Monday, July 2, 2012

Saints, Heretics, and Dueling Minstrels

By Heidi Noroozy

One summer many years ago, I spent a week in Eisenach, a town nestled in the forest-green hills of Thuringia, Germany. For seven days, I lived in a house borrowed from an old family friend and explored the city’s tangle of nearly vertical streets. Every morning at seven sharp, I’d listen eagerly for the cheerful tinkling a bell that heralded the arrival of a local bakery’s home delivery cart. I’d dash up the steep cobblestone alley, a few coins in hand, to buy fragrant rolls, still warm from the oven, fresh butter, milk for my morning coffee, and a serving of strawberry yogurt, which came in a thick glass bottle.

That week wasn’t my first trip to Eisenach. In fact, I’ve been visiting the city off and on since the age of five. One of my earliest memories is riding a donkey up a steep road to Wartburg Castle, the fortress that grows out of the very rock on which it was built. The ride had seemed to last for miles at the time, but when I walked the same route as an adult many years later, it turned out to take a mere five minutes on foot.
My mother's childhood

My mother grew up in a big, drafty house on Burgstraße, the road leading up the “Burg” (fortress) high atop the hill. As a child, she rarely saw the inside of the castle, only entering it when her grandfather came to town. He always had two special treats for her: a tour of the Wartburg and a slice of Bienenstich, a honey-almond cake, at a café in town.

Perhaps because my mother’s childhood played out in the shadow of the Wartburg, the fortress has always been a bit special to me. I’ve long been fascinated by the stories and legends associated with the place, three in particular:

The Sängerkrieg: In 1207, Landgraf Heinrich of Eisenach allegedly hosted a competition between minstrels (known as the Minnesänger) in the Wartburg. Some of the participants were real minstrels (Walter von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Reinmar von Zweter) and at least one was a fictional character (Klingsor of Hungary). Highlights of the event were the Fürstenlob, where the minstrels had to prove which of them could best sing the praises of a prince, and the Rätzelspiel, a lyrical contest between Wolfram and his fictional sorcerer, Klingsor. Although there’s no evidence that the Sängerkrieg was anything more than a poetic fantasy, the competition is depicted in a series of frescoes in the Wartburg's Great Hall.

Wartburg, Eisenach
Photo by Thomas Doerfer
Saint Elizabeth and the Roses: Fifteen years after the Sängerkrieg, Heinrich’s son, Ludwig, married Princess Elizabeth of Hungary. She dedicated her life to helping the poor and gave away so much food from the castle’s storerooms that her husband and his family feared that there wouldn’t be anything left over for them. One day, as Ludwig encountered Elizabeth walking into town with a heavy basket of bread, he asked what essential supplies she was giving away this time. “Roses,” she replied. When Ludwig peeked under the cloth covering the basket, he saw that the bread he knew she’d snuck out of the castle had miraculously turned into roses.

Martin Luther and the devil: Skipping ahead a few centuries, the monk and theologian whose ideas inspired the Protestant Reformation spent a year in the Wartburg under the protection of the Elector of Saxony after the Pope pronounced him a heretic. He translated the New Testament there, and, as legend would have it, engaged in heated arguments with the devil. At one point, he supposedly tossed an ink well at his horned opponent, leaving a dark blot on the wall.

Lutherhaus in Eisenach
The Wartburg might boast some of Eisenach’s best stories, but the city has many other sites worth a visit. It is the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the Bachhaus museum contains a collection of 400 musical instruments, including some unique ones such as a trumpet-violin.

The Lutherhaus is one of Eisenach’s oldest half-timber buildings. Around the turn of the 16th century, it was owned by the wealthy Cotta family, with whom the young Martin Luther lived from 1498 to 1501 while attending the St George Latin School.

Eisenach is also home to the narrowest house in Germany. Built around 1750, it is just over six feet wide. In 1900, the house was nearly torn down when the Eisenach City Council decided the odd little structure was an eyesore and didn’t fit with the town’s image. But the owner stood his ground and not only saved his home but even received permission renovate the place and give it the colorful, Art Nouveau façade it still has today.

The Narrow House,
My last visit to Eisenach was a few years ago when I drove there from Frankfurt with a couple of good friends. Although the neighborhood bakery cart with its little bell is probably long gone, my mother’s old childhood home still stands on the side of the mountain, even if it is a bit the worse for wear. And the Wartburg, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, continues to watch over the town from its rocky perch. It’s the combination of history, legend, and personal roots that keep me coming back to Eisenach time after time.


  1. Wow, this sure brought back some wonderful memories of our many trips there. I certainly hope to return myself before too long. It is a very special place. The frescoes inside the Wartburg are worth the trip alone, but walking up the trail from the end of Burgstraße is a beautiful short hike as well.

    1. Writing this post brought me back there, too. And I keep remembering more lovely places nearby, like the Drachenschlacht--the deep gorge where I celebrated one birthday as a kid.

  2. What wonderful legends! I can see how it captured your imagination as a child. :)

    1. Thanks, Beth! I think I once wrote a story based on the Elisabeth and roses legend. It was a very long time ago, though.