Selected Chapter Excerpts
Spessart Roots: A History of the People of a German Forest
By Mary E. Wuest
The earliest villages were for housing workers to assist the hunters.
...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 overlords forbade villagers from harming the wild game in any way. During growing seasons, farmers were busy day and night trying to save enough food to feed their families. Some village dwellers turned to poaching. But as we shall see, penalties if caught could be severe.
One poacher becomes a folk hero.
In the face of these penalties, Johann Adam Hasenstab, born in 1716, dared to become a full-time poacher. He became a folk-hero whose legend residents of the Spessart celebrate to this day. To evade capture while carrying game from the forest, Hasenstab partnered with a farmer who would later fetch the carcasses where Hasenstab had concealed them 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 often found himself in lethal danger.
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. A recruit’s expectations were horrible food, poor pay, and sharing crowded beds. A common soldier was forbidden to marry while in service.
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…
Possessing a wealth of ore and mineral deposits, the area was especially rich in copper. Copper mining in the region, however, was labor-intensive, for copper here appeared in combination with other minerals and elements, 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.
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.
Amid these conditions, a new director, Tabor, arrived in 1788 at the glassmaking center in Lohr, on the eastern edge of the Spessart. He applied an iron fist, and many of his subordinates simply fled. 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.
The years of the robber knights, at the end of the Middle Ages, in the 14th and 15th centuries, were a particularly violent time. 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.
The Grimm Brothers grew up on the northern edge of Spessart Forest. One of the most important elements in the story of Snow White is the magic mirror. Glass production, as we’ve seen, was a major industry in the Spessart. By the 18th century, glassmakers in the Spessart, specifically in Lohr, were also producing glass panes and mirrors., for which the Spessart was famous. 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. Other elements in the story of Snow White include the dwarves…
Up until early modern time, belief in 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. Communities in the Spessart had some of the highest rates of witch burnings per capita, often up to 10% of the adult population in a community.Sadly for the victim, a simple confession seldom satisfied the court. Some accused witches confessed straight-out. Knowing what was coming, they preferred death. But the magistrates wanted names. This was often due to the demands of the populace who, in their frenzy clamored for a thorough cleansing of witches. It was also due to the magistrates realizing the profitability of convicting witches. So the torture continued until their suffering quarry named her accomplices and kept naming them…
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) made its way to Spessart Forest.
The Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, 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 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 teacher in Kleinkahl 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 many generations, inherited lots had become too small to support a family, let alone to yield extra produce to sell…
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 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…
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...