Sunday, 17 May 2015

daytrip: schmalkaden oder good knight, sir ywain

With the promise of nice weather and a reliably immaterial flea-market as passable excuses, we drove a bit north into Thüringen and took a tour of the town of Schmalkalden—a place we’d seen before but it had been a few years and revisiting these nearby places always makes me appreciate the history that the familiar, the accessible are quick to overshadow.
The medieval Altstadt displays some of the finest examples of Fachwerk (half-timbered) architecture in the region, and the place had a nice penchant for story-telling murals and wall-art that really tied together much of the historical context for us in the end.
The per- sonage of Martin Luther—beside the image of the Landgrave of Hessen, Philip I with a video game-control, was meant to depict the founding of the so-called Schmalkaldic League, a free-association of Protestant princes founded here under the auspices of Luther’s Reformation, first for religious reasons and later for political pretexts, to afford members with an overlord aside from the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, the county of Schmalkalden (presently Landkreis Schmalken-Meiningen) endured as an exclave of Prussian Hessen for over four centuries until WWII. It was the area’s status as a rail-hub that made it a target during the war.
And while I am not sure what the motivation was for the bat, this graffiti reflects another of the town’s celebrated treasures: Arthurian author Hartmann von Aue (a tributary of the Werra flowing near Schmalkalden) chronicled the tales of the Knight Ywain in the early eleventh century, the exploits of this errant-scholar influencing later, continental treatments of the Matter of Britain, including Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parcival and the later adaptations of Richard Wagner.
Having this legacy associated with the literature and the legend surely is sufficient on its own, but these writings are also illustrated—uniquely and in some of the oldest, surviving secular sgraffito in Germany. The original illustrations were committed, around a century after von Aue’s active career, to the vaulted ceilings of the wine-cellars of the town’s chamber of commerce, since cordoned off from the public for preservation but were faithfully reproduced (for the benefit of the public) beneath the castle that dominates the city.

Wilhelmsburg, an auxillary residence of those afore-mentioned high counts, is somewhat singular as its Renaissance façade is essentially unaltered from the time of its construction and is a tidy time-capsule of the era. Afterwards, on the way home, we took a slight detour and saw the so-named Johanniterburg of the village of Kühndorf nearby—the short form of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg of the Chivalric Order of Saint John of the Hospital at Jerusalem—which is, testament to the Schmalkaldic League, the only surviving stronghold of the direct inheritors of the line of the Knights Hospitaller, this venerable and extant cadet branch being the protestant thrust of the knights.
It’s amazing how concentrated and noddingly near history can manifest itself, and I’d encourage all of you to take a little time and reconsider one’s hometown, old haunts and what’s in the vicinity from the periscope of a curious historian.