It’s difficult to appreciate just how powerful monasteries were in the Middle Ages. Here at Maulbronn, for example, the abbey owned land all the way up to Speyer – today, a one-hour drive away (or two, if your SatNav isn’t cooperating; speaking from experience here).
But… a monastery, nevertheless. Plenty of those about. What makes Maulbronn so special? Here’s what UNESCO has to say about the inscription:
Founded in 1147, the Cistercian Maulbronn Monastery is considered the most complete and best-preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps. Surrounded by fortified walls, the main buildings were constructed between the 12th and 16th centuries. The monastery’s church, mainly in Transitional Gothic style, had a major influence in the spread of Gothic architecture over much of northern and central Europe. The water-management system at Maulbronn, with its elaborate network of drains, irrigation canals and reservoirs, is of exceptional interest.
Ora et labora
Maulbronn in medieval times housed two groups of people – or rather, two groups of men – within its walls: monks and lay brothers. The monks prayed, the lay brothers worked the various jobs required: as cooks, in the craft workshops, on the land, and so on. Ora et labora. Pray and work.
It was a ‘separate, but equal’-arrangement. In the church, the two groups had their respective choirs at either ends of the nave, separated by a wall.
The lay brothers were boys from farmers’ families. They were usually younger sons, as the older worked on the farm; girls were expected to marry. With a younger son becoming a lay brother it was one less mouth to feed, and also a great honour for the family and for the boy.
Maulbronn Monastery today
In the late 16th century, the monastery was converted to a protestant seminary, a boarding school for boys. It remains so today, though girls were allowed in from the 1970s. It’s a prestigious school, one that still requires students to be Protestants – and be able to show excellent academic performance. It must be inspiring to study in such an historic atmosphere.
Walking around the courtyards, I spot… graffiti! Old-fashioned graffiti, that is. Carved in stone.
I’ve seen this type of graffiti in other places, like at Karnak or at Stonehenge – and although it is vandalism, in a way, I think it has a certain charm. After all, carving your name in stone takes quite a bit of time and dedication. I can appreciate that.
At Maulbronn students still carve their name in stone, Barbara, my inimitable guide, tells me. It’s not allowed, but as it’s a tradition, it’s silently tolerated. Has to be stone carving, though – no lazy present-day version like spray paint.
The name Maulbronn Monastery Complex describes the site well. Within the medieval walls and towers, there’s a village square with the old half-timbered farm houses and administrative buildings. Today they serve as the town hall, a restaurant, a pharmacy, a bakery, a book shop, the museum and visitor centre and more.
I ask Barbara about Christmas markets. It seems every German town and village has one, and have had for centuries. This monastery is the perfect backdrop. And sure enough, there is a Weinachtsmarkt Maulbronn. However, blink and you might miss it. The Christmas market here, you see, lasts for just one weekend (the second weekend of Advent: 5 – 6 December this year).
There are other events, too, of course: monastery concerts, harvest markets, wine fairs and lots of hands-on activities that are sure to appeal to the whole family: medieval book binding, bread baking and basket weaving, to name a few. There are secret doors and choir stalls which look straight out of Hogwarts, as you can see above. There’s swimming in the lakes and rivers, there’s hiking trails, biking trails and even a wine trail.
I especially want to mention the elusive blooming of the lovely 150-year-old magnolia tree in the garden. It blossoms in April, for about one week, so be ready to hop in the car (or plane) at short notice. Very much worth it, I hear, because it’s quite a sight – and gorgeous fragrance.
Meanwhile, autumn has its charms here, too.
A monastery wouldn’t be the same without good stories, would it? Here’s one about how Maulbronn was founded:
Cistercian monks had founded a monastery in Eckenweiher (about 10 km away), but weren’t really pleased with the location. They sent out a mule (Maul in German) as a scout. When the clever mule stopped to drink clean water, it was in an area with plenty of sandstone perfect for building houses. So the abbey was built and a fountain (Brunn in German) was erected to honour the mule.
The Fountain House is beautiful – and familiar. Perhaps you recognise it, too? This was one of Baden-Württemberg’s contributions to designs for the 2013 commemorative 2-Euro coins.
Another legend has it the monks of Maulbronn invented the classic Swabian dish Maultaschen (meaning mule bags or feed bags). Have you tried it? It’s similar to ravioli. This is how that story goes:
In earlier days, the monks ate grains, vegetables and fish, but very little meat. Certainly no meat for lent. However, one day, around lent, the cook was given some meat as payment. What to do? There were no freezers. It’d be a shame to throw it away. So he minced the meat, mixed it with vegetables, herbs and spices, then hid it all in square pieces of pasta dough pressed shut around the edges. There, hidden from the sight of God.
Interestingly, in the local Swabian dialect, Maultaschen is also known as Herrgotts-Bescheißerle, God’s little tricksters (or literally, the Lord God’s little shitters).
Original Maultaschen contain meat, but today it’s quite possible for vegetarians to enjoy this delicacy as well, perhaps with Maulbronner Klosterbräu, beer brewed according to the ancient recipe.
- Getting there: There’s public transport, involving a train from any of the major cities to e.g. Bretten or Mühlacker, then bus no. 700 to Maulbronn. You’re more flexible with a car, of course. I drove a rental car from Frankfurt airport (about 1.5 hours). Maulbronn was easy to find from the A5 Motorway (Karlsruhe – Basel).
- Where to stay: I stayed in Speyer, but there’s a hotel in Maulbronn as well.
- Admission prices and openings hours are listed here.
Have you visited Maulbronn? Interested in medieval history? Or Maultaschen?
Disclosure: On this journey through German history, I was a guest of UNESCO Germany and the German National Tourist Organisation. Of course, anything I write is entirely up to me. Goes without saying, really.