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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY FOUR Wooden Shoes and Wagner

I have pedalled out of Nuremberg and am currently sitting in a vineyard en route to Ansbach. The Race Marshal has boomed away to Swabian-speaking Heidenheim for an afternoon concert by the Neuer Kammerchor, Germany's leading youth choir.

Heidenheim is where Field Marshal Rommel was born: the man who "waged war without hate" and took part in the attempted assassination of Hitler. I am sorry never to have met his son, Manfred Rommel - a tolerant and liberal politician who worked for reconciliation: he made public his friendship with George Patton IV and David Montgomery, both of whom would have recognised the symbolic significance.

But I'm alone here amongst the vines with my lunch of Drei im Weckla – three Nuremberg Rostbratwürste in a simple Brotchen (called Weckla in Franconia and Semmel in the rest of Bavaria) spread with a smidgen of Mittelscharfer Senf (piquant mustard) – and lingering thoughts about Nuremberg.

In particular, I can't get out of my mind the curious rounded structure in Durer's graveyard - the so-called Chapel of Wooden Shoes. Durer would have seen the chapel being built - it was completed in 1515 - and would have known the architect, Hans Beheim the Elder, the best in Nuremberg.

Durer's grave with the Holzschuher Kapelle in the background (c)wikicommons

As an aside, Beheim's father was one of the guild artisans making the Nuremberg cymbals – brass bowls with bas-relief motifs beaten onto them. They were highly prized - used in ceremonies, for the wealthy to wash their hands at table, and for decoration. The process of creation was a genuine secret and though these cymbals can be found all over Europe (many are counterfeit), they were only manufactured in Nuremberg in the 15th and 16th centuries.

hammering out a cymbal bowl (c)wikicommons

The question occupying me as I munched my Weckla was – who would employ Nuremberg's most expensive architect to create a chapel in a graveyard outside the city walls? The answer is obvious once the realisation dawns that the chapel is not dedicated to clogs but is the mausoleum of the Holzschuher von Harrlach dynasty: Harlach is an estate they owned and Holzschuher, their family name, translates as 'wooden shoes'.

a bookplate with the Holzschuher crest showing a pair of wooden shoes - more like Japanese geta than Dutch clogs (c)British Library

The Holzschuher family first appears in the eleventh century. Though they rose to be Franconian Imperial Knights, the family did not start out so grandly. They were merchants: one of their business ledgers dates back to 1304 and is the oldest surviving example of this kind of account book. Their first ventures were in cloth from Flanders but when the spice route opened up, the Holzschuhers (and indeed Nuremberg) found themselves well-placed geographically to exploit the opportunity. (It may be at this point that the Nuremberg sausage moved on from marjoram to the ginger and nutmeg that provide the flavours in my sandwich today).

One scion of the family, Baron Rudolph Christoph Karl Sigmund Holzschuher zu Harrlach und Thalheim-Aschbach, was the lawyer defending Johann Philipp Palm, owner of the Steinschen Bookshop (founded in 1600 but not the oldest in Nuremberg – the Korn and Berg bookshop, still there, dates back to 1531). After Napoleon's troops occupied the city in 1806, Palm somewhat unwisely published Germany in its Deep Humiliation - a tract criticising the French for concealing naked imperialism under the cloak of liberty, equality and fraternity. He was put on trial for treason and, despite Baron Holzschuher's best efforts, shot by firing squad. Palm is known as the 'martyr of press freedom' and in 2002 his descendants set up the Palm Foundation which awards biennially the Johann Philipp Palm Prize for 'freedom of expression and press freedom'.

The six decades between 1470 and 1530, even with the ravages of the Thirty Years' War, were Nuremberg's golden period. Honoured in Germany as protector of the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Emperors, the city was home to some of the greatest German artists, craftsmen and inventors - Albrecht Dürer; Martin Behaim (his Erdapfel - 'earth apple' or potato - is the world's oldest surviving globe); Peter Henlein (his pocket watch of 1505, which was discovered in 1989 in a flea market in London, still works); wood carver Veit Stoss for a time; sculptor Adam Kraft (who made the 60 foot tall tabernacle in St. Lorenz); and shoemaker and poet Hans Sachs.

Martin Behaim and his Erdapfel (c)wikicommons

Less happily, it was home to Meister Franz Schmidt, the Executioner of Nuremberg, whose detailed journal gives insight into the medieval psychology of his profession and into the nature of crime: detailing substances used in poisonings, weapons and methods used in robberies and thefts, and what was stolen - “bed linens, chicken and geese, capons, especially many lambs and sheep”.

Schmidt was “empowered to torture, maim, and kill suspected or convicted criminals” and, during this period, he hanged 361 people. His greatest challenge, though, was a wave of infanticide coinciding with the period of the city's greatest wealth and also, of course, with the trials and burnings of suspected witches.

Because the Council of Florence in 1439 decreed that the souls of children who died without having been baptised would descend to hell, infanticide became an abomination and guilty women were made subject to exceptionally cruel forms of punishment. Legislation of 1532 ordained torture for any woman who concealed pregnancy and birth or who claimed the infant was stillborn.

one common form of infanticide (c)

Drawing on the archives in Nuremberg, Joel Harrington lists 695 recorded cases of infanticide between 1384 and 1806. The reasons that drove women to this despair are as one might imagine - illness, no prospect of work, starvation, concern for social status and, perhaps above all, shame: the pious and superstitious medieval world was not kind.

Of course, not all unwanted children were aborted or murdered. Nuremberg's Findelkinder (foundling) Database lists 4,000 abandoned children who 'circulated' - to the Findelkinder home, to adoption or fostering, or simply abandoned to survival on the streets (like the sixteen year Joge Mayr who confessed to ninety-five thefts and burglaries before they hanged him).

Children 'circulated' - a term that anthropologists like to use - through society in a variety of ways: the city had formal means of care, but there were also informal networks of female relatives and friends willing to take in a child. Harrington cites the case of Apollonia Voeglin who testified to having turned to murder only because she "lacked the social network to find suitable foster care for her infant". In Harrington's view "informal child circulation was ... one of the core mechanisms that held together early modern communities".

And while informal female networks were "vital to maintaining this system ... men, particularly soldiers, played a comparable and disproportionately significant role in creating the problem". Harrington illustrates his point with the case of widower Stoffel Baur who, when he lost his job and starvation loomed, promptly headed off to life as a mercenary, leaving his children to be taken in by his wife's relatives.

I'm sorry not to have got onto Wagner - which was the intention and I will on Monday - but the sun is sinking a bit and I have to press on to Ansbach and our reservation at the Bratwurst-Glöckle. I do like a restaurant that has 'sausage' in its name.

The Neuer Kammerchor of Heidenheim singing Vivaldi's Laetatus Sum -

The full film of James Mason starring as Rommel in The Desert Fox of 1951, based on the book by Desmond Young -

Desert Fox was directed by Henry Hathaway who learned his trade directing Marlene Dietrich as Joseph von Sternberg's assistant and who directed Randolph Scott's first big film When the West Was Young -

A harmless five minute travel guide to Nuremberg -

Christa Ludwig singing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder -

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