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The Nieder-Weisel Story
 


Nieder-Weisel - Summer 1844

 

THE VILLAGE 1500-1750

THE MARIA BELL

In 1516, a large wagon drawn by a double span of oxen crossed the drawbridge at the south gate and made its way along the High Street to the village church. On the wagon, tightly strapped to keep it in place on the swaying platform, was a massive bell weighing over 1,000 kilograms. The men from the foundry of Stefan in Frankfurt lifted it into its place in a new bell-tower and, on an Easter morning, it sounded the first peal of the tens of thousands that would call the villagers to church for hundreds of years to come.


THE COMMANDERY AND THE COMMUNITY

The Order of St John had no rights to the 1,000 hectares of communal woodlands, and so  relied on the community for a supply of wood for its ovens and fireplaces, and for its building timbers. In return, the Commander invited the community - one adult per household - to a midday meal in the commandery on St Andrews Day each year. Because the first course of this lavish meal was traditionally boiled boar with pepper, the meal was called The Pepper Meal. It continued until sunset for all except office bearers - magistrate, pastors, court officials, court ushers and court jurors - who were allowed to stay until the candles on the tables burned out. Each villager who attended had to take a capon to the commandery on New Years Day, or pay a forfeit.

The Commander also:

  • provided a draught of wine to every householder on St Martins Day,
  • distributed alms to the needy on Maundy Thursday,
  • invited the priest and bell-ringer to meals on Christmas Day, Whitsunday and Easter Day,
  •  provided beer and food to the lads of the village on Shrove Tuesday and Whitmonday, and
  • paid his share of the wages of the forest wardens, herders, fruit-pickers, and sheep washers and shearers.


THE SOLMS FAMILY

Nieder-Weisel remained for only a very short time under the control of the Eppsteins. Count Solms realised that if he acquired the Butzbach estates he would be able to completely control the access to the Wetterau from the north, with all the consequent tax and excise benefits. For 42,000 florins, be bought from Eppstein in 1479 part of Butzbach and many of the surrounding villages; thus Nieder-Weisel became a part of the Solms-Lich sphere of influence, and the fortunes of the village were tied to those of the Solms family for the next 350 years.


RELIGIOUS UPHEAVALS

In 1518, the revolt by Martin Luther (right) and others against certain church practices led to the rise of Protestantism in Germany and Calvinism in France. It was the law that the residents of any principality had to take the religion of their ruler, but  Nieder-Weisel 's Count Reinhard opposed the changes that were occurring until he was literally on his deathbed, when he accepted the Lutheran form of communion. Ernst, his heir, brought about the reformation of the churches under the Solms jurisdiction in 1556; Nieder-Weisel and its sister villages then formally became Protestant.

The Order of St John remained Catholic; by imperial treaty, it was permitted to hold masses in the commandery church, using the services of the priest from Oppershofener.

The villagers faced further religious uncertainties for over 100 years. In 1606 Count Herman Adolph changed the Lutheran rites to evangelical, but it reverted to Lutheran for a time during the 1630s when the Solms domain became part of Hesse-Darmstadt. Count Philipp Reynhard restored the evangelical communion in 1648, but in 1668 his heir Henrich Christian adopted the Catholic faith. It was probably a relief to the villagers that Henrich died in a duel before he could "cleanse Nieder-Weisel of its errors and heresies", and it remained evangelical thereafter.


EDUCATION

A secondary but also important obligation placed on the Order of St John was to provide an education service in the village. Formal teaching began in 1595 when Gerhard Filges was brought from Wohnbach; he was also pastor at Hausen and carried the title Praeceptor, or instructor. The original three-storey school building stood on the church property behind the Town Hall for 240 years.

In addition to the three Rs, instruction was strongly oriented to religion. In their sixth school year, which was their fourteenth year of life, all students would be prepared for confirmation, traditionally carried out on the second day of Pentecost (Whitmonday) after which they took their first communions.


THE THIRTY YEARS WAR: 1618-1648

The attempts by some rulers to impose their religion on their subjects were strongly resisted. Ferdinand of Bavaria tried to catholicise all of his domains, but Austrian and Bohemian nobles rebelled. Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics vied for supremacy all over Europe. The Hapsberg Holy Roman Empire was confronted by anti-Catholic towns and principalities supported by the Netherlands and Sweden; a parallel struggle erupted between France and Spain. Virtually every country in Europe took sides in the conflict, but most of the fighting took place on German soil. Many of the armies comprised mercenaries; they could not be paid in the field, so they robbed and plundered to support themselves.

The consequences for Germany were disastrous - when the war started in 1618, Germany had 24 million people, and England 12 million. Thirty years later England's population was 13 million but Germany had only 12 million.

The Count of Solms supported the Protestant cause while the Knight Commander remained in the Catholic camp - the village therefore had the best of both worlds and escaped some of the worst excesses of the war.


WAR IN THE WETTERAU

The Wetterau became involved in the war when Bavarian and Spanish soldiers came into the area in 1620. The Count paid out a large sum in insurance to protect Eberstadt and Nieder-Weisel from attack and persuaded the Knight Commander to buy a Safe Conduct letter; in addition, he wined and dined the invaders lavishly. Some Spanish commanders greatly exceeded their orders; they occupied Friedberg and other towns and extorted staggering sums of money from the villages. They stole cattle and goods, and contrary to the rules of war, attacked and debased the villagers, raped and abducted their women and young sons, and torched their properties.

Many of the farmers fled to the forests or to the safety of places like the walled city of Butzbach or to the commandery at Nieder-Weisel for sanctuary. In Nieder-Weisel, officers could requisition accommodation, food, beer and wine, and fodder for their horses; this had to be paid for by the village council.


TAXES AND LEVIES

The village had been paying taxes of about 4 florins per household to its ruler, usually in corn, since the Middle Ages. They also paid excise on the beer they brewed in the community-owned brewing kettle.

A property tax was levied on all improvements to estates, such as buildings, market gardens and orchards. An inheritance tax was payable on property willed to heirs. Immigrants to the village paid an arrival tax - 5 florins for a man, 2 for a woman. Farmers paid agistment fees and a head tax on horned cattle. The council also took the proceeds from the sale of wood from the forests and levied a tax on coke made for the silver-smelting furnace at the mint until it was transferred to Butzbach in 1622. All of these transactions were meticulously recorded in the books of account kept by the two burgermeisters.

Mayor Jakob Maas had to increase taxes in 1622 to cover the war levies and other costs, not the least of which were handouts to indigent beggars who arrived in ever-increasing numbers at the door of the Town Hall. There was much worse to come: that year the Spaniards looted Rockenberg and Oppershofen, and completely ransacked the nearby villages of Gambach and Griedel; by the start of 1625 war levies had increased 200% to a peak of over 7,000 florins.

Thefts of animals and damage done to the crops made it hard for the peasant farmers to pay their taxes. The council had to resort to selling some of the common land and to mortgage the returns from parts of the forests, but all demands, however exorbitant, were somehow met.

The Croats had the worst reputation for bestiality; no act of degradation was unknown to them - torture, rape, flogging, mutilation and killing could be the fate of a villager caught in their path. For days at a time, the residents, unable to venture out even for fresh water, had to barricade their families in their homes whilst they manned the defences. To add to their miseries, the dreaded plague appeared in the district in 1625.

The so-called Christian troops from the imperial forces were only marginally better than the barbarians; to get their demands met they apprehended any citizens foolish enough to venture outside their homes, and tied them up, beat them up and strung them up. The burgermeister of the time, Johann Vollard, was so distressed by the abuse of the villagers that he suicided by cutting his throat.


HESSEN-DARMSTADT

By 1634, a quarter of a million troops were deployed in the Wetterau, and in 1635 the plague broke out again, a deadly alliance. Rampaging soldiers, completely out of control, wreaked such damage on some villages that the residents simply abandoned them and went elsewhere, joining the countless thousands of homeless civilians and army deserters roaming the countryside and dying in the bare and frozen fields.

For his unswerving support of the anti-Catholic forces, Count Reynhard of Solms was rewarded by Gustav Adolf of Sweden with the gift of the commandery in Nieder-Weisel in perpetuity; he was also appointed president of the Privy Council and Colonel-in-Chief of the cavalry. However, changing circumstances saw the Solms estates pass into the control of the Emperor Ferdinand who mortgaged Nieder-Weisel to Landgrave Georg II of Hessen-Darmstadt in 1637. Georg strengthened the village administration by appointing a deputy to assist the over-worked mayor, but he also imposed an even heavier taxation liability on the luckless villagers.

Nieder-Weisel was still reeling from the horrific loss of more than 200 of its people in the worst plague out-break in memory; this was about 25 percent of the total population. Hardly a family escaped unscathed and some were wiped out completely. Virtually no crops had been planted and the community grain stores were so depleted that the annual taxes had to be paid in cash - to the delight of the money-lenders in Butzbach and the money-changer, Simon, in the village.

Famine became wide spread. In a region that was noted for its fertility people were reduced to pulling up and eating stinging nettles to ease their hunger; many had only soup made from corn husks as their staple diet. A high percentage of babies born in this period died from the inability of their mothers to suckle them properly.


THE MISSING MARKER

In the midst of the carnage, bureaucracy flourished. A stone marker went missing from the boundary between Butzbach and Nieder-Weisel; the burgermeisters with their jurists could not agree on the exact position to replace it, and Landgrave Philipp of Butzbach, with his entire council, met on the spot with Count Philipp Reinhard of Solms to determine the correct location.


THE PEACE OF WESTPHALIA

Thirty years of suffering and deprivation ended in 1648 when a treaty was negotiated and signed at Westphalia. The war that started with such religious fervour ended with a pragmatic political solution aimed at balancing the powers of the European nations. The Netherlands and Spain lost their predominance to France. The idea of a Catholic empire under Pope and emperor was abandoned; a community of sovereign states was established instead. Protestantism was given equal voice with Catholicism. The word "Holy" was removed from the title of the German emperor; he became a feudal overlord rather than a monarch. The major outcome of the war was that over 300 princelings, bishops, abbots and rulers of free cities retained the right to levy taxes, to field armies (but not against the emperor), to make internal laws and to enter into treaties with whomsoever they chose.

The war destroyed Germany's capital resources and its living standards fell. It could not participate in the maritime excursions which gave England its over-seas colonies, and its economy remained agrarian whilst that of its competitors' became industrialised.


THE NEW CHURCH

A measure of the relative immunity to plundering enjoyed by Nieder-Weisel during the 1618-1648 war was the fact that it was possible to carry out a re-building programme on the village church during this period. By the start of the 17th century the population, now around 700 people, had out-grown the small hall in which the services had been held for the past 400 years. In the early 1620s, a larger nave was built over the existing one, which was then removed. It is still a plain hall with gabled roof and no choir, but it was given one outstanding feature - a stucco ceiling in German Renaissance style, decorated with magnificent panels, including the coat-of-arms of the ruler, Count Reynhard Solms, and that of his lady.

The nave connects with the tower through a vaulted hall in the Romanesque style. The windows have the pointed arches of the gothic period. A slab in the floor of the aisle gives access to a crypt about 2.7 square metres and 2 metres high. This was used for the burial of town and church dignitaries during the 17th and 18th centuries; their gravestones are set into the church walls.

During the rebuilding a second bell was installed. With a mass of 750 kg it was smaller than the Maria bell, but unfortunately it had a fault and had to be re-cast.

The new church was dedicated in 1675, and ten generations of Nieder-Weiselerns have been baptised at its font and married before its altar. The earliest surviving record is that of the baptism of Anna Katharina, a daughter of Johann Konrad Knipper and his wife Anna Juliana nee Fey who was baptised by Pastor Arcularius on 17th June 1690, but the earliest known baptism was that of Johann Georg Fett on 15 March 1679.


INTO THE 18th CENTURY

Like Nieder-Weisel, most of its sister villages survived the turbulent years leading to the Thirty Years War, as well as the war itself. They included Griedel, Gambach, Rockenberg, Oppershofen, Steinfurth, Nieder- and Ober -Morlen, Hoch-Weisel, and of course Butzbach. Some were relatively recent settlements - Hausen, in the Taunus foothills for example, first appeared in the 15th century; others were as old as Nieder-Weisel.

In the surviving villages, the residents began to repair the ravages of this disastrous conflict and to pick up the threads of lives disrupted by greed and self-interest. The same was happening all over Germany, in ten thousand villages and towns mourning the deaths of half of their residents in a man-made disaster which would not be surpassed for another 300 years.

As a result of the wasteful war, Nieder-Weisel faced a debt burden of 26,000 florins (about AUD$600,000 in 2001). Nobility could not be taxed so it was necessary to have a taxable peasant class to raise the necessary revenue; this at least guaranteed that the tenure of the peasant farms in Nieder-Weisel would not be in jeopardy. Those residents who were liable for tax in 1643 are listed at the page Taxpayers, where is also shown the landholdings of those with freehold or fief or tenure of their farm-lands.

The 139 taxpayers represented 61 family names:

Adami, Alt, Biedell, Bilger, Bindhammer, Bopf, Bodenroeder, Bommersheim, Bergk, Briekel, Burgher, Eimer, Elssa, Fett, Geibell, Harms, Hartung, Haub, Hauser, Haffer, Heinz, Koch, Krausgrill, Landvogt, Lang, Lemp, Lenz, Loh, Maas, Marx, Melchior, Philippi, Rasor, Riegelhuth, Reull, Reuss, Reuter, Roman, Rompf, Repp, Schaefer, Schimpf, Schmidt, Schnorr, Seip, Sottenmeyer, Speiss, Streb, Wildt, Winter, Worner, Zaunschlieffer, Zeiss, and Zimmer.

The names under-lined were those of men brought into the village on a temporary basis to fill administrative positions, or families that died out during the next several generations.

The remaining 38 family names were well-known for 200 years or more in the village. Of this group, the 26 who figured prominently during the Thirty Years War (as mayors, burgermeisters, tax-collectors) were:

Johannes ADAMI, Hartmamn ALT, Hermann HAFFER, Hanss HAUB, Konrad, Johannes & Wentzell HAUSER, Georg HILDEBRAND, Hanns JUNG, Gernhard & Kaspar KLEIN, Michael KNIPPER, Gerhard & Hans KOCK, Christen LENZ, Hartmann & Jakob MAAS, Konrad REUSS, Joh Konrad RIEGELHUTH, Christen & Johann SCHIMPF, Christen, Konrad & Philipp SCHNORR,  and Jakob WORNER junior.

Of the 139 taxpayers, 95 were males, 23 were widows, and 21 were underage fatherless children. Of the adult tax-payers, 76 also had landholdings, as did 17 widows and children. This suggests that there were about 90 family units in the village who depended on farming for their livelihood; the remaining 18 were the families of the local administrators or of tradesmen. The total population was probably about 500, considerably less than at the turn of the century.

Below is a map of the village as it was in about 1700. The dark boundary is the moat; the two black rectangles within the village are the chapel (built on the hill formed by soil from the moat) and the Order of St John's monastery.

                      

PAGEANTS AND FESTIVALS

The busy seasons of the farm year - ploughing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, shearing, fruit picking and so on - were interspersed with idle periods when the villagers could relax and enjoy themselves. Most of their leisure activities centred on the Church. For centuries, processions had been held to celebrate major events in the church calendar or to complement prayers to God for relief from drought, the plague, or military dangers; these processions often went from village to village. A marriage or birth was celebrated by a procession that took in much of the village as it went to and from the church, to allow the other villagers to share the joy.

Some non-religious or pagan events became inter-mingled with the Christian celebrations. There was an annual drive by the youths of the village on horse-back to clear wolves from the area, that developed into horse-races at Pentecost, contested by be-ribboned riders trying to win the title of "Pentecost Knight". The youths later rode to nearby villages where they claimed small cash prizes from the mayors. At the Nieder-Weisel Commandery they were given bread and allowed to drink as much beer as they liked - provided they remained astride their mounts.

A fair was held each year on St Gertrude's Day, 17th November, the anniversary of the dedication of the church. Stalls were set up in the courtyard of the commandery the previous afternoon; traders were allowed to remain overnight provided they did not show any lights. Next morning the village Mayor entered the commandery by the northern gate near the private churchyard to inspect the displays and to check the scales. After the morning church service the villagers were admitted through the main gate and allowed to remain until 3 pm, when the fair was closed. A decree that no rental was to be charged for stall space has never been repealed.


PEASANT DRESS

At about this time a distinctive style of peasant dress developed in the Wetterau; it remained in fashion for over 200 years until the elaborate and confining clothing became unsuitable for the more active lifestyle of the 19th century.

On festive occasions the women dressed mainly in black, with white trimmings on the bodice and jacket. In mourning, and at formal meal times, they covered the head-wear with white hoods. Jewellery, if worn, was usually limited to a silver finger ring.


FURTHER CONFLICTS

The map of the Wetterau drawn by the peacemakers looked like a patchwork quilt, and to travel the 8 km from Butzbach to Friedberg involved crossing the boundaries of five states - Hessen-Darmstadt, Hessen-Kassel, Solms-Lich, Kur-Mains and Imperial Germany. The tolls collected at each crossing point were used for anything but road maintenance or safety - robbers lurked behind almost every tree waiting for the horse-drawn vehicles to became immobilised on the almost impassable tracks, or to waylay the unwary pedestrian.

The divided allegiances of the rulers of the different regions resulted in continuing skirmishing wars, which brought troops through Nieder-Weisel from time to time, with the inevitable plundering and imposition of levies on the struggling villagers.

A more serious situation arose with the War of the Spanish Succession. When the last Spanish Habsburg emperor died childless, a war broke out between France and Austria for the right to appoint his successor. This went on from 1701 until 1714, during which period Nieder-Weisel saw many troop movements. The old defensive moat was no real deterrent in these days of musket and cannon fire, and was slowly filled in - although the gates still guarded the access points on the High Street.

The Yellow Dragoons of the army of Hessen-Kassel stayed in Nieder-Weisel on the night of 10th December 1703. The quartermaster Hattenberg went into Butzbach that evening and returned much the worse for wear; he got into an argument with one of the servants and started to thrash him. While this was going on, a candle left in the stable fell over and set the straw alight. The blaze spread quickly to the area bounded by Weingarten, Butzbacher and Dom streets; 23 houses and a similar number of stables, as well as many animals, furniture and other possessions, with a total value of about 5,000 florins, were destroyed.


YOUNG LOVE

Social contact between the sexes was encouraged from an early age; boy/girl activities were part of the procedures during the confirmation celebrations held during the Pentecost long weekend. While still at school, each girl was provided with a "spinning parlour" in her parents' home where she could entertain her friends on Sunday evenings. No spinning was ever done in these parlours - instead, the boys and girls engaged in games that were based on the notion that the louder the noise, the better the fun.

The boys used the local taverns as the centres of their social development. The original Three Kings Inn run by Hanss Klein had been joined by others; the Zimmers extended their brewing and wine-making operations into inn-keeping at The Green Tree, the Haub family became associated with The Stag and The Swan, while members of the Maas group opened The Golden Crown and The Lion. The Rose was operated by the Knipper family, which had set up the first accommodation house in the village.

Spinning parlour parties went on week after week, but New Year was a special occasion. The hostesses supplied coffee and cakes until midnight; after the New Year had been rung in by the church bell, shots were fired into the air and the traditional song "Oh Sun, Let There Be Light and Splendour" was sung. Early next morning, the boys went to the homes of their girlfriends with gifts of ribbons and were given sausage cakes. In the evening they went to the taverns.

At Epiphany, an Anniversary Tree was auctioned and the money raised was used to buy drinks. In each parlour, a boy was elected "King"; the girls had to raise him to the ceiling on a chair, and he made marks on the ceiling for as long as they were able to hold him there. The other boys had to give him coins according to the number of marks he had made.

As time passed, romantic attachments were formed; these reached fruition when the young people were about 18 to 20 years old. Two weeks before the church anniversary, a coffee hour was held in the spinning parlours and a sort of sweetheart auction took place. "Which girl shall each boy have?" was the question to be decided. A week later, at another coffee hour, plans were finalised for the forthcoming three-day celebration.

On the following Thursday night the youths were given a "free" meal (paid for from subscriptions that they had made in prior years). Next day, each youth took a sprig of rosemary to his girl, which she would wear on her bodice. On Saturday, the youths had to erect an anniversary tree outside the inn they patronised - this was traditionally a fir with coloured ribbons at its tip. On the Scheissgasse, out-side the northern gate, a dancing area was strewn with sand and a pavilion was erected for the musicians. Huts roofed with wagon covers were provided for shelter and for preparing food, and a maypole was set up in the centre of the square.

After the midday church service on Anniversary Day, a trumpet fanfare sounded and the youths paraded through the village behind a banner to the homes of the village dignitaries, who gave tips to the musicians. The girls, dressed completely in black, met them on the prepared dance area, where all the villagers had gathered. Three bands kept the music going non-stop; dancing, singing, eating and drinking continued for the rest of the day, with visitors from Butzbach and neighbouring villages joining in. Baked bread and hot bratwurst were produced at dusk and washed down with wine; the dancing went on until it was completely dark. The boys then took wine to the houses of their girlfriends, who provided supper, and then they went to the tavern frequented by the boy, where the dancing continued. At midnight the girls went to fetch cakes from their homes and the youths bought coffee from the innkeeper; after this break, dancing continued until dawn.

The morning of the second day was spent sleeping. After another meal at the inn, the boys went to the homes of the girls who, dressed now in brightly-coloured frocks, led them back to the square for more dancing. The first of these was highly significant - each young man danced with the girl who had agreed to marry him, so the dance was, in effect, a public statement of his engagement. This was a matter of great importance, as any girl who did not find a partner was a serious disappointment to her parents. The dancing continued until after dark and, for the hardier ones, it carried on after the evening meal until midnight.

The third day was "Katzenjammer" day, one of hangovers and general skylarking in the village streets. A turkey was raffled, and the girl friend of the boy who won this became the Anniversary Queen. The whole company went to her house and she had to serve them all with cakes; as the raffle winner wasn't known, every house-hold where there was an adolescent daughter had to be prepared for this eventuality.


MORALITY

The contracts formed in this way were seldom broken, and the couples usually went into marriage when the law and their financial status allowed them to do so. Meantime, the activity quaintly referred to as "anticipatory concubinage" was frowned upon by the pastors; couples found to have been indulging in this or similar moral transgressions had to make public confessions. Some of these admissions were startling: Christina, the widow of Johann Georg Wetzel, confessed that three of her six children were illegitimate, and that the father of the youngest child was her late husband's 68 year old father!

Single mothers had recourse to the courts and could be awarded maintenance payments from the father until the child reached the age of confirmation, as well as personal damages for "defloration". The illegitimacy of the child could be expurgated by the marriage of the parents, provided that the father made a declaration to the effect that he accepted parenthood, otherwise the stigma would remain indefinitely.


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