Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Cafe and the Crime of the 9th Century

The great abbey church of Einsiedeln, in central Switzerland, attracts students of sacred architecture from around the world.  Some actually claim to like it.  My mother for instance: I remember showing her around and when I asked if she was enjoying it she looked at me with a face grown rigid with ecstasy and whispered, “Paul, it is the most magnificent experience I’ve ever had”.  Well, life must have been fairly dull when my mother was growing up in catholic Ireland.  Personally the church always reminds me of a lavish wedding cake – ostentatious, an inexcusable source of debt and no guarantee of faithfulness.

In Zürich city we can connect, in a simpler manner, to “The Einsiedeln Experience” in the form of a café whose history reaches back over one thousand years – now how many establishments can boast that?  The whole shenanigans originated in the 9th century when a hermit called Meinrad settled in Einsiedeln and became famous for his simplicity, wisdom and holiness.  One day two robbers visited him.  They may have been fairly new at the job because even I know that robbing a hermit will not make you rich.  They killed poor Meinrad, stole his wine and bread and then they fled to Zurich by nightfall.  They might have been novice thieves, but they were certainly fast walkers!

They would have taken a boat for the final stretch arriving at what is now called the Schifflande, where they checked into an inn.  But Meinrad’s two trusty pet ravens, who had followed the thieves, cawed loudly, pounced upon them and dive-bombed the murderers. Witnesses of the attack, helped by an acute sense of Swiss justice, concluded that black ravens pecking viciously at two scoundrels must mean that Meinrad is dead and these are his killers.  They put an immediate end to the thieves’ criminal ways and strung them up on the spot.

All of this turned out to be very good for business.  A simple chapel was erected above the spot where Meinrad had been put to rest.  Pilgrims began to flock to the scene of the notorious crime of the century. Hotels were opened. The chapel grew bigger. Meinrad was made a saint.  The stream of pilgrims turned into a river.  The chapel grew much bigger and in the 18th century became the grand Baroque edifice that still stands today. The flood of pilgrims also wanted to see the place of the miraculous feathered attack, and so Zurich became a part of the Einsiedeln experience.  The famous inn was rechristened “Gasthaus zum Raben” or “Guesthouse of The Ravens”.

                                                     The ceiling at Einsiedeln
Not many cafes can boast a lineage that stretches back a thousand years.  The foundation walls of the present day building date from the 9th century. In 1317 zum Raben was joined under one roof with the inn next door, zum Hecht.  In the 18th century the two inns were rebuilt as one and the building is now known locally as the “Rabenhaus” or “Raven’s House” (though not many actually know why).  The inn eventually closed down but the Rabenhaus again became a focal point of life in Zurich when the author Robert Humm and his Scottish wife, artist Lili Crawford moved into an apartment on the first floor in 1934.  The Humms organised regular literary evenings at their home.  These famous get togethers became a sort of melting pot for German immigrants, left wing political activists and writers like Arthur Koestler, Bertolt Brecht, Klaus Mann and Max Frisch.  The Humm’s children entertained the intellectuals with puppet shows.  Dare I say, these evenings at the Humns must have been humming with original and daring ideas. The Rabenhaus had again become the meeting point for pilgrims, this time of a literary and political sort.

Today the ground floor houses a small newsagent and, in place of Café Raben, a new branch of Zürich’s popular Lebanese restaurant “Cedre” has recently opened. They have kept Café Raben’s old emblem of the black raven on the outside wall, as you can see in the photo, a distant memory of the great crime of the 9th century.


  1. What a great story.

    I remember being in a restaurant in Munich which had existed on the same site for 500 years and being all wowed (Canada has no such restaurants!:)

    I see your point about debt and ostentation, but would still like to see that ceiling (Canada has no such churches! :)

  2. Hi Chris,
    Of course I am being slightly tongue in cheek - the ceiling is very impressive, but still way over the top (is that a pun?).

    I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)