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The Abbey of Bursfeld

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In the Middle Ages on of the most celebrated Benedictine monasteries in Germany was the Abbey of Bursfeld, Situated directly west of Göttingen, on the River Weser, in what is now the Prussian Provence of Hanover. It was founded in 1093 by Duke Henry of Nordheim and his wife Gertrude, who richly endowed it. Henry IV of Germany granted it numerous privileges and immunities. Its first abbot, Almericus, came from the neighbouring Abbey of Corvey , bringing thence a band of monks. Following the Benedictine tradition, Almericus opened a school in connection with the abbey, which soon became famous, and under the next four abbots its fame continued to increase. But in 1331, under the worthless Abbot Henry Lasar, monastic discipline began to relax; the school was neglected, and the rich possessions were dissipated. From 1331 to 1424 no records of the abbey were kept. When, in 1424, the aged Albert of Bodenstein became Abbot of Bursfeld, church and school had fallen almost into ruins, the monastery itself was in a dilapidated condition, and but one old monk remained there. Albert would gladly have restored Bursfeld to its former splendour, but was too old to undertake the gigantic task. He resigned the abbacy in 1430.

During the fifteenth century a strong desire for monastic and other ecclesiastical reforms made itself felt throughout the Catholic world. One of the first Benedictine reformers was the pious and zealous John Dederoth, of Münden of Nordheim. Having effected notable reforms at Clus, where he had been abbot since 1430, Dederoth was induced by Duke Otto of Brunswick, in 1433, to undertake the reform of Bursfeld. Obtaining four exemplary religious from the monastery of St. Matthias, he assigned two of them to the monastery at Clus, to maintain his reformed discipline there, while the other two went with him to Bursfeld. Being still Abbot of Clus, he was able to recruit from that community for Bursfeld. Dederoth succeeded beyond expectations in the restoration of Bursfeld and began the reform of Reinhausen, near Göttingen, but died 6 February, 1439, before his efforts in that quarter had borne fruit.


Although the monasteries reformed by him never united into a congregation, still Dederoth's reforms may be looked upon as the foundation of the renowned Bursfeld Union, or Congregation. Dederoth, indeed, intended to unite the reformed Benedictine monasteries of Northern Germany by a stricter uniformity of discipline, but the execution of his plan was left to his successor, the celebrated John of Hagen (not to be confounded with the Carthusian John of Hagen, otherwise called Johannes de Indagine). In 1445 John of Hagen obtained permission from the Council of Basle to restore the Divine Office to the original form of the old Benedictine Breviary and to introduce liturgical and disciplinary uniformity in the monasteries that followed the reform of Bursfeld. A year later (11 March, 1446) Louis d'Allemand, as Cardinal Legate authorized by the Council of Basle, approved the Bursfeld Union, which then consisted of the six abbeys : Bursfeld, Clus, Reinhausen, Cismar in Schleswig-Holstein, St. Jacob near Mainz, and Huysburg near Magdeburg. The cardinal likewise decreed that the Abbot of Bursfeld should always ex officio be one of the three presidents of the congregation, and that he should have power to convoke annual chapters. The first annual chapter of the Bursfeld congregation convened in the monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul at Erfurt in 1446. In 1451, while on his journey of reform through Germany, the Cardinal Legate, Nicholas of Cusa, met John of Hagen at Würzburg, where the Benedictine monasteries of the Mainz - Bamberg province held their triennial provincial chapter. The legate appointed the Abbot of Bursfeld visitor for this province, and in a bull, dated 7 June, 1451, the Bursfeld Congregation was approved, and favoured with new privileges. Finally, on 6 March, 1458, Pope Pius II approved the statutes of the congregation and gave it all the privileges which Eugene IV had given to the Italian Benedictine Congregation of St. Justina since the year 1431. In 1461 this approbation was reiterated, and various new privileges granted to the congregation. Favoured by bishops, cardinals, and popes, as well as by temporal rulers, especially the Dukes of Brunswick, the Bursfeld Congregation exercised a wholesome influence to promote true reform in the Benedictine monasteries of Germany during the second half of the fifteenth, and the first half of the sixteenth, century. At the death of Abbot John of Hagen thirty-six monasteries had already joined the Bursfeld Congregation, and new ones were being added every year. During its most flourishing period, shortly before the Protestant revolt, at least 136 abbeys, scattered through all parts of Germany, belonged to the Bursfeld Union.

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The religious revolution, and especially the consequent risings of the peasants in Germany, greatly retarded the progress of the Bursfeld Reform. In 1579, Andrew Lüderitz, the last Abbot of Bursfeld, was driven from the monastery by the Lutheran Duke Julius of Brunswick, and, after an existence of almost five hundred years, Bursfeld ceased to be a Catholic monastery. The possessions of the abbey were confiscated, and the abbot was replaced by an adherent of Luther. About forty other Benedictine abbeys belonging to the Bursfeld Congregation were wrested from the Church, their possessions confiscated by Lutheran princes, and their churches demolished or turned to Protestant uses. Though greatly impeded in its work of reform, the Bursfeld Congregation continued to exist until the compulsory secularization of all its monasteries at the end of the eighteenth, and the beginning of the nineteenth, century. Its last president was Bernard Bierbaum, Abbot of Werden inthe Rhine Province, who died in 1798. Bursfeld (Bursfelde) is at present a small village with about 200 inhabitants, for whom a Lutheran minister holds services in the old abbey church.

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