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Building a medieval monastery the old-fashioned way

From Spiegel:

What did a medieval stonemason do when heavy rainfall interrupted his work? Umbrellas are impractical at construction sites. Gore-Tex jackets weren’t yet invented, nor were plastic rain jackets. “He donned a jacket made of felted loden cloth,” says Bert Geurten, the man who plans to build an authentic monastery town the old-fashioned way.

Felted loden jackets will also be present on rainy days at Geurten’s building site, which is located near Messkirch, in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, between the Danube River and Lake Constance. Beginning in 2013, a Carolingian monastery town will be built here using only the materials and techniques of the 9th century. From the mortar to the walls, the rain jackets to the menu, every aspect of the operation will be carried out as just as it was in the days of Charlemagne. “We want to work as authentically as possible,” says Geurten.The building contractor from the Rhineland region has long dreamt of carrying out his plan. When he was a teenager, the now 62-year-old was inspired by a model of the St. Gallen monastery plan in an exhibition in his home city of Aachen. The plan, dating from the beginning of the 9th century, shows the ideal monastery, as envisioned by Abbot Haito of Reichenau.

Haito dedicated his drawing to his colleague Abbot Gozbert of St. Gall, who presided over the monastery from 816 to 837. He meticulously recorded everything that he believed was necessary for a monastic city, from a chicken coop to a church for 2,000 worshipers. Altogether he envisaged 52 buildings — but they were never built. That will change in spring 2013, though, when ox-pulled carts wil begin carrying the first stones to the building site in the forest near Messkirch. It won’t be finished until about 2050, according to estimates.

A Glimpse of the Middle Ages

The lengthy time frame betrays the ambitious dimensions of the project, which is not just a tourist attraction, but also a meticulous scientific undertaking. Twelve experts, including historians, architects and archaeologists, form the scientific council that oversees the monastic town. Their job is to advise the artisans while simultaneously learning from their experiences.

Such experiments offer a rare glimpse into the everyday life of past centuries. Often there is only one way to find out how people once built their homes, prepared their food or sewed their clothes — by recreating the historic experience. Experimental archeology researchers have discovered that antique linen armor offers as much protection as kevlar vests, how beer was brewed in the Bronze Age and how Stone Age people sharpened blades.

The 9th century — the era which will be recreated by the Carolingian monastery town project — is a particularly interesting focus for such experiments. There are few surviving documents from the period some 1,100 to 1,200 years ago. “Our goal is not to end up having a monastery town, but to build it,” says Geurten.

The first building will be a small wooden church. “Of course, in the Middle Ages, they didn’t build the large stone church first,” says Geurten. The craftsmen at that time did not want to postpone their prayers until the stone church was finished, so they constructed a simple wooden church as an interim arrangement until they could move into the magnificent stone building decades later.

Harsh Conditions

Carts carrying building materials will be pulled by Hinterwald cows. With a height of around 115 to 125 centimeters (3′ 9″ to 4′ 1″)and weighing between 172 and 218 kilograms (380 and 480 pounds), these working animals come the closest to those used during the time of Charlemagne. “They are descended from the Celts’ cattle,” says Geurten.

Not just workers will have to adjust to medieval conditions, though. The plan also includes a special experience for visitors, who will walk a lengthy distance from the parking lot before reaching the construction site. “They should feel like they journey in time and leave the present behind them,” says Geurten. If they get hungry, the monastery town will have a 9th-century menu. “The potato was unknown,” says Geurten. “And there will be no coffee around to drink.” Everything that the tradesmen and visitors will eat will be grown in the soil near the construction site.

The example of the French castle Guédelon proves that visitors will not be deterred by such a strict approach. In Burgundy, builders are constructing the 13th-century castle with medieval techniques. Every year the site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. “A Guédelon visitors’ survey has shown that people want to return on average every three years,” explains Geurten. “They want to see the castle grow and follow its progress.”

He hopes for similar success at his monastic town. The project has initial funding of around €1 million ($1.3 million) from city, state and European Union sources, but that will only sustain it for the first few years. After that, the project will have to fund itself.

A Flood of Volunteers

Given the tight budget, craftsmen salaries will remain low. “The net wage is about €1,200 (per month),” says Geurten. “I can’t pay more.” The working hours are also a long way from what German trade unions recommend these days. They will work from April 2 — Charlemagne’s birthday — almost without break until St. Martin’s Day, on Nov. 11. During those eight months, there will be one single weekend off. “In the Middle Ages, the rent for the year was always paid on St. Martin’s Day,” said Geurten. The winter break lasts until April when the temperatures are warm enough to work again.

Despite the difficult conditions, the project has been swamped with applications. “I’ve had 85 stone masons apply already,” says Geurten. “They all dream of having the chance to work with their hands.” This also applies to the blacksmith. “They won’t be hammering kitschy horseshoes for tourists. The forge must supply the site with tools,” he adds.Overall, the construction site will have 20 to 30 permanent staff in addition to volunteers. There has already been a lot of interest. “From Lufthansa pilots to a teacher, all kinds of people have applied.” One candidate even sent his application written in medieval German on a real roll of parchment. Meanwhile, schools will likely be allowed to join in with the site’s work for as long as a week. “We are developing a plan that will enable the children to prepare for their experience in the classroom first,” says Geurten.

It will take about 40 years until the final stone is laid in the monastery church. By then it is highly unlikely that Geurten will still be alive. But he doesn’t mind. “I just want a founding father’s tomb in the crypt. Then they could come and light candles for me,” he says.

Filed under: Archaeology, Cultura, , , , , , , , , ,

500 new fairytales discovered in Germany

From Guardian:

A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years. The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.

Last year, the Oberpfalz cultural curator Erika Eichenseer published a selection of fairytales from Von Schönwerth’s collection, calling the book Prinz Roßzwifl. This is local dialect for “scarab beetle”. The scarab, also known as the “dung beetle”, buries its most valuable possession, its eggs, in dung, which it then rolls into a ball using its back legs. Eichenseer sees this as symbolic for fairytales, which she says hold the most valuable treasure known to man: ancient knowledge and wisdom to do with human development, testing our limits and salvation.

Von Schönwerth spent decades asking country folk, labourers and servants about local habits, traditions, customs and history, and putting down on paper what had only been passed on by word of mouth. In 1885, Jacob Grimm said this about him: “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear.” Grimm went so far as to tell King Maximilian II of Bavaria that the only person who could replace him in his and his brother’s work was Von Schönwerth.

Von Schönwerth compiled his research into a book called Aus der Oberpfalz – Sitten und Sagen, which came out in three volumes in 1857, 1858 and 1859. The book never gained prominence and faded into obscurity.

While sifting through Von Schönwerth’s work, Eichenseer found 500 fairytales, many of which do not appear in other European fairytale collections. For example, there is the tale of a maiden who escapes a witch by transforming herself into a pond. The witch then lies on her stomach and drinks all the water, swallowing the young girl, who uses a knife to cut her way out of the witch. However, the collection also includes local versions of the tales children all over the world have grown up with including Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin, and which appear in many different versions across Europe.

Von Schönwerth was a historian and recorded what he heard faithfully, making no attempt to put a literary gloss on it, which is where he differs from the Grimm brothers. However, says Eichenseer, this factual recording adds to the charm and authenticity of the material. What delights her most about the tales is that they are unpolished. “There is no romanticising or attempt by Schönwerth to interpret or develop his own style,” she says.

Eichenseer says the fairytales are not for children alone. “Their main purpose was to help young adults on their path to adulthood, showing them that dangers and challenges can be overcome through virtue, prudence and courage.”

In 2008, Eichenseer helped to found the Franz Xaver von Schönwerth Society, an interdisciplinary committee devoted to analysing his work and publicising it. She is keen to see the tales available in English, and a Munich-based English translator, Dan Szabo, has already begun work on stories ranging from a miserly farmer and a money-mill to a turnip princess.

“Schönwerth’s legacy counts as the most significant collection in the German-speaking world in the 19th century,” says Daniel Drascek, a member of the society and a professor in the faculty of language, literature and cultural sciences at the University of Regensburg.

Filed under: Cultura, Heritage, , , , , , ,

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