A bit of Marburg’s history

This weekend Marburg’s streets were almost bursting their cobbles as hundreds of visitors attended the Elizabeth Market which has taken place outside the 13th century church every autumn since 1539. The small festival reminiscent of a village fête used to be held on St. Elizabeth’s feast day on November 19th but was moved in 1977 to the second weekend in October due to several past stormy Novembers.

St. Elizabeth’s Church, said to have been the model for Cologne cathedral, saw its first signs of construction in 1235 which makes it one of Germany’s earliest Gothic churches along with the Church of Our Lady in Trier (1227) and Magdeburg Cathedral (1209). Saint Elizabeth, born in 1207, was a Hungarian princess who married the Thuringian Landgrave, Louis IV. After his death, she moved to Marburg to create distance between her and her brother-in-law so she could distribute her wealth to the poor in peace.

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Elizabeth’s Church, Marburg (Image: marbug-net.de)

Thuringia, now one of Germany’s 16 states, became a landgraviate (duchy) in 1130. Kind of like a duke or a count, a landgrave was a nobleman in the feudal Germany of the Holy Roman Empire. The brothers Grimm suggested that the etymology of the word graf has origins in the Gothic gagrêfts meaning decision or decree as well as possibly coming from Old English gerēfa meaning reeve or senior official. It could also come from the Greek verb γρᾰ́φειν meaning to write which could refer to the landgrave’s role of commander and decision maker.

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Map of Europe in the late 5th century (Wiki). Note the Thuringians in the top right quarter.

Possibly the most notable Landgrave of Hessen was Philipp I (1504-1567) who founded the university of Marburg, the first Protestant university in the world. A key supporter of Martin Luther, Philipp hosted the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 during which Protestant reformers came together from Germany, Zürich, Basel, Wittenberg and Straßburg. Although Luther and Zwingli agreed on fourteen points, there was one thing they couldn’t agree on. For Luther, Christ’s omnipresence extended to the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Although Zwingli agreed with the omnipresence of Christ, he couldn’t accept that Christ’s body could be anywhere else than “sitting at the Father’s right hand” in Heaven.

The Marburg Colloquy painted by August Noack in 1867. Luther has his finger on the table and Zwingli is speaking to him.

By the end of the Colloquy, Philipp’s wish for political unity between Protestant states and reformers was not yet fulfilled so he continued his work in Marburg. In an attempt to tone down Catholic veneration of saints and to prevent floods of pilgrims from completing their Marburg-bound journey to visit Elizabeth’s church, he tried to disperse her relics including the chalice containing her head. This chalice was eventually stolen by the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) and can now be viewed at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm.

Although Marburg, mar meaning border area or frontier and burg meaning fortress, only dates back to 1140 (based on coins), its castle dates back to the 10th century. Today the stronghold boasts a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and its 13th century chapel, coloured with tones of red, pink and orange, has beautiful frescoes of Saint Christopher.


The Thirty Years’ War left Marburg and its surrounding region with less than a third of its original population and the next century and a half saw little life and activity. The result of this quiet period was that Marburg retained much of its Gothic architecture which wasn’t touched by modernisation. During the Second World War, it served as a hospital city for wounded soldiers and avoided destruction unlike the neighbouring cities of Kassel and Darmstadt. Walking by the half-timbered houses of Marburg, it almost feels like a medieval town. What contributes to that feeling are the various mini monuments that pay tribute to the brothers Grimm who studied here from 1802 to 1806.

In 2012 Germany celebrated the 200th anniversary of brothers Children’s and Household Tales and the city of Marburg opened the Grimm path along which various fairy-tale characters are depicted.

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“The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats”, similar to Little Red Riding Hood, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Three Little Pigs. Image: Alamy

The brothers are famous for having collected and published tales and myths from the Hessian region. Although the stories had existed for centuries before the brothers came along, “what they did was to conserve them forever like flies in amber”, said theatre director Jan Zimmermann. 

Amongst enchanting settings and characters, the tales contain gruesome deaths and the role of obedience and authority in the face of good and evil. We have been spoiled by the Romantic and idyllic Disney films that retell well-known fairytales in a child-friendly way. In reality, the tales collated by the brothers were indeed grim and never claimed to be suitable bedtime stories. Most of my friends here in Germany were not allowed to read or be read the Grimms’ tales as children.

Matthias Matussek, a German journalist and author, wondered if Germany’s little interest in the brothers, in comparison to the interest shown by other nationalities who can’t get enough of fairytale merchandise and castles, is due to “an overdose of dark fairytales”. After the Second World War the Grimms’ book was actually banned in schools because the Allies contended that the “barbarousness” of the stories had contributed to the authoritarian and nationalist German identity.

Sasha would have gotten on very well with Jacob Grimm whose words in a letter to a school friend are now to be read on the steps leading up to the castle. “I believe there are more steps on the streets than in the houses. In one house, one even enters through the roof.”





My lovely first visitors in Marburg!

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