As we starve this virus by staying home, I keep imagining Europe in the Middle Ages as it suffered through repeated plagues. In a town like Germany’s Rothenburg, after dark, when the streets are lonely, you can imagine those “take out your dead” days when up to a third of the population (mostly the poor) died. The first symptom? Usually a sneeze. (That’s when people first started saying “bless you” after an ah-choo.) Thankfully, today’s pandemic is nothing like the Great Plague, and I’m confident that we’ll soon be back on those enchanting streets of towns like Rothenburg after dark. For a sneak preview, join me now in one of my favorite towns in Germany as we follow the “night watchman” on his entertaining rounds at twilight.
Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
The walled town of Rothenburg, midway between Frankfurt and Munich, offers the best look possible at medieval Germany. And in this theme park of a town, the best ride is the night watchman’s town walk. Each night through the tourist season, with his eyebrows frozen in a raised position, the night watchman listens to the clock tower clang nine times. Then he winks, picks up his hellebarde (long-poled axe), and lights his lantern. Welcoming the English-speaking group gathered in 15th-century Rothenburg, he looks believably medieval in his black robe, long curly hair, and scraggly beard. But the twinkle in his eyes admits, “I’m one of you.”
With an insider’s grin he begins: “It was a bad job, being medieval Rothenburg’s night watchman — low esteem, low pay, dangerous work. Only two jobs were lower: the grave digger and the executioner. Yes, this was a dangerous job. All the good people were off the streets early. He would sing the ‘all’s well’ tune at the top of the hour through the night. You didn’t want to hear the night watchman at three in the morning, but you were glad he was still alive.
“These days, the job’s more respectable: People take photos of me,” he continues. “And it’s no longer dangerous, because you’re all coming with me.” The night watchman’s camera-toting flock of 30 tourists, already charmed, follows his bobbing lantern down the narrow, cobbled lane.
Stopping under a sign announcing Kriminal Museum, we watch the rusted old dunking cage swing in the breeze. The night watchman walks over to the stocks that stand empty next to the museum door and says, “If you know what’s good for you, tomorrow you’ll visit our Kriminal Museum.”
He opens the top half of the stocks then slams it shut, saying, “A naughty boy might be put in the stocks. We rub salt on his soles and bring the goats. But inside, you’ll learn about more gruesome tools of torture and more embarrassing tools of humiliation.”
Pausing to survey the group, he adds, “Like a metal gag for nags.”
He scans the group again. His eyes stop on me and he asks, “Are you from Rothenburg?”
“Nein,” I say.
“Very good,” he says. “Please come here.”
As I move to the front he continues. “We were 6,000 here in Rothenburg. In those days, around here, only Nürnburg and Augsburg were bigger. The Kaiser made us a free Imperial City. Such a city was given special privileges. The top privilege: We had our own court of justice. Rothenburg’s citizens must be tried by their own court.”
Shaking his head sadly, he puts his robed arm on my shoulder. “And you are not protected by our court,” he announces. “We get a half day off when there’s a hanging. Do you know anything about Herr Baumann’s missing beehive?”
Again I say, “Nein.”
“You have no rights here, and we could use a half day off. You, my friend, have a problem. Local authorities might just allow a hanging.”
In the good old days, death sentences started with your basic execution and then got worse. The legal concept of “cumulation” meant a criminal’s punishments would multiply with his crimes. While that petty beehive thief might simply be hung, an adulterous beehive-thieving murderer could be dragged to the place of execution with painful stops along the way for pinching with red-hot tongs. If he were guilty of more crimes, he’d be tied to stakes over timbers so a big guy could bounce a wagon wheel on his arms and legs, breaking all his bones. Thoroughly “broken by the wheel,” he would then be woven through the spokes of that wheel and hoisted high for all to see. Finally, his hanging could be fast or slow. It depended on the verdict.
Sometimes even death wasn’t harsh enough. In cases when two capital offenses were committed, a criminal’s corpse would be “quartered” by four horses heading out in different directions.
A town’s gallows, a medieval symbol of justice, was placed high for more spectacle. The most important criminals were hung on higher platforms in anticipation of greater crowds. Bodies of particularly dishonorable criminals were left out to rot. Some were left in a cage so birds could get to their bodies…but relatives couldn’t.
Looking at me again, the night watchman says thoughtfully, “So, you’re not from Rothenburg.” Then, turning abruptly, he walks down the street. Mesmerized, we follow.
He stops under an old-fashioned streetlight and says, “It was a dirty time.” Pointing with his boot to a gutter in the cobbles, he continues, “All the garbage — from the people and from the animals, too — it went into the road. They had this ditch in the middle of the street. People tried to hit the ditch. This was not a good system. Summer was stinking. The rich left for countryside homes. Back then it wasn’t the Romantic Road. It was the Filthy Road. And this filth gave us the plague. The plague was a big killer. In one terrible year, in Rothenburg…one out of every three people died.”
We follow him farther to the ramparts at the edge of town. Overlooking the valley, the watchman says, “Rothenburg was never conquered until 1631. There was a siege. The armory, which was along this wall, blew up. Double disaster: We had a hole in the wall and no ammunition to make a defense. To be looted by 40,000 mercenaries was no fun. They were Catholics, so it was even worse.
“Our town was broken. And for the rest of the Thirty Years’ War, Rothenburg lay wide open, undefended. We were sacked many times. Between lootings we suffered plagues.”
Popping from an alley back onto the main square, our hooded friend concludes, “From 1648 — when the war and plagues stopped — time stood still in Rothenburg. Centuries of poverty…and nothing changed. Rothenburg’s misfortune put the town into a deep sleep. And that is why you are here today. Now I must sing the ‘all’s well.’”
After finishing his short melody, he blows a long haunting tone on his horn. Then he ends by saying, “You, my friends, should hurry home. Bed is the best place for good people at this hour.”
(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Rothenburg.)