Tag Archives: Roman Empire

Bingen: A History

Excuse this Halloween-themed post when you all have turkey on the mind.  You can blame it on the difference in time zones.

This Halloween, Beth and I dressed as Bingen mice (see fig. 1).  Sure, you may think it’s easy enough to strap ears fashioned out of paper plates onto your head and call it a costume, but if you know me at all, you know I am always more than willing to exert a considerable amount of effort and self-examination, and not to mention subject myself to a bit of humiliation, when designing my costumes (see fig. 2).

Figure 1: Fulbrighters stand in solidarity with woodland creatures

Figure 2: I stand in solidarity with sorority sisters

So why the drawn-on whiskers this year?  Because it’s just so dang easy to color  your nose pink?  Heck no!  Because, of course, of the profound cultural significance!

You may have noticed by now that Bingen is not exactly a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis.  Its glory days as a strategically-located trading center are long gone, and now it hangs on by its wine and by being “that town across from Ruedesheim,” a strategically-located tourist hot spot.  Still, that doesn’t mean that Bingen’s story isn’t an interesting one, speckled with Celts and Romans and plagues, so today, I’m taking it upon myself to introduce you to a bit of area mythology.

You see, walking around Bingen, you might begin to notice a certain motif emerge:

The Binger Kaufhaus, where the chili peppers on the sign make only slightly more sense than the actual goods sold in store. Which is to say, none at all.

So why was the mouse?  I’ll spare you the suspense; I, for one, am not the giant cliff hanger that was Harry Potter 7 Number 1.  It is because of this:

Do you see it?  No, no, not that swirly doodle sculpture in the foreground.  Look a bit farther back.  No, not that castle ruin on the hill.  The thing in the river.  No, not that tourist cruise either.  See that speck back there?  Here, I’ll zoom in a bit:


There.  That’s as far as my camera zoom gets us.  This little guy is the Maeuseturm, the Mouse Tower, the pride, joy, and defining image of Bingen, the thing that makes it onto all its souvenirs and the inspiration behind the BBS logo.  This is their Razorback.

The structure itself is not terribly old: the tower as it stands dates from the mid 19th century, although the foundations stretch back a thousand years, and the plaster barely predates me.  And probably it has nothing to do with mice at all, but with the word Maut, or toll, which is just what this tower (and lots of other structures along the Rhine like this one) were used for.  Back in the day (you know, the 800 AD to 1800 AD day), these stations were controlled by feudal lords and bishops, licensed by the Holy Roman Emperor to collect taxes from passing cargo ships.  Often they’d stretch chains across the river to keep ships from passing without paying up.

But that’s boring.

Here’s the story I prefer, as it makes my mouse costume a bit less cute and bit more relevant, not to mention horrifying.  It goes like this:

Back in the day (by which I now mean the late 900’s), Hatto II was the Archbishop of Mainz.  He was a cruel bishop, considered by many a historian to be the original Trogdor, as he was so prone to oppressing, even burninating the peasants.  One fine day in the midst of a famine, the starving townspeople stormed the palace, demanding their share of grain.  Hatto, understandably, got real sick of their belly-achin’ (literally), and lured the lot of them into a granary, which he then set on fire.  As his charges went up in smoke, he is said to have said, “Listen to the mice squeak!”

And squeak they did.  As soon as he returned to his palace and his bounty of food, thousands of mice arose from the ashes, and chased the hapless Hatto to the river.  He climbed into a rowboat, and thinking he could outsmart the swarm of starved and charred townspeople-cum-rodents intent on revenge, he rowed all the way to Bingen and out to the island upon which the Mouse Tower is perched and barricaded himself there.  The mice, not to be outdone, swam to the island, swarmed the tower, and devoured old Hatto.

A 16th century illustration of everyone's favorite bishop

And they lived happily ever after, mostly on collectible thimbles, spoons, and teacups.

And perhaps now you’ll take my costume a bit more seriously.

Beth, I’m so sorry.
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All Roads Lead to Mainz

In light of recent elections, the teachers have been asking me to teach a lot of American history lessons – I guess they’re hoping I’ll be able to lend some perspective and context to what America is and why that’s so, as though the ye olde Tea Party can explain, well, the Tea Party.

But something about the quick-and-dirty timeline I’ve been passing out to the students seems, somehow, increasingly more laughable with each copy I make.  Sure, that’s partly because it starts with Columbus, as though America just materialized from the European imagination there on the Atlantic horizon, and sure, it skips from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, wham, bam, thank you ma’am – but when you’re allotted the time I have and allotted the attention spans I’ve been given, well, I had to make some editing decisions, or butchering decisions, call them what you will.

But that’s not the reason, not entirely.  Mostly, looking over this silly little timeline, it makes me realize how… how… cute our history is*.  It’s so little!  I jush wanna pinch its wittle cheeks!  Awaska hashn’t losht its wittle bay-by fat!

…ugh, I suddenly hate blogging.

My point is this: in Mainz (neighboring town of that’s-where-I-bring-my-laundry-to fame) is built on Roman ruins.  So much so, in fact, that there’s a conflict between preservation and development efforts – builders are afraid to build for fear of striking gold, by which I mean a Roman bath or mosaic or  what-have-you, because this means halting construction while archeologists do their nit-picking through ancient ship remains.  Sometimes this unearthing is incorporated (like the  monument erected to Roman general Drusus, surrounded nesting-doll style by a 17th-century citadel), sometimes it is compromised (like the temple preserved underneath a shopping mall), sometimes it goes ignored entirely (like that time the railroad plowed through the middle of a theater).

So the effect is this city built like a parfait, except not so stratified, so not really like a parfait at all: a Roman crust, a creamy layer of the Middle Ages, some Renaissance fudge, a hearty helping of 1960’s post-war fruit that you sort of scoot to one side so you can get to the chocolate, a dollop of Rococo whip cream, and a Marc Chagall cherry on top.  And, of course, if you want to overextend this metaphor, let’s not forget a spoon of a war that dug through it all and left a sad trail behind:

The shell of St. Christophskirche - which, just to add to this medley of history-upon-history, was where Gutenberg was baptized

So what am I getting at?  That American history/architecture/parfaits can’t hold a (Roman) candle?  No.  I guess all I’m saying is that an American city simply can’t attain the sort of aesthetic you find in a city like Mainz where ancient abuts the modern in a very livable way, and you probably wouldn’t trip over  an aqueduct poking out of the ground like a tree root.  In other words… places are different.  Travel highlights that.

So much for my grand conclusion.  I guess that’s the danger of musing on something like Roman ruins: essentially, you always just wind up at some derivation of “wow, that’s old.”

*Despite my blatant use of the word “cute” and my subsequent baby talk to America, I don’t actually mean to trivialize American history. Really.  I love it too.