Hildesheim – Germany

I have always preferred a frame house to one of stone or brick; it generally looks less like an institution and more like a place to live; its lines can be made less formal, more individual; and its color possibilities are infinitely greater. It has always seemed, therefore, like a drawback, like a flaw in what might otherwise be oftentimes a perfect picture, that the houses of even the most picturesque of European towns are generally of stone or plaster. Of course, Toledo would be out of character in anything less grim, and so would many another town that must be dressed in sober garb to play its part, but there are towns that would blend so much better into their landscape if only they were built from the forest trees of their backgrounds. But save Lubeck, that red brick city of the North that just misses being a ” picture town,” and save the towns of the Netherlands, all the Continent houses itself within stone or plaster walls -all except Hildesheim and its neighboring Saxon cities. In England it is different, and a great part of the singular charm of its country villages and isolated farmhouses is undoubtedly due to the halftimber buildings, blending so perfectly with their environment that they seem an integral part of nature itself. Now our English ancestors came from Saxony, and still preserved in the German speech of the land around the Harz are Saxon words an Englishman can understand, and here in Saxony are timbered houses in which an Englishman would feel at home. Nowhere else in Europe can just the like be found, so if one would know the domestic timbered architecture of a medieval time he must seek it, south of the Channel, in these Saxon towns and villages. And most beautiful of all the towns of northern Germany is Hildesheim, its streets a bewildering, glowing museum of Gothic medievalism. None of these picture towns of which I am writing is in the least like any other town, and Hildesheim’s individuality is as strongly marked and its characteristics as pronounced and as different, as of any city in Europe. For instance, the medievalism here manifested is a very different phase of the life of the Middle Ages from that called to mind by other relics of a past environment. Here it is life, not war, that comes back to you, for there are no gates and walls, but houses where men and women lived at peace. There is no castle, no dungeon; but market-houses and streets where flowed the tides of prosperity and of wealth. You do not picture knights and warhorses, but fat, contented burghers. These streets were not made for armed men, nor these pictured houses for warriors. Hildesheim is a chapter all its own in the interpretation of ancient life, and it tells a different story than elsewhere can be learned.

In spite of the war I am very fond of Germany, probably because I have never been in Berlin, and it is a matter of irritating amazement to me that so many Americans annually visit the capital, while less than a hundred a year stop over at Hildesheim. Yet there is nothing in Berlin that cannot be found in America, it has no distinction, no individuality; it is utterly cosmopolitan, a mere concentration of modernity. On the other hand, the Saxon town not only preserves the medieval atmosphere, but embodies it in a setting of strange and delicate beauty. You not only find a city of the past, but a city that was and is like some antique piece of jewelry exquisite in form and color. Only in Venice can elsewhere be found these two primary elements of beauty, form and color, in perfect combination. Bruges approximates, but its color predominates; Rothenburg comes near, but beauty of form is there the most conspicuous; but in Hildesheim the two combine in an achievement of complete, well-balanced harmony. Added to the delight always to be found in the merely beautiful, and the interest that attaches to places left unchanged by many generations of men, is a pervading sense of romance. Here undoubtedly everything may happen that would be impossible elsewhere. Here unquestionably fairy coaches are drawn through the streets by white mice, and the only reason you fail to see them is because you don’t happen to be on the spot when they go by; but they may be coming now; they may be just around the corner. Whether it is the picturesque houses continually appearing along crooked streets, or the color everywhere surprising you, or the thought of thus walking literally into the past, or the sheer romance of it all, or whether it be all these things in such unusual combination, I cannot tell, but this I do know, that nowhere else do you wander on with such alert, tense interest. Carcassonne is more thrilling, Toledo more impressive and Rothenburg more lovable in a sort of human way, but Hildesheim wakens more lively enthusiasm than any other city. It is an exciting town, because of its very unexpectedness, and the dominant sensation it produces is just keen joy that you are finding it.

But few people go there. Hamilton Wright Mabie found the town, though, and this is what he says of it: “Hildesheim is so full of joy to the eye and imagination in audacity of color and quaintness of timbered houses that it is one of the most enchanting records of a past so unlike our own age that the very sight of its quaint beauty is a feast.” And six hundred years ago an early traveler wrote, ” In all Saxony there is no town equal to Hildesheim in strength and beauty.”

Oh, those timbered houses! Not merely one or two, or even a row of them as in English Chester, but block after block, street after street, for today over seven hundred of these ancient dwellings, dating all of them from the fourteen and fifteen hundreds, help shelter the people of Hildesheim. The second story projects two or three feet over the first, and the third two or three feet over that, and so on till the whole structure is topped by a great pointed roof, that itself is often several stories in height. Fancy the mysterious, semi-twilight effect these overhanging houses produce in a narrow street that winds away along the crooked course of what was once a village cowpath. But this is not all-the massive timbers that form the visible framework of these old buildings are literally covered with curious and intricate carving. There are mottoes in Gothic script, and the queerest beasts and birds ever gotten together outside of the Noah’s ark of childhood, beasts and birds that never were on sea or land; not the vicious-looking gargoyles of the cathedrals, but bland, pensive creatures, the faces of some lighted by strange smiles, and others thoughtful and contemplative as they regard piles of singular fruit or a row of fishes standing on their tails. Other beams are cut deeply into elaborate conventional designs, suggestive of the Moorish work in Spain. Nor is this all, for beast, bird, fish and fowl are each painted in the softest, richest hues imaginable. Not the crude, raw color of Holland, but, old tones of exceeding beauty, touched here and there with gold. And it is this color and carving and gilt and the quaint, queer shapes of the houses that make Hildesheim’s distinction, and its charm, and its unlikeness to any other town. Interspersed through this bewildering mass of carving upon the fronts of these inexpressibly quaint old houses, are innumerable mottoes, quotations and a wealth of observations wise and otherwise. On the front of one especially elaborate house the egotistical builder proclaimed, ” I hope for envy, for God gives to the one he likes.” On the front of another the pessimistic owner carved these words, ” Truth has flown to heaven; Faith has gone across the sea; Justice has been driven away; Unfaithfulness alone remains.”

One house is covered with carving depicting scenes from the Bible. In the pinnacle are Adam and Eve, then Moses on the Mount, the passage through the Red Sea, the spies bearing the clusters of grapes, the raising of the brazen serpent, Balaam’s ass, Samson and the foxes, Samson slaying the Philistines, Samson carrying away the gates of Gaza, Samson and Delilah, the seven lean kine, the seven fat kine, Jacob’s dreams, his fight with the angel, Abraham leading Isaac to sacrifice, Abraham driving Hagar into the wilderness, and Abraham and Melchisedec. In addition there are allegorical representations of sight, taste, hearing, speech and feeling, together with many Scriptural quotations. When it is remembered that this is only one of hundreds of houses most of which are carved with a vast variety of subjects, the force of the saying that the streets of Hildesheim are a perfect museum will be appreciated.

There is no especial beauty in the situation of the town, nor in the dress of its people, but its architecture alone is sufficient to single it out as one of the most delightful of Europe’s picture places. There are two squares in particular that seem utterly removed from the present. To reach one of these, the Andreas Platz, you go by the Goop House, a most astonishing thing with a tiny first story, but bulging out into much space when the top floor is reached, and under another house that is built straight across the street. The irregular, tree-set Platz is very quiet. At one end is an ancient church, and circling round the other sides are the old, old houses, where in the setting of loves and hates of long ago, men and women live out their lives today. I think that is the thing which surprises one the most of all about these medieval homes, that they are actually homes today. The small latticed windows are swung wide open on this summer morning, and pillows are hung out to air, and women call from them to neighbors across the way, and talk of aeroplanes and railways, just as centuries ago their ancestors talked of distant wars and tournaments and the gossip of a forgotten day. There is something incongruous, something perplexing, about these moderns housed in these homes that express only the lives of a remote generation.

A little way from the Platz the marketplace crowds back the houses and finds room. In the center is a really beautiful fountain dating from 1540. On one side the Rathhaus, built in the thirteen hundreds, projecting far over the street and supported by massive columns and great arches, under which is the sidewalk, and opposite this the picture is completed by the finest timbered house to be found anywhere. I know the same claim is made for the rare old house across from the cathedral at Strassbourg, but in height and carving, and color and richness of detail this Butchers’ Guild House at Hildesheim so far excels as to leave no room for comparison. Near this Butchers’ Guild was the place of public punishment, and here stood the stocks and whipping-post, and here the scaffold was erected. As the criminal was led across the square to meet the sentence passed upon him, there was always one possibility of escape; for if some woman stepped forward and offered to marry him then and there the convict was set free. I wonder if this was regarded in the nature of substitution and equivalent.

The Rathhaus is externally a little disappointing, but within is a noble hall, the proportions of which, I was assured by the distinguished architect who was my companion at the time, are absolutely correct judged by modern canons, and he measured to see. But more important than its proportions are the splendid frescoes covering the walls with some of the most beautiful mural decorations I have ever seen, beautiful in design, and most beautiful of all in their soft yet radiant color. Next to the jewel-like interior of St. Mark’s in Venice I place this all but matchless interior of the Rathhaus at Hildesheim.

On one side of the wall is a line deeply cut, and underneath are the words, ” This is the measure for yarn.” And this is the tale of that: Upon a. time a certain yarn merchant died, and, having systematically cheated all his customers by giving them short measure, he did not go to heaven. One night he appeared, smoking hot, to his wife in a vision, and finding her for once speechless, he spoke thus, ” Go quickly on the morrow to all my friends, the yarn merchants of Hildesheim, and say to them that this is the measure for yarn.” Saying which he threw upon the floor a glowing iron bar and ‘mid sulphurous fumes departed. Now the bar burned through the chamber floor, and through the cellar floor, and on down and down, for it was going whence it came. And on the morrow the good wife awoke, and behold the vision was a true word, for there, still smoking, was the imprint of the measure for yarn. And having told these things to the Burgomaster and the merchants, they placed this record on the city hall, and there you can see it to this day on the north wall.

Hildesheim is distant but an hour or so from Bremen, and just at the foot of the Harz mountains, in the very heart of that bit of country that is richer in folklore than any other spot in northern Europe. Its very beginnings are steeped in the poetry of ancient faiths, in a legend rich in delicate beauty as the town itself. Once upon a time, so the story goes, when the great Charlemagne had been but a few years dead, his son, who reigned in his stead over this part of the world, was hunting down the forest-covered slopes of the Harz, and with evening found himself separated from his followers. He wandered on till dusk fell, and the midsummer night came on, then drawing his cloak around him, and hanging his crucifix upon a rosebush growing there, he lay down to sleep upon a mound just at the foot of the mountains. Now this little mound was Hilda’s Heim, or the home of Hilda, Saxon goddess. When morning dawned and the Emperor woke, snow covered the ground, and the cross was frozen fast to the rose. In this the Emperor read the sign that the goddess had fled before the true faith, and here upon her sacred mound he caused a great cathedral to be built, but in the cloisters he left undisturbed the sacred rose. Now all this happened eleven hundred years ago, but the cathedral is there today, and, strangest of all, upon its wall, in the quiet of its cloisters, there is growing today a rosebush, bright with fragrant bloom, and it is a historic fact that back as far as the cathedral records go, this rose was growing there, and all over Germany people know of the thousand-year-old rosebush that grows on the walls of Hildesheim. The town might, indeed, be called the City of the Rose, not only on account of its beginnings, but because of the countless roses that grow along its streets in sweet profusion. Seldom are such roses found, and, as if in recognition of the fact, there is a Rose Street One, and a Rose Street Two, and a Rose Street Three.

But the cathedral is remarkable for much more than its sacred rose. It was at the beginnings of the Eleventh Century that Bishop Bernward made of Hildesheim the center of north German art and culture, and gathered here some of the most beautiful things that are to be found anywhere in Europe. The bronze doors of the cathedral, among the very oldest on the Continent, were done under his direction, and in the treasury of the church are shown his cross and staff of most delicately carved gold, all ablaze with jewels. In the nave hangs the most amazing chandelier I have ever seen. It is nearly forty feet around and represents the walls and towers of the New Jerusalem. Here, too, is the great column of stone carved by the Bishop in the manner of Hadrian’s column at Rome, except that this pictures the life of Christ.

The walls that of old protected the city have now vanished save where here and there an old tower still stands on guard. The most interesting of these is the Turn Again Tower, concerning which a pretty legend is told. From the beginning the town was under the special protection of the Maid of Hildesheim, part saint, part fairy, whose guardianship brought prosperity to the inhabitants, and who, in time of siege, would stand upon the battlements, unseen by the other defenders, and wave aside the cannon balls of the enemy. Once upon a time the Maid became piqued at some fancied grievance and took her departure, vowing never to return. Now, in this Turn Again Tower there hangs to this day a magic bell, and whoso hears it ring must perforce turn back. And on that day when the dismayed citizens learned that their fairy maid had left them, the bell in the old tower rang loud and long, and afar in the forest the Maid heard its ringing, and, compelled by its magic, came again to the city, which ever after she has continued to bless.

The kingdom of Saxony, of which Hildesheim was for many years the most important city, became as early as the Tenth Century the most prominent among the German States. Saxon valor put a curb upon invasion by the Northmen and definitely controlled the ambition of Hungary to extend its dominion over western Europe. Culture, order and all the accompaniments of civilization marked the progress of the Saxon people throughout the nine and ten hundreds; a university was established in Hildesheim, and in 962, Otto, King of Saxony, became ruler of Germany, when crowned by the Pope as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, that somewhat fanciful political conception which Voltaire once said was ” neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”

Of all Germanic tribes the Saxon was the most defined by physical attributes, by speech, by his faith, by his customs and his laws. Marriage outside the tribe was rare, and no foreign influence modified these characteristics that individualized him. In Saxony more tenaciously than elsewhere the people clung to their old faiths and ways, disguising pagan rites with Christian names and incorporating ancient liberties into written law. These old traits are, in a modified degree, observable in the Saxon of the present. The big, blond men are like their ancestors of a thousand years ago, and in the little towns in and around the Harz traces of their pagan creed exist in the beliefs of today, so that, while one phase of the present life of Hildesheim is modern and commercial, yet underneath it all is a primitive strain of superstition. In the popular mind vampires still haunt the forest, ghosts walk from their graves when the moon lies dead in the sky, and witches still meet with Satan on the summit of the nearby Brocken.

But in these Twentieth-Century days all peoples, all towns, are rapidly approaching a dead level of uniformity, so the traveler must hurry who would find the fairy streets of Hildesheim, and catch the atmosphere of a medieval time that still lingers among its ancient dwellings.