Abbey of Echternach

Abbey of Echternach

The Abbey of Echternach is a Benedictine monastery in the city of Echternach, in eastern Luxembourg. The Abbey was founded by Willibrord, the patron saint of Luxembourg, in the seventh century. For three hundred years, it benefited from the patronage of a string of rulers, and was the most powerful institution in Luxembourg.

The abbey is now a popular tourist attraction, and owes much of its modern fame to an annual dancing procession that is held every Whit Tuesday. Tens of thousands of tourists, day-trippers, pilgrims, and clergy visit Echternach to witness or participate in the traditional ceremony.



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, Irmine, daughter of Dagobert II, 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 became one of the largest and most prosperous in Luxembourg.

Carolingian Renaissance

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 the British Isles, where a great emphasis was put on codices, and Echternach developed one of the most important scriptoria in the Frankish Empire. The abbey at Echternach produced four gospels (in order of production): the Augsburg Gospels, Maeseyck Gospels, Trier Gospels, and the Freiburg Gospel Book Fragment.

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 Aix-la-Chapelle. 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.

Return of the Benedictine Monks

The fortunes of the abbey continued to flux 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 Benedictine 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 eleventh century.

The modern abbey

Chronology of churches

There have been six churches built on the site at Echternach:

*Unknown - 700: Original pre-abbey church
*700 - c.800: Merovingian church
*c.800 - 1016: Carolingian church
*1031 - 1797: Original Romanesque basilica
*1862 - 1944: Reconstructed basilica
*1953 - present day: Modern basilica

Dancing procession

Despite the long history of the abbey and the city, Echternach is best known today for its traditional dancing procession, held around the city of Echternach. It is held every Whit Tuesday in honour of Saint Willibrord [cite web |url= |title=The Dancing Procession of Echternach |accessdate=2008-06-09] , 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.


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