Einhard's basilica

Einhard’s Basilica in Michelstadt

In 815 Louis the Pious granted Michelstadt and Seligenstadt (Mulinheim) to his faithful courtier, Erhard. Later he built churches there and fitted them with relics, stolen from the Catacombs in Rome. One church still stands and makes Michelstadt worth a detour for all Carolingian scholars

…”Through the descent of Brombach into the Mümling; from there to the oak tree between Grafschaft and Munitat…”. The oaks, which Einhard used as markers in the landscape are long gone. But a new one opens the vista towards Michelstadt.

A little under a year after the death of Charlemagne (AD 814), Einhard was able to secure a grant of some land east of Lorsch in Hessen between the rivers Main and Neckar. Here in the Odenwald (Odonewalt) was a small place with a wooden church to which belonged approximately 15 to 34 km2 of land [1]. Within this boundary lived fourteen servants with their wives and children plus forty “dependant men and woman”. If a Carolingian manse – farm – was app. 8 – 10 ha, this means that no more than 5 – 10% of the land was cultivated by a small population of somewhere between 100 -120 people (today more than 8927 live in Michelstadt today). [2]

Of course these figures are very tentative. However in 819 Einhard and his wife Imma decided to have their land in Michelstadt transferred to Lorsch. In connection with this we find that Einhard – probably in person – did a field-walk together with the elders from the hamlet in order to get a proper feeling for the place. It appears from this (Dutton, p. 56) that the area stretched north to south and not east to west as the local district does today. It is possible there was some sort of manor located in the midst of the property, as was the case later on. However this is not mentioned in the grant. What we get is a sense of a hilly landscape covered with woods and oak-trees and traversed by the valley of Mümling fed by numerous minor creeks, watercourses and small rivers. As it is today!

Later Einhard himself described the place as “a certain remote piece of property, that was well out of most people’s way” [3]

Einhard’s Basilica in Steinbach

Plan of Einhard's Basilica by Otto Müller
Plan of Einhard’s Basilica by Otto Müller

Nevertheless, he embarked upon a major venture: the building of a large and impressive church of red sandstones, which quite remarkably still stands as a witness to the entrepreneurial spirit of this little, big man. Of course nearly 1200 years have set their mark on the edifice as it stands today. Nevertheless, the building still retains large parts of its original plan and and it is here we get – better than anywhere else – a feeling for the Carolingian masterplan of Christianisation as it unfolded in a far-a-way corner of the empire.

Michelstadt Steinbach Einhard's basilica interior
In Einhards time the arches opened up into the aisles. Source: Wikipedia

Lucky for us, however, Michelstadt never became the vibrant religious centre, which Einhard had dreamed of. After he had secured his longed-for relics – the bones of St. Marcellinus and Peter – from Rome, he tells us the saints came in a dream to one of his servants and commanded to be translated once more to a new and more convenient place. In the end the remains of the two saints were carried to Seligenstadt, where Einhard had more success with attracting religious persons (monks) who might help him in creating the framework for at prosperous pilgrim-centre. Curiously enough Einhard writes that the “people who lived nearby were entirely ignorant about what we were doing” [4]. (They were probably tired of having been commandeered to work on the prestigious new basilica.)

It was not until 1073 that Lorsch became interested in sending a delegation of monks to Michelstadt. In 1235 it was taken over by nuns, which left the place after the reformation. Hereafter the convent was turned into a spital. This, however, was destroyed in the 30-year was and the next centuries the building was used by the local count as a boathouse and shed for firewood. Luckily these functions needed to be kept under sturdy roofs. This was no small matter since it probably saved the building. Since the 1990’s the basilica has undergone extensive restoration and today it welcomes visitors on a pilgrimage to this extraordinary relic of the Carolingian world.


Stadtmauer Kellerei Michelstadt
So-called “Kellerei” – a rambling collection of buildings erected on top of a former “castle”

Originally Michelstadt is believed to have been a small Roman settlement located at the crossroad of two roads built to support castells on the Limes. During the Early Middle Ages it seems as if the settlement turned into the small and insignificant village, which figures in the writings of Einhard. However, in the later Middle Ages Michelstadt changed again into a proper small German town complete with a wall, a late-Gothic church (1461 – 90), a famous city hall (from 1484) and an apothecary (from 1551). Later a railroad linked the town with Darmstadt und Eberbach and turned the place into a thriving industrial hotspot with a number of small-scale factories. It is still possible to travel by train to Michelstadt. However, the railroad is also served by the local association of “railroaders” , which offer old-fashioned excursions with steam-locomotives.

It is really nice to take a walk along the wall in the evening looking into a miniature world of old timber-framed houses. At one corner the local renaissance “castle” – the Kellereihof – is built into the wall. Beneath is said to be the remains of an early medieval castle (not excavated).

The place to stay in Michelstadt is “Zum Grünen Baum”. The hotel, which is fitted with a traditional beer-garden and restaurant, has been run by the same family since 1667, but the building is older. If brave, try out the local “kochkäse” served on bread and with “musik” = pickled onions.


In the 1990’s locals organised a trail from Michelstadt to Seligenstadt, mimicking the last step in the translation of the relics of Marcellinus and his friend, Peter.


[1] The measurement says that the area stretched for two leagues (4.4 km) or one rasta (6.6 km). The area of a circle with the radius of 2.2 km/3.3 km gives the area presented here.) But it was obviously not a circular area, but a long area covering the valley from Michelstadt and up through the Valley of Mümling.

[2] Donatio Einhardi et Immae de cella Michlenstat. The charter is translated in: Charlemagne’s Courtier. By Paul Edward Dutton. Broadview Press 1998, p. 43 – 44. Cella means small church.

[3] Charlemagne’s Courtier op. cit. p. 54 – 57

[4] Charlemagne’s Courtier op. cit. p. 81


Einhards-Basilika CoverEinhards-Basilika. Michelstadt-Steinbach
By Thomas Ludwig
Edition der Verwaltung der Staatlichen Schlösser und Gärten Hessen . Brochure 18.
Schnell & Steiner 2003





Die Einhards Basilika CoverDie Einhards-Basilika in Steinbach bei Michelstadt im Odenwald
By Thomas Ludwig, Otto Müller und Irmgard Widdra-Spiess.
Verlag Phillip von Zabern in Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1996
ISBN-10: 3805313225
ISBN-13: 978-3805313223


Ich und Karl der Grosse PatzoldIch und Karl der Große: Das Leben des Höflings Einhard
By Steffen Patzold
Klett-Cotta 2014
ISBN-10: 3608947647
ISBN-13: 978-3608947649





Charlemagne's coutier by Dutton Charlemagne’s Courtier.
By Paul Edward Dutton.
Broadview Press 1998
ISBN-10: 1551111349
ISBN-13: 978-1551111346





Map of Michelstadt