The ghosts that walk in Echternach are gentle ghosts, the spirits of martyrs, the wraiths of princes who sacrificed fame and title to aid those serfs upon whose backs their family fortunes had been builded, the souls of philosophers who spread the light of a „liberty, fraternity, and equality“ far nobler and more far-reaching in its ultimate effects than the blood-stained democracy of the French Terror.
A strange feudalism of the cross was that of the early Echternach. The district was ceded to Willibrord in 698 by the Princess Irmine, daughter of King Dagobert II of the Franks, and abbess of the convent at Euren near Treves. At that time the town consisted merely of a hospice, the original of an institution later to become famous throughout Europe, and a tiny chapel. Willibrord established the abbey of St. Benedict and later built a seminary for the instruction of young missionaries.
To this, the only seat of learning within hundreds of miles, came young men from Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Lorraine. Families of pious and intelligently ambitious laymen came to build their homes about the famous abbey. Christian culture was taught to semisavage. The fame of the place went abroad and other men and women came to share in its peaceful prosperity.
The agricultural school which instructed the peasantry in the value of soils and the rotation of crops and the methods of intensive farming still in vogue throughout Europe, maintained experimental gardens in which its theoretical courses were given practical test. This probably was the world's first "technical college" and it disseminated knowledge of an inestimable value.
It was an axiom of the middle ages that peace would bring prosperity but that prosperity would bring war. So it was with Echternach. Without recourse to the baronial system of levying taxes upon travelers through their domain or confiscating the gold of Jewish peddlers for no reason at all, the abbots of Echternach waxed wealthy. The people of the district seem to have shared in the prosperity, for they were better housed, better fed, and of a higher culture than the retainers of the castle seigneurs elsewhere in the duchy, and they never hesitated to take up arms against the invader.
Wealth excited the envy of the spendthrift knights of the region and the abbey town of Willibrord — unwalled, virtually unarmed, and without a sky-flung citadel from which to conclude worldly argument with bon mots of molten lead and copper-tipped arrow — was forced time and again to unsheathe the sword and meet the despoiler on his own field.
Not always were the defenders of Echtemach successful. War, pestilence, and famine are no respecters of civic righteousness. Armies of friends and foes alike sacked the abbey at various times during its eleven centuries of stirring existence. Its treasures are scattered to-day over the length and breadth of Europe.