Selected Chapter Excerpts
The earliest villages were for housing workers to assist the hunters.
Because the hunters wanted the forest stocked with plentiful game, villagers were required to set out food in winter, such as piles of potatoes, to keep wild game from roaming away from the forest. So the animals remained and in their foraging soon discovered another source for food—the farms in the forest. Deer and other wildlife raided farmers’ fields at night and simply feasted. To make matters horribly worse, the overlords forbade villagers from harming the wild game in any way.
Fences built around the farmlands were usually enough to keep wild boar out, but not deer. After a day’s work, the farmer and his family often had to build giant bonfires, beating drums and shooting firearms to chase the animals out. The deer soon learned to ignore the noise. During growing seasons, farmers were busy day and night trying to save enough food to feed their families...
Villagers turn to poaching.
After a few generations and divisions of land, most villagers had too little land to support a family, and because of deer, usually could save only part of their crops. Some villagers made formal complaints that such practices could not go on, that it would be impossible for them to hold onto house and lot. They would become homeless and their families reduced to beggars.
However, the practices remained. As long as there were enough laborers to help with forest maintenance and to assist at the hunts, villagers were expendable. Some village dwellers turned to poaching. It was too tempting. They could not resist hunting some of the wild game for themselves when they were so desperate. They felt that they were taking from the forest what the forest was taking from them—their food supply. But poachers had to exercise much caution, as penalties if caught could be severe...
One poacher becomes a folk hero.
...Hasenstab continued poaching. He was skilled and caught animals with relative ease. He hid his weapons in the forest, in tree cavities or under rocks. People sometimes heard gun shots, but he hunted at times and in remote places where he was likely to go undetected, or where he would have time to get away. To evade capture while carrying game from the forest, he found places to conceal it. He partnered with a farmer who would later fetch the carcasses and load them in his wagon, hiding them under produce. Hasenstab repaid the farmer by sharing the meat.
He sold the game he caught to innkeepers, farmers, and even to parish priests. Like other residents, a village priest did not have a local or legal source for buying meat.
The officials were extremely anxious to catch Hasenstab and subsequently, he had many close calls. During one of his escapes, he made it to Brombach Monastery, just outside the forest to the southwest, and outside Mainzer territory. He remained there in asylum for some time. The monks trained him in medicine and the use of herbs and salves, hoping that Hasenstab would become a monk himself and stay. However, he eventually returned to the forest…
Until the early 19th century, most common people in the Spessart were in some kind of bondage, particularly farmers. Most were serfs, bound to the land where they were born and forbidden to move to another location without permission...
A person could not marry without permission of the local authorities, who granted approval based on the applicant’s ability to support a family… Other factors affecting permission included whether both parties were of the same social class, and the applicant’s trade. If there were too many shoemakers or other tradesmen, denying them permission to marry would prevent the siring of sons following in those trades...
When a lord or territorial ruler needed soldiers or guardsmen, recruiters went to the villages, impressing young unmarried men. Sons of rich families often avoided serving by paying someone to replace them.
A recruit’s expectations were horrible food, poor pay, and sharing crowded beds. A common soldier was forbidden to marry while in service. When recruiting was underway, many young men fled to hiding places in the forest, some successfully.
Usually a conscripted soldier served the prince or lord of the territory to which he belonged, serving as a castle guard or quelling local insurrections. He might also be part of a unit involved in a squabble with a neighboring territory, or in a battle with another European country. Or, if very unfortunate, he could find himself in a completely different area of the world...
Customs and Practices:
When all efforts failed and it appeared a person was dying, family members hung the root of a hazel shrub over the patient’s bed to help ward off death. If death did come, family members opened the windows in the room where the person died, covered mirrors, and stopped the clock if there was one. They also lit a candle.
These rituals were meant to appease the spirits. Open windows permitted the person’s soul to escape. Mirrors were covered so…
Mining in the Kahlgrund, the area of my ancestors, went back to the middle of the 15th century. Possessing a wealth of ore and mineral deposits, the area was especially rich in copper. Lead and silver were also mined, and eventually cobalt and iron as well. The two main tunnels of the copper mine Hilfe Gottes (God’s Help) were just north of Grosskahl, within a short walkable distance. A whole community of miners settled within the village. A miner’s home was usually identifiable by a hammer and mallet symbol above its door.
Copper mining in the region, however, was labor-intensive, for copper here appeared in combination with other minerals and elements, such as lead, zinc, arsenic, and sulfur, which made it difficult to process and smelt. Further, the sulfur dioxide fumes created during the smelting process caused extremely unhealthy working conditions. The noxious fumes could lead to chronic respiratory problems and to bronchitis. Exposure to this dangerous environment began early, since many miners began as young boys. The ore going to the pits generally traveled through tight galleries that only young boys could fit into...
The Archbishop-Elector of Mainz availed himself of new business—and riches—by establishing a center for glassmaking in Lohr, on the eastern edge of the Spessart. He eventually opened several branches in the interior of the forest. For these burgeoning enterprises, he recruited practiced glassmakers from outside the area, especially from Alsace.
The interior foundries, however, impinged on the hunting area for the nobility, including the Mainz elector himself. The glassworkers soon found themselves under unusual restrictions. To keep the hunting grounds clear in the winter, the Archbishop of Mainz forbade the kilns to operate during those months. Workers had to vacate from St. Martin’s Day, November 11, until the following Easter. They overwintered in Hain and Lauffach, just south of Schöllkrippen.
As with mining, glassmaking contributed to serious health problems of the workers. Inhaling silica dust during the blowing process worked havoc on lungs. The particles clung to and irritated the lung lining, leading to a build-up of scar tissue and gradual loss of lung capacity.
Worse was the effect of mercury used in mirror backs. Poisoning by this element caused dizziness, shakes, coughs, skin lesions, stomach pains, and loss of hair and teeth. Managers rotated workers around the production rooms and gave frequent breaks, but the toxin took its inevitable toll. Many thus afflicted desperately stole some of the mercury to sell to traveling peddlers in exchange for dubious nostrums that might cure them.
Amid these conditions, a new director, Tabor, arrived at Lohr in 1788. He applied an iron fist, and many of his subordinates simply fled, causing him to institute drastic measures. If a runaway was caught, he was flogged in front of the others as a warning...
Murder and Mayhem:
Dangerous criminals—thieves and murderers—were a constant in Spessart Forest. Traveling through the forest was perilous, for nobleman, trader, or commoner.
Because of its density, thieving bands flocked to the Spessart, where they lived in hidden camps. They used the concealment of the forest to ambush their victims and then escaped easily with their booty under the same cover… The common cutthroat was not alone in these depredations. There was a time when the local knights became marauders themselves, taking refuge in their castle fortresses, proof against justice or retaliation.
The years of the robber knights, at the end of the Middle Ages, in the 14th and 15th centuries, were a particularly violent time. What happened to the golden age of knights? Previously, the empire had relied heavily on knights to form the core of its armies.
By 1389, crime had escalated dramatically. The robber knights were wielding unrestrained terror. They attacked ships on the waterways, and merchants and pilgrims on the roads. The two major trade routes through Spessart Forest, Birkenhainer Strasse and Eselweg, were completely unsafe...
The Grimm Brothers grew up on the northern edge of Spessart Forest; the forest especially influenced the story of Snow White.
One of the story’s most important elements is the magic mirror. Glass production, as we’ve seen, was a major industry in the Spessart, from where manufacturers exported glass products to locations throughout the world. By the 18th century, glassmakers in the Spessart, specifically in Lohr, were also producing glass panes and mirrors. Mirrors became highly decorative, and after the French fashion, contained embellishments with mottoes inscribed within. … People started calling such mirrors Sprechende Spiegel (talking mirrors). These “talking mirrors” acquired the reputation of “always speaking the truth,” and were undoubtedly the inspiration for the stepmother’s talking mirror...
We often think of witches as part of the fantasy world. What would Halloween be without at least one witch? But up until early modern time, belief in actual witches was indeed strong, with often horrendous consequences for accused victims. Superstitions and external pressures erupted into one of the ugliest chapters of European history, and Spessart Forest witnessed some of the worst atrocities of the witch persecutions.
The inhabitants of Spessart Forest could not escape one of European history’s most horrific episodes in the craze over the occult, the supernatural, and the inexplicable, a frenzy driven often by the worst examples of human greed, vengeance, and outright hysteria. Between the years 1560 to 1670 at its most manifest, witch trials took place at hitherto unknown levels, leading to a furious orgy of bloody and mindless persecution, most of it directed at women.
Recent studies give an estimate of about 50,000 legal witch executions in Europe, of which 25,000 were in the German-speaking territories. These numbers do not include those who fell to murderous mobs or to otherwise illegal procedures which would bring the total deaths in Europe to a much higher number, some estimates being 500,000 or more.
Communities in the Spessart had some of the highest rates of witch burnings per capita. One of the hottest beds of witch persecution in the forest was about seven miles (11 km) northwest of Grosskahl. From just 1601 to 1605, the magistrates of the Freigericht jurisdiction tried and executed 139 witches—126 women and 13men—by burning at the stake. Two more women died in prison as a result of torture. Two were set free. They may have been set free, but those released were often so broken, bodily and mentally, that they never became totally whole again...
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) made its way to Spessart Forest.
...But the war was still far away. Or so people hoped. In a time with virtually no news media, the forest’s inhabitants relied on sketchy reports from travelers passing through or from other villagers returning from a town or city. The atmosphere was electric, the uncertainty and unrest contributing to the mass hysteria that resulted in the horrendous witch persecutions which were still in full swing.
Then it hit. The first inkling a village or hamlet might have of the nearness of the war was when they were suddenly overtaken. A resident who for some reason had not been home would return, spotting smoke curling up as he approached his village, soon finding his family and all others tortured and butchered. As he stood there in dismayed numbness, he might have heard the peaceful far-off church bells of another village, a village still undisturbed and unaware.
The Thirty Years War, part religious strife and part power struggle, became primarily a power struggle as more and more countries and territories entered the conflict. Before the war, and as the Counter-Reformation continued, tensions between Catholic and Protestant territories and rulers had been rapidly heating up. Finally, a 1618 incident in Prague lit the fuse that touched off the war.
The period of the early 1630s, when the Swedish forces were in their ascendancy and the war was at its height, is also the period when the Thirty Years War entered the Franconia region, and subsequently Spessart Forest, with full impact. The residents of the forest had felt it before. By the early 1620s, marauding soldiers from troops marching through had already brought a good deal of misery to the forest. Now things were to get much worse...
As elsewhere, churches were usually the earliest institutions in the forest, and schools were among the latest. As of 1800, there was still no school in the Kleinkahl community and most inhabitants could neither read nor write. Larger communities had schools going back to the 17th century, but this was often not the case in rural areas.
The first school was in a private home at house #28 Grosskahl. Then classes were held in a guesthouse at #23 Grosskahl. At the time, addresses consisted of the village name only and a house number. The first teacher also worked as a weaver and he wove between lessons. It was not until 1818 that the community got its first formally-trained teacher. Before that, the schoolmaster was someone with only a modicum of education himself.
Many conditions led to the mass emigrations of the mid-1800's.
After a few generations, inherited lots became too small to support a family, let alone to yield extra produce to sell. In 1783, the Mainz elector decreed that partitioned land parcels could not be less than one-quarter morgen (about 0.15 acre). This was extremely small, even though one household might have several such lots. The land law provided that when it became impossible to divide the land any further, that is, it had reached its minimum size, some heirs would receive assets equivalent in value to what their share of the land would have been. The law specified that all inheritance partners must be satisfied. If not, the property was to be sold to the highest bidder, which could be a family member, with the proceeds divided equally among the inheritors.
Estimates of equivalent value must have been quite fluid. Many inheritors probably accepted what they got, especially if there was little to divide, rather than force a sale.
The house and barns and outbuildings of each family were usually concentrated in a central village. Here too, land was scarce. Most peasants had nowhere to build additional housing for offspring and their families. They might be able to build a small addition, or as in the case of the Wüst home, attach a new house to one side. Or they might be able to reconfigure interior walls to provide some privacy for a new family unit. But eventually, the expanding generations simply crowded together in the living quarters and shared the beds, several to a bed...
Failed harvests meant there was no hay to feed the cows. Most farmers tried to hold onto a few cows for field work. But mostly they had to sell or butcher their cows, which were now in an undernourished state. It seemed things could not get much worse.
Then, in 1846, a potato blight, the same affliction that had already struck Ireland, arrived in Germany. With grain harvests ruined, potatoes had become the main staple. Unlike the Irish case, in which the entire tuber turned to inedible mush, the potatoes in Spessart Forest were often partly salvageable. The edible portions, however, left only meager sustenance as food supply...
The 1848 Revolution:
The first action in the Kahlgrund was on March 14, 1848, in Huckelheim, a short distance northwest of Grosskahl. Foresters had confiscated many of the axes belonging to desperate farmers caught filching wood (which was sold or traded for food). A crowd of enraged inhabitants of the surrounding area stormed the Forsthaus (foresters’ lodge), demanding return of the axes. Their efforts failed, and discontent continued to smolder. Other outbursts took place. Bavarian military forces came in to restore order and housed themselves throughout the region.
The soldiers’ presence did not stop the poaching or the wood pilfering, which, due to the people's desperation, steadily increased. On Pentecost Sunday, June 10, 1848, inhabitants of Sailauf, south of Schöllkrippen, attacked a group of military there and freed an arrested poacher. A few days later, closer to Schöllkrippen, a mob attacked five soldiers and freed two more captured poachers.
Soldiers started going out in larger patrols, but that did not always help. Probably the worst incident in the Kahlgrund happened on June 29, 1848. A patrol of 14 soldiers caught a poacher, Johann Adam Wissel, outside of Schöllkrippen. They quickly shackled him and promptly started marching him to the district court in Alzenau, hoping to avoid trouble. But word got out immediately and local inhabitants came running. The soldiers tried to escape the crowd with their prisoner...