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  • Meirion Harries

DAY NINETY FOUR Weimar

We have come west from Saxony to Thuringia. Just now we are sitting out in the Domplatz in Weimar, the huge open space under the cathedral that was created by a disastrous fire in 1813. In front of us is a large bowl of iced Thuringian cherries (as you may recall from Day Twenty Two, Thuringia is the true heart of cherry-stone-spitting).


We really ought to be eating plums or another blue fruit here because Weimar was historically one of the 'woad towns' of Thuringia. After the War of the Thuringian Counts (1342-1346), when the House of Wettin defeated an alliance of aristocratic families, Weimar came under Wettin control. They helped the town get on its feet by abolishing serfdom and, in 1438, permitting trade in woad.


isatis tinctoria - woad (c)wikicommons


I suppose the image that springs to mind is of painted faces of ancient Britons but woad has had a sophisticated afterlife. Made from a plant in the cabbage and mustard family, woad has been used as a dye down the centuries. In our time, tattooists have injected woad – and caused burns and scarring. The tattooist, Pat Fish, in Woad and its Mis-Association with Pictish Body Art, suggests interestingly that for this reason woad had a different purpose:


The tattoo I did with it literally burned itself to the surface, causing me to drag the poor experimented-upon fellow to my doctor who gave me a stern chastising for using inappropriate ink. It produced quite a bit of scar tissue, but healed very quickly, and no blue was left behind. This leads me to think it may have been used for closing battle wounds. I believe the Celts used copper for blue tattoos, they had plenty of it, and soot ash cardon for black.


Woad has certainly always been used for dyes and paint. The blue in the Lindisfarne Gospels is woad, and the Vikings had a dye shop selling woad and madder (red) in York in the tenth century. Across medieval Europe, woad was a profitable crop: there were major production centres around Carcassonne and also in both Somerset and Lincolnshire: the last commercial consignment of woad was shipped from Lincolnshire in 1932. Thuringia too was very important in the trade. To this day, some woad is grown here for hand-printing fabrics – known as Blaudruck (blue – print).


One of the unfortunate losses of turning west from Naumberg was to leave Leipzig. I would have loved to have heard again the organ in Bach's church, the Thomaskirche, where he is buried. But Bach worked in Weimar, too - his first job was as a lowly musician in the ducal court in 1703. He left Weimar after a few months to become organist at the New Church in nearby Arnstadt. Here Bach was beaten with a stick by one of his students whom he had called a Zippel Fagottist and from here he set off without permission on his famous 900 kilometre hike to Lübeck, far up in the north of Germany, to hear the greatest organist of the time – Dietrich Buxtehude.


After a stint at Mühlhausen, where he married his second cousin – and also composed the wonderul Gott ist mein König – Bach returned to Weimar, being made Konzertmeister in 1714. This was a productive time in terms of both children and composition (he was obliged to write a new cantata each month). But Bach was somewhat irascible and his employment ended in prison and summary dismissal. He was rescued by a scion of the House of Ascania, Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, for whom he was Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723.


(In parentheses, these years in Köthen were important for Bach. The Prince was a Calvinist and did not want elaborate religious music – so Bach spent his time composing secular works (such as the Brandenburg Concertos) that he might not otherwise have had time for. There was also a frustrating what-if: Handel, then based in London, was in Germany in 1719 looking for singers at the behest of the Lord Chamberlain. Bach heard of his arrival in Halle, only twenty miles away, and went to meet him – but by the time he got there, Handel had gone.)


The cherries are all gone too and I haven't got onto notable Weimarians like Goethe, Schiller, or Liszt. For my friend Marshall, who is in hospital, I will mention John Horrocks - the Scotsman who brought fly-fishing to Germany in 1835, and here wrote the classic The Art of Fly Fishing for Trout and Grayling in Germany and Austria.


And I must say something about the primitive roots of the Bauhaus, founded in Weimar in 1919. Thanks to Wassily Kandinsky, one of the staff, the Bauhaus style is forever associated with the prime shapes of square, circle and triangle and with the primary colours of red, yellow and blue - or, as the residents of medieval Weimar would have described them, madder, weld and woad.



A really good talk on woad by Joe Hollis whose "ethnobotany is badass" - https://youtu.be/1TKLE62U1CQ


How to dye with woad - https://youtu.be/XBcjf8l302A


A little film about Weimar - https://youtu.be/gj_bVBbx9oU


Bach's Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) recorded in his church in Mühlhausen - https://youtu.be/w-Q0MnkwUuU


Bob Edwards singing the Woad Song - https://youtu.be/QLXtOzMBLqg


Here is Men of Harlech with the proper words (albeit in translation) - https://youtu.be/XSEU5zHgcTc



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