The Housewives Of Lowenburg
by Charlotte M. Yonge
Brave deeds have been done by the burgher dames of some of the German cities collectively. Without being of the first class of Golden Deeds, there is something in the exploit of the dames of Weinsberg so quaint and so touching, that it cannot be omitted here.
It was in the first commencement of the long contest known as the strife between the Guelfs and Ghibellines–before even these had become the party words for the Pope’s and the Emperor’s friends, and when they only applied to the troops of Bavaria and of Swabia–that, in 1141, Wolf, Duke of Bavaria, was besieged in his castle of Weinberg by Friedrich, Duke of Swabia, brother to the reigning emperor, Konrad III.
The siege lasted long, but Wolf was obliged at last to offer to surrender; and the Emperor granted him permission to depart in safety. But his wife did not trust to this fair offer. She had reason to believe that Konrad had a peculiar enmity to her husband; and on his coming to take possession of the castle, she sent to him to entreat him to give her a safe conduct for herself and all the other women in the garrison, that they might come out with as much of their valuables as they could carry.
This was freely granted, and presently the castle gates opened. From beneath them came the ladies–but in strange guise. No gold nor jewels were carried by them, but each one was bending under the weight of her husband, whom she thus hoped to secure from the vengeance of the Ghibellines. Konrad, who was really a generous and merciful man, is said to have been affected to tears by this extraordinary performance; he hastened to assure the ladies of the perfect safety of their lords, and that the gentlemen might dismount at once, secure both of life and freedom. He invited them all to a banquet, and made peace with the Duke of Bavaria on terms much more favorable to the Guelfs than the rest of his party had been willing to allow. The castle mount was thenceforth called no longer the Vine Hill, but the Hill of Weibertreue, or woman’s fidelity. We will not invidiously translate it woman’s truth, for there was in the transaction something of a subterfuge; and it must be owned that the ladies tried to the utmost the knightly respect for womankind.
The good women of Lowenburg, who were but citizens’ wives, seem to us more worthy of admiration for constancy to their faith, shown at a time when they had little to aid them. It was such constancy as makes martyrs; and though the trial stopped short of this, there is something in the homeliness of the whole scene, and the feminine form of passive resistance, that makes us so much honor and admire the good women that we cannot refrain from telling the story.
It was in the year 1631, in the midst of the long Thirty Years’ Was between Roman Catholics and Protestants, which finally decided that each state should have its own religion, Lowenburg, a city of Silesia, originally Protestant, had passed into the hands of the Emperor’s Roman Catholic party. It was a fine old German city, standing amid woods and meadows, fortified with strong walls surrounded by a moat, and with gate towers to protect the entrance.
In the centre was a large market-place, called the Ring, into which looked the Council-house and fourteen inns, or places of traffic, for the cloth that was woven in no less than 300 factories. The houses were of stone, with gradually projecting stories to the number of four or five, surmounted with pointed gables. The ground floors had once had trellised porches, but these had been found inconvenient and were removed, and the lower story consisted of a large hall, and strong vault, with a spacious room behind it containing a baking-oven, and a staircase leading to a wooden gallery, where the family used to dine. It seems they slept in the room below, though they had upstairs a handsome wainscoted apartment.
Very rich and flourishing had the Lowenburgers always been, and their walls were quite sufficient to turn back any robber barons, or even any invading Poles; but things were different when firearms were in use, and the bands of mercenary soldiers had succeeded the feudal army. They were infinitely more formidable during the battle or siege from their discipline, and yet more dreadful after it for their want of discipline. The poor Lowneburgers had been greatly misused: their Lutheran pastors had been expelled; all the superior citizens had either fled or been imprisoned; 250 families spent the summer in the woods, and of those who remained in the city, the men had for the most part outwardly conformed to the Roman Catholic Church. Most of these were of course indifferent at heart, and they had found places in the town council which had formerly been filled by more respectable men. However, the wives had almost all remained staunch to their Lutheran confession; they had followed their pastors weeping to the gates of the city, loading them with gifts, and they hastened at every opportunity to hear their preachings, or obtain baptism for their children at the Lutheran churches in the neighborhood.
The person who had the upper hand in the Council was one Julius, who had been a Franciscan friar, but was a desperate, unscrupulous fellow, not at all like a monk. Finding that it was considered as a reproach that the churches of Lowenburg were empty, he called the whole Council together on the 9th of April, 1631, and informed them that the women must be brought to conformity, or else there were towers and prisons for them. The Burgomaster was ill in bed, but the Judge, one Elias Seiler, spoke up at once. ‘If we have been able to bring the men into the right path, why should not we be able to deal with these little creatures?’
Herr Mesnel, a cloth factor, who had been a widower six weeks, thought it would be hard to manage, though he quite agreed to the expedient, saying, ‘It would be truly good if man and wife had one Creed and one Paternoster; as concerns the Ten Commandments it is not so pressing.’ (A sentiment that he could hardly have wished to see put in practice.)
Another councilor, called Schwob Franze, who had lost his wife a few days before, seems to have had an eye to the future, for he said it would be a pity to frighten away the many beautiful maidens and widows there were among the Lutheran women; but on the whole the men without wives were much bolder and more sanguine of success than the married ones. And no one would undertake to deal with his own wife privately, so it ended by a message being sent to the more distinguished ladies to attend the Council.
But presently up came tidings that not merely these few dames, whom they might have hoped to overawe, were on their way, but that the Judge’s wife and the Burgomaster’s were the first pair in a procession of full 500 housewives, who were walking sedately up the stairs to the Council Hall below the chamber where the dignitaries were assembled. This was not by any means what had been expected, and the message was sent down that only the chief ladies should come up. ‘No,’ replied the Judge’s wife, ‘we will not allow ourselves to be separated,’ and to this they were firm; they said, as one fared all should fare; and the Town Clerk, going up and down with smooth words, received no better answer than this from the Judge’s wife, who, it must be confessed, was less ladylike in language than resolute in faith.
‘Nay, nay, dear friend, do you think we are so simple as not to perceive the trick by which you would force us poor women against our conscience to change our faith? My husband and the priest have not been consorting together all these days for nothing; they have been joined together almost day and night; assuredly they have either boiled or baked a devil, which they may eat up themselves. I shall not enter there! Where I remain, my train and following will remain also! Women, is this your will?’
‘Yea, yea, let it be so,’ they said; ‘we will all hold together as one man.’
His honor the Town Clerk was much affrighted, and went hastily back, reporting that the Council was in no small danger, since each housewife had her bunch of keys at her side! These keys were the badge of a wife’s dignity and authority, and moreover they were such ponderous articles that they sometimes served as weapons. A Scottish virago has been know to dash out the brains of a wounded enemy with her keys; and the intelligence that the good dames had come so well furnished, filled the Council with panic. Dr. Melchior Hubner, who had been a miller’s man, wished for a hundred musketeers to mow them down; but the Town Clerk proposed that all the Council should creep quietly down the back stairs, lock the doors on the refractory womankind, and make their escape. This was effected as silently and quickly as possible, for the whole Council ‘could confess to a state of frightful terror.’ Presently the women peeped out, and saw the stairs bestrewn with hats, gloves, and handkerchiefs; and perceiving how they had put all the wisdom and authority of the town to the rout, there was great merriment among them, though, finding themselves locked up, the more tenderhearted began to pity their husbands and children. As for themselves, their maids and children came round the Town Hall, to hand in provisions to them, and all the men who were not of the Council were seeking the magistrates to know what their wives had done to be thus locked up.
The Judge sent to assemble the rest of the Council at his house; and though only four came, the doorkeeper ran to the Town Hall, and called out to his wife that the Council had reassembled, and they would soon be let out. To which, however, that very shrewd dame, the Judge’s wife, answered with great composure, ‘Yea, we willingly have patience, as we are quite comfortable here; but tell them they ought to inform us why we are summoned and confined without trial.’
She well knew how much better off she was than her husband without her. He paced about in great perturbation, and at last called for something to eat. The maid served up a dish of crab, some white bread, and butter; but, in his fury, he threw all the food about the room and out the window, away from the poor children, who had had nothing to eat all day, and at last he threw all the dishes and saucepans out of window. At last the Town Clerk and two others were sent to do their best to persuade the women that they had misunderstood–they were in no danger, and were only invited to the preachings of Holy Week: and, as Master Daniel, the joiner, added, ‘It was only a friendly conference. It is not customary with my masters and the very wise Council to hang a man before they have caught him.’
This opprobrious illustration raised a considerable clamor of abuse from the ruder women; but the Judge’s and Burgomaster’s ladies silenced them, and repeated their resolution never to give up their faith against their conscience. Seeing that no impression was made on them, and that nobody knew what to do without them at home, the magistracy decided that they should be released, and they went quietly home; but the Judge Seiler, either because he had been foremost in the business, or else perhaps because of the devastation he had made at home among the pots and pans, durst not meet his wife, but sneaked out of the town, and left her with the house to herself.
The priest now tried getting the three chief ladies alone together, and most politely begged them to conform; but instead of arguing, they simply answered; ‘No; we were otherwise instructed by our parents and former preachers.’
Then he begged them at least to tell the other women that they had asked for fourteen days for consideration.
‘No, dear sir,’ they replied: ‘we were not taught by our parents to tell falsehoods, and we will not learn it from you.’
Meanwhile Schwob Franze rushed to the Burgomaster’s bedside, and begged him, for Heaven’s sake, to prevent the priest from meddling with the women; for the whole bevy, hearing that their three leaders were called before the priest, were collecting in the marketplace, keys, bundles, and all; and the panic of the worthy magistrates was renewed. The Burgomaster sent for the priest, and told him plainly, that if any harm befel him from the women, the fault would be his own; and thereupon he gave way, the ladies went quietly home, and their stout champions laid aside their bundles and keys–not out of reach, however, in case of another summons.
However, the priest was obliged, next year, to leave Lowenburg in disgrace, for he was a man of notoriously bad character; and Dr. Melchior became a soldier, and was hanged at Prague.
After all, such a confession as this is a mere trifle, not only compared with martyrdoms of old, but with the constancy with which, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenots endured persecution— as, for instance, the large number of women who were imprisoned for thirty-eight years at Aigues Mortes; or again, with the steady resolution of the persecuted nuns of Port Royal against signing the condemnation of the works of Jansen. Yet, in its own way, the feminine resistance of these good citizens’ wives, without being equally high- toned, is worthy of record, and far too full of character to be passed over.
Charlotte Mary Yonge