The history of the abbey
The history of the abbey first began in Eckenweiher near Muehlacker probably in the year 1138. Inspired by the reformation ideas of Bernhard of Clairvaux, the knight Walter of Lomersheim sought to dedicate his life to God in the seclusion of monastic life. Walter decided to found and join a Cistercian monastery on his ancestral estate in Eckenweiher. He therefore turned to abbot Ulrich of Neuburg monastery in Alsace, who sent a convent of twelve monks and a few lay brothers led by abbot Dieter. It soon turned out, however, that the Eckenweiher estate was unsuitable as a location, especially due to the lack of building material and water. To overcome these difficulties, Walter approached the newly elected bishop Gunther of Speyer, count of Henneberg, to whose diocese Eckenweiher belonged.
The bishop visited the convent and in the year 1147 moved the monks to a fief belonging to the diocese - Maulbronn. The dangers of the area surrounding Maulbronn are depicted on a foundation plaque, consisting of two sidepieces similar to an altar. One panel shows the ambush of travellers in the forest, where the robbers threaten them with a crossbow and attack them with swords and daggers. The panel opposite shows Cistercian monks building the Romanesque church. On the inner panel, there is a picture of Gunther of Speyer and Walter of Lomersheim presenting a model of the church to the Virgin Mary above them. There is, of course, another story about how the monastery came to be. As legend would have it, during their search for a place that was more suitable than Eckenweiher, the monks loaded up a mule (in German a "Maultier") with a sack of money, gave it a blessing and a stroke of the whip and sent it on its way.
Where the Eselsbrunnen ("mule fountain") stands today is where the mule was reputed to have stopped and quenched its thirst at a stream. The monks saw this as a sign from God and it was there that they decided to build the monastery. To this very day, the legend lives on in the name of the town (Maulbronn literally meaning "mule fountain"), the coat of arms of the town and the etching of the mule drinking from the water in the arched vault of the fountain house. As a founding place for the monastery, Maulbronn met every requirement of the Cistercian order, whose basic principle was to live in seclusion, in poverty and in conformity with the original teachings of Saint Benedict. Unlike the Benedictines, however, who always built their monasteries up high, the Cistercians always built in the valley.
The spot was not, however, as secluded as it may have seemed, as the monastery was built near an old king's road central for trade and travel which led fairly directly to Speyer. The Elfinger Hof settlement near Maulbronn, which was mentioned in official documents as early as 784/785, also became part of the monastery's estate in 1159. The pond was converted in to an outhouse and the locals were forced to clear out. Over a period of almost 400 years, monks in Maulbronn built up a monastery that greatly influenced medieval religion and culture and also the economic and political landscape of the day.
The intelligent designs, hard-work and skilled tradesmanship of the Cistercian monks in Maulbronn enabled the monastery, which was in the care of the Bishop of Speyer, to grow rapidly. The Romanesque basilica-like church with three aisles was ready for consecration to the Virgin Mary as early as 1178. The church was renovated in a number of phases, as can be clearly seen from the little cloister garden in the centre of the ambulatory, where the diverse architectural styles of the Romanesque, Gothic and even later periods are apparent. The tracery windows of the ambulatory alone seem to reflect the infinite powers of expression of the stonemasons. The ambulatory was part and parcel of monastery life.
In accordance with the teachings of the order, the monks lived in an enclosed space that opened up to an interior garden secluded from the outside world and which therefore had access only to the sky and therefore to heaven. Even as early as the 12th century, the monks had developed agricultural estates second to none, of which an abbot boasted "Our wine barrels are bigger than the living quarters of the Egyptian monks and our fruit stores more spacious than their monasteries". Just how credible a statement this might have been can certainly be seen even today in the cellars and storage buildings at the front of the monastery courtyard.
The second key phase in the history of Maulbronn monastery began in the Spring of 1504, when it was captured by Duke Ulrich of Wuerttemberg following a seven-day siege that was to make it a part of Wuerttemberg. Since the Staufer period, the monastery enjoyed the special protection of the king. Once Duke Ulrich occupied it, he took on its patronage and that of the sixty or so villages belonging to the monastic estate. Duke Ulrich had turned Protestant mainly for political reasons and welcomed secularisation as a means of ridding himself of his large debts.
Ulrich's son, Duke Cristoph of Wuerttemberg, set up a school in Maulbronn to train clergymen for the state's Protestant church, which was still in its infancy. The school, which has been a Protestant Theological College since 1806, was housed in the monastery and - apart from a period during the thirty-year war - continues to be until this day. In 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed Maulbronn monastery as one of the World's Cultural Heritage sites. It is therefore talked about in the same breath as the Pyramids of Gizeh, the Great Wall of China or the Spanish Escorial. The whole Cistercian cultural landscape, including the meticulously designed system of water supply which has affected the development of the area surrounding Maulbronn up until the present day, played a considerable part in the listing.