When I was a 10-year-old boy, I watched the TV miniseries Roots with my family. I was amazed that Alex Haley could trace his family back to his ancestor Kunta Kinte and to Kunta’s ancestral homeland in the Gambia.
During those eight evenings from January 23–30, 1977, a fire was ignited within my imagination that has only intensified since then. I wanted to discover who my ancestors were, and where my family’s homelands were. I wanted to someday feel the type of connection to a place that eludes many Americans whose ancestors migrated here from elsewhere long ago—I wanted to know the place(s) that my ancestors had lived in for hundreds or even thousands of years.
What does it mean to be connected to a place? How much of the history of a place where your ancestors lived for generations is truly the history of your ancestors? It may be fun to claim Celtic or Etruscan ancestry as your own if your family is from Brittany or central Italy, for instance, but how likely are those claims? Only by learning about the deep history of a place can we answer that question.
As I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather lately, I decided to do a deep dive into one of my family’s ancestral homelands to see what I could learn about the human history and prehistory of one small German village—the village where my Gores family lived for generations before immigrating to the United States in 1854.
Frank (“F. E.”) Gores (1866–1936) was the maternal grandfather of my grandfather Bill Prettyman (1919–1998). F. E. Gores was born in a small village in Minnesota called New Trier that had been named after the Germany city of Trier. In the last couple of decades, I learned that F. E. Gores’ father—Franz (“Francis”) Gores (1826–1899)—had emigrated from Germany with two of his siblings in 1854. My grandfather told me of how devoutly Catholic his Gores ancestors were, and he knew that at least some of his Gores ancestors spoke German, but he didn’t know where exactly they came from. At the time, he and I were both happy to imagine it was the ancient city of Trier.
I’ve since learned that Franz and his family going back at.least several generations were from the small village of Schönecken in the Eifel mountains of western Germany. Here is what I was able to learn about the earlier inhabitants of the place my ancestors knew as Schönecken. It’s a story of snow and ice, of conquest and mass migrations, of wars and famine, of plagues and pestilence, of floods and bloodthirsty wolves, and of volcanic eruptions. I was especially surprised to learn how intertwined volcanos have been with the history of this quiet German village.
The hamlet of Schönecken is nestled the upper reaches of the Nims River valley, in the forested Schnee-Eifel portion of the western Eifel mountains. The Eifel mountains are a volcanic plateau of hills, many of which were ancient volcanos. The Eifel mountains reach from the Rhine river in the east and the Moselle river in the south and extend north to Aachen and west into Belgium and Luxembourg. The ancient volcanic activity left the Eifel region with rich deposits of iron and lead, as well as a series of mountainous lakes (maar lakes) that formed in the craters of the ancient volcanoes. Situated centrally in the western Eifel mountains, Schönecken is just 6 miles from Belgium and is less than 15 miles from Luxembourg.
The Nims river flows south past Schönecken and continues for about 25 miles before it joins the Prüm river just two miles before the Prüm river itself flows into the Sauer river. After another 15 miles, the Sauer meets the Moselle river about 8 miles downstream from the ancient settlement of Trier.
Human occupation in the Eifel region stretches back at least 80,000 years, as witnessed by the Middle Paleolithic site of Kakushöhle, where stone tools made by Neanderthals were found in a karstic cave located 28 miles northeast of Schönecken. Neanderthals occupied Europe from at least 200,000 BP1BP=years before present, conventionally measured from January 1, 1950 (the beginning of the radiocarbon dating method). To convert a BP date to a BC date, subtract 1950 years. For instance, 3500 BP = 1550 BC. until their extinction sometime after 40,000 years ago. The Neanderthal population peaked in Germany between 60,000 and 43,000 BP. The type fossil of their species, found at the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte (just 75 miles northeast of Schönecken), dates to 39,900 ± 620 BP and thus derives from one of the last surviving populations of Neanderthals in Europe.
Around the same time the Neanderthals were going extinct, Early European modern humans migrated into Europe from Africa via the Levant. They remained in Europe from 43,000 BP until 26,000 BP and are associated with the Aurignacian culture. The Aurignacians produced some of the earliest cave art, as well as jewelry and figurines, including the first Venus figurines.
The Gravettian people, most famously known for their voluptuous Venus figurines like the Venus of Willendorf, appear to have originated in either southern Germany or northern Austria around 32,000 BP and spread through the European continent. The Gravettians were mammoth hunters who built structures using mammoth bones, wore clothes sewn with bone needles, wore shells as ornaments, and domesticated dogs that they fed reindeer meat.
During the Last Glacial Maximum from 26,000–20,000 BP, the massive Weichselian ice sheet reached modern Hamburg and fully covered the location of modern Berlin. All of Germany and much of central and western Europe had become polar tundra and were essentially uninhabitable to humans. The Gravettians migrated to warmer, more southern homelands in France.
The Solutrean culture, successors to the Gravettian, existed from about 22,000–17,000 BP. The Solutrean site of Magdalenahöhle, located about 10 miles northeast of Schönecken, preserves a fantastic collection of ivory, bone, and stone artifacts. The nearby site of Buchenlochhöhle may also be Solutrean. The dates for these sites are suspect, given possible contamination from carbon-rich sediments, but whatever the dates, the Solutreans appear to have occupied these sites during the inhospitable Last Glacial Maximum period.
By 18,000 BP, central Europe was still a polar desert, virtually devoid of human occupation2Jochim, Michael; Herhahn, Cynthia; Starr, Harry (1999) The Magdalenian colonization of southern Germany. American Anthropologist 101(1):129-142. https://www.jstor.org/stable/683346. Germany wasn’t free of the ice until 16,000 BP. A study of annually laminated lake deposits in Meerfelder Maar, just 13½ miles southeast of Schönecken, confirms that even by 14,450 BP, the region around Schönecken was an open, treeless, arctic steppe tundra3Litt, Thomas; Stebich, Martina (1999) Bio- and chronostratigraphy of the lateglacial in the Eifel region, Germany. Quaternary International 61(1):5–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1040-6182(99)00013-0..
As an example of how very different the world was at this time, I’d like to briefly mention the paleolandscape of Doggerland—a vast area of land that connected the British Isles to continental Europe and that is now submerged under the North Sea and the English Channel. Doggerland formed as the Weichselian ice sheet retreated 18,000 years ago. By 12,000 years ago, it was a rich area populated by humans and comprising gently sloping hills, marshland, heavily wooded valleys, and swampy lagoons. 8,200 years ago, the North American Laurentide Ice Sheet collapsed and caused the catastrophic drainage of Lake Agassiz4Turney, Chris S. M; Brown, Heidi (2007) Catastrophic early Holocene sea level rise, human migration and the Neolithic transition in Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews 26(17–18): 2036-2041. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2007.07.003. This sudden influx of freshwater from a massive glacial lake that was larger than all of the modern Great Lakes combined caused sea levels to rapidly rise between 2.6 and 9.2 feet worldwide, rendering the already subsiding Doggerland into just a series of islands. Very shortly thereafter (8,140 ± 50 BP), a massive submarine landslide off the west coast of Norway triggered the Storegga tsunami5Nyland, Astrid J.; Walker, James; Warren, Graeme (2021) Evidence of the Storegga tsunami 8200 BP? An archaeological review of impact after a large-scale marine event in Mesolithic northern Europe. Frontiers in Earth Science 9: 1–15. https://doi.org/10.3389/feart.2021.767460., a massive wave that swept over the remnants of Doggerland, effectively ending human occupation there. This wave had an average height of 13 feet, but it would have been much more devasting when channeled into inlets and valleys. Deposits from this wave have been found 26 miles inland from the present coastline.
Returning to the Schönecken area, the rich birch and pine woodlands that were characteristic of the Eifel during much of human history did not develop until about 13,670 BP. The Bølling–Allerød interstadial (locally dated to 13,800–12,680 BP) marked an abrupt warm and moist period during which these woodlands thrived. This era of expansion lasted until about 12,880 BP when the woodlands were impacted and reduced by the Younger Dryas cooling event. The woodlands rebounded by 11,590 BP, and a boreal birch-pine woodland with poplar and willow was well-established by 11,000 BP. The climate has been relatively stable since 11,000 BP, allowing these woodlands to thrive. These ancient woodlands only disappeared through overharvesting 200 years ago.
The Magdalenian people appeared in Europe between 18,000 and 11,000 BP, although they primarily remained in warmer, southern refugia until the Bølling–Allerød warming event around 13,800 BP. The Magdalenians were hunters who specialized in hunting reindeer, but also hunted horses, red deer, and other large and small mammals, as well as birds and fish. The Magdalenians were responsible for producing the amazing cave art at Lascaux and Altamira, as well as portable art delicately carved from antler and ivory.
By 13,000–12,000 BP, there were thriving populations of Magdalenians, including a concentration of archaeological sites in the Rhineland and Belgium that is centered on Schönecken. While the concentration was centered on Schönecken, there are no Magdalenian sites within 40 miles of Schönecken. The sites lie along the Rhine, are north of Aachen, or are in the Meuse river valley.
The Magdalenians may have avoided the Eifel because it was an area of active vulcanism. The volcanos in the West Eifel began erupting 730,000 BP and continued erupting well after humans were living in nearby areas. The Laacher See volcano (40 miles northeast of Schönecken) erupted in 12,880 BP, and the Ulmener Maar volcano (23 miles east of Schönecken) erupted in 11,000 BP. The last volcanos to erupt in the area were the Ulmener (23½ miles east of Schönecken) at 10,690 ± 150 BP, and the Pulvermaar, and Strohner Maar volcanos (both 20½ miles east of Schönecken) at 10,250 ± 300 BP6Global Volcanism Program (2023) West Eifel Volcanic Field (210010) in [Database] Volcanoes of the World (v. 5.0.3; 1 Mar 2023). Distributed by Smithsonian Institution, compiled by Venzke, E. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.VOTW5-2022.5.0..
The Magdalenian culture was followed by the Ahrensburg culture (ca. 12,900–11,700 BP), a transitional Paleolithic/Mesolithic culture in Germany. Archaeological traces of latest Paleolithic people were found in the Eifel at Wintersdorf (ca. 13,000 BP) and Gerolstein (ca. 12,000 BP).
The Mesolithic era lasted from about 10,000 BP until 4,000 BC in Germany, and it represents the final period of nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe. Their archaeological record is distinguished by the presence of composite tools made from ‘microliths,’ or very small blade-based stone tools. These microliths could be hafted to shafts to make barbed spears and arrows. This microlithic composite technology would later prove to be invaluable in making sickles to harvest grains and other crops, but the technology’s origin predates the origin of farming in the region.
The Mesolithic marked a much more intensive use of the Eifel landscape by humans. There are at least 200 Mesolithic and latest Paleolithic sites in the Eifel area7Ingrid Koch, Ingrid (1998) Das Mesolithikum im Trierer Land. Archäologische Informationen 27(2): 387–391. https://doi.org/10.11588/ai.2004.1.16824, including a cluster of sites 4 miles upstream from Schönecken and another cluster of sites located 5 miles downstream from Schönecken. Diet also changed during this time, with hunted animals comprising only about one-third of the diet and gathered plant resources making up nearly half of their diet.
Farming first reached the Eifel region area around 5400 BC8Gronenborn, Detlef; Horejs, Barbara; Börner; Ober (2021). Map: Expansion of farming in western Eurasia, 9600–4000 cal BC (update vers. 2021.2). https://www.academia.edu/9424525/Map_Expansion_of_farming_in_western_Eurasia_9600_4000_cal_BC_update_vers_2021_1_, taking two routes—an overland route from the southeast through modern Turkey, Greece, Hungary and Austria, and a combined sea- and land-based route from the southwest that traveled through modern Cyprus, Crete, Italy, and France. The two farming traditions arrived nearly simultaneously in the Eifel between 5300 BC and 5400 BC, with the two traditions having been separated for at least 600 years by the time they met again in a small area centered on the Eifel region.
While the Eifel region was the center point of the region that learned to farm around 5400 BC, most of that farming probably occurred in the lowlands and not in the higher elevations of the Eifel, which have relatively poor soils, higher humidity, and cooler weather. There is limited evidence that the Eifel was being used as wooded pasture lands from 4300 BC onwards, but it wasn’t until the early Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1600 BC) that cereals were regularly grown in the Eifel9Herbig, Christoph; Sirocko, Frank (2013). Palaeobotanical evidence for agricultural activities in the Eifel region during the Holocene: plant macro-remain and pollen analyses from sediments of three maar lakes in the Quaternary Westeifel Volcanic Field (Germany, Rheinland-Pfalz). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 22:447–462. DOI 10.1007/s00334-012-0387-6. The remains of agricultural chaff around maars lakes dates to ca. 1900 BC. It was around this same time that beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) spread across the Eifel region, influenced by climate, ecological competition, and human factors. From the presence of weeds and their pollen over the next few centuries, it appears that farming wasn’t continuously practiced in the area until the Urnfield culture (around 1300–1200 BC).
From the later Chalcolithic (Copper Age) to the early Bronze Age (ca. 2800–1800 BC), the Eifel—and most of Western Europe—was occupied by people of the Bell Beaker (or Glockenbecher) culture, whose culture was named after their drinking vessels or beakers, which were shaped like inverted bells. The people of the Bell Beaker culture buried their dead individually with their weapons, often under burial mounds, and it was they who elaborated the earlier Neolithic version of Stonehenge into the form we’re familiar with. Given its abrupt appearance in the archaeological record and the notable departure in burial practices from the earlier Neolithic peoples, the Bell Beaker culture is thought to be indicative of a dominant culture that migrated into the region. This dominant group is assumed to be the North-West Indo-European speakers from the Pannonian (or Carpathian) Basin, in what is today Hungary, who were themselves descendants of Yamnaya settlers who migrated from the Pontic–Caspian steppe, which spans the area from eastern Ukraine to western Kazakhstan. Isotopic analysis of individuals from Bell Beaker cemeteries in Bavaria10Price, T. Douglas; Grupe, Gisela; Schröter, Peter (1998). Migration in the Bell Beaker period of central Europe. Antiquity 72 (276): 405–411. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00086683., about 200 miles southeast of Schönecken, revealed that at least 18.8–24.6% of these individuals were migrants who had grown up in places outside of Bavaria. Archaeogenetic analyses11Olalde, Iñigo; et al. (2018). The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature 555 (7695): 190–196. doi:10.1038/nature25738. support the important role that migration of people played in the spread of the Bell Beaker culture in Germany, where individuals tested demonstrated 45% steppe-related ancestry.
During the early Bronze Age, people of the Riesenbecher culture occupied the area from about 1875–1575 BC. The Riesenbecher people were the cultural descendants of the Corded Ware culture, who were displaced by the Bell Beaker culture. Riesenbecher means ‘giant mug’ or ‘giant beaker’ in German, and the Riesenbecher people made large ceramic mugs that were 14–22 inches tall.
In the middle Bronze Age, people of the Tumulus culture were present in the area from about 1600–1300 BC. The name for their culture comes from their practice of burying their dead beneath a tumulus, or burial mound. In the later Bronze Age, the Urnfield culture existed across the region from about 1300–500 BC. The name for their culture comes from their practice of cremating their dead, placing their ashes in urns, and then burying those urns in fields.
Iron had been processed in the Eifel region as early as the Hallstatt C/D periods of the German Iron Age, from 800–450 BC, although the Eifel was north of, and peripheral to, the central Hallstatt cultural areas. The first smelting plant north of the Alps was built in the 5th century BC in Hillesheim (just 13 miles northeast of Schönecken). The Eastern Hallstatt people buried their high-status people with battle axes, while the people of the West Hallstatt area in which Schönecken was located buried their high-status people with swords (and later, daggers). These Hallstatt C/D people were mostly likely Proto-Celtic and Celtic speakers.
Possibly because the Eifel was on the periphery of the dominant Hallstatt culture, the area witnessed the development of its own regional culture, the Laufeld culture, around 700 BC. The Laufeld culture takes its name from a large cemetery of the people of this culture near Laufeld, 19 miles southeast of Schönecken. The Laufeld culture retained many older traditions of the Late Bronze Age and resisted the more dominant Hallstatt traditions.
The Laufeld culture evolved into the still-regional Hunsrück-Eifel culture just before 600 BC, which lasted until about 250 BC. The people of the Hunsrück-Eifel culture maintained their Late Bronze Age traditions until about 550 BC, when the influence of the southern Hallstatt culture started influencing the culture of the Eifel people.
In areas outside the Eifel, the La Tène culture succeeded the Hallstatt culture around 450 BC. Initially, there was not a definite cultural break, but the La Tène artwork was distinctive and showed considerable influence from the Greeks and Etruscans far to the south.
In the Eifel, however, the earlier Hunsrück-Eifel culture (HEK I) had already morphed into the later Hunsrück-Eifel culture (HEK II) around 480–470 BC. The HEK II people maintained their own cultural identity but were much more influenced by the dominant La Tène culture than their HEK I forebears had initially been by the dominant Hallstatt culture. The HEK II people are the first culture in the Eifel that can be described as Celtic.
While many earlier groups of people migrated through the area, the Celtic people of the HEK II cultural tradition were the first people to settle the Schönecken area, in around 400 BC. Celtic hill graves first appear around in Schönecken after 400 BC, and as well as a Celtic “refuge castle” positioned high on a steep dolomitic formation above the Altburgbach, ½ of a mile north of Schönecken. This refuge, locally called the Keltenring or the Keltenfliegeburg, wasn’t a place of permanent occupation, but was rather a defensive stronghold that the Celts could retreat to during times of danger. The stone portions weren’t human-built but were a natural formation that stood about 20 meters tall and a few hundred meters long that could be used as a defensive position. The Celts enhanced the defensive characteristics of the refuge by building a timber fort atop the foundation, and by adding a timber-reinforced earth-and-stone trench and rampart system to regulate access to the refuge.
At some point just before 150 BC, the Treveri tribe, one of the Belgae confederation of Celtic tribes, migrated to and occupied the region around Schönecken. Although they spoke a Celtic language, the Treveri claimed that their ancestry was Germanic. Based on linguistic and religious similarities, some historians believe the Treveri may have been the remnant of a genetically Germanic army from Scandinavia that went to war against a Celtic army and lost and were subsequently taken as prisoners and then incorporated and enculturated into the victorious Celtic culture. In any case, they spoke Celtic, but maintained a distinct cultural identity that included the worship of at least some Germanic gods.
From 58 BC to 50 BC, general Julius Caesar of the Roman Republic waged the Gallic Wars against the peoples of Gaul. Julius Caesar won the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BC, and by 50 BC Gaul was annexed by the Roman Republic. The Romanization of the local people began shortly after Roman annexation.
At the time of Roman conquest, Julius Caesar wrote that of all the Gallic peoples, “the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them12C. Julius Caesar. Caesar’s Gallic War., chapter 1. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn (eds.). New York: Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0001%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D1”. In fact, the ethnic name ‘Belgae’ comes from the Proto-Celtic (spoken ca. 1300–800 BC) root *belg- or *bolg- and originally meant “the people who swell (particularly with anger/battle fury).”
Roman Gaul was divided into three provinces, and the region around Schönecken became part of the Gallia Belgi province. It remained a part of Rome for the next five hundred years. Europe’s oldest city—Trier—was founded in 16 BC by the Treveri and was named for the Treveri tribe—the Romans later changed the name slightly to Augusta Treverorum. The area we now know as the Eifel was called the Arduenna Silva (or the ‘forest of the Ardennes’) by the Romans.
After Roman conquest, the Eifel region witnessed nearly 200 years of peacetime, from 70 AD to 260 AD, and experienced an economic, cultural, and populational peak that has never since been matched. Roman engineers built large and interconnected systems of roads in the region to improve commerce, and numerous settlements, trade centers, and temples were constructed along these roads. The rich mineral deposits of the region were actively mined during this period. The Eifel Aqueduct, constructed beginning in 80 AD and primarily built below ground to protect against frost, was one of the longest aqueducts in the Roman Empire. It was a network of 81 miles of covered channels of concrete, brick, and stone that carried water from numerous springs in the Eifel region to the ancient city of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (now Cologne). Large villas were built in Eifel by wealthy Romans. These estates had hot, cold, and warm baths; mosaic floors, frescoed walls, hypocaust (underfloor) heating, and big loggias rivaling those of the southern Roman Empire. One particularly opulent Roman villa—villa Otrang—is a little over 10 miles south of modern Schönecken.
The Eifel was an economically important region for the Romans. Mineral resources including lead, zinc, iron, and lime, were mined in the Eifel, as were building stones. These items could be traded over long distances thanks to the Roman trunk roads, such as the Via Agrippa, which ran through Trier and the Eifel on its course from Lyon to Cologne. The Romans melted and processed iron at an almost industrial scale at a smelting facility in Bitburg, located 14 miles south of Schönecken.
This period of peace and plenty ended in 260 AD, when the Eifel region was first plundered by Germanic tribes, specifically the Alemanni and the Franks. For four centuries, the western border of the Roman Empire consisted of the Danube and Rhine rivers, and the fortifications they built (the Danube–Iller–Rhine Limes) in the narrow gap between the upper reaches of these two rivers. The combined army of the Alemanni and the Franks broke through the Limes and forced the Roman defenders to retreat to the safety of the Black Forest. These Germanic attackers destroyed portions of the aqueduct in 260 AD and it was never again able to be put into use.
In the chaos that was the Crisis of the Third Century, a Roman commander named Postumus took control of Gaul, defended it against the invading Germanic tribes, and formed the breakaway Gallic Empire that lasted from 260 AD until his assassination by his own troops in 269 AD. The Gallic Empire persisted a few more years, until 274 AD, when it was retaken by Roman emperor Aurelian and resorbed back into the Roman Empire.
Something akin to a peace returned to the Eifel as the Romans protected the border by making treaties with German kings along the border to provide payments to the kings in exchange for their service in defending the Roman border region against other invading Germanic tribes.
Emperor Constantine the Great commissioned a cathedral be built in Trier atop the palace of his mother, Saint Helena in 329 AD. The skull of St. Helena is still among the relics maintained by the Trier Cathedral. Thus, Catholicism had been practiced in Trier since even before Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of Rome in 380 AD.
In 375 AD, an unprecedented threat faced the Germanic tribes—the Huns. The Huns were fast-moving equestrian nomads from the steppes of Central Asia who could kill from a distance using their powerful bows while riding at a gallop. In 375 AD, the Huns conquered the eastern Goths (the Ostrogoths), and they moved on to the western Goths (the Visigoths). The Visigoths were allowed to formally enter Roman territory as refugees from the Huns in 376 AD. They were tolerated by the Romans on the condition that they defend the western Roman border. This proved to be the undoing of the Roman Empire, as the Visigoths rebelled, invaded the Italian Peninsula, and sacked Rome itself in 410 AD, ending the western Roman Empire.
While the fall of the Roman Empire began with the sacking of Rome in 410 AD, it ended with the last Western Roman emperor being deposed in 476 AD.
The period from about 375 to 568 AD is known as the Völkerwanderung or Great Migration Period, a period which saw large-scale invasions, displacements, migrations, and settlements of tribes throughout Europe. In one of these migrations, the Franks displaced the Romanized Celts as the Franks settled in the Eifel in the fifth century and most of the Celts fled the land. The northern Eifel and the lower Rhine were taken over by the Franks first, in the middle of the fifth century, but the Gallia Belgica to which Schönecken belonged was not incorporated into the Frankish empire until 475 AD13Page 187 of Schönberger H. (1969) The Roman Frontier in Germany: An Archaeological Survey. The Journal of Roman Studies 59(1/2):144–197. https://www.jstor.org/stable/299853.
As the Romanized Celts fled the land, many of the advanced elements of Roman culture vanished with them. Architectural and engineering knowledge was set back hundreds of years. The Franks avoided the large stone buildings erected by the Romans and instead built their farming communities with wood and clay in water-rich valleys which were favorable to agriculture and cattle breeding. Almost overnight, the Eifel region went from being a wealthy, populous, and somewhat industrial region to a poor and sparsely populated subsistence farming region.
Populations declined across Europe during the post-Roman period of 400–600 AD, presumably due to the breakdown in infrastructure and resultant reduction in goods and trade; as well as the violence, disease, exhaustion, and destruction of homes, crops, and property that came with the Völkerwanderung. In Germany, the population fell by over 40% during this period14Russell, Josiah C. (1972) Population in Europe. Pp. 25–71 in: Carlo M. Cipolla (ed.) The Fontana Economic History of Europe, vol. 1: The Middle Ages. Glasgow: Collins/Fontana. As presented by Paul Hallsall in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/pop-in-eur.asp.. Another potential contributor to the sharp population decline was the Justinian Plague from 541–549 AD, which was recently shown15Harbeck, Michaela, et al. (2013) Yersinia pestis DNA from skeletal remains from the 6th century AD reveals insights into Justinianic Plague. PLOS Pathogens 9(5):1–8. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1003349. to have been caused by the same pathogen that later caused the Black Death. The Eifel, however, may have been spared from this plague due to its sparse population and remote location.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the area around Schönecken was quickly under the control of one of the Frankish tribes. The Merovingian Dynasty united these Frankish tribes into the largest and most powerful western European state from the middle of the fifth century until 751 AD. While the Old Frankish language gave way to colloquial Latin in much of the Frankish Empire, Old Frankish remained the spoken language of the Rhineland Franks, which included those in the Schönecken region.
The original core territory of the Frankish Kingdom in 481 AD was known as Austrasia, or the “eastern lands.” The Franks followed the Roman practice of subdividing their territory into counties or pagi that could each be governed as the smallest unit of a province. The Eifel was parceled into several such counties, and the high plains of the Eifel became the “Pagus Eflinsis” or “Eifelgau” (Eifel county). This original use of the term ‘Eifel’ referred to a much smaller region than the modern usage, which includes the whole mountainous area.
At the time of their conquest of the former Roman lands, the Franks were not Christian, but pagan. Clovis I was the first Frankish king to unite all the Frankish tribes under a single ruler, beginning the Merovingian dynasty. Clovis’ wife Clotilde was a devout Catholic who was persistent in her efforts to persuade Clovis to convert to Catholicism. On Christmas Day, 508 AD, Clovis was baptized in Reims by the Bishop of Reims, Saint Remigius.
The newly Christianized Franks built cloisters (monasteries and convents) soon after their adoption of Catholicism, but the Eifel would not see cloisters of its own for nearly two centuries. The Malmedy Abbey was founded in 648 AD some 27 miles northwest of Schönecken. The Stavelot Abbey was founded in 651 AD five miles from Malmedy and nearly equidistant from Schönecken. The Abbey of Echternach, 24 miles south of Schönecken, was founded in 698, and Prüm Abbey (just 4 miles from Schönecken) was founded in 721.
In addition to their spiritual role, the abbeys were useful in helping the Franks colonize remote regions like the Eifel. The wooded land around these abbeys was cleared to create arable land for farming as well as areas to build settlements for farmers and craftsmen. Marketplaces, absent in the Eifel for centuries since the fall of the Roman Empire, were once again established.
In 751 AD, Pepin the Short deposed the last Merovingian king and founded the Carolingian dynasty. In 762 AD, Pepin granted the Wetteldorf farm (which included the area that is now Schönecken) to the Prüm Abbey, and the Counts of Vianden were made the protectors of the abbey and its holdings. When Pepin died on campaign in 768, his son Charlemagne was made King of the Franks.
In the first year of his reign, Charlemagne made plans to make Aachen (just 30 miles north of the Eifel) the capital of his kingdom. He began to build his palace there in the 780s and built the palace chapel (the Palatine Chapel, now the heart of the Aachen Cathedral) there in 796. The Eifel mountains are reputed to have been Charlemagne’s favorite hunting grounds, and his son Louis the Pious continued the tradition of the royal hunt and founded royal estates at the Inden Monastery (now Kornelimünster) to house guests on these hunting parties. One of Charlemagne’s hunts is described in the (now-fragmentary) epic poem Charlemagne and Pope Leo (Karolus magnus et Leo papa), in which he also describes Aachen as the Roma secunda:
Everywhere all kinds of wild animals
Hide in these woods. For amid these shady groves
Father Charles himself, the venerable hero, constantly
Exercises himself with sport through the fields,
Chases wild animals with dogs, and, with menacing arrows,
Lays low a horned herd beneath the dark trees.
Charlemagne ruled over the Frankish Empire from 768–814 AD, and on Christmas day in 800 AD he enhanced his status by having Pope Leo III crown him as the Emperor of the Romans, thus initiating the concept of what would later come to be called the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne claimed descent from the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, and the imperial motto at his coronation announced his intention: renovatio Romanorum imperii (renovation of imperial Rome).