Saturday, August 09, 2014

Albert the Abbot and the Way to Rome

Albert was an abbot who lived In the German town of Stade by the mouth of the Elbe river in the 13th century. He had been appointed abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary in Stade in 1232. He was, however, not entirely content with the regime in his monastery. He wanted to introduce a more literal observance of St. Benedict’s rule and a stricter discipline for his monks. He was impressed with the practice of the Cistercians, and wanted to reform his monastery accordingly. But, in order to carry out such a reform, he needed a permission from the pope.

So, in 1236 he set out on the long and strenous journey from Stade to the centre of Christendom to get the pope’s permission. It is likely that he travelled on horseback, or perhaps in a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart. His affinity for the Cistercian ideals made him take a rather long detour on his way to Rome, namely to Citeaux in eastern France, home to the abbey of the first Cistercian monks. Their monastic life was founded on simplicity and evangelical poverty, ideals held high by Albert von Stade.

In Rome, he obtained the pope’s permission to reform the monastery in Stade according to the Cistercian rule. He set out on the long journey home through Italy, Austria, Bavaria, Thuringia, Sachsen-Anhalt and lower Saxony. His journey covered 3500 km and lasted approximately half a year.

Back in Stade, the monks in the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary were not keen on welcoming Albert’s wish for reform, in spite of the pope’s permission. Albert therefore resigned as abbot. Instead he joined the so-called Minorites, a Franciscan order in the monastery of St. John of Stade. It was in here that he wrote the so-called Annales, chronicles of important political and ecclesiastic events of his time. In the Annales he describes a dialogue between two monks who impart facts and advice regarding the best pilgrim route to Rome. The dialogue is a kind of pilgrim guide based on Albert’s own journey to Rome, mentioning the holy sites, the resting places and the distances for each stage (the latter recently checked and found to be correct).

Map from the article "The Via Romea Stadensis leading to Rome". By Prof. Giovanni Caselli and Rodolfo Valentini.
Courtesy of the European Association Via Francigena Magazine "Via Francigena and the Pilgrim Ways"
The abbot’s nearly 800 year old manuscript is still intact in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Until recently it was of interest mainly to scholars and researchers, but this ancient route attracted popular attention when, in 2001, the Italian archeologist Giovanni Caselli investigated the history of the Via Romea Stadensis, the old road to Rome.

The Via Romea Stadensis
Caselli soon discovered that the Italian continuation of Albert’s route to Rome was identical to the Via Romea dell’Alpe di Sierra that ran through the Casentino Valley, not far from his home town, Bibbiena in Tuscany. Pilgrims and other travellers had used this medieval road to reach Rome for centuries, but the existence of this old pilgrim trail was made known to the general public through a series of documentary films broadcast on Italian television in 2004. An interest in the abbot’s old pilgrim road had also been gaining momentum in Germany for some time. A meeting between Caselli and the mayors from 18 German towns along the route was held in Ochsenfurt am Main in 2008.

Resolute and enthusiastic cooperation resulted in a common project where the goal was to revitalize the Via Romea as a path for modern pilgrims on the way from northern Europe to Rome; or vice versa. An association to achieve this goal was established in 2009; when the Via Romea Stadensis, or the Förderverein Romweg - Abt Albert von Stade was founded.

Their first meeting was held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 2009 and delegations from both Germany and Italy attended. An Italian sister organization, the Via Romea Germanica, was founded soon after, joining forces with fellow pilgrims to promote the pilgrim ways to Rome.

A Road to Friendship
The ensuing cooperation has inspired many pilgrim walks, confirming the old saying that we become friends by walking and talking together. The most recent Via Romea walk went through Sachsen-Anhalt and Thuringia in 2014,when a colourful group of participants from Italy, Germany and Norway walked  from Wernigerode to Schmalkalden.
See photos

A ceremony to celebrate the pilgrimage was held in the town of Wernigerode on 28th June 2014. Ministerpräsident of Sachsen-Anhalt Dr. Reiner Hasseloff, Mayor of Wernigerode Peter Gaffert and Jerusalem-pilgrim Johannes Aschauer attended the ceremony, not only to celebrate the Via Romea pilgrimage, but also to promote Aschauer’s book Auf dem Jerusalemweg in which he describes a six-month pilgrimage for peace from Switzerland to Jerusalem in 2010.

L-R: Frau Heike Bremer, Mayor of Wernigerode Peter Gaffert, Mayor of Hornburg Andreas Memmert, Ministerpräsident of Sachsen-Anhalt Dr. Reiner Hasseloff, author and pilgim Johannes Aschauer, Mr. Otto Klär (Jerusalem Way), pilgrim Ulrich Eichler and Dr. Giovanni Caselli.