A couple of days ago I visited Campus Galli. Located in south-western Germany, it’s a new, eccentric and almost insanely ambitious project to build an entire Carolingian monastery, from scratch, using early medieval techniques, over the next 20 years or so. You can see smiths, potters and stonemasons at work, and eat a ‘Carolingian sausage’ in a bun. I had great fun. But on my return home I learned that the site has been bitterly criticised by ‘living history’ specialists. Why?
At the root of most of the criticism is the claim that the site isn’t sufficiently ‘authentic’. For example, a well-known blogger who goes by the name of Hiltibold, and who clearly dislikes the project quite intensely, has posted a set of photographs with anachronisms angrily circled in red: volunteers eating chocolate, wearing modern shoes, and so forth. For him, it’s a ‘Disneyland in disguise’.
These criticisms seem to me fundamentally to miss the point. Whatever the marketing rhetoric, sites like this are infotainment. There’s no point striving for perfect accuracy in ‘reconstructing the past’ in this way, it’s just a question of making a reasonable effort. Imagination can fill out the rest. After all, the most dedicated enthusiast might wear the clothes of a 10th-century Scandinavian with every last detail perfected, but he would still be a 21st-century man pretending to be an early medieval one.
And that’s of course OK. There are different ways to engage with the past: empathetically, to imagine what it might have been like, and intellectually, to try to understand it. Both are important in different ways. Sites like Campus Galli can be truly inspiring, encouraging visitors to find out more about a distant past. Many a future historian might have her interest first piqued by such a visit. Some might buy a book from the (very respectable) set on offer in the shop.
What makes the Campus Galli particularly valuable is the fact that it’s an ecclesiastical site. Most living history tends – with some very honourable exceptions like Bede’s World, though its future is now unclear – to focus on the non-Christian aspects of the European Middle Ages. Even if it gets some of the details wrong, it’s good that Campus Galli is redressing the balance, and getting the wider public interested in the medieval church. Maybe that’s why a few enthusiasts dislike it so.
What makes the nitpicking all the more out of place is the nature of the Campus Galli project. For the workers and volunteers are not rebuilding a monastery, they are building one. The monastery in question never actually existed. The site is based instead on the marvellous Plan of St-Gall, an idealised Carolingian monastery sketched out on parchment c. 830, but never constructed, and maybe never really intended to be. Campus Galli is thus delightfully a modern fantasy overlaid on a medieval one.
As a result, the inevitable intrusion of the modern world isn’t really a problem. In fact, in some ways it’s to be welcomed. Germany has led Europe in offering shelter to refugees fleeing from the wars in the Middle East: and according to our tour guide, there were some Syrian refugees working at the site when we visited. Nothing could be more 21st century than that: but nothing could fit better with the optimistic idealism, and the dream of a better society, that underpinned the original Plan of St Gall, too.