The history of the CCRN

A shelter to monks in the XVIth century.

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The history of the CCRN

Neumünster Abbey - an historic urban area

Neumünster Abbey is one of the city of Luxembourg's most important historic sites but sadly we only have fragmentary evidence of its history. Hopefully this brief outline of its development will prompt historians to probe further. (Text by Michel Pauly)

The medieval settlement

 The district where the Abbey has stood since the seventeenth century was home to one of the earliest known settlements on the site that was to become the city of Luxembourg. The craftsmen who came to help Siegfried and his successors build their castle on the Bock promontory acquired by Count Siegfried around 963 and to work on the collegiate church of Saint-Sauveur (which later became the church of Saint-Michel) as well as other seigniorial buildings, are thought to have settled along the banks of the Alzette. By the end of the tenth century, the population was large enough for a church dedicated to Saint Ulric dependent on the parish Saint Peter-in-chains in Hollerich. This church is in fact mentioned when Conrad, the first Count of Luxembourg, founded a monastery in 1083 on the promontory to the east of his stronghold, the future Altmünster Abbey. The craftsmen, the Count's family and his retinue would have bought goods from the fishermen, millers and bakers (unless the ovens mentioned in the charter of 1083 were smiths' furnaces).

By this charter, Count Conrad transferred to the Abbey among other things “the stretch of water from Saint-Ulric bridge to the Mor's rock, with water rights and the right to fish freely upstream and downstream, as well as the mills and ovens” (UQB I, n° 301). It is very probable that these eleventh-century mills count among the six mills mentioned in a document from the year 926 describing the Weimerskirch estate which belonged to the abbey of Saint Maxim in Trier. And it only made sense to mill flour if there was a large enough local population to consume it.

The archaeologists who excavated the site of the Centre Culturel de Rencontre Abbaye de Neumunster (CCRN) confirm that this was the artisans' district. In the centre of the courtyard, in front of today's Robert Bruch Building (in former times called Criminel ), the archaeologist Johnny DE MEULEMEESTER unearthed wooden huts, rubbish dumps, low-blast furnaces and ovens filled with slag apparently dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Documentary evidence from the early fourteenth century attests to the presence of weavers, dyers, fullers and other textile professions requiring water, who lay their sheets out to dry on the Rham plateau. According to De Meulemeester drinking water came from a well, the Krudelsbur . The wooden huts would have been replaced by stone-built workshops during the latter half of the fourteenth or at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

It is thought that a forge continued to operate until the bombardment of 1684, when Luxembourg was besieged by the troops of Louis XIV. By the seventeenth century, there was also a community of tanners on the left bank of the Alzette, opposite the church. Most workshops stood along the Route de Trèves (Trier road), which was barred by a gateway, the Krudelsporte , built around the middle of the fourteenth century at the same time as what is called third city wall. This gate is mentioned for the first time in 1395 in the city accounts. Vestiges of this gateway as it stood in the second half of the sixteenth century can still be seen in the CCRN's Robert Krieps Building. In front of the gate, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a wooden footbridge spanning a ten-metre ditch which regularly silted up and a skeleton of a man living in the 14 th or 15 th century who seems to have been murdered as his feet were tied up. Another wooden bridge, “ le pittit pont desous lou chastel ”, mentioned in 1297 (UQB VI, no. 664), gave access to the plateau on which the old abbey stood and to the left bank of the Alzette and to Rue Plaettis with its public baths, which were much appreciated by the craftsmen at the end of a hard week's work.

The district underwent considerable expansion at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Emperor Henry VII and his wife Margaret had a church and a hospital built, which was dedicated to the Virgin and Saint John, though Count John the Blind ensured that it was known simply as Saint John's ( Saint-Jean ). In 1321, in order to increase the resources of this charitable institution, Archbishop Baudouin of Trier, brother of the late emperor, gave the church parish status with jurisdiction over the surrounding streets and made it independent of the parish church of Saint-Michel , which had superseded the church of Saint-Sauveur . Saint John's probably stood in the small square in front of the present church. Its cemetery, an essential feature of a parish church, was enlarged, even encroaching onto the Route de Trèves (Trier road). Lying to the east of the church, on the future site of Neumünster Abbey and its cloister, this graveyard remained in use until the seventeenth century.

Archaeological investigation of some 850 tombs has revealed a high rate of infant mortality, malnutrition, rudimentary hygiene conditions, and a lack of medical care. Life expectancy at birth was 37 years and, at the age of twenty, 47 for men and 43 for women.

Five houses uncovered by the archaeologists, identically planned and therefore built at the same time, stood in the present covered entrance courtyard of the CCRN. These may have been part of the old hospice, which also housed prebendaries who were entitled to end their days there in exchange for bequeathing their fortunes. However, at 3 metres by 7 metres, these houses were rather too large to have served as hospice accommodation. Their regular design suggests a concern for town planning quite remarkable for the fourteenth century. They may have been dwellings allocated to householders expropriated when the new city wall was built. The line of the Route de Trèves , ten metres wide at the start where it espouses the slight bend of the river, and the regular layout and standardised width of the buildings along this road suggest in De Meulemeester's view that the whole of the district around Saint John's was carefully planned, in contrast to the narrow, winding streets of other medieval towns.

The districts on the banks of the Alzette suffered frequent flooding. This is borne out by the city accounts for 1449, 1452, 1457, 1461 and 1491, which record bridges being swept away by the river in spate. Archaeologists have also found evidence that the road surface was raised several times. In carrying out their investigations, they too had to contend with regular rises in the water table.

From Altmünster Abbey to Neumünster Abbey: developments between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries

We know that in 1083, before setting off for the Holy Land, Count Conrad of Luxembourg had “begun to build a House of God out of nothing, to honor and worship the prince of the apostles on this hill where none of (his) ancestors had until now worshipped (God), a house in which (he) installed a small community of monks who lived according to Saint Benedict's Rule” (UQB I, n° 301). It was built on the terrace below the Count's castle, where a tower from the Abbey complex still stands today. A study by the historian Michel MARGUE has confirmed an ancient theory according to which this community, imbued with the reformist spirit of Cluny, came from the abbeys of Saint-Airy and Saint-Vanne near Verdun. Margue, however, refutes the modern-day theory that abbot Richard de Saint-Vanne was a son of Conrad. The Abbey, dedicated originally to Saint Peter, and commonly called (Alt)münster, had its name changed to Notre-Dame in 1123 by Conrad's son, Count Guillaume II. At the same time, the monastery was brought under the direct aegis of the Holy See, freeing it from the control of Saint-Vanne and any secular interference.

The foundation built by the count celebrated his lineage; it was a place destined to commemorate the memory of deceased counts of the house of Luxembourg through prayer, and a religious centre for the growing principality. The monastery was the first burial place of the counts of Luxembourg (until the accession of Count Henri IV of Namur), and this function was re-established by Charles IV when he chose it to house the monumental tomb of the Count King John the Blind who fell in the battle of Crécy (1346). In 1123, William II obtained authorization from the Pope to re-route the so-called “banal” processions of Luxembourg's 26 neighbouring parishes to converge on Altmünster instead of Trier Cathedral. These took place each year on the third Friday after Easter. The vast gathering on the terraces of Altmünster provided a unique trading opportunity for the farmers and craftsmen of the burgeoning town. William II granted the monks a similar privilege, but, apart from a text attributed to Abbot Bertels at the end of the sixteenth century, no other sources mention the fair. Later, the monastic school was granted a monopoly on teaching in the city of Luxembourg, which attracted students of French and German. The remains of Schetzel, a hermit from the Grünewald, were buried in the Abbey but, contrary to expectations perhaps, he was never beatified and the monastery did not become a pilgrimage centre.

It is uncertain when and by whom Altmünster Abbey was destroyed, although it is thought that the troops of François I of France, who had captured the town of Luxembourg on 11 September 1543, destroyed it to prevent the imperial enemy from taking refuge there during a coming siege. But first, they transferred the remains of John the Blind to the Franciscan church in the upper part of the town, and they were recovered by Abbot Bertels in 1592. The monks came and settled in the Grund valley, part of the feudal domain on the banks of the Alzette given to them by Count Conrad in 1083. They took up residence in Saint John's hospice, a gift from Emperor Charles V, which they adapted for their purposes, while the hospital was rebuilt a little further upstream beside the Alzette .

The Abbey nearly closed down in 1560, when Abbot William d'Orley died and the last surviving monk left the monastery. Advised by the Provincial Council, the Governor General of the Spanish Netherlands, Margaret of Parma, wanted to exploit this situation to transfer the Abbey's revenues to a new Luxembourg bishopric that she was planning to establish. Until then, the duchy's territory had been divided between six different bishoprics, the most prominent of which was the archbishopric of Trier. However, despite the fact that in 1559 Pope Paul IV had established fourteen new bishoprics in the rest of the Netherlands at the request of Charles V, the Luxembourg project was dropped, for reasons unknown. Instead, Philip II appointed a new abbot, Pierre Coelen Lysius, who, together with two novices from Louvain, reoccupied the Luxembourg monastery. A second attempt of this kind was made in 1602 by Archduke Albert, who ordered the Benedictines to move to the Franciscan convent of the Cordeliers so that the abbot of Münster could be raised to the dignity of bishop there. However, the plan was opposed by both monasteries, and the possibility of a move of this kind was soon ruled out when, in 1604, Abbot Petrus Roberti began building a new monastery in the Grund district.

During their sojourn at Saint John's hospice, the Neumünster monks elected two abbots of the highest distinction: Jean Bertels (1576-1595), Luxembourg's first historiographer, who drew up two illustrated inventories of the possessions and revenues of Neumünster Abbey before moving on to the prestigious abbey at Echternach (he died in 1607); and Petrus Roberti (1602-1636), who organized the reconstruction of the monastery.

According to the archaeologist De Meulemeester, the monks made some major changes to the hospital. A wing was added, perpendicular to the church, spanning the Trier road. Around 1590 the city wall was fortified and the gate dammed. The traffic was diverted by the gate straddling the present Rue de Trèves, half-way down the Rham plateau, below the Dinselporte, which was first documented in 1426. On the right bank of the Alzette, a new counterscarp was built; an inscription dates it to 1604. A new 40-metre-long wing comprising an abbot's parlor was added parallel to the road. As well as the remains of a Renaissance-style fireplace, shards of Antwerp majolica ware (1550-1610) were found in this room, proof of continuing trade with the port city. Backing onto the church, parallel to the river, was the dormitory, which was, in my opinion, installed in the former hospital.

The new buildings, arranged in a square upstream from the church, are clearly labeled on a drawing by Antoine Stevens with notes added in 1602 by Abbot Petrus Roberti to explain their dilapidated condition to the Brussels authorities. These drawings no doubt relate to an attempt by the abbot to secure better accommodation with a view to the establishment of a bishopric, of which he would have been the first bishop. The abbot complains of the unsuitability of the site for contemplative life, mentioning the noise made by women crushing flax and hemp under the monks' cells, the stench of the tannery on the opposite bank of the Alzette, and the stones and prying glances cast from the upper town into the monastery below. But his complaints were ignored and the plan to establish a bishopric came to nothing.

Consequently, in 1606, Abbot Roberti began building a new monastery. It followed the conventional plan, with a central cloister in which the monks could be buried. A new parish cemetery was established behind the church, between the Alzette and the old Trier road. In 1618, the abbot secured the incorporation of the parish and hospital church of Saint-John into the Abbey, making him parish priest of the Grund district. The monk who represented him in this pastoral function was housed in an apartment built in front of the monastery. In the same year, a marble tomb, paid for by Archduke Albert, was installed in the church to house the remains of John the Blind. The monastery undoubtedly experienced a renaissance under the energetic leadership of Pierre Roberti, who called in learned theologians to improve the education of the monks and novices. All these buildings were badly damaged during the bombardments of 1684, when Luxembourg was besieged by the troops of Louis XIV, commanded by Marshal de Créqui and Vauban. Only the tower of the present church, which still has a Gothic arch visible on one of the inner walls, seems to have survived the devastation, although it has since been made higher.

Reconstruction work, including the rebuilding of the church, was soon under way. The architect, Hubert Laloir of Liège, was a military engineer. This fact, combined with the monks' shortage of funds, may explain its very restrained style. Tree-ring tests on the timber framework provide evidence that rebuilding had already begun in 1688. These buildings, modelled on the 1606 monastery plan, remained unchanged until they were recently transformed into the CCRN. This is the abbey we see in a painting from the time of Abbot Romain Edinger (1705-16). Dating from the same period are the organ case and the two paintings of Saint Benedict and Saint Basil, the founders of western and eastern monasticism, which are still housed in Saint John's. The side chapel dedicated to Saint Hubert houses a reredos purchased in 1783, when the furnishings of the Dominican priory at Marienthal were sold off. The altar plinth serves as a tombstone to Abbot Edinger. The remains of John the Blind were saved from the fire and interred in a third tomb known as the “holy sepulchre”, now in the Cathedral crypt. In 1720 the Abbey's agricultural outbuildings were demolished and replaced by a new south-east wing (timber framework dating from 1719-24), which now forms the covered entrance courtyard to the CCRN. The resulting monastery complex was now in the form of two square blocks. In 1738, five new altars were consecrated in Saint John's. Until 1960, the Abbey comprised some additional buildings extending towards the Rue Münster. A stone gateway crowned with a statue of the Virgin Mary, visible from along this street, gave access to a courtyard with the parsonage on the left as you approach the entrance to the CCRN, and the edifice now used as the offices of the National Natural History Museum on the right.

The first side chapel of Saint John's Church houses the famous Black Virgin, a statue carved in walnut at the end of the fourteenth century and influenced by the late-Gothic Parler style of Cologne. There is no satisfactory explanation for the blackness of the Virgin's face. The three existing altars came from the Franciscan church which formerly stood on the Place Guillaume (in Luxemburgish, Knuedler ). Sculpted in 1660, they represent the pinnacle of Luxembourg baroque art. They replaced a high altar which was regarded as one of the finest in the country. This was moved in 1797 to the Jesuit church, now the Cathedral, and has since disappeared without trace.

From French prison to Nazi gaol

In common with all the other monastic foundations, the Abbey was secularized in 1796, when legislation issued by the French Directoire was introduced into Luxembourg. The monks left the premises in December 1796 and their library and archives were moved to the departmental authorities' central archives. The authority of the parish church was then extended to the whole of the Grund district. The remains of John the Blind were salvaged by a local baker who hid them in a cave behind his house. On his deathbed, the baker confided his secret to the town's mayor, who had the remains transferred to the home of his father-in-law, Jean-Baptiste Boch, owner of the earthenware factory. Boch's son took them to Mettlach, where Frederick William IV of Prussia commissioned Karl Friedrich Schinkel to build a neo-Gothic chapel overlooking the River Saar to house them.

In 1798, the French authorities installed a prison and a gendarmerie barracks in the former convent. In 1805, the building was handed over to the city's charitable foundation, which used it as an orphanage after the old orphanage building in the Grund district was destroyed on 26 June 1807 by a gunpowder explosion. When a new prison was built in the Rue Saint-Ulric in 1809, the former abbey was restored to its pre-Benedictine function as a hospital. After 1815, the buildings were used as a military hospital for the troops of the Germanic Confederation stationed in Luxembourg's fortress. It was in these circumstances that the so-called Criminel building, now named after Robert Bruch, was erected parallel to the Rue de Trèves .

In 1867, when the Prussian garrison left, the abbey was again converted into a prison. Since 1830, Luxembourg had been short of prison space because the convicts who from 1815 to 1830 had been held at Vilvoorde and Antwerp were returned to Luxembourg after the Belgian revolution. From 1869 to 1985, the men's prison was housed on these premises. To give the prisoners something useful to do, the Tutesall – now the Robert Krieps Building – was built. Here the men were employed making paper bags and wicker chairs, binding books etc.

Political prisoners arrested by the Gestapo between 1940 and 1944 were also held here before being transferred to Trier prison, Hinzert concentration camp or other destinations. For some – before they were deported to be executed – , a farewell wave or glance upwards to the Corniche of the old town was their last contact with relatives or friends who, from this vantage point, observed the comings and goings in the prison courtyard. Some 4,000 men and women passed through this prison during World War II, including members of the Luxembourg resistance, Italian anti-fascists and other opponents of the Nazi dictatorship.

Missing links

One uncharted area of research is the history of the feudal domain of Münster, in particular its possessions and revenues in the Grund district and town generally, and the conflicts to which these gave rise. For instance, its right to fish in the Alzette was contested by the town of Luxembourg in the sixteenth century. The domain's records are conserved in collection A.XXXVI of the National Archives.
 Light still remains to be shed on the transfer of the monks to the Grund and the architectural changes they made to Saint John's Hospital. No research has been carried out on the edifice backing on to the choir of the church, which today houses the Service des Sites et Monuments Nationaux . We do not know when it was built, nor its original function. We are still awaiting a final report on the excavations carried out within the former abbey compound prior to the installation of the CCRN. We also lack a history of the buildings during the time they were used as a prison. All we have at present is a short account by N.A. Ensch (a former director), written in 1934.
 Work also remains to be done on the Nazi period. Drawing on the prison registers, which are incomplete, the Livre d'Or de la Résistance Luxembourgeoise , published in 1952, and the Livre d'Or des Prisons , published in 1996, give the names of some 4,000 men and women who were imprisoned by the Gestapo and other branches of the German political police. However, they do not mention non-Luxembourg prisoners, such as Italian anti-fascists, who were also held at the Grund by the Nazis.
 © michel pauly