A group of carpenters in Germany is erecting a medieval utopia using only 9th-century tools
Archeologists and craftspeople are building a village and monastery following, for the first time, the only blueprint that survived the early Middle Ages — a medieval plan for a utopian community sketched on calfskin.
The site at Campus Galli near the German-Swiss border where carpenters are erecting a medieval utopia.
Courtesy of Kristen Ghodsee
Carpenters in the woods in southern Germany are erecting a medieval utopia. The workers are using only tools and methods from that era — 1,300 years ago.
They're building a village and monastery following the only blueprint that survived the early Middle Ages, a medieval manuscript that was first sketched on calfskin. A design for a village that was never built, until now.
The cover of a book by Kristen Ghodsee.
Courtesy of Kristen Ghodsee
Author Kristen Ghodsee says the building project is sparking important discussions about community and how societies can combat loneliness and isolation. Ghodsee is the author of the new book, "Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life." She spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about the project.
Marco Werman: It's not unheard of for people interested in history to try to re-create a medieval village. But this site Campus Galli near the German-Swiss border is not really the typical historical recreation. Tell us about it. What are you seeing right now?
Kristen Ghodsee: It's just one of the most amazing things you can imagine. So, what they're doing here is they're trying to build the plan of Saint Gall, which is a ninth-century plan for a Benedictine cloister, a monastery, using the methods and the materials of the ninth century, which, as I'm sure you can imagine, means that the work is very slow and very painstaking.
Medieval tools being used to build a Benedictine cloister at Campus Galli in Southern Germany.
Courtesy of Kristen Ghodsee
For you, as someone who has thought a lot about attempts to create utopias in places where people live together, happily, why are the bells particularly meaningful?
That's the way that the workers on-site communicate with each other. They meet together for meals. They meet together to have discussions, to plan. They meet together to discuss this thing called the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is a 530 A.D. text, which gives the blueprint for how a bunch of non-blood-related people could live together in harmony, in community with each other and with nature.
A sketch of a Benedictine cloister being replicated at Campus Galli.
You've met some of the archeologists and craftspeople building this medieval community today. What did they tell you about what motivates them? What are their priorities?
Quite a few of them are history buffs. Some of them are just really interested in experimental archaeology and this process of learning what it was like to build and create community in the ninth century. But a lot of others, especially, I would say, the master craftsman — the carpenters and the stonemasons and the people who could actually be making a pretty decent living elsewhere in Germany or in Switzerland — are giving all their time to this project because, you know, there was one young man that I spoke to today who was a cabinetmaker, and he said, "I would build a chair or I would build a table and then I would sell it and it would just go off into the world and I would never see those people again. I would never see this thing that I created, this beautiful thing that I created in the world. And here every single day that I work, that I labor towards this project, I'm laboring for something that is important to this community that I'm a part of."
The blueprint of a Benedictine cloister being replicated by carpenters in Southern Germany.
Yeah, I mean, that's fascinating that they fully realize this project won't be completed in their lifetimes, but they're committed to it.
Yeah. So, as I was walking around Campus Galli, I ran into one of the master craftsman, Julian, who has been working in Campus Galli for the last seven years, and I asked him what his motivations were for being here:"I was used to a very tight and a very quick rhythm of working. And here, I got to know another way of working and also working with each other. I think it's something that a lot of people are looking for also in our society, because it's an aspect that fascinates a lot of people. How is it possible that you work that slowly? Yeah, it's possible because maybe it's a perspective [for the] long term." So, you know, we live in a pretty isolated, hyperpolarized and atomized society in the West. And you can get really kind of caught up in your own personal dramas day to day. And I think that what the people here are doing, which is really inspiring, is they're just saying, "Hey, community is really important, too."
What we see and Campus Galli is also this concept of slowing things down, which connects to climate change and returning the global to the local. Do experiments like Campus Galli address that, do you think?
Absolutely. I'm in southern Germany right now and it's well into the mid-90s. It's very hot for this time of year in Germany. You know, the climate crisis means that lots of things about the way we live on the Earth are going to have to change. And that means that maybe learning some of these older building techniques, learning how to build with dowels instead of nails and how to build more sustainably are going to be really important skills in the future. And people here say it's the slowness, it's the care, it's the community, it's the connection that this kind of, you might call it slow construction, requires, right? There are certain things that if you don't have a crane and you're going to be lifting up a 2-ton block of stone to make a grinding wheel of some kind, you're going to need a lot of community and teamwork. If you're raising a barn roof, if you're building a church out of stone, there's a lot of community and connection that is required. And I think that, for a lot of people, that slowness that is based on reconnecting with others and finding the joy in that slowness is really important.
One can imagine that this utopian community of Campus Galli, when completed, will be multigenerational. So, I'm wondering what lessons does this community offer us about how elders were incorporated into society than just avoiding isolation and loneliness?
I think everybody in a community like this, everybody has a role to play. Now, not everybody is going to be a master carpenter or a master stonemason, but there are other things that can be done. There are potters. There are people who read. There's a scriptorium where people are writing out manuscripts. So, there are built-in roles for people. There's a medicinal herb garden, right? There's also an orchard. So, there are all sorts of ways in which people, of all generations, children, as well as the elderly, can be incorporated into this collective project of building the community together. And I really think that we've lost, in many ways, this sort of intergenerational solidarity that projects like this really show is pretty normal and natural for human beings who are living together in community.
A cup representing the Benedictine cloister being built at Campus Galli in Southern Germany.
Courtesy of Kristen Ghodsee
So, it may be challenging to answer this question briefly, since it's really the thrust of your book, but why do you think it's important to revisit these sort of utopian visions of the past? What do you say to people who have reactions like, "Why would we want to return to this medieval world?"
Exactly, right. And I think, you know, I'll admit, first of all, I understand that not everybody wants to live using the methods and the amenities of the ninth century. People are pretty happy in the 21st century. But here's the thing. I think that we get stuck thinking that the way we organize our private lives in our single-family homes, surrounded by our blood-related kin, you know, our family members and with our own privately owned stuff in our private cars going in and out of the office or whatever, or even telecommuting with our privately owned laptops, however it works, we tend to think that that's normal. We've got it stuck in our head that this sort of isolated life that we're living, raising children with just two biological parents in this single-family home, this model is creating a real crisis of care in our society. It's also creating a crisis of care for the elderly. It's also creating a crisis of care for people who are kinless. And so, I think, by going back and revisiting these utopian experiments of the past, we can understand a little bit better that there were other ways of living. There are other ways. And it doesn't mean that we have to go back to the ninth century, but we could learn from these experiments. There are things that we can take from these experiments and apply to our own lives in the present day to make us feel more contented and connected and ultimately in harmony with each other and with nature.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.