiae.

Hermann II of Lotharingia donated the land under the guardianship of Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne. The Counts of Leuven and Dukes of Brabant retained their affiliation and support with the Abbey.

A number of their family members are buried in the abbey church, including Adeliza of Leuven, Queen of England.

In 1084 a number of knights wanted to escape their brigandage life and joined the monastery, soon followed by more guilt by homicide.

One of the members of the family of the Jonkers van Oss. Alart van Oss was a monk at the monastery, he died in 1434.

Most likely from Affligem also the Abbeys of  St Laurens in Oostbroek (ca 1122) and the St Odulfus in Staveren (1130). These two monasteries were most likely active with land reclamation on these areas, the also had several ‘monnikhuizen’ in the region from where reclamation and agriculture was conducted.

Fontenay Abbey 1118

Fontenay Abbey – water mill – 2006

The Abbey was founded in 1118 by St Bernard of Clairvaux. It is one of the oldest and most complete Cistercian abbeys in Europe and is listed as UNESCO world heritage, the site – which we visited in 2007 – is very impressive with its abbey church the beautiful vaulted chapter house with its magnificent balustrades

It achieved great prosperity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Fontenay enjoyed the protection of the Kings of France but was plundered in the Hundred Year’s War and during the Wars of Religion.

There are several links between the Dukes of Burgundy and Fontenay. They hunted in the Fontenay forest and must have used the Abbey as a stop over as there was a kennel for the hunting dogs of the dukes. Two statues of hunting dogs remind the visitor of this link.

But also the fishpond of Fontenay must have been something as trouts from here were served at the table of the dukes.

Sünte Marienrode – 1152

While this monastery in Wietmarschenwas established well after the Carolingian period, in 1152, it does feature in this history so it is worthwhile mentioning it in this section.

Even as late as this foundation year the first wooden church was established next to old yews tree that most probably had significant pagan importance to the local population. The oak tree survived till 1830 when it was blown over in a storm, a twig started to regrow but the remnants of the tree weer probably in ignorance vandalised in 1866 and the oak didn’t survive this. However, it remains amazing that one of those holy oaks made it nearly into modern times.

Sünte Marienrode was built in 1152 by the Crusader Knight Hugo von Buren from the county of Gelria (now Gelderland – the Netherlands). At this time the Netherlands and Germany were both part of the Holy Roman Empire. Bernard von Clairvaux, founder of the Order of the Cistercians, inspired Hugo Von Buren. Hugo also built a monastery in Weerselo (1142). For the first 100 years both laymen and laywomen formed the core of these two religious communities.

Buddendiek Wietmarschen – where the Budde’s have lived from ca 1625

Countess Gertrude of Bentheim granted Hugo the land on which the monastery could be built. As an anecdote; thirty years later another family member Otto van Buren burnt down Ootmarsum, including the above mentioned timber church from 732.  After the local warlords of Saterslo kept harassing the newly founded monastery of Weerselo, Bishop Godfried van Renen, in 1162, donated  the income of the church of Ootmarsum to the monastery, so they could rebuilt it. This financial arrangement lasted at least until 1233.

When the monastery received the land at Wietmarschen they at the same time received the rights to levy the tithes and were exempt from government taxes. Especially remarkable for this time is that the abbess of the Monastery, also was the secular landlord and had ecclesial – and secular-jurisdiction powers.

Military Orders

The crusades saw the arrival of new military orders. They pledged to fight Islam. They called themselves soldiers of Christ. They secured the routes of the crusaders and provided hospital and accommodation services. They also were the first to operate a international banking system that could be used by the kings, dukes and counts, who required supplies and other commercial services while on crusade. These Orders grew very powerful and very wealthy. They had three categories:

  • Knights Brothers – in charge of political functions
  • Religeous Brothers, priests and monks
  • Lay Brothers, in charge of the commanderies, hospitals and other properties

The Knights Templar were perhaps the most famous ones also because of their rather shocking end.

For pure political reasons Pope  Clements V agreed with the French King Philip the Fair that he would denounce the Knights Templar. The French king wanted to lay his hands on the assets of this extremely rich Church Order – which was headquartered in Paris –  but needed the Church assistance to do this in a ‘legal’ way. The French Court was the largest debtor to the Knights Templar. The pope agreed to the persecution and condemnation of the Order in 1307. Seven hundred years later in 2007 the Church made a rare back flip and appoliged for its wrong doings and reinstated the Knights.

Flags of the Grand Masters of the Knights Hospitallers in Bodrum Castle Turkey – 2015

The Knights Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta was established in 1099. However, already before this date Bishop Godebald of Utrecht had  established a hospital for pilgrims in his city (Johannieter Hospital).

After the crusades their military role disappeared and their commandries  became more  traditional monasteries. In the 14th century there were 12 commandries of the Knights Hospitallers in the Netherlands:

  • Domburg and Wemeldinge in Zeeland
  • Haarlem in Holland
  • Woerden, Harmelen, Buren and Utrecht in  Utrecht
  • Ingen, Ermelo, Arnhem en Nijmegen in Gelre
  • Mechelen in Brabant

A typical commandery hosted  a ‘religious family that consisted of five knight  brothers, eight priest brothers two knights in waiting, a clerk, a sexton, an organist and four students.

See also Teutonic Order

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)