The Forgotten German History
In Germany’s historic Bavaria lies the small town of Prichsenstadt. For the most past preserved since the 17th century, the town is suspended in time, its entrance a very real gateway to the past. Nestled in an area rich with medieval and early modern significance, Prichsenstadt has witnessed and been impacted by many of the greatest events of German and wider European history. Yet much of this culture – and that of the surrounding, more historically engaged towns, such as Würzburg and Bamberg – appear to have fallen under the radar and become part of a somewhat forgotten German history.
Settlers first established Prichsenstadt around 600 AD, although it wasn’t until 1258 that it was documented as ‘Brisenhof,’ as part of the county belonging to Heinrich II of Castell. In 1266, a local war between two counts resulted in the Battle of Cyriakus, leading to the celebration of St. Cyriakus Day (8th August) as a festival in the victorious Würzburg[i]. Prichsenstadt was bought in 1366 by Kaiser Karl IV, King of Bohemia and Luxembourg, for his son, Wenzel. In 1402, the town was pawned by, the now king, Wenzel to the burgrave of Nürnberg, passing between the two as payment before ending in the possession of the burgrave in 1416. Indeed, the town’s history tracks a succession of owners or ‘rulers’ (for want of a better term), whose allegiances or financial difficulties led to a change in ‘leadership’. Luther’s 95 Theses of 1517 were felt quickly even in the small town of Prichsenstadt, and by 1528 it was reported that the town had adopted the teachings of the Reformation – likely a surprising anomaly in the Catholic heartland that was Bavaria. The German Peasants’ War of 1525 similarly affected Prichsenstadt, who had to submit to the insurgent peasant group in May after the fleeing of the town’s margrave, and support the peasant cause, though they were to be defeated a month later. The plague of 1542 killed more than 250 people in less than a week, causing a cemetery to be built outside the town walls as a result. The Protestants of Prichsenstadt obtained religious freedom with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. In 1632, 6,000 imperial soldiers stormed, plundered and slayed the town: the town hall and fourteen other buildings were burned down and the priest was stabbed to death in the church. For the next year, Prichsenstadt played host to the troops in their passing and was repeatedly plundered; it wasn’t until 1643 that political conditions stabilised once more. Between 1791 and 1803 Prichsenstadt fell under Prussian domain, witnessing a change in public authorities and the removal of human rights. The town returned to Bavaria under the hand of Napoleon, whose troops stayed in Prichsenstadt through 1806, leaving 161 houses to accommodate 2,400 soldiers. Between 1806-7, the citizens had to also house Russian troops as a result of the Prussian-Austrian Bavarian war.
I will stop the narrative of the town’s history here, as I have already continued far more into the modern period than anyone who purports to be an early modern historian ought to, if only to illustrate Prichsenstadt’s continued involvement and importance in key moments of German history. This short overview of a portion of the town’s history may indeed be a little dry, even if omitting a large quantity of smaller local details, such as building improvements or expansions typical of a microcosmic study; it serves instead to highlight the impact of national events and the wealth of medieval and early modern history present. Though not necessarily explicit, the history of Prichsenstadt provides an insight into relations between different nobles and the hierarchy; the local impact of the Reformation, the plagues and national wars; and the outcomes of a Germany still fractured in smaller states. I will not continue into a discussion of these points and their significance; suffice it to say that their presence as an avenue for discussion implies the wealth of options available to an early modern historian looking at Germany. Yet this vibrant era is, I will instead argue, a part of a neglected, forgotten history in this region, for two key reasons.
The first of these reasons is the ease of access to the information about the time period in this area. Here, again, I will focus on the history of Prichsenstadt. The town’s website, from which I have gained my information, is entirely in German. As a result, a good grasp of the language is required to translate and understand the information available; only fluency in German, and arguably Medieval German as well, would allow any comprehension of original, primary sources (which are, admittedly, absent in this piece.) This linguistic barrier is reflected in the absence of an English speaking presence not only in Prichsenstadt, but also other local, historical centres (as mentioned). This absence of easily accessible literature on the topic in the English language perhaps to some extent reflects the limited historiography on these areas.
The second, and arguably more influential, reason for this forgotten German history is the shadow of the World Wars that it must sit in, as a result of two major factors: education and popular history. The GCSE syllabus, if looking to Germany, is alarmingly narrowly focused on Nazi Germany, or WWI and the build up to WWII.[ii] This trend continues into A-level, with an expansion only in the study of Luther and the Reformation; though understandably this encourages a Europe-wide focus, this therefore still side-lines a solely German experience.[iii] Popular history furthers this focus on early 20th century Germany – popular literature such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne), The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) and Life After Life (Kate Atkinson), as well as a plethora of war films and documentaries, thrust Germany during the wars into the public vision; such is never more apparent than as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War.
Whilst popular history is advantageous in bringing history as a sphere to the public attention, it can potentially introduce a cyclical process, in which popular history informs the areas people want to study in (and operate in, adding to forms of popular history), limiting the branching out into other areas of history. Whilst it cannot be denied that there are valuable lessons to learn from the World Wars, one must be careful of casting a shadow over other periods of German history.
Looking microcosmically at the history of a town can often be difficult or obscure the wider themes of a nation; it can, however, also allow for a greater appreciation of the local impacts of a sometimes overlooked period of history. The story of Prichsenstadt highlights the wealth of fascinating medieval and early modern history in Germany that deserves much greater notice. Whilst it also served great purpose during both World Wars, I choose instead to briefly highlight its earlier history alone, in order to encourage the interests of both a broad and microcosmic study of this time period in Germany. 2017 will witness the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, an event that catapulted the world into change, from great empires to the smallest Bavarian town. Whilst it is arguably one of the most studied areas of early modern German history, let us hope it is appropriately remembered – in public as well as academic circles – and opens a door into a new generation of deeper fascination with medieval and early modern Germany, out from the shadow of war-time Europe.
Written by Caitlin Burge
[i] Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, 322.
[ii] As taken from online GCSE specifications for history courses under OCR, AQA, Edexcel and WJEC. “OCR History Qualifications,” http://www.ocr.org.uk/qualifications/by-subject/history/, accessed 2nd September 2015; AQA GCSE History,” http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/history/gcse/history-8145, accessed 2nd September 2015; “Edexcel GCSE History,” https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-gcses/history-2016.html, accessed 2nd September 2015; “WJEC GCSE History,” http://eduqas.co.uk/qualifications/history/, accessed 2nd September 2015
[iii] As taken from online A-Level specifications for history courses under OCR, AQA, Edexcel and WJEC. “OCR History Qualifications,” http://www.ocr.org.uk/qualifications/by-subject/history/, accessed 2nd September 2015; “AQA A-Level History,” http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/history/as-and-a-level/history-7041-7042, accessed 2nd September 2015; “Edexcel A-Level History,” https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-a-levels/history-2015.coursematerials.html#filterQuery=category:Pearson-UK:Category%2FSpecification-and-sample-assessments, accessed 2nd September 2015; “WJEC A-Level History,” http://www.wjec.co.uk/qualifications/history/history-gce-as-a/, accessed 2nd September 2015.
Hsia, R. Po-Chia. The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Marshall, Peter. The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
“Stadtprichsenstadt.” http://www.prichsenstadt.de/Prichsenstadt_Stadtteile_Prichsenstadt_128_kkmenue.html. Accessed 2nd September 2015.
“Stadtgeschichte über Prichsenstadt.” http://www.prichsenstadt.de/Stadtgeschichte_Stadtgeschichte_101_kkmenue.html. Accessed 10th July 2015.