The Ups and Downs of History
“The transience of Creation, and particularly human failure, intransigence and one-sided problem solving create again and again times when important achievements crumble and great possibilities are not taken advantage of.
The Renaissance and Humanism period as well as the Reformation show how powerful intellectual movements and significant motive forces can open up great opportunities and release wonderful cultural and intellectual impulses, but how they can also make human shortcomings and bias perceptible. And just like History, every life has its ups and downs.”
Abbot em. Dr. Burkhard Ellegast OSB, excerpt from “Das Stift Melk” (“Melk abbey”)
The 14th century was marked by the decline of the Church. Natural disasters, a plague epidemic, the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism contributed to its demise. It was high time for a reform. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) may have rehabilitated the Church as an institution, so that there was again only one pope, but the desired reform of the Church didn’t happen. However, the call for a reform awakened forces which generated important intellectual and cultural achievements. As a result of the Council of Constance the monasteries were given the task of reforming monasticism, with Melk becoming a center of that reform. The Melk Reform was the basis of a restructuring of the monasteries in Austria and Southern Germany. Through its connection with the University of Vienna Melk abbey soon became a monastic cultural center – a “model monastery”. Many theological, monastic and scientific texts were then written in Melk. About two thirds of the manuscripts in Melk abbey library come from that time. But in spite of this monastic highpoint there was no economic growth. The territorial sovereigns made great financial demands on the monasteries, and abbots were pulled into quarrels between the ruling prince and the nobility. Despite these adverse external circumstances, the reconstructed and remodeled abbey church was consecrated in 1429 and later decorated with a panel altar by Jörg Breu the Elder.
At the beginning of the 16th century, there was another low point in the abbey’s history. Martin Luther’s reformatory ideas spread rapidly throughout Austria, and monastic life almost came to a standstill. Only three priests, three clerics and two lay brothers remained in Melk abbey. The ruling prince appointed secular officials to manage the monastery, resulting in many quarrels between the monks and the officials. The wars against the Turks led to higher taxes, and the abbey’s property around Vienna was devastated, so that the existence of the monastery was threatened. The upswing brought about by the Melk Reform had been completely negated.
At the behest of the ruling family the Council of Trent resulted in the Counter Reformation. Soon the unity of faith was restored and the groundwork for a new upswing in abbey history was laid. Many well educated and religiously instructed young men from Germany joined the monastic community of Melk. The abbey school was renewed, as well as the theological education of the monks. Melk became once again a well-ordered monastic community.