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The Nieder-Weisel Story
 

Nieder-Weisel - Spring 1844


 

THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE VILLAGE

IN THE BEGINNING

Four hundred million years ago the Taunus Ranges were formed by the crumpling of the soft surface of the earth in Central Europe, and to the east of these mountains was formed a depression which later became an extension of the silted flood plains of the Rhine-Main river system.

Much further along the geological time scale, lava from the massive volcano known as Vogelsberg flooded this plain to the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. The action of wind, water and ice over millions of years weathered the mineral-rich basalts and mixed them with the sands and silts from the rivers, forming soil as fertile as any in Europe.

The plain was watered by streams flowing down from the foothills and the largest of these, the River Wetter, gave the region the name by which it became known, the Wetterau, in whose northern heartland would arise the village of Nieder-Weisel.

The Wetterau provided access to the area from the great waterways of the Main and Rhine rivers, and as early as 7,000 BC the nomadic Celtic hunters were being replaced by agrarians from the Danube, with their farm animals and a variety of grains. Particularly heavy waves of migration took place around 2,000 BC, the newcomers bringing with them a wider variety of grains and livestock, and a primitive form of the handloom.

But of greater importance to the future of the Wetterau was a migration that started at about this time around the shores of the Baltic Sea. The Celts, who occupied Europe at that time, referred to these stocky farmers with their red-blond hair and blue eyes as "Germans" - that is, neighbours. Land was owned by the community and the secrets of crop and plot rotation had been worked out. They ate bread, vegetables, pig or horse meat; drank milk and wine made from grain; they made clothes from wool. Slaves worked in the fields, women did the housework, and men hunted and fought as required.

However, the Germans were not the only people of those times to be engaged in mass movements; moving towards them from the south was the vanguard of an army of the most powerful nation in the world, the Romans.


THE ROMAN EAGLE

Originating in central Italy, the Republic of Rome had built up a war machine that had already impressed the authority of this relatively small nation on northern Africa, western Europe and England. The names of its generals, and Julius Caesar in particular, had already become household words. Having subdued the Angles and the Gauls, they were moving to secure the boundary of the occupied territories against possible attacks from the Germans, above the Rhine and the Danube.

The invincible legions of the fast-growing Roman Empire reached the Rhine in 58BC. A series of battles between the Romans and the Chatti (as the inhabitants were known) saw the Roman Eagle eventually fly proudly over the Wetterau.

Friedberg was set up as the main garrison town. A mighty castle was built on its peak, and from there, arrow-straight roads, which would survive 2,000 years of foot and vehicular traffic, radiated out to the main frontier settlements, such as that at Botisphaden, near the site of the present-day city of Butzbach. The  XXII Roman Legion, which served there, had been stationed in Palestine, where some of its legionnaires had been converted -  they were the first to bring Christianity to the Wetterau.

Below is a diagram of the fortifications in Northern Wetterau during Roman times.

                           

                   ]Fort    aaaaa The Limes     +++++ Old Pathway   ____  Roman Road

Near the end of the second century, the Chatti renewed their assaults on the Wetterau, and some settlers began to retreat beyond the Rhine. The dangers for those who remained increased in 260 AD when the German tribes to the south-east, known as Alemanni, assaulted the Romans,   eventually driving them from the area. The Chatti and the Alemanni then turned on each other, but some 200 years later both were overcome by newcomers to the region - the Franks.

Related to both the Chatti and Alemanni, the Franks had moved into western Europe where they also faced the oncoming Roman legions. Brave and determined, they were able to stop the Roman advance in northern Gaul, which kept Holland and northern Belgium under German control, and gave the Franks their name, "The Free".


THE FRANKISH INFLUENCE

Under the Franks, the chieftains (those who had distinguished themselves in battle) owed allegiance to the governor of the province and had to provide military services when called upon to do so, in addition to the paying of his annual dues. It was usual for them to build a manor house - such a manor, known as "Edelhof", stood at the northern end of the settlement that had come to be known as Nieder-Weisel, 2 km from Butzbach.

The origin of the name Nieder-Weisel is not clear; it may have been a corruption of

  • the name of the Roman settler, Wizili,  whose villa was built on the site, or
  • Weisse, meaning white. The village was sited at the confluence of two rivulets, where "white water" would be generated, hence Nieder-Weisse-lar, "the town below the white (water)".

The layout of the village was determined by the Roman ("Stone") road which ran from Butzbach to Friedberg in a south-easterly direction; the village High Street - now Butzbacherstrasse - roughly paralleled this road. The houses and later public buildings stretched along either side of the street to the north and south.

There were two classes in Frankish society, the free - that is, the chieftain, nobles and the common citizens, and the bonded - bondsmen and slaves. Bondsmen were those who had been honourably defeated in battle. They lost their possessions and had to work part of the time for their patron, but they kept their personal freedom and worked the rest of the time on holdings that could eventually become their own. The slaves, reviled because they had surrendered without any resistance, were treated as chattels; they worked full-time for their masters who provided only sustenance.

In Nieder-Weisel the Franks became the rulers and their conquered foes - Chatti, Alemanni, Gauls, Romans, part-Romans and mercenaries - were the bondsmen and slaves.


CHRISTIANITY

The Frankish king, Clovis, was converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and he was responsible for the conversion of his nation and the Saxon tribes. In the Wetterau, the spread of Christianity was slow; it was not until the arrival of missionaries from Ireland and Scotland in the 7th century that it was widely adopted there. Folk history of Nieder-Weisel attributes the Christianising of the area to St Syntromous, a holy man from the Corvey monastery on the River Weser.

Boniface, the Archbishop of Mainz, set up "daughter" churches at Strassheim, Lauterbach and Rossdorf, each with an archpriest responsible to the archdiocese. The Wetterau province was split into three "Hundreds", each centred on one of these churches. Each hundred was further segmented into three districts known as Tenths.

In time, the hundreds courts took over the power of the provincial court, including the right to impose death penalties; the role of the district courts, such as the ones at Butzbach and Lich, widened correspondingly. At the same time, further gifts of property and grants of knightly fees strengthened the power of the chieftains and eroded those of the provincial governors. This set the scene for the rise of the powerful noble families that would play such an important part in the future of Nieder-Weisel and other settlements in the Wetterau.

The Chatti, now Christians, re-emerged under the name Hessens. Their land was later combined with the Wetterau to form the state of Hesse. The settlements of the Wetterau developed into German villages - described as "the most German of all German inventions". By day, the farmers worked their fields of grain, hoed their market gardens of cabbages and beets, and pruned their groves of apple and pear trees; and at dusk they retired to their homes in the village proper. On Sundays they worshipped in their Christian chapels.


FEUDAL TIMES

The power of the provincial governors continued to be reduced, and for a while in 1043 the King/Emperor Heinrich III transferred ultimate authority to the officials of the Church - for the Nieder-Weisel region, this authority was the Archbishop of Fulda . Further grants to favoured individuals, ensuring their loyalty in time of war, created more and more noble families. Some of these, by favourable marriages, inheritances or barter, greatly increased their influence.

The Munzenberg family became pre-eminent in the Nieder-Weisel region - their family seat was a massive castle built on a barren outcrop at Munzenberg.  Even in ruins, its spectacular bulk, surmounted by twin towers, and with multiple gallows flanking the access road, continued to be a striking reminder of the enormous power wielded by this family from the 11th to the 14th century.

The first Baron Munzenberg, Kuno, ruled for 60 years over a domain that included Nieder-Weisel and Butzbach and many other towns in the Wetterau. Kuno was adviser to the Emperor Friedrich and treasurer to Henry VI, for which his rewards included half of the brassage revenues from the Imperial Mint at Frankfurt-on-Main. The villages used a local currency of silver and gold coins carrying the likeness of "Cuno de Liche".


DEFENCES

Before Kuno began building his impregnable eyrie, the problem of defence had been considered by the village chieftain and his freemen in Nieder-Weisel, 15 km away. All settlements in those times were at risk of assault by marauders, Nieder-Weisel particularly so because it was on a major trade route. Nearby Butzbach, similarly threatened, was protected by a masonry wall 12 metres high which completely surrounded the town; observation towers extending high above the wall were connected at their bases by a system of underground tunnels allowing the defenders to concentrate where the main attack was being mounted by the attackers.

Such a defence system was too costly for a village like Nieder-Weisel, which relied instead on another common form of protection - the boscaged moat. This was excavated with steeply sloping banks on either side, densely planted with trees and inter-twining hedge plants. Two creeks flowing from the Taunus foothills that supplied the village with water were used to keep the moat full in times of danger. Artificial lakes at either end of the village were used to control the height of water in the moat, and the flow through the aqueducts.

At the points where the High Street entered the village from the Butzbach Road and exited to the Ostheim Road, drawbridges that were operated from watchtowers could be used to seal off the village in the case of attack. There was also a portcullis at the Oppershofener Road exit on the east boundary.

The tower of the village church was part of the defence system also; its sandstone walls were a metre thick and its high narrow windows provided observation points for the defenders. This tower, constructed in about 1100, was built on a hill made from the material excavated from the moat, in order to give the maximum range of vision around the village.


THE FALKENSTEINS

The Munzenberg line came to an end upon the death in battle of  Ulrich II in 1255, and the estates passed to Philipp Bolanden to whom Ulrich's elder sister was married. Although Phillip controlled the Munzenberg estates, he chose to be known as Falkenstein, taken from the name of his fortress home on the crest of Donnersberg.

Nieder-Weisel's new ruler became influential in German politics, representing Wetterau on occasions of state, collecting the king's taxes, appointing the village and town magistrates, and sitting on the bench of the High Court; his daughter married the king’s son. Philipp and the six Philipps who followed him were responsible for a great dynasty that extended the Münzenberg influence into the 15th century.

The ending of the Munzenberg dynasty coincided with the arrival in Nieder-Weisel of an organisation destined to have a major influence on the life of the villagers for the next 600 years – the Order of St John.


THE ORDER OF ST JOHN

This Order began with a band of monks who established a hospice in Jerusalem to cater for the accommodation and medical needs of Christian pilgrims to the Holy City; their patron saint was St John. In 1113 the Pope granted the monks status similar to that of a religious order - the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Under its charter the members were required to bear arms in defence of the Christian faith in addition to their hospital works.

Following the recapture of Jerusalem by the Muslims in 1187, the Order was forced to retreat to the island of Rhodes, and later to Malta, which was made available to the Order as a head-quarters by the Emperor Charles for an annual rental of one Maltese falcon. From that time the eight-pointed "Star of Malta" became the symbol of the Order - and so it remains to the present day.

Between 1225 and 1265, a two-storey "Doppelkirche" was built in Nieder-Weisel near the old monastery that had passed into the possession of the Knights Templar. The upper storey was operated as a hospice for retired brothers of the Order, and for the treatment of villagers or outsiders who sought medical help; no charge was made for these services. The lower storey was used for religious purposes.


THE COMMANDERY

The Knights Templar was another service organisation, formed in 1118 especially to help the Crusaders. By the 14th century it had served its purpose and was disbanded in 1312. By imperial decree, its considerable properties passed to the Order of St John. With access now to nearly 4 hectares of land in the village proper and 300 hectares of farmland, the Order established a so-called Commandery - a profit-earning entity controlled by a Knight Commander, who was required to remit funds to the headquarters of the Order to help with financing the Order's many activities.

In return for the prescribed payment of tithes, peasant farmers were given the right to work small landholdings and to pass on this right to their heirs, which ensured a continuity of livelihood for those villagers who took over the running of the farmlets.

To assist with the defences of the village, a stone wall, following the contours of the moat, was built around the western and southern boundaries of this property, which occupied nearly one-third of the total area of the village. For security reasons the south gate was used as the entrance to the Commandery.

The Falkensteins quickly realised how important it was to remain on good terms with an organisation as influential and wealthy as the Order of St John. As early as 1265 Philipp, by deed of gift, gave the Order a pathway on its northern boundary, from the south lake to the High Street, thus guaranteeing its immunity from trespass by the villagers. He also gave the Order joint control with himself over the corn-mill at Griedel; the right to graze its sheep on the common pastures and the right to be present when any pasturage matter was being discussed by the community. However, the most important concession was the granting to the Order in 1355 by his cousin, then Archbishop of Trier, the sole right of nominating the village priest, which gave the Commander a powerful influence over the villagers.


THE MANOR HOUSE

Many of the lesser noble families found it difficult to survive economically when they were required to pass on so much of the tithes they collected as taxes to their feudal overlords. Often they gave their property to the overlord or to the church. In Nieder-Weisel, the chieftain in 1337, Hartlob von Weisel, sold "Edelhof" to the Order of St John with the approval of Falkenstein.

This was a temporary solution on the part of the Order, which went on to build an imposing manor house for its staff next to its church. From his magnificent quarters at one end of the building, the Commander could overlook the entire complex. Accommodation for the brothers, and sleeping quarters for the live-in servants, were above the extensive kitchens. There were enormous barns for the storage of produce; stables, styes and coops for a wide variety of farm animals and horses; a smithy and a bakery - even a brewery; everything in fact to make the commandery self-sufficient. Fruit trees and vines were planted at the western end of the compound and nearly a hectare of land was cultivated for vegetable gardens at the eastern end. The rest of the complex was kept clear for the holding of levees and fairs.


THE COURT OF JURORS

As life in the village became more complex the need was felt for an inferior court that could deal quickly with some voluntary legal matters such as contracts of sale, wills, legacies and the like. This need was met by the setting up of a Court of Jurors. The ruler's magistrate selected, from village citizens of "unimpeachable character", a panel of 12 jurors to support him on the bench of this court.

The appointment of a juror was for life. He received no payment; his recompense was in terms of the status that attached to the position. In his flowing red mantle and tri-cornered hat, he was accorded special privileges at church services and on civic occasions. His funeral was marked by elaborate ceremonies and a funeral march at which the mourners sang special hymns.


THE EPPSTEINS

The death of Werner III in 1418 brought an end to the Falkenstein reign, when Butzbach and the surrounding villages of Gruningen, Hausen, Eberstadt and Nieder-Weisel passed to Eberhard von Eppstein, whose estates were on the southern slopes of the Taunus Ranges.


THE GROWING VILLAGE

By the middle of the 15th century the village was home to about 400 people. Bequests to the Order of St John had brought its landholdings to 300 hectares. There were several craftsmen in the village - smith, tailor, butcher, baker and carpenter - but the guilds were concentrated in Butzbach, 2 km away, which had been granted a charter as a Free City. The tradesmen were, in most cases, migrants from other towns. By and large the villagers baked their own bread and the women made yarns and knitted clothes.

During the busy seasons of ploughing and harvesting the entire family became involved, the older children working in the fields and the younger ones attending to the animals and helping to prepare and deliver meals to the field-workers. The small animals - goats, rabbits, pigs and poultry - were kept in compounds behind the houses; the community employed herders to graze the flocks of sheep and horned animals, and to take the swine into the woods to feed on acorns.

 Guards patrolled the fields by day and night - it was not uncommon for wolves to come out of the forests in search of food. During the colder weather, the animals were kept inside the compounds, or even in the houses, for warmth.


FAMILY NAMES

The number of children born to each marriage was fairly large - from 6 to 12, depending on the age at which the mother married - but the mortality rate was also high. Childhood diseases and  small-pox took their toll, and the spectre of the plague was always present for young and old alike. Lack of even basic sanitation control brought epidemics of cholera and typhus. As a result, it was likely that a married couple would raise no more than three or four of their youngsters to the stage of healthy adulthood. This means that the number of family units at any point in time would have been about eighty.

Infant baptism was an integral part of church rites, and the practice of requiring that the baby being baptised should take the given name of its sponsor resulted in a very limited number of names being used. Six or seven for either sex would have covered 90% of the population - Margaretha, Elisabetha, Juliana, Katharina, Susanna, Dorothea, Konrad, Georg, Jakob, Philipp, Adam, and Johannes. Sometimes the name was preceded by a courtesy saint's name, which had to be Johann for boys and could be Anna or Maria for girls. Even so, it became increasingly difficult to make identification of an individual unambiguous (even with the use of unflattering aliases such as "Brick Bun Bernhard the Baker"!). To overcome this problem, the use of family names came into vogue in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The origins of most of the names that came into use in Nieder-Weisel are not generally known. Some people took the names of the occupations they followed, e.g. Muller the miller; Schmidt the blacksmith; Schaefer the shepherd. However, these names were never widespread in the village.

Some surnames may have been simply modifications of baptismal names - Wilhelmi from Wilhelm; Philippi from Philipp; Adami from Adam. Some were suggestive of personal characteristics - Klein 'tiny'; Fett 'fat'; Schimpf 'jester'. Some of the families in Nieder-Weisel are known to have been immigrants from other villages, e.g. Rumpff from the early Romb family of Butzbach; Knipper from the affiliated village of Eberstadt; Kissler from Steinbach. It is also possible that some families were brought into the Commandery from Malta.

One Nieder-Weisel family owes its name to a French holy man; the name Jost was derived from the place of worship dedicated to St Jodocus, the son of a king of Brittany, who renounced his royal rights and inheritance to enter a hermitage near Calais.


STATISTICAL RECORDS

With a naming system in place it was easier to maintain records of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths; most priests had started such recording by the 15th century. The records in Nieder-Weisel were typical - when a child was born its baptismal name was entered on the page in the Family Book that had been allocated to its parents when they married. Apart from the names, dates of birth and of marriage of the parents, each parent was cross-referenced by page number to the page where the birth of that parent was recorded. In time, if the child was married, a page would be opened for the details of its marriage and its subsequent children. This enabled the ancestry of an individual, or cross-relationships, to be quickly traced.


LAW AND ORDER

The village magistrate was helped in the administration of the village by councillors selected from the various groups in the village - nobles, full citizens and those with limited rights (e.g. Jews and immigrants). The magistrate's authority did not extend to events that took place in the Commandery, even if these were felonious!

The powers of the Court of Jurors were extended so that it could examine and impose penalties for misdemeanours and minor felonies, such as creating a public nuisance by swearing in the open or trespassing on a neighbour's land. Penalties were usually by way of small fines but, in more serious cases, a guilty verdict could result in incarceration in the cells in the watch-house.

The magistrate's bailiff supervised the watchmen, whose job it was to patrol the perimeter of the village periodically during the night, as well as those who guarded the fields. The men who lived in the watchtowers also came under his control.


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