Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


4.12.10
  St.Mary's Abbey in Magdeburg, Part 1 - An Austere Archbishop

This is one of the posts I mentioned that needed to be completely rewritten. We visited Magdeburg in 2005, before I got my own digital camera, so the photos are by courtesy of my father.

The monastery Unserer Lieben Frauen (To Our Dear Lady, also known as Liebfrauenkloster or St.Mary's Abbey) in Magdeburg is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Germany. It is used as art museum and concert hall today.

(Liebfrauen-Monastery Magdeburg, westwork)

Magdeburg already had a cathedral dating to the time of Otto the Great (912-973) and was the see of an archbishop. St.Mary's Abbey was founded by Archbishop Gero in 1015 and started as collegiate church for a non-monastic community of clergy led by a dean. The first building may have been half-timbered, but since 1063 it was replaced by a stone basilica. There must have been a break in the building process because the basilica was only finished during the time of the Archbishop Norbert of Xanten (consecrated 1126).

Norbert of Xanten, founder of the Premonstratensian Order, was an interesting character, and since he played a more important role in Magdeburg than his native Xanten, I'll put his story here.

Norbert of Gennep (born between 1080-85) had his life cut out for him with a nice prebendary in the St.Victor Chapter in Xanten and a political career ahead. He accomp-agnied King Heinrich V to Rome but obviously got disillusioned by the events that led to Heinrich's coronation as Emperor in 1111.

Heinrich V didn't get along with the pope any better than his (in)famous father Heinrich VI and imprisoned the pope and a bunch of cardinals to blackmail the pope into a) crowning him as emperor, b) releasing his dead father from the church ban so he could be buried in the crypt of Speyer Cathedral, c) never excommunicate him (he learned from his father there, lol), and d) allow Heinrich the investiture of bishops in his realm.

BTW Heinrich V married Maud, the daughter of Henry I of England in 1114; the betrothal had taken place in 1110 before Heinrich became emperor, but Maud was not with him in Italy.

St.Mary's Abbey, Magdeburg, exterior

Norbert refused a position as bishop of Cambrai which Heinrich offered him and instead gave his possessions to the poor and got ordained as priest. Legend tells that his change of mind was caused when during a ride "...suddenly the terrifying sound and sight of a thunderbolt struck the ground opening it to the depth of a man's height. From here steamed forth a putrid stench which fouled him and his garments. Struck from his horse he thought he heard a voice denouncing him." (Vita Sancti Norberti, Version A)

After Norbert failed to reform the chapter in Xanten while himself living as hermit nearby, and after he barely escaped an accusation of heresy in 1118, he obtained permission to become an itinerant preacher. Norbert wandered through Belgium and France, calling people to a true vita apostolica in the following of Jesus and his disciples, and criticising the Church that has become too worldly and too rich.

The majority of bishops and other churchmen didn't like that, of course, and the pope tried to channel his activities by offering him to establish a monastery and a new religious order. Norbert finally accepted and chose a village named Premontré near Laon. The Order of the Canons Regular of Premontré was officially approved by Pope Honorius II in 1125.

St.Mary's Abbey, interior

But Norbert exchanged his contemplative life in a French valley again for the intrigues of the German Court. He traveled to Rome in 1125, where he was honourably received by Pope Honorius II and agreed to work for King Lothar III (the future Emperor Lothar of Süpplingenburg). Lothar, Duke of Saxony, had been elected king after Heinrich V had died without children.

Later that year Norbert was offered the position as archbishop of Magdeburg during a diet in Speyer. "All the leaders of the Church of Magdeburg cried out, 'He is our choice for our father and bishop, we approve him as our shepherd.'" Norbert didn't want the position, but "... Finally, yielding to numerous arguments and the apostolic authority, he accepted the yoke of the Lord, not without much weeping; and thus dismissed by the emperor, he set out for Saxony to the place destined for him." (Vita Sancti Norberti)

The Church of Magdeburg was in for some changes. Norbert arrived, according to the Vita, barefoot and in poor robes, and started reforming the clergy (no more sex and parties) and wrestling church possessions back from burghers who had obtained them as pawn from the archbishops. Soon even many of those who had called him wanted to get rid of Norbert, and there were two assassination attempts plotted by members of his inner circle. But it got worse; the citizens of Magdeburg rebelled and drove Norbert out with armed force. Well, he was not as saintly as the Vita makes him and put the town under interdict which brought the people back to obedience and Norbert back to Magdeburg.

The two-storeyed cloister

In 1129, Norbert transfered the St.Mary's Abbey to the Premonstratensian Order, an act that was confirmed by Pope Honorius the same year. My guess is that Norbert not only wanted to enlarge the possessions of the order he founded (and which would soon extend into the Slavic lands east of Magdeburg that future emperors would conquer) but also hoped to replace the unruly canons with men more loyal to him. At that time the towers of the church were completed, and the cloister, the wellhouse, and the refectory added.

Norbert also changed the Monastery of Pöhlde into a Premonstratensian monastery.

One of the walks in the cloister

Soon Norbert would become involved in Imperial politics again. The death of Pope Honorius led to a schism during which Pope Anacletus drove Pope Innocenz II out of Rome. Innocenz fled to France where he gathered support for his cause. He could make King Lothar an interesting offer: the Imperial crown; so Lothar traveled to Italy with an army to do something about Anacletus. Norbert accompagnied the king. The army didn't prove large enough to kick Anaclet's followers out of St.Peter's Basilica in Rome, but the investiture took place in the Lateran Church instead (June 1133). There were a lot of negotiations going on between Innocenz and Lothar; I'm not going into details in this post. Archbishop Norbert stayed with the king during the time in Italy, even acting as chancellor, and only returned to Magdeburg in 1134. He died there in June, probably of malaria. "It was the year of the Lord's Incarnation 1134, the Wednesday after Pentecost, the eighth day before the Ides of June, in the fifth year of Pope Innocent, in the ninth year of the reign of Lothair." (Vita Norberti; you gotta love Mediaeval dates).

Norbert was buried in front of the altar of the holy cross in St.Mary's Church. Saint Norbert was canonized by Pope Gregory XII in 1582 and is the patron saint of Magdeburg and Bohemia.
 
Comments:
I really enjoy seeing all of your pictures and the wealth of historical detail you provide us. It's so interesting to see cathedrals in all parts of Europe and so the list goes on.
 
Remarkable.
 
What's the story behind the bells in the cloister walk?

Can't help thinking it might have worked out better for all concerned if the authorities had accepted Norbert's initial refusal in the first place :-) Why push someone into a job they've said they don't want?
 
Thank you, Elizabeth and Stag.

Carla, I think the bells were just stored there; renovations were still going on in parts of the church.

After what I could figure oute (and Saint's lives are sources to be treated with care) is that there were three contenders for the position and King Lothar got involved because the church deputees couldn't find a way out of the political mess. Unfortunately, Gerd Althoff doesn't mention the incident in his mini-biography of Lothar in Die deutschen Herrscher des Mittelalters so I'm not sure whether Lothar suggested Norbert as outside candidate or whether the deputees of Magdeburg came up with that solution. One argument against Lothar suggesting him (though he may have suggested some outside candidate) is that he may have prefered to have Norbert at his court. He seems to have trusted the man a great deal, and later called him back for the Italian adventure. I can imaging that a man like Norbert who obviously was free of personal ambitions may have been a good advisor for a king.

Well, whoever came up with suggesting Norbert as archbishop of Magdeburg neglected to ask in St.Victor in Xanten how people liked him there. *grin*
 
That's a possibility, if there were several factions that couldn't agree, an external candidate might well have been considered the best bet. (Perhaps temporarily, in this case :-)
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK and Scandinavia.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.

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