Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Seligenstadt-on-the-Main

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Illustrated by Thomas Sulman.


The thirty-first of January of this year ’63 was a clear, soft, and bright day. There had been many such in the course of one of the mildest winters within living memory. But perhaps this was the first day in which the promise of an early spring—so often broken, but this year to have a glorious fulfilment—was felt in the air. On the whole, it was a day which prompted a pilgrimage in defiance of the calendar. On a bend of the Lower Main lies the ancient town of Seligenstadt. It appears to be but a short walk from Offenbach, as the road thence to it appears on the map as the chord to which the arc is formed by the river; and distant but some ten minutes by rail from Frankfort is Offenbach, a thriving, industrious place, whose prosperity was caused by the Huguenot immigration. The road from Offenbach to Seligenstadt is monotonous enough, cutting through dense pine-forests in straight lines, so that a person or carriage approaching is seen for half an hour before he or it is met. This forest was the terror of the Nuremburg merchants in the middle ages, as they could be seen a long way off by the robber knights and their henchmen, who remained ensconced in the wood till a convenient opportunity occurred for making the onslaught on the convoy of wares. The town of Frankfort used to keep soldiers on purpose to protect its customers through this part of their journey, though not always effectually. It must have been nervous work passing along this road in those times, for at any moment any reasonable number of enemies might issue from the thick covert on either side, or on both. Seligenstadt, with its old walls and towers, is seen long before it is reached after the woods have opened and made room for the plain on which it stands, with the Main washing its crumbling fortifications.

As the approach to Verona brings to mind the loves of Romeo and Juliet, so does that to Seligenstadt those of Eginhard and Emma, which, however, had a less unfortunate close. The story connected with the town has been given in different versions, of which the most apparently authentic is as follows. Emma was a beautiful daughter of Charlemagne. Eginhard was a page and private secretary of that great monarch. From the office he held he could not well have been of very high station in those days, when clerkly functions were in general contempt, and he was probably a young gentleman reading for Holy Orders, perhaps some son of a good family who had interest at court, who, if he had borne arms at all, would have borne them with a bar-sinister. Comely, however, he certainly was, and of such goodly figure that he found favour in the eyes of the Princess Emma. Under the circumstances it would be probable that the first advances to intimacy were made on the part of the lady, the disparity of rank being so great, and the fortunate issue of any open suit so apparently hopeless. The lovers, who moved in different spheres by day, managed to meet by moonlight in the apartments belonging to the Princess, which had a separate door into the court, which was unfortunately commanded by a window of the Emperor’s own rooms. These meetings continued to take place for a long time with impunity; at last Eginhard, late one night or early one morning, after bidding the Princess farewell, started back with horror, as soon as he had opened the door, on seeing that the courtyard was covered with snow. Of course the snow would betray the tracks of his feet. By ill luck, Charlemagne, who had the cares of half a dozen kingdoms on his shoulders, did not close an eye that night, and on getting up to open his window he saw, proceeding leisurely across the court, a female figure bearing on its shoulders—not the weight of half a dozen kingdoms, certainly, but what was in her case quite as bad, or worse—a tall young man. It was Emma carrying Eginhard. To imagine the scene that followed it is necessary to take a full measure of the greatness of Charlemagne as compared with the littleness of a pert young clerk. What the exact spot where the scene occurred was, appears uncertain; but it may have been the imperial hunting-seat of Dreieichenhain, between Frankfort and Darmstadt. In such a case the wrath of Charlemagne must have been more like the wrath of the four elements than anything human, except perhaps that of the Chief Druid when Charlemagne put his imperial foot on his overturned idol. However, he did not put them to death; that would have created a scandal. He said nothing to any one else, but ordered the guilty pair to quit his sight for ever. Nevertheless, Emma was the favourite daughter of Charlemagne, and Eginhard himself he loved, and would have promoted to great honour but for the presumptuous youth thus dashing all his own prospects to pieces. So Charlemagne was sad, and often longed to hear news of Emma, whose name he never mentioned, and whose name none mentioned to him; why, they scarce dared to ask even themselves. And he tried to cure his sadness, as was his wont, by exercise and excitement, and now, as he had no wars on hand, by the chase. It chanced, one day that a fine stag had escaped him after a long run in the wood close to the Main, by a small hamlet called Obermühlheim. He was tired and in need of refreshment, and he drew up at the door of a humble house in the wood adjoining the hamlet. Here he was struck by the wonderful beauty of a little boy who was playing near the door, and who stood gazing at him with the clear blue eyes of a young Frank who did not seem at all abashed by his august presence. He dismounted, and taking the child in his arms, brought him into the cottage, with the thought that he, though chief of Christendom, would only be too happy to have such a grandson. Here he was humbly received by the child’s mother, who with muffled face and stifled voice, as if awe-struck, bade the Emperor welcome, and requested to be allowed to retire at once to provide him a collation according to her limited means. In due time a course was placed before the Emperor, and when it was withdrawn he recognised a dish which was the invention of his daughter Emma, and which had always in times past been prepared for him by her own fair hands. In his surprise he ordered his hostess to be brought before him, and immediately on her appearance locked in his arms his weeping and penitent child. Overjoyed, he granted his full forgiveness on the spot, and exclaimed, “Happy (selig) is the spot where I have found my daughter again.” And ever since that time Obermühlheim has borne the name of Seligenstadt.

Conventual Church Seligenstadt.png
Conventual Church, Seligenstadt. See page 392.

A more prosaic account of the origin of the name, and one certainly more consistent with analogy, is that Obermühlheim was named Seligenstadt, or Town of the Blessed, in consequence of the relics of two martyrs, Peter and Marcellinus, having been brought thither, after a conventual church had been built there, about the time of Charlemagne. In 1840 the substructions of Roman buildings were found in digging for the foundations of a new school-house, and the mediæval remains show evidences of Roman masonry having been used in the construction of the town. The conventual church is first heard of in the ninth century, since which time it has undergone perpetual alterations, until the buildings were secularised in 1803. The lordship of the town was granted by Ludwig the Pious to Eginhard, who, after the death of his beloved Emma, retired into the convent. The outer shell of the marble sarcophagus containing their united bones is still shown, while the inner part has been transferred to the collection of stolen goods at Erbach in the Odenwald.[1] In 1013 the see of Mainz by craft obtained possession of Seligenstadt; but Rudolph von Hapsburg made it, in 1184, an imperial dependency, though it afterwards lapsed again to Mainz. The town lost many of its privileges by joining the peasants in the war of 1525, and it was so exposed to the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War that only a seventh of the inhabitants were said to have been left. When the Swedes came to it in their turn, it is said by Prior Waltz that Gustavus Adolphus himself was kind to the inhabitants; but “the Queen (of Sweden) behaved with stupidity, as she brought an ape in her carriage, with shorn crown and rosary, to mock the Catholic clergy.” After the French Revolution, Seligenstadt fell to Hessen-Darmstadt; it is now a quiet little place, and its dark old walls make a good picture on the side next the Main.

It is very nearly dusk when we reach Gross-Steinheim, on our way to Hanau. Its tower, with its fine heavy projecting turrets, looks grand in the red winter sunset, and its water-gate looks like the entrance to an imposing place, as we leave it to cross the ferry. But failing daylight obliges us to quicken our steps to the Hanau station, with the thought that Gross-Steinheim deserves a visit to itself.

G. C. Swayne.

  1. See Vol. viii., page 501, “The Neckar.”