The Gores’ homeland, part 2

Oldest photograph of Schönecken (ca. 1880–1890)In Part 1 of this series, I covered the history and prehistory of the Gores family’s ancestral home of Schönecken, Germany, from when Neanderthals called the area home in the Middle Paleolithic (roughly 200,000–40,000 years ago) until Charlemagne had himself crowned the new Emperor of the Romans in 800 AD.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll cover the history of the Schönecken area from the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD until the Trier Witch Trials from 1581 until 1593 AD.

As he grew ill, Charlemagne made his only surviving legitimate son, Louis the Pious, co-emperor to ensure Louis would succeed him as Emperor. Charlemagne died in 814 and Louis the Pious became Emperor of the Carolingian Empire.

Louis himself died on June 20, 840, and his eldest son Lothar I tried to claim the entire empire as his own. Lothar’s two brothers, Louis II (Louis the German) and Charles II (Charles the Bald), refused to accept Lothar’s power grab and declared war on him. The Frankish Empire was plunged into three years of civil war as they fought each other for control of the empire. The Treaty of Verdun, signed in 843, divided the Frankish Empire into three kingdoms, one controlled by each brother: Francia Occidentalis (the West Frankish kingdom), Francia Orientalis (the East Frankish kingdom), and Francia Media (the Middle Frankish kingdom). The Middle Frankish Kingdom—despite possessing the ancient city of Rome and Charlemagne’s capital city of Aachen—was doomed for failure because of its long and vulnerable land borders and because its territory was split in two by the Alps, making communication and transportation between the two halves problematic at best.

The Division of the Carolingian Empire after the death of Louis the Pious

The tripartite division of the Frankish Empire after the 843 Treaty of Verdun: Francia Occidentalis (red), Francia Orientalis (yellow), and Francia Media (green). The Eifel was now part of the weakest kingdom, Francia Media. Trier is shown as “Trèves,” and Aachen is shown as “Aix-la-Chapelle.”

The town of Schönecken was founded in 855 by Charlemagne’s grandson Louis II (843–876), but almost immediately after its founding, Schönecken and the rest of the Eifel were taken from Louis II’s control and given to his brother Lothar II by the Treaty of Prüm.

In 855 AD, Lothar I was gravely ill. While staying at his estate in Schüller (just 13 miles northeast of Schönecken), he issued his last decree and divided his vulnerable Francia Media territories among his three sons: the northern part (Lotharingia) to Lothar II; Provence to Charles; and the Kingdom of Italy to Louis II. After splitting his kingdom, Lothar abdicated his throne and retired to Prüm Abbey, just 4 miles north of Schönecken, where he died 10 days later. The document dividing his kingdom came to be called the Treaty of Prüm.

This fragile re-division also failed to last. Charles II died in 863 and his kingdom was divided between Italy and West Francia. Lothar II died in 869 and the Treaty of Meersen divided Lotharingia between East Francia and West Francia in 870. It was with this treaty that we begin to see the modern boundaries of France, Germany, and Italy take form. The Eifel and Schönecken were now part of the Germanic East Francia.

The decentralization of Charlemagne’s empire continued for the next two centuries as land was divided among multiple heirs instead of going just to the eldest child. Eventually, even the Carolingian counties were split up into multiple inheritances. As the parcels of land grew smaller and smaller with each generation further subdividing an already fractured map of shrinking counties, some of these new counts tried to grow their holdings through conflict and conquest. In response, late Carolingian counts fortified their holdings with fortresses.

Thus, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, 140 strongholds were built in the Eifel. These were built not just to protect against attacks from other Eifel lords, but also from four much larger and more more powerful territories adjacent to the Eifel: the Electorate of Trier (the Kurtrier) to the south, the Electorate of Cologne (the Kurköln) to the east, the Counts of Jülich to the north, and the Counts of Luxembourg to the west. Each of these four surrounding powers tried to use their economic and military might to enlarge their territory by annexing portions of the Eifel or otherwise make Eifel lords dependent upon them.

The ruins of Schönecken castle

The ruins of Schönecken castle, completed around 1230 AD. The castle was purposely destroyed by the French during their occupation, and the rubble was sold as building material.

It was against this political and military backdrop that the construction of a castle above Schönecken began around 1130. The castle, now called Burg Schönecken (also Clara Costa or Bella Costa), was completed by around 1230. The castle was first mentioned in 1249 and was referred to as “clara costa.” For the next 120 years, Clara Costa was under the control of the Lords of Schönecken. The first Lord of Schönecken was Henry of Vianden (ca. 1248–1299). Henry’s grandfather had been Henry I, Count of Vianden (ca. 1200–1252), the hereditary Count of Vianden who controlled Prüm Abbey.

While the population of what is now Germany had stabilized and eventually doubled in the Early Middle Ages (600–1000) after declining more than 40% in Late Antiquity (400–600), it was during the High Middle Ages (1000–1250) that the population boomed. By 1340, the population had nearly tripled what it was in 1000 AD and at its Roman peak. The period of steep population growth coincided with the Medieval Warm Period from about 900–1300 AD, during which time the weather was warmer and wetter in Germany than previously, and crops were more abundant than in earlier, cooler periods.

Despite the centuries of military conflict and contention in the Eifel, the ordinary people of the Eifel were relatively unaffected by these power struggles among the nobility thanks to the temperate weather of the Medieval Warm Period. Their fields produced enough food to allow them to be self-sufficient; and the mining of iron, lead, and stone yielded commodities that they could trade at market. The end of the Medieval Warm Period around 1300 AD marked the end of nearly four centuries of warm summers, mild winters, bountiful harvests, and rapid population growth.

The transition between the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the beginning of the Little Ice Age in 1310 was abrupt and dramatic. Current research1Miller, Gifford H. et al. (2012) Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks. Geophysical Research Letters 39(2):1–5. suggests that the rapid decline in temperatures was the result of volcanic activity—specifically, the eruption of four massive volcanos between 1275 and 1300 that injected sulfur-rich ash into the stratosphere, immediately cooling large portions of the planet. Between 1302 and 1307, severe droughts struck Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa2Bauch, Martin; Labbé, Thomas; Engel, Annabell; Seifert, Patric (2020) A prequel to the Dantean Anomaly: the precipitation seesaw and droughts of 1302 to 1307 in Europe. Climate of the Past 16(6):2343–2358. The summer of 1302 witnessed considerable rain north of the Alps, but European lands south of the Alps experienced a year-round drought for two years from 1302 to 1304. European lands north of the Alps had exceptionally hot and dry summers from 1304 to 1306.

February from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 1440.

February from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry manuscript, 1440. More than a century after the onset of the Little Ice Age, winter temperatures remained bitterly cold. This relatively cozy scene was the world as medieval nobility would have seen it. Life in a rural mountainous village would have been considerably more challenging.

Northern Europe witnessed some of the worst and most sustained periods of bad weather during the Middle Ages from 1310 to 1330. Winters grew bitterly cold, and summers were cold and rainy. Excessive humidity in 1310 and 1314–1316 greatly reduced harvests.

At the end of his life, Dante (1265–1321) experienced nightmarish weather remarkably similar to what he wrote about in The Inferno (completed in 1314):

I am in the third circle, filled with cold,
unending, heavy, and accursed rain;
its measure and its kind are never changed.
Gross hailstones, water gray with filth, and snow
come streaking down across the shadowed air;
the earth, as it receives that shower, stinks.

Dante may have been inspired to write this passage by the bad weather that led to widespread famine in Italy from 1310 to 1312, but much worse weather, crop failures, and famine were to come just three years later.

The weather between 1315 and Dante’s death in 1321 was so bad and so like Dante’s vision of Hell that researchers now refer to it as the “Dantean Anomaly.” Unusually heavy rains in the spring and summer of 1315 caused extensive flooding across Europe and led to the Great Famine of 1315–1321, considered the largest pan-European famine of the past 1000 years. The flooding stripped away rich topsoil and cut deep gullies in fields that made plowing difficult or impossible. Lack of sun meant crops failed to thrive.

Crop failures led to famine as well as greatly reduced crop yields, which led to further famine. The inability to cure straw and hay for livestock meant that cattle and sheep herds were weak when they were struck by their own plagues. Sheep and cattle murrains3A medieval catch-all term for diseases with high morbidity and high mortality, including plagues, foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax, and other viral and bacterial infections. caused up to 80% of sheep and cattle herds to die. Crime and disease skyrocketed, and mass deaths were everywhere. While the crop failures ended in 1317, the effects of this famine lasted into the early 1320s.

John of Trokelowe, an English Benedictine monk and contemporary chronicler, wrote this observation of the Great Famine:

Bread did not have its usual nourishing power and strength because the grain was not nourished by the warmth of summer sunshine. Hence those who ate it, even in large quantities, were hungry again after a little while. There can be no doubt that the poor wasted away when even the rich were constantly hungry…. Four pennies worth of coarse bread was not enough to feed a common man for one day. The usual kinds of meat, suitable for eating, were too scarce; horse meat was precious; plump dogs were stolen. And, according to many reports, men and women in many places secretly ate their own children.

The Dantean Anomaly and the subsequent Great Famine killed an estimated 10–25% of the European population, and weakened many of those who survived, especially children who may have been malnourished during their development.

In the summer of 1342, the largest flood ever recorded in central Europe—the Magdalena flood—struck the Holy Roman Empire and was especially devasting to towns along the Rhine, Moselle, Main, Danube, and other major German rivers. The rains began in mid-May, and they grew heavier through June and became even worse in early-to-mid July. The floods hit Frankfurt first, cresting at 29 feet above normal levels4Herget, Jürgen; Kapala, Alice; Krell, Maria; Rustemeier, Elke; Simmer, Clemens; Wyss, Adriana (2015) The millennium flood of July 1342 revisited. Catena 130:82–94., and collapsed the ancient stone bridge over the Main River, the only bridge over the river in the region. Wurzburg was hit next, with flood levels peaking at 34 feet above normal, destroying all of the city’s bridges and mills. City after city was hit, and with the floods advancing faster than messengers could deliver warnings. Mainz and Cologne were hit next with similarly devasting effects. This entry was recorded in the chronicle of the Bishops of Mainz5Cronica de episcopis Moguntinis. Page 155 in F. W. E. Roth (ed.): Die Geschichtsquellen des Niederrheingau’s, vol. 3: Sonstige Geschichtsquellen des Niederrheingaus. Wiesbaden, 1880.

Also in the year 1342 there was at the feast of John the Baptist (June 24th) and thereafter for several weeks… there was a great flood, not only from heavy rain, but also from the hidden passages of the mountains, valleys and lands all around, and bursting forth and overflowing. Thus in most provinces, and especially around the rivers Rhine and Main, but also elsewhere, it devastated vegetable and fruit crops, hay, buildings, cattle, and, alas, many people in many miserable ways. Cologne, Mainz, and Frankfurt were largely underwater, so that in Mainz Cathedral the water was almost up to the waist of a man, and the great tower over the bridge at Frankfurt near the house of the Teutonic order, along with a part of the bridge was toppled and completely swept away. There were also many horrors and losses in different parts of the world.

The flood of 1342 is considered a millennial flood, and no other flood in the entirety of recorded European history has approached the devastation it wrought. In addition to the floodwaters, the Magdalena flood caused devastating erosion. There were mudslides, whole streets and buildings were washed away, and massive ravines were eroded into fields and settlements. The amount of soil washed away in this single flood would normally have taken 2,000 years to erode under normal climatic conditions.

The Counts (and later, Dukes) of Jülich claimed much of the northern part of the Eifel after heavy battles. The feared Baldwin of Luxembourg (ca. 1285–1354) was the Archbishop-Elector of Trier and through a series of battles and sieges in the 1340s, he expanded the territory of the Electorate of Trier through the southern part of the Eifel up to Hillesheim, 13 miles northeast of Schönecken. The last Lord of Schönecken died in 1370, and in 1384, Schönecken was taken by the Electorate of Trier. Schönecken castle became the residence of Baldwin of Luxembourg and subsequent prince-electors of Trier. The Electorate of Trier and the Counts of Luxembourg continued to fight with each other for control of large portions of the western Eifel.

In 1349, just a few years later after the Great Flood of 1342, and as communities were still trying to rebuild after the Magdalena flood and dealing with increasingly cold winters, the Black Death struck western Germany. The Black Death was the third great natural disaster to strike Germany in 30 years, and it was the second time that the bubonic and pneumonic plague swept across Europe (the first having been the Plague of Justinian 800 years earlier). The Black Plague would remain in western Germany until 1351, ultimately killing 30–60% of the population of Europe.

Europe was still in the grip of the unusually cold weather of the Little Ice Age when yet more large volcanos erupted in 1452–1453 and 1468, causing a severe volcanic winter in the Northern Hemisphere and substantially intensifying the Little Ice Age.

Europe winter in the grip of the Little Ice Age.

Europe winter in the grip of the Little Ice Age. This was painted by Peter Bruegel the Elder 100 years after the intensification of the Little Ice Age, and it captures how resigned the people are to the bitterly cold winters that have lasted for generations. No one alive in the mid 1400s knew anyone who had been alive before the Little Ice Age, nor would they ever meet anyone at the ends of their lives who would outlive the Little Ice Age.

The Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther set off in in 1517 spread quickly through many of the German portions of the Holy Roman Empire, but in Trier the call for reformation was successfully opposed by Archbishop-Elector Richard von Greiffenklau (1467–1531). His actions in opposing the Protestant Reformation made Trier a major destination for Catholic pilgrims.

Popular uprisings like the Bundschuh movement (1493–1517) and the German Peasants’ War (1524–1526)—Europe’s largest and most widespread popular uprising before the 1789 French Revolution—did not penetrate the Eifel to any significant degree. While these uprisings had many causes, the Lutheran reformation certainly gave people reason to question traditional social hierarchies, and the Eifel’s adherence to Catholicism may have been enough to keep these unrests from taking hold in the Eifel.

Sebastian Münster, the German cartographer, scholar, and monk, had the following to say about the Eifel region in his 1550 book, Cosmographiae:

About the Eyfel: Even though this land is mighty rough and mountainous, God did not neglect it. He gives every land something so the population can work and live. The Eyfel is bordered by the Hunsrück and Luxemburg. In Bertrick, one-half mile from the Moselle River, are warm springs to heal the sick. Close to the County of Manderscheid, they make excellent wrought iron, also cast iron, which they sell to Swabia and Franconia. Their inhabitants are creative and ambitious. This land also has white cattle and lots of milk and dairies. It has far more fish than fowl and produces enough fruit for its own consumption. In the summertime you can compare the area around Manderscheid and Gerolstein to Italy because of its fruit.

The 16th century saw an upswing in military violence in and around the Eifel as feudal lords from outside the Eifel marched through the Eifel, laid siege to castles in the Eifel, and fought battles in the Eifel to expand their borders. These actions brought misery and poverty to the Eifel as campaigning armies took what they needed from local farms and settlements.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V fought William, the Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, over the inheritance of the Duchy of Guelders. William formed an alliance with Francis I of France against Charles V, and Charles had reason for concern that King Henry VIII might also join the alliance against him given that William’s sister, Anne of Cleves, had recently been married to Henry until Henry had the marriage annulled on good terms with Anne (after which she was known as the King’s Beloved Sister). Instead, Henry VIII formed an alliance with Charles V against Francis I. The conflict expanded to include Spain (allied with Charles V) and the Ottoman Empire and came to be called the Italian War of 1542–1546. While a wide-ranging war, some of the battles and sieges in northern France and the low countries played out close to the Eifel, notably the Sack of Düren in 1543 and the hostilities in Luxembourg that same year, as well as fighting in Monschau and Nideggen. The Eifel was likely traversed, occupied, and exploited by multiple armies during this conflict.

The 1555 Peace of Augsburg partitioned the Holy Roman Empire into Catholic and Lutheran states, allowing Trier and the Eifel to remain Catholic and temporarily ensuring a cessation of religious hostilities until the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) rekindled these hostilities 60 years later.

The Witch-Trials of Trier

In 1576, the Electorate of Trier took the Abbey of Prüm by force, and in 1581, Johann von Schönenberg was appointed Archbishop-Elector of Trier. He quickly became a zealous fighter against the spread of the Reformation, and to demonstrate his support of the Jesuits, he ordered three groups to be purged from society: Protestants, Jews, and witches. Linden, a canon who was an eyewitness to the persecutions, described the witch hunts thusly6Burr George L. (1896) The Witch-Persecutions. Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History 3(4):1–36.

Inasmuch as it was popularly believed that the continued sterility of many years was caused by witches through the malice of the Devil, the whole country rose to exterminate the witches. This movement was promoted by many in office, who hoped wealth from the persecution. And so, from court to court throughout the towns and villages of all the diocese, scurried special accusers, inquisitors, notaries, jurors, judges, constables, dragging to trial and torture human beings of both sexes and burning them in great numbers. Scarcely any of those who were accused escaped punishment. Nor were there spared even the leading men in the city of Trier. For the Judge, with two Burgomasters, several Councilors and Associate Judges, canons of sundry collegiate churches, parish-priests, rural deans, were swept away in this ruin. So far, at length, did the madness of the furious populace and of the courts go in this thirst for blood and booty that there was scarcely anybody who was not smirched by some suspicion of this crime.


Meanwhile notaries, copyists, and innkeepers grew rich. The executioner rode a blooded horse, like a noble of the court, and went clad in gold and silver; his wife vied with noble dames in the richness of her array. The children of those convicted and punished were sent into exile; their goods were confiscated; plowman and vintner failed—hence came sterility. A direr pestilence or a more ruthless invader could hardly have ravaged the territory of Trier [more] than this inquisition and persecution without bounds: many were the reasons for doubting that all were really guilty. This persecution lasted for several years; and some of those who presided over the administration of justice gloried in the multitude of the stakes, at each of which a human being had been given to the flames.


At last, though the flames were still unsated, the people grew impoverished, rules were made and enforced restricting the fees and costs of examinations and examiners, and suddenly, as when in war funds fail, the zeal of the persecutors died out.

Broadsheet showing the Hexensabbat (‘witches’ sabbath’) in Trier in 1593, by Pastor H. H. Lauen, Germany. Courtesy the Witchcraft Collection, Cornell University.

When the head judge, Dietrich Flade, spoke out against the witch trials, he too was tortured and burned, thus greatly stifling any further opposition to the trials. The total number of people accused, tortured, and burned to death in the Trier area is unknown, but was probably well over one thousand. We have no good record of those tortured and killed in the rural villages at any point from 1581 to 1593; or even those killed in the city of Trier between 1581 and 1586. From 1587–1593, 368 people from 22 villages were burned alive for witchcraft after trials in the city of Trier. In 1588, two villages were left with only one female inhabitant in each. The Trier witch trials were the earliest of the four largest witch trials in Germany and were probably the largest mass peacetime execution ever recorded in Europe.

Daniel Hubbell recounts the story of the first person to provide testimony in the Trier witch trials7Hubbell, Daniel (2017) The witch pyres of Trier.

In Trier in 1581, a boy all of eight years old provided the first testimony. The boy claimed he had been brought to the Sabbath by others, and been forced to eat a cat’s brain at a diabolical feast. When he refused to renounce God, he was tormented at night by witches and beaten. The boy gave testimony against many people within his community, and claimed that an attempt had been made on the Archbishop’s life. The area was well primed to believe the testimony, a recent hail storm had destroyed most of the crops around Trier. In part the wave of denunciations may have been a response, a seizure of agency in a cruel and arbitrary world.

In Part 3, I’ll cover the history of the Schönecken area from return of famine in the 1590s until the Great Famine of 1815–1816 and the Potato Failure of 1845–1846.

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