We had a 45-minute drive through a quiet little highway in the Bavarian countryside to reach Maulbronn, the site of the best preserved 12th century monastery north of the Alps in all of Europe. In 1991 this was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, little known by the public so the German National Tourism Office asked us to write about it. We arrived early for coffee at the Monastery Café across the street.
We met Ursula Lierse at the Monastery Entrance who, thankfully, spoke good English and was knowledgeable of the beautifully preserved site.
The monastery was started by about a dozen Cistercian monks in 1147. They were looking for a place where they could grow crops and be self-sufficient and had trouble finding water. The legend says they turned their little mule loose who found for them a fresh water spring and little river, so they named the place “Maul”(mule) “Bronn”(fountain). The sandstone and brick buildings they erected for their simple 12th century life of vows to God are amazing. Thick walls, which once were surrounded by a moat, an abbey with a dormitory, large refectory for eating, apothecary, a heated room for warming themselves two hours a day, beautiful chapel or meeting room, a large grassy courtyard with a lovely fountain, which was for drinking from the top level and washing clothing or themselves at the lower levels.
The monks’ vows prohibited eating meat, but fish was allowed. They dug by hand 20 small lakes to use as fish hatcheries, the largest of which is today a beautiful lake for swimming, fishing and canoeing for the people of the town. The monks were given simple meals, and the story goes that wine was in one large container on a column, which dripped down into a little place where they could only dip their fingers for a small taste. One monk said ruefully, “If only I had eleven fingers instead of ten,” hence the name of the wine from the vineyards here is “Elf,“ meaning 11 fingers.
Daily life in the monastery was of silence except for one room in which they were allowed to converse for a strictly limited period each day. They worshipped seven times in 24 hours, including getting up in the cold, moist air in absolute darkness and making their way by candlelight to the huge cathedral they built. Originally it had no ornamentation because of the Cistercians’ vow of simple life. As the monastery began to grow their numbers of monks increased to over 100, and they were joined with a group of about 300 laymen, who lived here and helped work but were not under vows of the Cistercians. The cathedral was divided into two sections for the two different groups to worship. It is interesting to see the hand carved wooden choir stands for the monks who were required to stand during the hours of prayer, but clever little shelves were inserted into each for more restful half-sitting in the dark during night prayers.
In the sixteenth century when Luther’s Protestant Reformation was sweeping the Catholics out of Germany, the dukes of this area became protestant and took over the monastery as their city. They added many of the buildings you see today and added frescoes, stained glass, and stone decoration to the cathedral, still keeping the ornamentation simple but employing many Christian symbols to enhance worshipful attitudes.
In all of Europe this monastery/village is the best preserved in tact example of 11th – 16th century living North of the Alps and is worth a half day to tour. You’ll find a lovely café and a few souvenir shops, and the surrounding area is beautiful.