• Hochaltar Ältester Flügelaltar der Kunstgeschichte

The Spirituality of Place: Lögumkloster and the cistercian Spirit

Prof. em. Brian Patrick McGuire, Roskilde University, Denmark

My Oxford supervisor, Sir Richard Southern, never used the word “spirituality”. I do not know if his silence was deliberate, but one day in the 1990s, after his retirement as President of Saint Johns College in Oxford, he and I were doing the lunch dishes. He asked me about my next project, and I told him that I was interested in the spirituality of Cistercian nuns. He stopped drying a dish, smiled and then looked into my eyes, as he sometimes did when he wanted to emphasize a point: “Well, you know that spirituality has to be connected to institutions. Otherwise it is just a word.”

Like so much else that Dick Southern said to me, I think I more or less remember what he said, for his words as a great historian and dear friend were important to me. I have always been uncomfortable with the word “spirituality”, for it is a nineteenth century term and not one that was used by our medieval ancestors. When they talked about spiritualia, they meant ecclesiastical possessions, a very concrete term! Thankfully, however, we have the German Geistesgeschichte, which makes the point that the human spirit also has a history and that we can find in the past expressions of this spirit. The trouble here is that the whole business can become rather ghostly. We end up chasing mental cobwebs, and so it is good to return to Southern’s insistence that the human spirit and the fact of spirituality have to be sought out in the context of institutions.

In this frame of reference, the Cistercians are wonderful informants, for their surviving texts and their buildings reveal their minds, hearts and spirits as individuals and sharers in a common institution. I think often of the story told by the Cistercian collector of exempla, Caesarius of Heisterbach, about how Jesus was fed up with the behavior of humankind and was about to call the angels to trumpet the end of the world. Mary begged him to stop and give humanity one more chance. Jesus demanded one good reason to delay the inevitable. Mary then opened her cape and showed the Cistercian nuns and monks huddled inside. Jesus understood immediately: Cistercian prayers and lives justified giving reckless human beings one more chance.

Such a story may in the view of some historians be wishful thinking, but for me it reveals the Cistercian sense of the value of community life in prayer and asceticism, united with other Cistercian houses in a great network that could fit inside Mary’s cape. The Cistercians did not suffer from an inferiority complex, but their sense of belonging to each other and to the saints of heaven, especially Mary, gave them a secure place in medieval Europe. Best of all, they were able to communicate their spirituality and institutional identity to their surroundings, and especially to bishops in the dioceses where they founded their monasteries. Through the bishops we can often gain insights into who the monks were and why they were valued.

In approaching the spirituality of the monastery at Løgum we are very much dependent on the witness of one bishop, Omer of Ribe. Sometime between 1190 and 1197, he drew up a charter for the monastery that provides welcome insights into the first decades of Løgum Kloster (Diplomatarium Danicum I. Række, 3 Bind, nr. 164). It was founded in the early 1170s by monks who came from Seem near Ribe. Here they had taken over a former Benedictine foundation, where there had been both monks and nuns (probably at different times), but they had not found the place suitable for their monastery and so continued to Løgum, whose Danish name they rendered into Latin as Locus Dei.

According to Bishop Omer, his predecessor at Ribe, Ralph (1162-71), handed over to the monks “after having gained the advice of his metropolitan lord Eskil, archbishop of Lund” whatever belonged to the episcopate of Ribe in the parishes of Løgum and Seem. Stephen, Ralph’s successor, (1171-77) confirmed these gifts. He is remembered as having been “monk of the Cistercian Order and father abbot” of Løgum. Stephen had come to Ribe from Herrisvad in Scania, the first Cistercian house in medieval Denmark, established with the help of Archbishop Eskil in 1144, and the mother abbey of Løgum. We can thus follow a succession: monks were sent from Cîteaux to Herrisvad in Scania in the early 1140s. One of these became abbot at Herrisvad, Stephen, but in 1171 he was chosen bishop of Ribe, an indication of how Archbishop Eskil favored the Cistercians and considered their abbots to be suited for episcopal office. The same happened to another Stephen, abbot of Cistercian Alvastra, who in 1164 became the first archbishop of Uppsala.

This background in church politics is necessary to appreciate what Omer was doing in his document to the benefit of Løgum Kloster and its monks. He was telling the story of how he came to be involved with “the monks of Løgum whom we have tied fast to our heart” (monachos de Loco Dei cordi nostro conglutinavimus). Omer made use of the line from the Gospel of Luke about not being able to dig and being ashamed to beg (Luke 16, 3). In other words the prayers of the monks made up for the good works that the bishop was unable to perform. They were his intercessors on the road to heaven and so “we embrace especially the previously named monks, who as it were are members of our own household, with special affection” (prelibatos tamen quasi magis domesticos et proprios toto affectu specialius amplectimur.

I make no claim that this language is “original” or different from what could probably be found in other charters for the early years of many Cistercian monasteries. But the fact that language is common does not exclude the possibility that it was heartfelt! And certainly what follows afterwards indicates that Bishop Omer had followed the early history of Løgum Abbey and was more than a distant observer. He described how the monks had suffered “many evil tribulations” including the death of brothers, disease among their cattle, the dying off of their sheep, and fires at two granges. Last of all there was a fire that destroyed the entire precinct of the monastery and all within it: books, vestments, household utensils and supplies. A few days later the bakery burned, where they had gathered together everything left from the monastery fire. All the monastery’s documents, its privileges and confirmations, were consumed by the conflagration.

At this point in the bishop’s narrative there comes a reflection which in my mind conveys the spirituality of the twelfth century Church: “Blessed is God, who consoles in their weakness those who are subject to tribulation, so they do not give up, but come back to him with greater devotion” (qui consolatur eorum pusillanimitatem in his tribulationibus, ut non deficient, sed revertantur ad eum attentius). This God is one “who forgives much and shows his mercy” so that after the catastrophes shown in his punishments and wrath he brings comfort (mitigationem adducit). The passage is based on Isaiah 55,7, and it leads to Hebrews 12,6: flagellat autem omnem filium quem recipit: he punishes every child whom he receives, and this thought is joined to Genesis 22, 12 and 16: “so that he does not even spare his only begotten son”. The passage in the Hebrew Bible is, of course, theologically linked to the sufferings of Christ: God did not spare his only Son.

The point here is deeply theological: the sufferings of the monks have meaning because in the punishments God inflicted on them, he treated the monks in the same way as he did his Son. Their sufferings are a manifestation not only of God’s power but also engender the bishop’s devotion to them: “So that they after their punishments have more certain hope of being received [by God], and we having compassion on their affliction and congratulating them on God’s visitation and correction” (nos eorum compatientes afflictioni et congratulantes visitationis divine et correctioni…) have now made this narrative concerning the manner in which they obtained their possessions and then came to lose their documents” (longam iam contexuimus narrationem de modo conquisitionis possessionum eorum et de perditione instrumentorum).

The bishop states the need the monks have for being safeguarded from “evil men”, malignantes , who in future might attack them. He does not indicate who such people might be, but he states his intention to protect the monks’ possessions that once belonged to his bishopric. This he does in the presence of “our beloved son abbot Vagn in Løgum, in the presence of the lord Absalon, archbishop of Lund, legate of the apostolic see, primate of Sweden, and before the archbishop of Nidaros, Eric, as well as many other clerical and lay persons. The charter ends with the desire that “Christ, true peace and eternal light, may shine his light over those who maintain peace and concord with them”, the monks of Løgum: Servantibus autem ad eos pacem et concordiam pax vera et lux eterna in vitam sempiternam Christus illucescat.

This charter is the closest we have to a foundation charter for Løgum Kloster, and in many ways it is probably more informative than the original document that was lost in the fire. Bishop Omer of Ribe felt obliged to provide a narrative of the first decades of the monastery, and he gives a sense of the trials and tribulations that the monks had suffered. But he also demonstrates how he and his two predecessors at Ribe did what they could to make the monks feel welcome in their foundation.

We have a much more detailed narrative of a Danish bishop’s devotion to the Cistercians in the narrative of Øm Abbey from about a decade later, shortly after 1200. Here Bishop Svend of Århus is seen as a saintly figure who turned to the Cistercians for spiritual nourishment and stimulation. However much Bishop Svend’s portrait might be considered to be wishful thinking at Øm Abbey, Omer’s charter for Løgum is perhaps much closer to the inner life and attitude of a late twelfth century bishop. Even if Abbot Vagn of Løgum may have helped him draw up the document, Bishop Omer consented to its language and issued it in his own name.

What do we have here in terms of spirituality? Many historians would look at the document purely in terms of what the Cistercians at Løgum got out of it in material terms: recognition of their rights and privileges after their original charters had burned up. But I would also consider this letter as a manifestation of what the Cistercians stood for. First of all, they were stubborn survivors. Their arrival at Løgum had been difficult, for they had come first to Seem and then had to seek better conditions at Løgum. In this respect they resembled so many other Cistercians, who often discovered that the monastic site given them was not good enough for their needs. One can think of the odyssey of the monks who ended up at Øm, after several attempts elsewhere.

The saga of the monks continued after their arrival at Løgum, for they had to fight disease: their animals died and apparently many of the monks died. We can imagine that the brothers constructed wooden buildings on the slightly elevated bit of land where the church today is located. In those days the nearby stream that is now straight as an arrow would have twisted its way down towards the larger Brede Å. Southern Jutland is legendary for its rainfall, and the first Cistercians at Løgum would have had to work hard to keep themselves dry and to raise crops that could sustain them.

All their efforts disappeared in a few days, perhaps in the late 1180s, fifteen to twenty years after the first foundation. But their work was not in vain, and here is my second point: the Løgum Cistercians in their tribulations were able to recruit the generosity of their surroundings and especially of the bishop. Bishop Omer was there to sustain the monks, as his predecessors had been. It is ironic that Cistercians are usually singled out as having monasteries exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. What mattered for the monks of Løgum, as elsewhere, was not whether or not they were exempt from some theoretical jurisdiction. What was important was the moral and economic support the bishop gave.

Why was Omer generous? The answer can only be that he saw in the Cistercians a group of men who were living in a manner that he admired and with which he could identify. It is here we enter into the spirituality of the Cistercians, who became a band of brothers working and praying hard and providing in their silence an example to their surroundings. We know that later bishops of Ribe had a house near the monastery and came there at times, presumably for “rest and recreation” from their duties. The devotion of the Ribe bishops continued through the thirteenth century, as manifested in the abbey’s charters. In the wake of the claims for hospitality made by the bishop of Århus on the monastery at Øm, Bishop Christian of Ribe arranged an orderly agreement to make sure that Løgum was not plagued by excessive demands from future bishops.

I am not trying to make out the bonds between the bishop of Ribe and the monks of Løgum into something idyllic. There can have been tensions that have left no trace in the meager sources we have. But it is in the sympathy and understanding that developed between bishops and monks we can find a foundation for Cistercian spirituality. The monks had no desire to be pastoral and to spread the Gospel to their surroundings. In the example of their lives, however, they indirectly fulfilled a pastoral mission. For the bishops of Ribe they were Christ-like figures who had suffered and who represented the essence of Christian revelation. God had visited his wrath upon them and now they were entitled to be supported in their lives.

Thirdly the monks were able to create an abbey church that expressed the very best of Cistercian spirituality, in simplicity and strength, but in a Northern context. From about 1220 and for about a century afterwards, the abbots who succeeded Vagn at Løgum converted what probably had been a makeshift wooden church into a brick building that started in the east in the Romanesque style and ended in the west in the Gothic. Anyone who has walked into this church on a summer morning and watched the sunlight dance above the main altar can get an idea of what it must have been like for the monks who sang the Psalms of David seven times a day in this room.

But monks and nuns did the same elsewhere, throughout Europe, in the Middle Ages, and what is so special about Løgum Church? The building is a celebration of brick architecture, a wholeness that remarkably rests on a turf foundation, a statement of Christian monastic spirituality that is reused today in the Danish Lutheran Church. Brick was the building material of kings and nobles in the thirteenth century: there were few builders who could afford such splendor, but the Cistercians wanted only the best. By 1200 they had one of the first brick churches at Sorø, while Løgum had much longer to wait.

The result by the early years of the fourteenth century was worth waiting for. Like its sisters at Doberan and Pelplin, Løgum Abbey Church sums up the hopes, dreams and lives of generations of monks who dedicated themselves to the monastic life. The Cistercians had come a long way from Cîteaux, Clairvaux and Morimond, and in the North they contributed to an elegant and substantial building style whose manifestations are still with us. The bricks sing of light and life and point the way to what Bishop Omer called “true peace and eternal light”, pax vera et lux eterna.

Løgum Abbey Church, like its sisters at Bad Doberan and Pelplin, deserve to be celebrated!



Prof. em. Dr. Brian McGuire

Roskilde University, Lehrstuhl für Geschichte des Mittelalters


Wissenschaftlichen Schwerpunkte:

·         Geschichte der Zisterzienser in Dänemark,

·         Alltag, Freundschaft und Spiritualität der Zisterzienser,

·         Dänische und europäische Identitäten im Mittelalter,

·         Geschichte des Gebets.



· Conflict and Continuity at Øm Abbey. A Cistercian Experience in Medieval Denmark (Museum Tusculanum. Opuscula graecolatina 8, Copenhagen 1976) 152 pp (reviewed HISTORY 62 (1977) 105-6).

· The Cistercians in Denmark: Attitudes, Roles and Functions in Medieval Society (Cistercian Studies 35:  Kalamazoo, Michigan 1982) pp 421, 50 photos, 4 maps.  Reviewed in SPECULUM 59 (1984) 185-7.

· Friendship and Community: The Monastic Experience 350-1250 (Cistercian Studies 85: Kalamazoo 1988) 571 pp. Reprint 2010.

· Da Himmelen kom nærmere: Fortællinger om Danmarks kristning 700-1300 (When Heaven Came Closer: Narratives of Denmark's Christianization) (Frederiksberg, Alfa, 2008, reprinted 2009).262 p.

· Spejl og kilde: Den nye spiritualitet (Mirror and Source: The new spirituality) (Frederiksberg, Alfa 2012), 150 p.

· The Birth of Identities: Denmark and Europe in the Middle Ages (C. A. Reitzel, 1996), 363 pp.