The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lorsch Abbey – halfway between Darmstadt and Worms – is a place of concentrated cultural history. Traces lead back from this site to a chequered past that shaped Benedictines, Cistercians, Premonstratensians, and after the dissolution of the monastery, many more. Its high point was undoubtedly in the early Middle Ages around 800, when Lorsch became associated with the Frankish king and emperor Charlemagne († 814) and his successors from the Carolingian dynasty. In 774, the ruler of an expanding great empire that laid the political and cultural foundations of Europe was even there in the flesh. Charles made Lorsch, blessed with the relics of Saint Nazarius, an imperial monastery, thus an agent of his politics, of a church reform and of educational programmes. It became rich and powerful.
The Gate Hall is an unique building
The Frankish Empire succeeded the Roman Empire. The famous gate hall, one of only three remaining buildings at the site, reflects this with references to antiquity in its architectural decoration. It is the best preserved Carolingian building north of the Alps. The other remnants are the fragment of a basilica, once a “wonder of splendour and beauty”, and two thirds of the abbey wall. Together, they earned Lorsch World Heritage status 30 years ago. Unfortunately, much has been lost and, despite pictorial representations and the ground finds, the complex cannot be accurately reconstructed. Federal investment funds for World Heritage sites helped the idea along: in 2010–2014, the abbey grounds were redesigned.
Multiple Awards for the Green Reshaping of the Abbey Hill
The known building structures press themselves as “footprints” into a green lawn. But the archaeological layer is not disturbed by this intervention. Earth has been heaped up around the footprints. Like a velvet-lined coin box, the dimensions of the former structures in the terrain and the special aura of the site can be experienced. The design by Topotek1 was awarded the German Landscape Architecture Award of the Association of German Landscape Architects in 2015 and the European Garden Award 2016 of the European Garden Heritage Network.
Innovative medieval education counts for a lot in Lorsch. For visitors, there is a versatile museum centre, a herb garden and, with the tithe barn, a display depot for architectural sculpture. There are exhibitions, guided tours and hands-on programmes.
Experience on Site, Study Digitally
The former centre of power, intellectuality and science can also be traced digitally: the “Bibliotheca Laureshamensis”, for example, virtually reunites the large but scattered abbey library. One of its treasures is the Lorsch Pharmacopoeia, also bearing the UNESCO seal: the oldest medical manuscript spread the word for the first time that the art of healing does not interfere with God’s plan, but is an act of charity. The plants mentioned can be admired in real life in the medicinal herb garden.
The Lauresham Experimental Archaeological Open-Air Laboratory, newly created in 2014, is also a visitor magnet. It is an ideal model of a Carolingian manor house with residential and farm buildings as well as gardens, meadows, pastures and fields. There you can vividly see what everyday life was like for people around 1,200 years ago.
At the same time, it is a place of work for scientists in a special field: They use experiments to question the past and (re)construct it. Some of the answers they find, for example about early medieval agriculture and animal husbandry, even extend towards a better ecological future. With a breeding project started at Lauresham that brings cattle as close as possible to the extinct aurochs, Lauresham also promotes biodiversity through extensive grazing with these animals. In this way, the open-air laboratory makes an active contribution to nature conservation.