Here are three German cities that are of especial interest from the standpoint of the picturesque; cities with wealth of the ancient German architecture; cities filled with the spirit of centuries ago. They are Nurnberg, Hildesheim, Rothenburg, these three, but the most picturesque of these is Rothenburg.
It is a marvelous city, this of Rothenburg ob der Tauber; a fascinating city, out of the fascinating past. Everywhere is the unbroken aspect of the centuries that have gone. Ancient walls, deep-moated, loophole-pierced, still engird the city. Every house is of ancient form; almost every house is in actuality ancient, and the few that fill gaps caused by fire or decay have been strictly built on ancient lines, for thus the city has consistently commanded-this city so sonorously named, this Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
It is a city of crockets and pinnacles, of myriad towers in myriad designs, of great stone fountains, of houses illimitably dormered, of lofty gables, secret passages, delectable doorways, windows of leaded glass; of street lines indented by house-fronts progressively projecting, story above story. “Es sieht aus als wenn man ein Bild ansieht! “-thus said to me an enthusiastic admirer from Berlin: “It is as if a man were looking at a picture!”
For a thousand years Rothenburg has been a city. For more than five hundred years it was a Free City of the Empire. It is not like those ancient towns which, through centuries of strife, preserved their entity through being huddled near the base of some great castle; it is not like those towns that were protected by powerful princes; for it has maintained itself by its own unaided sturdiness. If great barons came to Rothenburg, they came to receive protection, not to give it, or else they came to be entertained with the lavish open-handedness that made the city a place to which emperors themselves found pleasure in resorting.
By crusaders and pilgrims, Rothenburg was held in affectionate regard, not only for its generous hospitality, but because, seen from the river, it bore a striking resemblance to Jerusalem. But there was order in those times of turbulence; and in an old, old house, used by Palestine’s pilgrims, and still known as Pilgrims’ House, there is an ancient stone, bearing upon it an ancient carving of a hand and a hatchet, with the ominous inscription, “He who quarrels in this house shall have his hand cut off.”
Yet since those early days the town has been comparatively forgotten. Even yet it has not become a haunt of the tourist and the traveler, although each year a few Americans resort thitherward, bringing back tales of this city that out-Nurnbergs Nurnberg. It is easily reached, being on a little branch line from the railway between Frankfort and Munich. The station is well outside of the walls, and the most effective way is to reach the city after nightfall and next morning step out into its streets from dreamland.
It is a place where the sightseer cannot go wrong, for everywhere is fascination. There are both stateliness and beauty. There are towering houses with crisscrossed fronts. There are charming gardens, tucked in between ancient walls. There are ancient stairways of stone or of age-bleached oak, circling upward around a central pillar from basement to roof. There are casement windows, looking into courtyards of alluring charm. The city is steeped in color, for the long-rising roofs are all of old red tile. It was long since that wooden roofs were forbidden. To be precise, it was just seven hundred and nine years ago.
The town centers around its town-hall, its Rathhaus. This is a superb building, huge in size and of immense dignity. In construction it is a composite of the centuries, a commingling of the Gothic and the Renaissance; yet “Made in Germany” is distinctively in every line. Here are the municipal meeting-rooms and offices, and here is many a record of the past. Here are paintings of long-since-forgotten battles, and great iron coffers, made to hold the city’s secrets and its gold; here are archives, running back for over seven hundred years; here are parchments jingling with great ancient seals, some of them imperial; here is the “Richtsstuhl,” the stone seat of justice; here are grim records of the dungeons, done in old-time black-letter, telling with dry brevity of trials and punishments, of confessions made under torture by traitors and criminals, and even by old-time robber knights brought by the burghers to a sharp account.
There are deep dungeons under the Rathhaus, reached by stairways dripping with moisture, into which not a ray of light can enter; and in one of these dungeons, some five centuries ago, the men of Rothenburg placed the burgomaster who, more than any other in the long burgomasterial line, gave to the city power and wealth and prosperity. But they charged him with conspiring with the Emperor, and not only gave him no light, but edged their animosity by deliberately giving him no food. It is in all a fiercely dramatic story, for friends who were still faithful tunneled to the cell and madly cut through its prodigious wall and reached the prisoner-but only to find him dead.
Nowadays they treat unpopular burgomasters with more consideration. Each burgomaster is chosen for three years, and at the end of that time he is either elected for life or gives place to a successor. But an election for life does not give unchecked power, for it is a simple matter with these townsfolk, if they tire of a life-chosen mayor, to make him “so crazy with vexation,” as it was expressed to me, that he is glad to resign and accept the pension that they palliatively offer. Only recently they thus got rid of one.
I climbed the tall tower of the Rathhaus, entering that part of the building through a Renaissance door of remarkable distinction and beauty. I climbed on, tempted always farther by foot-furrowed stairs, quavering floors, crooked galleries, labyrinthine fascination. And in a little room at the very top I found a white-haired, white-bearded man. He lived up there, he and a fellow-watchman, keeping ceaseless lookout for fires in twelve-hour alternate vigils. Eight times an hour by night, and four times an hour by day, the town is scanned; and the old man showed me with pride an elaborate mechanism which keeps check on his faithfulness.
From the -summit, above this room, is a neverforgetable view of the congregated roofs, the peaks and gables, the pinnacle-perched figures of stone, the river, and the far-reaching plains.
Three times a week, at noon, young men clamber to this tower-top, and, in rain or sunshine, in heat or in cold, trumpet ancient German chorals to the north, to the south, to the east, to the west, in turn.
They love music in Rothenburg, and it is an incident of most functions, public or private. In front of the Rathhaus, when wedding formalities are going on inside, hired musicians loudly drum and trumpet, whereat the people come running from all directions. For a wedding is not carried on with the quietness which would please the shy and retiring. Marriage is a sacrament neither lightly nor secretly to be entered into.
On the night before the wedding it is considered de rigueur to hurl old pots and pans against the house of the bride, with boisterous good wishes; and without these delicate attentions a bride would be ill-pleased. Her two best friends wait upon her during the din, and give her a wreath and a veil and some verses composed in her honor; and that the verses are curiously like those offered to brides in the past, except for necessary change of name, is not at all a drawback. Weddings are usually on Tuesdays; and they take from seven in the morning till four or five in the afternoon, including the time at the town hall. At the home there will likely be a little play given, in which are set forth the supposed foibles of the bride and groom; and some friend, masquerading as a gipsy, will come in and give whatever kind of prophecy best accords with his wit. Race suicide is seldom prophesied; it is, in fact, unpopular in Rothenburg, as is seen from the number of boys and girls going with shining morning face to school. If there has been a jilted girl, delicate and kind-hearted friends spread a path of chopped straw from her door to the house where the wedding festivities are in progress.
One day I saw a Rothenburg funeral. There had been services at the church, and I saw a long procession winding toward that one of the city gates that looks out toward the Gottesacker beyond the city walls. All were on foot, save a few of the immediate family. Six women, bearing huge wreaths of flowers and greenery, led the long line, and three women, with wreaths of greenery alone, brought up its-‘rear. Following the leading six came roundeyed choir-boys, and behind them the members of a corps, with varnished boots that came far above the knees, and white trousers, and fancy jackets with enormous white cuffs fastened on the outside of the sleeves, and gilt swords, and the most tiny of diminutive caps. Some score or so of elderly men, velvet-capped, white-rabbeted, followed-for it was the son of a dignitary of the town who had died and then a long line of men in the unwonted glory of silk hats. Besides the wreath-bearers, there were no women marching, but in the graveyard groups of them hovered vaguely among the trees.
It was a -winter day, and every twig of every tree was white with frozen mist. The shrill young voices of the choir-boys rose frostily on the frosty air, and the pastor spoke feelingly of the aged father’s grief: “My son, my son, would God I had died for thee!”-and the people slowly dispersed, and the relatives and friends went back to the house of bereavement to partake of the funeral baked meats.
The cozy, cheerful, homelike aspect of the city would point out to even the most casual observer that in the past there were not only steel-clad knights and a humble peasantry, but a prosperous citizen class with delightful home life and sheltered firesides. There is a multitude of homely names for streets and buildings; such names as the Sexton’s Tower, the Cheese Chamber, the Vinegar Jug, the Dog Tower, the Pig’s Tower, Little Dumpling Street, the House of the Cook of the Servants’ Food, and-innocent of all knowledge of Barriethe Street of the Little Minister.
In the little shops one finds artisans in wood, in copper, in leather, in iron; and it is a joy to come across a maker of knives actually named Hieronymus! There are numerous shops bearing the words “Kolonial Waaren,” which are apt to give to an American enticing suggestions of blue china and old-time wares, but which, of course, refer only to the spices and coffee of the colonies.
A citizen of the town is a man who pays taxes up to a certain moderate amount in addition to having won by a residence of some years the “right of home.” It is well to exercise care in bestowing the right of citizenship, for if poverty comes to a citizen, the town is bound to care for him, and his right to vote remains.
It is amusing to find that ward caucus and vote management are so well understood here that the names of nominees for the office of burgomaster, or for membership in the Gemeindekollegium, can usually be known in advance, as can also the result of an election. After all, these people have voted for centuries, and why should they be unsophisticated!
Inscriptions over gates and doorways are common. “Deutsches Haus-Deutsches Land-Schirm dich Gott mit starker Hand,” are the bravely reverent words put up long since by a bravely reverent citizen. Above one of the city gates is the cordial “Pax intrantibus, Salus exeuntibus.” Upon one of the buildings is a very old inscription, in the shortest and briefest words, that “He who has no grief may wipe out this rhyme.” And the people tell with awe that a recently married couple said to each other, “Let us so live as to wipe that out!”-and that in two weeks the husband was dead.
Pleasant little customs are still perpetuated. The Thursday before Easter is known as Green Thursday, and garlic is the time-honored dish for that day; but if any green vegetable is on the table there will be money for the household for all the year. The fourth Thursday before Christmas children go from door to door with baskets, and are given apples and nuts and raisins. The city has less than 9000 inhabitants, and each man knows his neighbor.
There are still retained certain pleasant little superstitions. If a girl, drinking coffee, is so unfortunate as to put in the cream before the sugar she is sure not to be married within seven years, and it is amusing to see with what eagerness the sugar is always dropped in.
There were at one time patricians in the city. All cities get them, although they do not always go by that name. But Rothenburg not only got them, but got rid of them.
The patrician class arose naturally, for the early patricians were leaders who deserved to be leaders; men of sagacity and character and wealth and public spirit, and they put up great houses, which are still standing-houses with coats-of-arms and elaborate carvings, and groined ceilings and oriel windows; houses opulent in size, with infinity of felicitous detail.
But their descendants, taking over the houses and the wealth, were without the sagacity and the public spirit, and Rothenburg decided to be rid of them. The city was of the Reformation, and therefore looked askance at a huge convent within its precincts, with moat and walls and gates of its own. And it came to pass that charges were made that patricians were in the flagitious habit of visiting after visiting hours; whereupon the patricians and their order were done away with and the nunnery suppressed and confiscated. They got rid, too, of the Jews-for it is curious how intolerant a tolerant people can be. The Jews, they said, realizing how much Rothenburg resembles the sacred city of Palestine, intended to poison the inhabitants and take possession of their city as the New Jerusalem! And on the strength of this supposed intent the Jews were killed or banished and their property seized.
Following the seizing of the convent, they also took over a monastery and the Catholic churches. But they were not so intolerant as to destroy this property. There is a distinctly canny strain in the Rothenburg character. They not only found the confiscated churches admirable for the new worship, but also retained many an old religious figure and painting, and kept in place the altars with their saints and angels.
I saw not a beggar in Rothenburg; yet the city is a tramps’ paradise. For tramps and wayfarers are lodged for a night in a building just outside the walls, and are given warm rooms and good food. Each Christmas-tide they are given a tree and special Christmas cheer.
The poor belonging to the town itself are cared for in such an ideal way as to make poverty no punishment, as, indeed, it ought not to be when a man has lived the sturdy life of Rothenburg. For the favorite way of disposing of the poor is to distribute them in wonderfully picturesque little homes in towers and lookouts along the city walls; homes perched and hanging like swallows’ nests along the ramparts.
The ancient costumes have almost vanished; and yet there are still women who wear the green or purple sleeves, the bands crossed over the breast, the bright-hued kerchief close-tied on the head; and there are old men doddering about in blue blouses and tasseled caps.
Down whichever street one turns there is a revel of picturesque architecture. The houses are in general from four to six stories in height, built against one another, and usually with half-timbered fronts in intricate and beautiful designs. There is every where a charming complexity of gables and corbels and towers. There are glorious projecting windows. There are dusky niches and echoing corners. There are rude blue-slatted or green-slatted wagons, drawn by a single horse, hitched far over at one side. There is the mail-cart driver who, approaching the post-office, plays loudly on a horn for the full length of the street. “His own composition!” say the townsfolk, with pride.
The city is delightfully seen from the covered way along the inside of the city walls, just under the top, the place where sentinels and soldiers of the past watched and peered and aimed their weapons at the enemy. For not only is the city charmingly seen from this height of vantage, but through the loop-holed apertures one may have piquant glimpses of the country beyond the walls and of the river with its ancient double bridge.
It was back in the Thirty Years’ War, it was in 1631, that the principal event in the history of the city took place: the principal event, in the judgment of every inhabitant. It is annually commemorated by a play, a pageant, in which all that happened in the course of the great day-the day of the Meister-trunk, the Master Drink-is represented by generals and counsellors, soldiers and people, costumed in character, in the streets, in the market-place, in the Rathhaus.
For the ferocious Tilly captured the city, and, enraged by his losses, declared that the town should be destroyed, the leading inhabitants slain, and the rest turned over to the soldiery. But women and children wailed lamentably as he rode to the Rathhaus, and clung to his stirrup imploring mercy. And he flung them mercy with contempt. “Let the dogs live,” he said; “I will be merciful. None but the burgomaster and all the counsellors of the town shall die.”
He went into the great room of the Rathhaus, and called for wine, and a frightened girl carried in a huge and brimming goblet-a goblet so huge that he burst into a great laugh. “Am I to drink this?” he said, holding it up. And then grim humor seized him. “If any man of Rothenburg will drink this at a single draught I will spare the city and spare every life!”
There was a great silence, and -then a former burgomaster, a certain Nusch-his name is worthy of remembrance stepped intrepidly forward and took the goblet from Tilly’s hand. He drank, and the silence deepened as the foot of the goblet slowly rose in the air; he drank and drank till every drop was drained. Then he fell senseless to the floor.
“Revive him!” said Tilly; and Nusch came slowly back to life.
Tilly was a good loser. “You have won,” he said, admiringly, as the man raised himself and looked around.
Whereat Rothenburg’s hero could only gasp out,
The Old Red City of Rothenburg
with a touch of good old-fashioned humor even in such a presence:
“I never-could-save-another town!”