De fundatione monasterii Aureæ insulæ

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by Brian McGuire

The work De fundatione monasterii Auree Insule (On the Foundation of Guldholm) is probably a fragment of a fuller account of the foundation and early years of Ryd Monastery in Slesvig or Schleswig (now in the Federal Republic of Germany near the city of Flensburg, with ruins of the monastery submerged in the lake next to Glücksborg Castle). The account we have covers only the controversy about discipline at the Benedictine Saint Michael’s monastery in Schleswig, the dissolution of this house, and the establishment of a Cistercian house in 1191 at Guldholm.


Eximie fatuititatis et hebetudinis insulse indicium est...


...scire cupientibus plenius sunt expressa, etc.


10 pages.


  • LANGEBEK, J. & SUHM, P.F. 1783: Narratio de monasterio S. Michaelis apud Slesvicum et de fundatione monasterii Aureæ Insulæ, in SRD 5, Copenhagen, 379-83.
  • WAITZ, G. (ed.) 1892: Ex rerum Danicarum scriptoribus saec XII et XIII, XI. Monumenta historiae ecclesiasticae Danicae minora, in MGH SS 29, Hannover, 238-40.
  • GERTZ, M.CL. 1922: “De fundatione monasterii Auree Insule,” SMD 2, Copenhagen (repr. 1970), 146-51 (GERTZ also includes foundation materials for Vitskøl and Tvis, Cistercian monasteries in Jutland, but these have been edited as charters in DD 1, 2).


None available at this time.

  • OLSEN, R.A 1989: Ryd klosters årbog i kulturhistorisk belysning; oversat af forfatteren, Højbjerg.

Date and Place

The Cistercian author obligingly tells us in the opening of his account that he was writing in 1289. His point of view indicates that he must have been resident at Ryd Abbey itself, the successor to Guldholm. It is here the Ryd Annals (>Annales Ryenses) probably were composed, and these end in 1288. The closeness of dating hints at a relationship between the Annals and the Guldholm account (cf. MCGUIRE 1982, 147).

Summary of contents

After a prologue (see Sources, and Purpose) we are told in Chapter 2 about the infamous monastery of Saint Michael in Schleswig, which is called Cluniac. Its monks failed to live up to their Rule, and the efforts of the bishops of Schleswig to reform the place were in vain. Finally Bishop Valdemar (a member of the Danish royal family and a rival for the throne) decided that “he would throw out these sacrilegious and infamous men”.

Chapter 3 recounts how one night the abbot and some of his favoured monks went off to a tavern to enjoy themselves. When some of their usual drinking buddies discovered their absence, they were angry at being left out. They sounded the bell for the dead and announced to the other monks, “Our abbot lies dead in the tavern....Yes, it is so; he is dead in his soul”. The monks took sacred vessels for performing an exorcism and went to the tavern to retrieve their abbot.

Chapter 4 describes the scandal created by the incident and how the bishop called the monks together in a chapter and “began to deal with the reformation of the monastery”. The abbot resigned and handed the place over to the bishop (very much in harmony with the provision in the Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. 64, for what to do with an immoral abbot). All the monks accepted the reform indicating consent, either “expressly” or by their silence. Some of the monks were sent away to other monasteries, but four were allowed to remain, in order to take care of the sacramental needs of the eight sisters resident (an indication that this was a double monastery, at a time when such an arrangement was not favoured by Church policy). Other monks, who promised to improve their ways, came to Guldholm, outside Schleswig, where they soon returned to their old vice of carousing.

Chapter 5 tells how Bishop Valdemar took charge as the endower of the property of Guldholm. He was able to get Cistercian monks to come from Esrum Abbey, and he promised, playing with the Danish name of the place, “You will be called the Golden Isle, and I, if I live, will gild you”. Not long after, however, he was taken captive and was never able to carry out his ambitious plans.

In the final chapter (6) we are told how the monks arrived from Esrum on 23 May 1192 (the date must be 1191, for by 1192 Bishop Valdemar was in prison). The bishop consecrated the cemetery and the cloister and handed over to the monastery tithes from four churches, which formerly had been part of his episcopal income. The renegade monks, who by now had returned to St. Michael’s monastery in Schleswig, were furious at the rich endowment of Guldholm and went, together with their servants (famuli), to attack the new foundation. They claimed they had originally been unjustly thrown out of their monastery and had not given their consent to the bishop’s reform. The controversy was to be arbitrated by Omer, bishop of Ribe, and William, abbot of Æbelholt in Northern Zealand. Here the account stops, but it probably originally continued, perhaps with some of the documents drawn up by Abbot William and available in DD (>Wilhelmus abbas).

Composition and style

The Guldholm account, or at least the fragment we have, is a straightforward narrative, with almost no digressions. The author, however, did his best to sprinkle the text with biblical language in order to profile his assertions. The renegade monks of St. Michael’s in Schleswig, for example, turn their monastery into a den of thieves and a house of prostitutes (Is. 56.7 and Marc. 11.17). The text says that through those same monks God’s name is blasphemed by the people (Is. 52:5) and the name of religion is converted into “ridicule and a parable” (cf. Jer. 24.9, Ez 18.2). GERTZ found all these references, and many others, but a careful study would probably indicate even more.

The style of this narrative is more ambitious than what we have of the Varnhem-Vitskøl account (De fundatione monasterii Vitæscholæ). Besides a preface with literary ambitions and the biblical references, the author makes occasional use of dialogue in order to liven the tale. His account of the dead-drunk abbot, who is “dead in his soul”, provides almost a ribald quality to the account, unusual for a Cistercian narrative, until we remember that we are being told about the scandalous time before the good Cistercians came. Unusual for Cistercian narrative literature is an apostrophe or exclamatory address to Guldholm (GERTZ 1922, 150), lamenting the fact that the abbey, planned for such greatness, had to remain impoverished because of the fall of Bishop Valdemar: Propterea, Guldholm et filii tui, luge et deplora celerem et nimis immaturum casum patris tui piisimi, quo viuente omnium deliciarum tibi copia affluebat, quo subtracto tu paupercula remanes et inter alias sorores tuas tenuis et despicabilis delitescis. Si enim ipse vixisset, aliis te adequasset, immo pre aliis extulisset. Nunc autem sufficiat tibi paupertas tua... (Wherefore, Guldholm and your sons, weep and lament the fast and premature fall of your good father. In life he made sure that all goods flowed to you; when he was removed, you were left a pauper, and among your other sisters you are hidden away as slight and contemptible. If he had lived, he would have made you the equal of the others; no, he would have exalted you above them. Now let your poverty be enough for you).

GERTZ has made many corrections in the text. Since we do not have the original or any medieval manuscript, we cannot be sure how defective the Latin was, but the text (apart from this address) is compact and direct in a way that Cistercian foundation chronicles usually are not (>Exordium Magnum Cisterciense). See, for example, the remarks on the incorrigible Benedictines (GERTZ 1922, 149): “...reuersi sunt ad priorem locum tanquam canes ad vomitum (Prov. 26.11) et ceperunt male viuere sicut prius” (They returned to the former place like dogs to their vomit and began to live in an evil way, as before). How could one better convey a sense of these unreformable monks?

Sources and literary models

Like all Cistercian foundation chronicles of the Middle Ages, our author probably knew the account of the foundation of Cîteaux and the origins of the Cistercian Order, the Exordium Parvum. His emphasis on the decadence of the Benedictine houses follows in the tradition of the >Exordium Magnum Cisterciense’s first distinction, though the original source is much more restrained in its criticism. The Guldholm account, like the Ryd Annals with which it is probably associated, has a much more polemical and urgent tone, indicating a sense of deep insecurity about the position of the monastery in society and perhaps reflecting the aftermath of the controversies that almost destroyed Øm Abbey in central Jutland (>Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae).

The author himself states at the opening of the preface that his account had been “written on the basis of papers and humble charters that were scattered about” (in schedulis et vilibus chartis sparsim conscripta) (GERTZ 1922, 146). At the end of the preface he returns to the same theme: he had gathered his information from various old papers, books and privileges, and here they had been summarized in a simple and unlearned manner (collecta sunt hec de diuersis schedulis, libris et priuilegiis antiquis, et hic summatim congesta simpliciter et indocte..., GERTZ 1922, 147). Disregarding the topos of humility, we can conclude that the author worked as a compiler but had enough sources at his disposal to compose a fairly full and detailed report about the move from Schleswig and Guldholm, and perhaps also about the final move to Ryd (the opening of the preface refers to the change of place from Guldholm, de fundatione Auree Insule et de mutacione loci illius). The author also had at his disposal documents drawn up by the arbitrators of the dispute in the 1190s, as he indicates at the end of the fragment we have of his account (GERTZ 1922, 151): “Ut autem voluntas eorum in hac parte plenius agnoscatur, eorum scripta inuicem et ad iudices predictos scire cupientibus plenius sunt expressa, etc.” (So that their will in this dispute may be more fully seen, their writings to each other and to the aforementioned judges have been quite fully represented for those who want to know about them).

Purpose and audience

The author of the Guldholm account was interested in providing the type of polemical defence for the foundation of his monastery which we find in many thirteenth-century Cistercian accounts (>De fundatione monasterii Vitæscholæ). The Benedictine (or Cluniac) foundation at St. Michael in Schleswig is sketched in the most lurid colours, while the new foundation at Guldholm is seen as a great hope, sadly frustrated by the fate of Bishop Valdemar.

The preface starts with the topos that those who are too lazy to care about the origins of present matters are also they who will know nothing and be unconcerned with future things. The author’s purpose is nothing less than “to inform future generations” (ad instructionem posterum). At the end of the preface he adds the hope “that sons who will be born will tell their sons about the great dangers and difficulties our forefathers had in getting the place in which we live and the properties from which we live” (GERTZ 1922, 147). Such statements go even further than what we find in the preface of the Øm Abbey Chronicle (>Exordium monasterii Caræ Insulæ).

The audience may have been more than the immediate Cistercian one at Ryd Abbey. The author may have intended to provide an account that would impress the bishops of Schleswig, in convincing them that their predecessor, the great and tragic Valdemar, had started a foundation with great prospects, which he was unable to realize.

Medieval reception and transmission

There is no medieval codex of the Guldholm foundation account. It first appeared in P.J. RESEN’s Atlas Danicus, vol. 2 (1684-1687), Descriptio Civitatum Seelandiæ, after a section on Slangerup. Here it is called Auctarium de Monasterio Wite-Scholensi, S. Michaelis et aliis.

Another and perhaps fuller copy of the account was contained in Bartholiniana Tom. A, but this volume disappeared in the Copenhagen University Library fire in 1728. R. Copenhagen, Royal library, Uldall 186 fol., P. J. RESEN’s Atlas Danicus.


There has not been any close study of the language and composition of this source; it has been mainly used in order to write the history of Ryd Abbey.

  • FRANCE, J. 1992: The Cistercians in Scandinavia, Kalamazoo, Michigan (Frequent references to and use of the Guldholm account).
  • GODT, C. 1891: “Bischof Waldemar von Schleswig und die Cistercienser von Guldholm,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Schleswig-Holstein-Lauenburgische Geschichte, 138-96 (The account is marred by national prejudices rampant at the time, after Germany’s defeat of Denmark in Schleswig).
  • KUHLMANN, H.J. 1955: “Das Rudekloster und seine Vorgänger St. Michaelis Schleswig und Guldholm,” Jahrbuch des Angler Heimatvereins 19, 81-87 (Good brief account).
  • LORENZEN, C.C. 1859: “Nogle Bemærkninger om Guldholm Kloster,” Annaler for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, 319-26 (Lorenzen’s careful use of the written sources and personal investigation of the sites is a point of departure for all later studies).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1982: The Cistercians in Denmark, Kalamazoo (See the index under “Ryd” and “Guldholm”: the account crops up in many places in this attempt to look at the presence of the Cistercians in Denmark as a whole).
  • STÜDJTE, R. J. 1964: “Gedanken über den Wirkungsraum des Rydklosters,” Jahrbuch des Angler Heimatvereins 28, 90-110 (Of peripheral interest for the Guldholm account).