Messkirch, Germany: If you have nothing planned between April and November over the next 40 years or so, and would like to live and work in the early Middle Ages, there is an association in the Schwäbische Alb (Schwabian Alps) that has a job for you. But they will take you as well if you only have a week to spare.
Some 40 scientists, researchers, academics and master craftsmen have banned together to build a Carolingian monastery according to the Plan of Saint Gall (1), the early ninth century drawing of a Benedictine monastic compound. (2) What’s the catch? Everything is done at the site, produced or grown on the site, with the materials, techniques, technology and the know-how of the year 800, although much of that know-how is still being “relearned.”
The other hitch is, it will take at least 100 years to complete. So, if you love Charlemagne, or Karolus Magnus as he’s known here, and want to live 1,200 years in the past, this is the place for you.
In 2013, the Campus Galli Association began by clearing some forest owned by the renaissance town of Messkirch, six kilometers away and an hour north of Lake Constance by car. Today, after seven years of hard, manual and animal labor, visitors can wander a construction site so out of time you need to pinch yourself to know it’s real. Your medieval stone-cutters and weavers will stop whatever they are doing to answer all your questions.
There is something hypnotic about Campus Galli where, despite the building, cutting and rock chipping, a calming silence embraces you. The laborers move with the slow grace of people who have all the time in the world. You are light-years away from the hustle of the 21st century.
Falling out of time
The oxen drag huge logs to workers dressed in wool and flax clothing. You can visit the blacksmith’s forge and watch them smiting ore into axes, knives, nails, scissors and other ancient necessities; carpenters cutting oak shingles that have no splinters, making pegs, and hewing perfect beams with axes, out of huge tree trunks; stone masons, dyers, farmers, wood turners …and they are Germany’s best master craftsmen and artisans, archeologists, historians, academics …
The world renown University of Tübingen, in Baden-Wurttemberg, officially teamed up with Campus Galli in April 2018 to increase the scientific knowledge of Carolingian architecture. They call it ‘Experimental Archeology‘. The day we visited, the master potter was in Tübingen defending his Doctorate thesis.
Post graduate students from all over are allowed to do their internships at Campus Galli which furnishes much needed volunteers. Young, high school students spend their summer vacations learning forgotten skills and, one should think, how to live without wifi and smart phones.
The town of Messkirch agreed to send their long term jobless to do the mandatory ‘one-euro jobs’ German law requires in order for them to receive their unemployment compensation. “We try to permanently hire one of them a year,” says tour guide, Pamela Schumacher. “It all depends how much we get in grants and we never know ahead of time.”
Specialized trade schools send their future journeymen to the site to learn the ancient techniques they may be called upon to use to restore world heritage chateaux, an ancient bridge, or maybe Notre Dame de Paris. In August, Steinmetz (stone masons) apprentices came to Campus Galli. Tour guide Pamela Schumacher pointed to a stone about three feet long and a foot high which, she says, took a week to carve.
A long term project
How long will it take? A lot depends on manpower. “Back then, the Ferrari were oxen,” Pamela says. “Material was expensive and labor was cheap. Today building material is cheap but labor is expensive.” Pamela believes it could take up to 120 years before the stone Basilica is finished, not to mention the 40 buildings in the St. Gall Plan.
The success of the project also depends on the financing they receive. The sword of Damocles of running out of money always hangs over the heads of such endeavors.
Some 40 professionals labor here full time. In accordance with medieval custom, the site closes from St. Martin’s day (Nov. 11) until Charlemagne’s birthday (April 2) . After the winter, the Campus Galli enthusiasts can get back to their real (poorly paid) jobs.
In 2013, Messkirch gave Campus Galli a 100 year loan of over 62 acres of woodland. (3) The mayor, Arne Zwick, saw an opportunity to increase tourism to his financially crippled town.(4) Over the past two years, hotel nights have gone up in Messkirch as the number of paying visitors to Campus Galli nears 90,000 a year. On August fifth, 3,694 people showed up for their annual summer party. (5)
So far, beyond the work stations and a few log structures, a wooden church has been built with limestone floor and small, sheepskin covered, windows. A 20-feet high bell tower stands in front. The 90-pound brass bell took several attempts before one was cast that could be used. Campus Galli is a learning process and the curve can be as slow as the techniques themselves. But nobody here is in a hurry.
Lars Schmutz, the oxen leader, will take his time to talk to you while he minds the sheep and makes sure the goats don’t invade the visitors’s pic-nic area which is also the Market Square. The brown, hairy, pigs are those they had in the Middle Ages. Chickens run free and there are no dogs although visitors can bring their pets if they keep them on a leash and clean up after them.
Mareike and other agronomists are trying to recreate the crops, fruits, herbal and vegetable gardens of 1,200 years ago. They had to go to gene archive in Canada to find the ancient strain of oats they are currently trying to reproduce to get enough seed for a real crop. Medlar trees (6), the bitter fruit similar to a small apple, grow in an orchard between the linseed and oats. Unfortunately, “you have to wait until the first frost” for them to be halfway edible.
Growing a Middle Age meadow proved difficult as “poisoned” seed, herbicides and pesticides, pollen and other modern farm jetsam blew into the compound, forcing them to dig up their meadow and try again. Today colorful fields of flowers, tall grasses and weeds line both sides of the path at the entrance.
Sometimes, it is the 21st century administration which gets in their way and frustrates them to no end. It took a year to get a building permit for the barn whose huge oak beams are being hewed as I write. They were told they could not use their own rope to tie beams in place on the smaller workshops and huts because their rope doesn’t meet EU standards. They used their own rope to ring the bell.
Government safety inspectors won’t allow them to pull trees down in such a way as the roots come with them for fear someone could get killed. They are also forced to wear helmets, googles and protective boots “if it’s dangerous,” although as soon as the inspectors are gone, it seems, many ignore the modern rules.
In August of this year, the first stone arch was put up at the cemetery and the walls white-washed. There are no plans to bury anybody in it. Limestone is proving troublesome as it did way back when. “The limestone has a tendency to split when it becomes wet and water enters into microscopic (natural) cracks and then frost hits the stone,” says Hannes Napierala, an archeologist at Campus Galli. “Water expands while it freezes and the stone cracks.”
The idea would be to leave the raw stones out for a winter or two and use only those which survived the freezing. Hannes Napierala says: “A very nice way to shorten that process is, to use only those stones which are found close to the surface on fields … or in the upper layers of quarries – those stones faced several ice ages already.” Again, the learning process.
The last touch to the cemetery is the 800 kilo cross. Its stem was carved out of a single tree trunk, with designs mixing ancient Celtic and Christian motives, as they were done 1,200 years ago.
The barn’s oak beams are being shaved, with a hand held ax, out of long oak tree trunks, each weighing tons. Nextdoor, four thatchers are busy bundling the 8,000 “yelms” of straw it will take to roof the giant structure. They need twelve-and-a-half acres of an ancient rye to get enough stems to cover the barn. A good thatched roof can last fifty years which means it may only have to be thatched one more time before the future stone Basilica is completed, but that job will be left to a new generation.
In the time of Charlemagne, Schumacher tells us, “normal people ate no more than 45 pounds of meat a year while the nobles and clergy ate over 200.” Of course, those at Campus Galli eat to 21st century calorie standards and still enjoy the slow pace of the ninth.
In the Markt Platz (Market Square) they have an outdoor bar and grill for visitors where you can eat and drink like a ninth century inhabitant with an ale or a kind of cider and lentils and sausage.
When you visit Campus Galli, don’t expect to see large stone castles and churches and manors. This is a work in progress which is just getting started and the important things were done first: the pig sty and the wooden Church.
You can visit the Campus Galli web page HERE
1. The Plan of St. Gall is the oldest surviving visualization of a building complex produced in the Middle Ages, containing ground plans for 52 buildings, ranging from a church, monastic school, abbot’s residence, and infirmary, to water mill, stables, and poultry houses. It consists of five pieces of parchment sewn together. But it could have easily been lost for ever. The reverse side of the St. Gall Plan was used to record the life of Saint Martin by a monk 400 years later. That is the only reason the parchment was kept, as the insignificant “backside” of another text. If you look closely you can see the letters of that text show through. A failed restoration attempt and having been folded into book form gave the Plan today’s look.
2. According to calculations based on the manuscript’s title, the complex was meant to house about 110 monks, 115 lay visitors, and 150 craftsmen and agricultural workers. The Plan was never built. It gets its name from being dedicated to Gozbert, abbot of St. Gall. The plan was kept at the famous medieval monastery library of the Abbey of St. Gall — Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen in Switzerland — where it remains to this day.
3. A German reporter, the late Bert Geurten, who, when he learned of the ancient plan sitting in the medieval monastery library of the Abbey of St. Gall, began a ten-year quest to find financing, land and a team to build what was originally intended to be the ideal monastery although it was never built. The EU and the state granted an initial one million euros.
4. Messkirch saw an opportunity which is finally paying off. Tourism is up and the town just opened a camping grounds and a modern ‘Bistro’ restaurant just opposite the late Rennaissance Castle. Messkirch is the birthplace of composer Conradin Kreutzer and the philosopher Martin Heidegger and has a museum dedicated to him inside the castle.
5. In German, SudKurier newspaper —The Sommerfest (Sumer Party): https://www.suedkurier.de/region/linzgau/messkirch/Bunter-Trubel-beim-Sommerfest-im-Campus-Galli;art372566,10238075
6. For the history of the mother of all apples: Mespilus germinca, the common medlar, despite its Latin name, originates from Persia and around the Black Sea.
For more information on the period and St. Gall, Carolingian Culture at Reichenau and St. Gall, UCLA and the St. Gall Project: