Fulda Abbey, or the Princely Abbey of Fulda, or the Imperial Abbey of Fulda (German: Fürstabtei Fulda, Hochstift Fulda, Kloster Fulda) was a Benedictine abbey as well as an ecclesiastical principality centered on Fulda, in the present-day German state of Hesse. It was founded in 744 by Saint Sturm, a disciple of Saint Boniface. Through the 8th and 9th centuries, Fulda Abbey became a prominent center of learning and culture in Germany, and a site of religious significance and pilgrimage following the burial of Boniface. The growth in population around Fulda would result in its elevation to a prince-bishopric in the second half of the 18th century.
In the mid-8th century, Saint Boniface commissioned Saint Sturmi to establish a larger church than any other founded by Boniface. In January 744, Saint Sturmi selected an unpopulated plot along the Fulda River, and shortly after obtained rights to the land. The foundation of the monastery dates to March 12, 744. Sturmi travelled to notable monasteries of Italy, such as that of Monte Cassino, for inspiration in creating a monastery of such grand size and splendor. Boniface was proud of Fulda, and he would obtain autonomy for the monastery from the bishops of the area by appealing to Pope Zachary for placement directly under the Holy See in 751. Boniface would be entombed at Fulda following his martyrdom in 754 in Frisia, as per his request, creating a destination for pilgrimage in Germany and increasing its holy significance. Saint Sturmi would be named the first abbot of the newly established monastery, and would lead Fulda through a period of rapid growth.
The monks of Fulda practiced many specialized trades, and much production took place in the monastery. Production of manuscripts increased the size of the library of Fulda, while skilled craftsmen produced many goods that would make monastery a financially wealthy establishment. As Fulda grew, members of the monastery would move from the main building and establish villages in the outlying territories to connect with non-monastery members. They would establish themselves based on trade and agriculture, while still remaining connected to the monastery. Together, the monks of Fulda would create a substantial library, financially stable production, and an effective centre for education. In 774, Charlemagne placed Fulda under his direct control to ensure its continued success. Fulda was becoming an important cultural center to the Carolingian Empire, and Charlemagne hoped to ensure the continued salvation of his population through the religious activity of Fulda.
A notable work that the monks of Fulda produced was the "Annales necrologici", a list of all the deceased members of the abbey following the death of Saint Sturmi in 744. The monks would offer prayer for the dead listed in the Annales to ensure their eternal salvation. While at first this record only contained the names of those at Fulda, as the power and prominence of Fulda grew, so too did the scope of who was to be included in the Annales. Patrons, citizens, and nobles of the area would all come to be recorded in this piece of Fulda and its concept of community. The documenting of dates of passing, beginning with Sturmi, created a sense of continuity and a reference for the passage of time for the monks of Fulda.
The school at the Fulda monastery would become a major focus of the monks under Sturmi's successor, Abbot Baugulf, at the turn of the century. It contained an inner school for Christian studies, and an outer school for secular, including pupils who were not necessarily members of the monastery. During Boniface's lifetime he had sent the teachers of Fulda to apprentice under notable scholars in Franconia, Bavaria, and Thuringia, who would return with knowledge and texts of the sciences, literature, and theology. In 787 Charlemagne praised Fulda as a model school for others, leading by example in educating the public in secular and ecclesiastical matters.
Around the year 807, an epidemic claimed much of Fulda's population. During this time, the third abbot of Fulda, Ratgar, was carrying out construction on a new church started by Baugulf. According to the "Supplex Libellus", an account of Fulda's history written by the monks, Ratgar was overzealous, exiling monks opposed to the excessive attention being given to the new church, and punishing those attempting to flee the epidemic that was spreading amongst the population. This prompted a discussion in Fulda as to how the monastery was to be properly run, and the nature of the responsibilities of the monks.
Until this point, a focus of the monks had been remembering and recording the lives of the deceased, specifically those who were members of the Fulda monastery, in what was known as the “Annales Necrologici”. They would sing psalms for their dead to ensure their eternal salvation. Under Ratgar, the focus of the monastery had shifted to that of construction and arbitrary regulation; monks were being exiled for questionable reasons, or punished in seemingly unjust ways. Another matter of concern included who was permitted into the inner monastery; Ratgar was at the time hosting a criminal in the living quarters. The concept of private and public property was also in contention. With the land of Fulda expanding, the monks desired all property to be public rather than create a contention for private land, while Ratgar opposed this perspective. The “Supplex Libellus” also attempted to address the issue of the growing secular responsibilities of the monastery. As the school grew and the communities around Fulda expanded, the monastery was feeling the strain of balancing ecclesiastical obligations with its newfound secular prominence. The monks were successful in their grievances against Ratgar, and Louis the Pious sympathized with them. Agreeing that Ratgar's plans were too ambitions for Fulda, and his punishments too extensive, he exiled Ratgar from Fulda in, and Eigil became the fourth Abbot of Fulda.
Under Abbot Eigil's leadership, construction of the new church continued at a more moderate pace. He sought to stylize the church after St. Peter's in Rome, adding a notable western transept in the same fashion. The transept was a new architectural style, and in mimicking it, Fulda demonstrated their support to the papacy through tribute. This unique architectural tie, as well as the growing intellectual importance of Fulda, would create strong ties with the Roman papacy. Coupled with the tomb of Saint Boniface, Fulda would attract much religious pilgrimage and worship, a site of great significance.
In 822, Rabanus Maurus became the fifth abbot of Fulda. He was previously educated at the monastery, and was very academically inclined, becoming both a teacher and head-master at the school before becoming abbot. Understanding the importance of education, the school became the main focus of Fulda under his leadership, and he would lead Fulda to the height of its importance and success. He established separate departments for the school, including those for sciences, theological studies, and the arts. Rabanus made an effort to collect various additional holy relics and manuscripts of historical significance to Fulda and the surrounding the areas to fortify their prominence in the Frankish Empire. With each relic, the significance of Fulda grew, and more gifts and power were bestowed upon the abbey. Power was, however, not Rabanus’s only intent; the increased holiness of the lands would also serve to bring his monks and pilgrims closer to God. The collection accumulated under Rabanus would largely be lost during the looting of Fulda by the Hessians during the Thirty Years' War.
Succeeding abbots would carry the monastery down the same path, with Fulda retaining a place of prominence in the German territories. With the decline of the Carlongian rule, Fulda lost its security and would rely increasingly on patronage from independent sources. The abbot of Fulda would hold the position of primate over all Benedictine monasteries in Germany for several centuries. From 1221 and onwards, the abbots would also serve as Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, given this rank by Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, and resulted in increased secular as well as monastic obligations. The increased importance of Fulda resulted in much patronage and wealth; as a result, the wealthy and noble would eventually make up the majority of the abbey's population. The wealthy monks used their positions for their own means, going as far as to attempt to turn monastic lands into their own private property. This caused great unrest by the 14th century, and Count Johann con Ziegenhain would lead an insurrection, alongside other citizens of Fulda, against Prince-Abbot Heinrich VI, 55th abbot of the monastery. The combination of responsibilities to the empire and corruption of traditional monastic ideals, so highly valued by Boniface and the early abbots, placed great strain on the monastery and its school.
In the later Middle Ages, a dean of the monastic school would functionally replace the abbot concerning scholastic management, once more granting it relative independence concerning ecclesiastical functions of Fulda. However, the monastery and surrounding city would never regain its status as a great cultural center it once held during the early medieval years. The monastery and the spiritual principality were secularized in 1803 after the German mediatisation, but the episcopal see continued.
The library held approximately 2000 manuscripts. It preserved works such as Tacitus' Annales, Ammianus Marcellinus' Res gestae, and the Codex Fuldensis which has the reputation of serving as the cradle of Old High German literature. Its abundant records are conserved in the state archives at Marburg. As of 2013[update] the Fulda manuscripts have become widely dispersed; some have found their way to the Vatican Library.