The Abbey of Echternach is a Benedictine monastery founded by St Willibrord, the patron saint of Luxembourg, in the 7th century. Lying on the River Sauer, Echternach had been the site of a 1st-century Roman villa. By the 6th century, the estate at Echternach had passed into the hands of the see of Trier, which had constructed a small monastery on the estate. In 698, Irmina of Oeren granted the Northumbrian missionary Willibrord, Bishop of Utrecht, land at Echternach to build a larger monastery, appointing Willibrord as abbot. In part, the choice was due to Willibrord's reputation as a talented proselytiser (he is known as the Apostle to the Frisians), and, in part, due to the danger posed to his see of Utrecht by pagan Frisian raiders. Echternach would be the first Anglo-Saxon monastery in continental Europe.
Willibrord opened the first church at Echternach in 700 with financial backing from Pepin of Herstal. Continuing this connection, Pepin's son, Charles Martel, founder of the Carolingian dynasty, had his son Pepin the Short baptised at Echternach in 714. In addition to Carolingian support, Willibrord's abbey at Echternach had the backing of Wilfrid, with whom he had served at Ripon. Furthermore, Willibrord successfully overcame the stridently anti-Irish bias of Wilfrid, and secured the backing of many Irish monks, who would become the backbone for the first settlement at Echternach.
Willibrord spent much time at Echternach, especially after the sacking of Utrecht in 716, and died there in 739. Willibrord was interred in the oratory, which soon became a place of pilgrimage, particularly after he was canonised. In 751, Pepin raised the Abbey of Echternach to status of 'royal abbey', and granted it immunity. Around the walls of the abbey, a town grew up that would soon become one of the largest and most prosperous in Luxembourg.
Beornrad, the third abbot of Echternach, was a great favourite of Charlemagne, and was promoted to Archbishop of Sens in 785. When Beornrad died, in 797, Charlemagne took direct control of the abbey for a year.
The work of the monks at the abbey was heavily influenced by Willibrord's roots in Northumbria and Ireland, where a great emphasis was put on codices, and Echternach developed one of the most important scriptoria in the Frankish Empire.
Manuscripts produced at Echternach are known to have been in both insular and Roman half uncial script. As Echternach was so prolific, and enjoyed the patronage of, and aggrandisement by, Pepin the Short and Charlemagne, it played a crucial role in the development of the early Carolingian Renaissance. Seeing the work of the abbey at Echternach at taming the native German script, and eager to further the reform, Charlemagne sent for Alcuin, to establish a scriptorium at the court in Aachen. Alcuin synthesised the two styles into the standard Carolingian minuscule, which predominated for the next four centuries.
The early 9th century was the heyday of the abbey, as it enjoyed power, both spiritual and temporal. However, this was all guaranteed only by the Carolingians. When the authority of the centralised Frankish state collapsed during the civil wars under Louis the Pious, so too did the power of the abbey. In 847, the Benedictine monks were ejected and replaced by lay-abbots.
The fortunes of the abbey continued to vary with the fortunes of the Holy Roman Empire. When Otto the Great reunited the Empire, he sought to rejuvenate the intellectual and religious life of his dominions, including Echternach. In 971, he restored the Benedictines to Echternach with forty monks of that order from Trier. The abbey entered a second Golden Age, as it once again became one of northern Europe's most influential abbeys. The Codex Aureus of Echternach, an important surviving codex written entirely in gold ink was produced here in the 11th century.
There have been six churches built on the site at Echternach. The current modern basilica dates from the 1862, although it was reconstructed in 1944 and 1953.
Despite the long history of the abbey and the city, Echternach is best known today for its traditional dancing procession, held around the town of Echternach. It is held every Whit Tuesday in honour of Saint Willibrord, and is the last such traditional dancing procession in Europe. The event draws to Echternach tens of thousands of visitors a year, be they pilgrims or tourists, who either participate or observe the quaint and distinctive procession.References:
The Externsteine (Extern stones) is a distinctive sandstone rock formation located in the Teutoburg Forest, near the town of Horn-Bad Meinberg. The formation is a tor consisting of several tall, narrow columns of rock which rise abruptly from the surrounding wooded hills. Archaeological excavations have yielded some Upper Paleolithic stone tools dating to about 10,700 BC from 9,600 BC.
In a popular tradition going back to an idea proposed to Hermann Hamelmann in 1564, the Externsteine are identified as a sacred site of the pagan Saxons, and the location of the Irminsul (sacral pillar-like object in German paganism) idol reportedly destroyed by Charlemagne; there is however no archaeological evidence that would confirm the site's use during the relevant period.
The stones were used as the site of a hermitage in the Middle Ages, and by at least the high medieval period were the site of a Christian chapel. The Externsteine relief is a medieval depiction of the Descent from the Cross. It remains controversial whether the site was already used for Christian worship in the 8th to early 10th centuries.
The Externsteine gained prominence when Völkisch and nationalistic scholars took an interest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This interest peaked under the Nazi regime, when the Externsteine became a focus of nazi propaganda. Today, they remain a popular tourist destination and also continue to attract Neo-Pagans and Neo-Nazis.