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Campus Galli: Was ist denn das?

For the past two springs, I've spent time on the Campus Galli. The Campus Galli is an experimental archaeology project near Messkirch, in Baden-Wurttenberg in southern Germany, near the Swiss border. It is effectively a construction project: realising the monastery that is described in the Plan of St Gall, a ninth-century manuscript presented to Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, perhaps in response to a back-of-the-napkin sketch produced at one of his Synods in either 816 or 817.

The plan envisions the ideal Benedictine community contemporary to the 820s/830s when it was composed: completely self-sufficient with its gardens, fields, livestock, and diverse buildings centred around a church and monks’ quarters. It was probably intended as an academic exercise, something for Louis to contemplate (as he was well-known for his piety – and the Carolingians themselves envisioned bringing stability to their diverse empire through a programme of establishing monasteries in otherwise wild and out of the way regions). It would have been an enormous, self-sufficient compound (housing around 400 people  ranging from the monks, lay-visitors, and craftsmen and agricultural workers). The Plan itself is still in the abbey library of St Gall: it was never built, but ideally it would have been centred around the relics of St Gall. People have made sketches of what they think it would have looked like -- but in this forest near Messkirch, it's actually going up.

Initial support for the project came with an injection of €1M from the state and EU resources after a proposal by a journalist called Bert Geutin, and is now under the direction of the University of Tuebingen (which is about an hour’s train trip away on good days; a discussion of DB is for another day, possibly whilst in therapy). The board of directors includes experts in history, archaeology, theology, and veterinary medicine. Construction of the buildings on the plan were begun about 10 years ago following as much as possible construction techniques, tools, and materials that would have been used in the ninth-century. The site is located outside of Messkirch proper, deep in the woods: visitors access the site from a carpark/busstop from which they must walk on a secluded path into the woods the better to be immersed in the experience.

Once on the grounds, they encounter about two dozen permanent staff members and many volunteers who not only work on construction of the site buildings (using materials found on-site where possible) but a number of huts and buildings dedicated to the types of artisans and craftspeople that would have been associated with a Carolingian village or monastery All are in contemporary clothing, and much research is done to ensure period accuracy – with the exceptions of those of us who must wear prescriptive lenses, and that people must wear steel-toed brown shoes because it is an active building site. The Campus Galli project was opened to the public in 2013; estimated time of completion is about forty years. Campus Galli is open to the public from 2 April (Charlemagne’s birthday) through to 11 November (feast day of St Martin, who was an important saint for the Franks).

In the autumn of 2022, I was a participant in a conference on Carolingian studies that was held at the University of Tubingen, Germany – it was a wonderful experience, none the least because we met in what is a refurbished castle on the university grounds. During the two day conference, I knitted as my colleagues and I spoke and discussed all things Carolingian south – and this was remarked upon by a couple of colleagues who were then based at the university. This led to queries asking me if I knew about the Campus Galli project? And then on to introductions to the director of the project, and the coordinators of the spinners and weavers at the site.

I’ve been there twice:  it can be a real Planes, Trains, and Automobiles experience to get there and back (last time it was 8 trains and 7 hours between Sigmaringen and Stuttgart; they are about 70 km apart). I am by profession a senior lecturer in Classical History with a background in Carolingian history. I have lectured and written about the Roman period as well as the early 9th century. I am also a proficient spinner and weaver of over 35 years’ practice, and textile (knitting and embroidery) of over 50 years’ practice. I fold into my university lecturers as well as talks aimed at public groups techniques and implications of sheep, wool, and textile manufacture in the Roman and early medieval period. My skills as a public speaker and textile craftsperson are part of wider public outreach, as I have demonstrated at heritage sites and events in southern England at Little Woodham 17th Century Village in Gosport

and at Fishbourne Roman Palace, for example. I have given workshops on hand-spinning, nalbinding, and on spinning and weaving in the Roman world.

After I made contact with I have been in direct contact with Hannes Napierala, the director of the site, who has welcomed my participation, and with Mechthild Schwarzkopf, their main weaver, I arrived for my first day on the 20th May 2023.  I was thrown into the deep end on a very weekend, where the site can see up to a 1000 visitors as day. I was kitted up as best as possible to blend into the Carolingian surroundings, and moved into the textile buildings with a wonderful group of staff and volunteers. I returned to the Campus in May and early June 2024, and was happy to receive a warm welcome and to be thrown immediately back into the deep end – this trip being very chilly and rainy, but immersive and educational nevertheless.

Here are some highlights from my trip in 2024:

I had a new look this year as I borrowed all my clothes from the site this year -- not seen: the many layers underneath, as it's very rainy and chilly here.

The weavers have two big warp-weighted looms on the go -- this one is outside in its own little shelter. The other is inside out of the rain, with two leggings being woven on it simultaneously.

Mr Rooster and his harem usually wander the grounds freely, but they were hanging around their coop most of the afternoon out of the rain -- much more sensible than I was, taking a walk in the rain to look at the chickens.

Lots of sprang made on-site this year -- I'm much improved from last year, and a bit mental when it comes to playing with colour. The yarns here are all handspun and dyed on-site with natural materials. Also pictured is a cat-sized hat made from Coppergate stitch, as nalbinding is an important technique on the site. Nearly everyone amongst the staff and volunteers have nalbinding hats and mitts.

Even these brief residencies at the Campus Galli have provided me with invaluable hands-on experience of spinning, weaving, and dyeing using contemporary techniques to add to my own toolkit and practice. There is so much in terms of exchange of ideas and information – they for my different styles of spinning (I tend to use direct spinning rather than support or suspended), but also my background in Carolingian and Roman history. Although the techniques and textile crafts described above are  little-changed since the Roman period, I was keen to participate these activities in person: I have owned sheep, and I have worked with natural dyes, but using 21st- -century techniques only. Every time I’ve gone back so far, there’s been some new quirk or way of doing something, or some new tool that is an instant ‘I’m having that’ moment. This time around it came from a question of ‘Do you ever work with nettles?’ as one of the long-time volunteers brought her nettles to process into spinnable fibre. I have worked with nettles, and here I was introduced to retting nettles and a terrific tool for removing the broken chaff from the dried nettles’ stems. Fortunately, I knew a friendly blacksmith on the site who, with the woodturner, made me one of these tools. 

Working at the site has also had an impact on not only my own textile workshops and talks, but also on my in-class work and materials. How wool was processed and dyed with natural materials has also enhanced my talks and public workshopping at heritage sites.  For example, this folds into my work on the impact of trade of dyeing materials in antiquity, as well as work in the importance of colour and their meanings in ancient and early medieval clothing.

The new techniques that I have learned are also now, a year later, an invaluable  part of my public outreach: the warp-weighted loom and its working is not a common skill, and I  have been able to use this new skill at Fishbourne and workshops, for example. The same with tablet weaving and further techniques in nalbinding that I learned from the site. My own work with sprang has improved, after sharing the skill with my colleagues on site, and improving it for further workshops including sprang, flax spinning, and warp-weighted loom weaving.

So despite the rain -- and a magical moment when I set my shoes on fire -- Campus Galli 2024 was a rich and wonderful experience.

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