The largest island of Lake Constance is located between Constance and Radolfzell and is connected to the mainland by the Reichenau Dam. Since 2000, the island with its Benedictine monastery has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has an exciting and eventful history.


Monastery foundation

According to legend, Saint Pirmin came to the island of Reichenau in 724 to found a monastery. Pirmin himself had presumably been a bishop in Meaux near Paris and then went on a journey to found several monasteries. When he arrived on the Reichenau, it is said to have been deserted, but overgrown with a lot of brushwood and shrubbery. Countless toads, frogs and poisonous snakes lived there. However, when Pirmin touched the ground, the animals are said to have fled the island immediately. When all the animals had left the island, Pirmin, with the help of 40 men, transformed it into a habitable place and founded a Benedictine monastery, which he left after only three years.

The monastery prospered and became a political, spiritual and cultural center in the early Middle Ages. Reichenau Abbey had landed property from the very beginning and the villages in the surrounding area were liable to pay taxes. Together with generous donations, these revenues ensured the financial security and wealth of the monastery.


Political importance under the Carolingians and Ottonians

Several abbots of the monastery held influential political positions with secular rulers. For example, Abbot Waldo (c. 740-814/815) was a confidant of Charlemagne and one of the advisors and educators of his son Pippin. Other abbots of Reichenau were entrusted with diplomatic missions, and Abbot Hatto III. (c. 850-913) was also Archbishop of Mainz and Archchancellor of the East Frankish Empire as Hatto I. Also during the reigns of the Ottonians and Salians, Reichenau abbots can be found close to the rulers: Witigowo and Alawich accompanied Otto III. (980-1002) on his trips to Rome, and Abbot Berno (978-1048) was closely associated with Henry II and Henry III.


Science and Art

In the early Middle Ages, the monastery held an important position in the field of science and produced numerous scholars. One of the most famous was Hermann the Lame (1013-1054), who was particularly interested in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music and made significant scientific contributions. Reichenau Abbey also had an extensive library, one of the largest in Europe in the early Middle Ages, and the monastery’s scriptorium produced magnificent manuscripts that are among the most important in Western book art. The St. Gallen monastery plan, the first depiction of a medieval monastery complex, was also created here.


Decay and secularization

As important as Reichenau Monastery had been in the early Middle Ages, from the end of the 11th century its star began to decline. The number of monks living in the monastery steadily decreased, the abbey lost its privileges and spiritual leadership passed to other monasteries. In the following centuries the monastery became more and more insignificant and poorer. Finally, in 1542, the Bishop of Constance was enfeoffed with the abbey, which was thus no longer independent. Efforts to regain independence failed. In 1803 the monastery was finally secularized and the remains of the library were brought to Karlsruhe.


(D. F.)