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County and monastery of Sponheim

The fascinating history of the imperially immediate County of Sponheim in the Nahe-Hunsrück area begins around the turn of the last millennium (imperially immediate: privileged feudal and political status of the Middle Ages). At that time the entire region belonged to the Salians. The Salic kings and emperors were rulers of the "Nahe area". Earl Eberhard von Nellenburg, who came from Stockach on Lake Constance and had much influence with the Salians, built a church in 1044-1047 on a very attractively situated hill near Sponheim Castle. A short time later the church was extended and a Convent of Canons constituted from which the Sponheim monastery emerged. At about the same time the imperial cathedral was built in the Romanesque style in Speyer, less than 50 kilometres away, as the burial vault for the Salians (completed in 1061). The monastery Church of Sponheim was also built in this grand style. In the year 1124, Earl Meginhard von Nellenburg and his wife Mechthild from Mörsburg near Wiesendangen (Switzerland) established the Sponheim Benedictine monastery and donated it, together with other properties, to the Archbishop of Mainz. The House of Sponheim, as they now called themselves after inheriting the castle in Ellerbach Valley from Earl von Nellenburg, ruled the Nahe-Hunsrück area over the following centuries. They were indebted to the Salians and their successors, the Stauffers, for this powerful position. Between 1223 and 1230 the County of Sponheim was divided up into the "Back County", with its administrative seat at Grevenburg near Trarbach, and the "Anterior County", with its administrative seat at Kauzenburg Castle above Bad Kreuznach. As a result of this division, the Castle at Sponheim lost its importance. After further problems of inheritance, the castle became the property of the Sponheim monastery in 1329. After both sides of the Sponheim line had died out in 1437, large parts of the county on the Nahe and Mosel rivers, as well as in Hunsrück, fell to the House of Wittelsbach under Earl Stephan of Zweibrücken in 1444.

The monastery church of today, St. Martin, was the result of two building periods in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its ground plan forms a Greek cross with arms of similar length. The unplastered sides of this building, constructed from sandstone squares, are overshadowed by an eight-sided steeple, whose massive appearance emphasises the grandeur of the whole church still further. The effect of the interior of the church is far less powerful. Worth noting, however, is how seamlessly the intersecting-dome passes from a square to an octagon. This monastery church is, quite rightly, designated as the most significant structure in the Nahe region. Between 1483 and 1506 Johannes Trithemius, a prominent humanistic scholar, was Abbot of Sponheim. He was deemed to be one of the key figures of the Late Middle Ages and forerunner of the approaching Renaissance scholars. From him stems a comprehensive chronicle of the monastery (Kopiar from 1491), the first bibliography of world literature, and a scientific library with over 2,000 volumes of Greek, Latin and Hebrew writings. This was, for those times, an outstanding store of scientific knowledge, which for a short time turned Sponheim into a centre of the scientific world, resulting in a never-ending stream of distinguished visitors. With the departure of Trithemius to Würzburg this glorious era of the Sponheim monastery ended. During the reformation, in 1565, the monastery was secularized by Prince Friedrich III of Electoral Palatinate. It was re-established, however, during the Palatinate Succession War (1688-1697) under French occupation. In 1802, the Sponheim abbey was finally closed by the French government and all its possessions were auctioned off with the profits going to the state treasury. The condition of the building today is due to renovations in 1868-1870 and 1962-1969. As the most important Romanesque building of the Nahe-Hunsrück area, the monastery church, along with the remains of the monastery, are classified as historical monuments. Since 1921, the honorary title "Abbot of Sponheim" has been bestowed by the pope.

If you look further into the history of the Nahe area and its cultural monuments, you make the shocking discovery that distinct egos, territorial political fighting, and inheritance problems of both worldly princes and those in the church have had, over the centuries, quite a negative influence on the fate of an entire region. The people who owed allegiance, did not have a say in anything but were expected to hand over the prescribed regular and special taxes and services, or, at the behest of the ruling class, serve in the war. The legal basis for this "class privilege" ("Ständische Gliederung") of the people was based on Salic laws ("Lex Salica") dating back to the sixth century that, in almost unaltered form, defined the living conditions in the Nahe valley and in Hunsrück for almost 1000 years.

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