The History of Pilgrimage to Einsiedeln

The beginnings

It can no longer be ascertained exactly when Einsiedeln first became a centre of pilgrimage, but it is certain that the pilgrimage has played an important role in the development of Einsiedeln's monastic community. The beginnings of the pilgrimage could well be bound up with the spread of the legend of the "miraculous consecration" of the Lady Chapel, the so-called "Engelweihe", first documented around the middle of the 12th century. The earliest authentic record of the pilgrimage itself is from the year 1337, when Tumb von Neuburg, a knight from the Vorarlberg region of Austria, drew up a letter of safe conduct for pilgrims to Einsiedeln. The foundation of the Pilgrim's Hospital in 1353 is indicative of an increase in the pilgrimage's popularity. Pilgrims came from all parts of the Swiss Confederation, as well as from abroad: there is evidence of pilgrims from Lubeck around 1370, and later from Cologne and Flanders. Large numbers of pilgrims crowded into Einsiedeln on the occasion known as the Great Miraculous Consecration Day in 1466.

Flowering-time and spiritual plays

At the time of the Reformation pilgrimage dropped off sharply. However, the struggle for the old faith brought the cantons that remained Catholic closely together, and Einsiedeln became a spiritual and religious focal point for them. In the second half of the 16th century the number of official pilgrimages under the auspices of the Catholic cantons continued to grow. The Confraternity of the Rosary, introduced into Einsiedeln in 1600, played a large role in establishing the elaborate pageantry of the pilgrimage with processions and morality plays. In so doing they were but reinstating an old tradition, since there are reports of dramatic productions in Einsiedeln from as far back as the 12th century. The plays of the Baroque era developed from silent tableaux presented in the processions, in which scenes from the wars with the Turks were prominent. The first time that an actual festival performance took place was in 1655 for the papal nuncio Frederico Borromeo. The text was in the main composed by fathers from the abbey, while the head of the confraternity was in charge of the many facets of the theatrical production. Some of the plays presented reflected the prejudices of the time or could not be considered spiritual presentations. It is, therefore, no wonder that in 1773, during the period of the Enlightenment, the productions were forbidden.

Decline as a result of the French revolution

After 1680 more than 100'000 pilgrims arrived at Einsiedeln each year. During the Enlightenment and after the French Revolution pilgrimage was forbidden to the subjects of many states. In 1791 the revolutionary authorities in France forbade pilgrimages to Einsiedeln, and placed them under the same sanctions as emigration. The Helvetian Directory decreed that processions were not allowed to leave the immediate vicinity of the abbey church. Ignaz Heinrich von Wessenberg, the vicar-general of Constance, ordered that all rogations must have returned to their point of departure by the evening of the same day they set out. Both decrees made pilgrimage impossible.

New rise and continuous decline

After the Restoration pilgrimages to Einsiedeln quickly regained their former popularity. Especially large cantonal pilgrimages took place in 1847 before the Sonderbund War, Switzerland's short civil war, broke out. Pilgrimage was greatly promoted, but also greatly changed, when the railways were built. Since automobile travel has become common, it has also become tinged with tourism. After severe setbacks during the two world-wars because of the absence of German and Austrian pilgrims, pilgrimage resurged after the second world-war. Since the seventies of the last century, however, pilgrimage has fallen into a continuous decline. The large pilgrimage trains completely disappeared and gave way to bus travels. Many of these bus travels operate in a intermediate zone between pilgrimage and tourism that is difficult to overlook.

© Father Joachim Salzgeber, OSB  / Ele