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A concise history

Aduard Abbey was founded in 1192 as a member of the filiation of Clairvaux. Her mother house is Klaarkamp. Her official name is ‘Ad Sanctum Bernardum’. The factual end of monastic life in Aduard came in 1580, the legal confiscation followed in 1594. The abbey housed on average one hundred monks and more than 500 lay brothers. The landownership was about 7000 ha. The monks settled themselves in an area that was continuously threatened by the sea. As a result the abbots were compelled to regulate rivers and build dykes and sluices and thus turning swamps and marshes into fertile farmland. This area is called Middag-Humsterland.

The former marshes of Middag-Humsterland

The Cistercians probably introduced the art of brick making into the Low Countries. The building of Aduard’s cross-church between 1240 and 1263 serves as an example of great Cistercian craftsmanship in the field of architecture and brick making. Aduard has known two local saints: the Englishman Richard de Busto and the Italian Emanuel of Cremona. In the 15th and 16th century a group of scholars visited the monastery regularly. Important members were Wessel Gansfort and Rudolf Agricola. Their writings are still being studied and translated as part of the intellectual movement which is generally known as northern humanism. The abbey’s library was put fire to; only ten manuscripts have survived. Aduard had six daughterhouses of which some were incorporated.
In the years 1939 till 1941 a small part of the abbey precincts has been excavated by prof. dr. A.E. van Giffen. He was mainly interested in the church of which the Aduard chronicle relates that it had been drawn by a lay brother-architect. The abbot had sent him to Clairvaux to copy the church of which the building had been commissioned by St. Bernard himself. The church had a ship and aisles, and an ambulatory with radiating chapels. The excavations have shown that it was modelled on Royaumont. Its length was ca. 85 m. Cloister and adjacent buildings followed the standard Cistercian plan. The abbey walls and moats enclosed an area of ca. 20 to 25 ha.

In 1580 the abbey was attacked by Dutch soldiers who are said to have burnt down a considerable number of its buildings. How much damage has been done to the abbey is still unknown, but it at any rate triggered off the process of demolition. The judicial end came in 1597 when the Roman Catholic faith gave way to the Protestant religion: but fate had already been determined by spiritual slackness and moral relapse.



The chronicle of Aduard Abbey

The history of Aduard Abbey has come down to us in eight manuscripts that are preserved in the cities of Groningen, Berlin, Brussels, Leiden and The Hague. Together they give the abbacies of 33 abbots in the period 1192 up to 1578. Research on all these mss. by Brugmans in his edition of the Latin text in 1902 revealed that the oldest redaction is kept in Groningen. He called it ms. AG I. The other versions are either later additions or in some cases copies of AG I.

Folio r1 on which the foundation of the abbey in 'Adwerth' is mentioned.

The chronicle is the only written source we have on the history of this abbey. As such it has been used extensively in several studies by historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, almost all of them vent criticism on the historical credibility of its contents. They argue that were they expect the author to give historical data on monastic life in Aduard, he dwells upon irrelevant things such as supernatural lights, sweating sculptures, decapitated heads that speak etc. Romein for instance, in his study on Dutch historical writings of 1932, states that the chronicler gives an unsatisfactory account of the intellectual, political and economic power of the abbey. Others complained about his use of clichés and formulaic phrases. In short, we have a text that has been severely criticized and has been paid little attention to, for example: There is only one Dutch translation available, which dates from 1724.
While reading the text over and over again I became more and more intrigued by its composition and phraseology. I wondered whether all these critical remarks might have been the result of a discrepancy between the expectations of the 19th and 20th century readers and the objectives of the medieval author. Thus I gave myself the task of analysing the text and trying to determine its literary structure. For me it was hard to believe that the abbot of this well-known and powerful abbey would have commissioned the writing of a chronicle without clearly defining a public and an objective to his scribe. In other words, was the text meant to be a historical account or something else?

On the whole the composition of the chronicle is that of Gesta Abbatum, a literary narrative enumerating the abbacies of one particular monastery chronologically. Most of the abbacies consist of the following elements: duration, personality of the abbot, his family background, building activities, education, saints, important events, death and burial. The abbacy of Albert, the second abbot, might serve as an example:

After him ruled a holy man named Albert. He excelled in miracles and led a very holy life. Accordingly he expanded the monastery and its population, converting many people. Out of necessity he built a new, larger church, which is called ‘the school’. In course of time this school was attended by novices and younger brothers after they had been educated in grammar at the ‘ Red School’ near Winsum. In ‘the school’ or auditorium they studied the Liberal Arts and Canon Law. Thus it happened that at this place men were living competent in all sciences, who enlightened the whole of Friesland with their knowledge as appears from the old manuscripts of this monastery. In the fifth year of his abbacy the order fo the Friars Minor was founded and in his tenth year the Cistercian abbey Yesse near Groningen. This holy abbot ruled for eleven years and died in 1226 on St. Catharine’s day and was buried near his predecessors in the afore-mentioned chapel, now called Bishop’s Chamber. Afterwards his bones were translated to the chapter house.

References to properties and ownership are manifold in the average abbey chronicle as Kastner elucidated in his study Historiae fundationum monasteriorum. The text were used to lay down rights of ownership for posterity by means of inserting summaries of business agreements or complete charters. Kastner calls them Libri fundationum. Business matters when interwoven with historical data he calls Historiae fundationum monachorum. Besides historical facts they give detailed information about the foundation of the abbey, such as patronage, endowments, papal and episcopal charters confirming certain rights. In fact they were to proof the legitimacy of the foundation and to emphasize the bond between the abbey and particular noble families. What about the Aduard chronicle. Let us have a look at the prologue:

In 1192 on June 19, the day of Boniface, bishop and martyr and companions, a monastery was founded in Friesland, named St. Bernard in Adwerth in the diocese of Münster, 38 years after St. Bernard’s death. The cause of this foundation was the frequent appearance of nocturnal lights at that place which was interpreted as a good omen. Accordingly the pious worked unanimously to build a monastery, hoping that it would please the Almighty Lord who had so clearly designated this location. Many extremely holy men lived here as appears from the writings of this place. They did not run away from labour and expenses, but prepared a dignified house for God. They surrounded it with walls and never broke with holy traditions. They were often in need themselves and as a consequence they fed the poor. And here are recorded the abbots of this place and monastery and their names in order.

Like in many other chronicles the foundation is connected with a miracle, a shining light. However, there is no record of the foundation and donation of estates and rights. We are completely left in the dark about which families made the first endowments needed to start off the building of the monastery. In a way the prologue sets the tone for the rest of the story: Were facts are wished for, marvels are given. I will give some examples:

Abbot Eggard
He erected a cross in the lay brother’s choir with many relics of which it is said that it addressed a certain lay brother when he was very depressed. And it told him that it had suffered considerably more to deliver him from eternal death than he had suffered by being exposed to temptations.

Abbot Albert
It is said that he excelled in miracles, for he had cured a leper in front of the gate. In addition words can be found about him in a manuscript of Schola Dei Abbey. In it is written that when he was dying a nun in Meerhusen Abbey got into ecstasy as was a habit of her. When she received a vision from the Lord many secrets were disclosed to her and she started to make inquiries about this abbot in Aduard. Then she was answered by providence: ‘Why are you asking for him who has been added this very day to the citizens of Heaven and has received the crown of virtue?’ And soon she saw him joining the choir of Angels in a state of exultation.

Abbot Henry I
But to return to the honourable father Henry, it is good to know of a great miracle. When he was on his way to the General Chapter accompanied by the abbots of Klaarkamp Abbey and Bloemkamp Abbey, he was addressed by a decapitated head. After Henry had placed it back on the body it spoke to him and made his confession through the virtue of the holiest of all, St. Barbara.

Abbot Wolter
In his days Nythard Fuchs and his German army ruined our monastery. And the restoration expenses came to more than 8000 Rhenish florins. And finally on the ninth day after their invasion they left with their booty, which is not surprising, because this same Fuchs gang leader and his train had been scared out of their wits the night before so much that they did not want to stay in the monastery any longer. Because the sculpture of St. Bernard that is standing next to the altar in the church had started to sweat as we have been told truthfully by them who saw it happen.

The occurrence of supernatural events is characteristic of the Aduard chronicle, but it has few similarities with the genres and subgenres Kastner describes. There are no references to property, estate or financial transactions. In that sense it is not a book of history that gives a coherent account of all aspects of the development of Aduard Abbey. Only those topics have been selected by the author that contribute to the view that Aduard Abbey was directly controlled by God and that its site may be considered sacred. He has chosen firstly subjects that have a bearing on the religious principles of monastic life, i.e. poverty, charity, care of the sick and missionary activities such as the foundation of daughter houses, secondly subjects that enhance the spiritual and intellectual reputation of the abbey like education, science, local saints and miracles, thirdly subjects that emphasize the dignity of the abbots like building activities and delineation of characters and fourthly subjects that show the monks as the defenders of freedom and faith in regional warfare.

The propagation of the site’s sacredness has not been the starting-point in the chronicles Kastner studied, except for one category of monastic chronicles which he has given the name ‘Tendenzschrift’. It branched off from the Historia fundationis monasterii in that the emphasis shifted from property to the sanctity of the abbey. These writings were especially composed in Cistercian abbeys at times when monastic life was dwindling.

In 2006 a new publication on this manuscript will be available with a Dutch translation.
Editors are: dr J. van Moolenbroek (VU, Amsterdam), dr F. Bakker (RUG), prof. dr J.A. Mol (Fryske Akademy) en drs J. Loer (Historical Society of Aduard).

Authors: dr O. Vries (RUG), dr. F. Bakker (RUG), prof. dr J.M.M. Hermans (RUG), prof. dr H. Blommestein (KUN), dr. C. Caspers (KUN), dr J. van Moolenbroek, drs J. Delvigne (RUG), ing. H. Kooi, drs. J. Loer en prof. dr J.A. Mol

Reconstruction of the abbey church

It was during the abbacy of Wigbold (1216-1242) that plans were made for the building of a new church. The chronicler makes the following remarks on Wigbold:

He constructed the foundations of our church and monastery, started in great poverty in the 23rd year after his election, AD 1240. It was designed by a laybrother and resembled the church of Clairvaux that had been built under the authority of our father Bernard. For this reason the laybrother had been sent to Clairvaux accompanied by his son. And it is said that he had fulfilled his task craftsmanlike.

Around 1600 the then deserted monastery was visited by Ubbo Emmius the first rector magnificus of the State University of Groningen. He gave a rather detailed description of the church in his History of the Frisians. In his account he speaks of a building more beautiful than the eye could make one belief. Despite the recommendation of the Province of Groningen to save the church as a 'monumentum antiquitatis' from destruction, it was pulled down probably in the first half of the 17th century.

The Historical Society of Aduard in cooperation with Signatuur Architects in Groningen have launched a project which aims at making a virtual reality re-creation of this church. By incorporating the newest technologies in three-dimensional modelling with historical and archeological research and architectural analysis of Cistercian churches in general, this will eventually lead to the rebirth of the largest and most beautiful church that was standing in the coastal regions of the Netherlands and northwest Germany.


In 1580 the abbey was attacked by Dutch soldiers who are said to have burnt down a considerable number of its buildings. How much damage has been done to the abbey is still unknown, but it at any rate triggered off the process of demolition. The judicial end came in 1597 when the Roman Catholic faith gave way to the Protestant religion: but fate had already been determined by spiritual slackness and moral relapse.

Excavations It is to be regretted that no picture of the abbey has survived the ages. References to the architecture in the chronicle are scanty and when made are to be seen as loose remarks.
At the close of the 16th century the German scholar Ubbo Emmius visited the site at the time when the abbey was depopulated but the buildings presumably still intact.
His description of the cathedral has been supported scientifically by the outcome of excavations that took place in the 1940s supervised by the late professor Van Giffen). The design of the model shown on several photographs is based on his work and the views of his successors. The position of the buildings in the centre of the abbey in relation to the cathedral is in accordance with the standard Cistercian plan. Nearly any information available of the buildings in the area between this centre and the abbey wall. In all probability there must have been quite a number of edifices that served economical purposes, but whose foundations have not been uncovered yet.

1940. Excavations. Remains of the pillars of Aduard's abbey church.



Old documents reveal that our forefathers initially had the intention to preserve the large abbey church, because they valued it as a monument. What made them change their minds later on remains in the dark, the magnificent building was broken down very soon after 1600.
So what the inhabitants of the village Aduard nowadays call the 'abbey church' was not the church. It is the original monks' infirmary built in 1297, which became the place of worship for the Protestant villagers. It is a very fine specimen of late medieval Dutch architecture in brick building showing a wide variety of ornamental brick patterns. The original Cistercian tile floor discovered in the 1920s is very rare.

Infirmary from southwest.

Abbot Henry I (1292 -1301) built this infirmary for the choir-monks with a chapel and an altar in the year 1297. On the wall he put an inscription which read:

"Abbot Henry, true friend of virtue
had had this house built for the ill monks
in everlasting praise of Christ
whom you gave birth to pious Virgin
and of the saints Bernard and Benedict"

The chapel was consecrated by Emanuel, bishop and count of Cremona. He had been driven out of his city and native country as a result of Italian internal controversies. He fled from his country and arrived at the monastery in Aduard in the fall of 1295. According to the Aduard chronicle

'he was treated very politely for three years and had pointed at the site of his grave where he had been led for prayer, saying: "This is my rest forever; here will I live, for I have desired it." And thus he was buried at this very same spot with a tombstone in which his effigy had been carved. And it has this epitaph:

"Here rests Emanuel, bisshop and count of Cremona, professor in secular and canon law, who died in the year of our Lord 1298 on the day of Remi bishop and confessor. That his soul through God's mercy may rest in peace. Amen."

And his virtue triggered off many miracles.


















St. Bernard Abbey