A Wild Time in the Harz
By: Marc Bink
Last month I wrote an introduction to German Thalers, with the hopes that I would be able to generate a few articles on some of my favourite ones. This month I’ll focus on one from the wilds of the Harz Mountains, in the Duchy of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel, in what is now Brunswick, Germany.
The modern-day “Bundesland”, or State of Brunswick, is situated in the middle of Germany and has a low mountain chain on its eastern border. The history of this area is rife with folk tales and superstition, due to the fact that at one time there used to be a thick impenetrable forest in that region. Many writers have used the area as a setting for their stories, such as my ancestor Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe did with “Faust”, and others, such as Grimm, Rochholz, and Ey collected and popularized the fables of the region into fairy tales. As far as English writers go, only one that I could find makes mention of any of these tales and that was Sir Walter Scott in his “Antiquary” of 1816. He recounts the tale of a charcoal burner named Martin Waldeck who supposedly ran into the namesake of our story, the so-called “titular demon” of the Harz – the Wildman.
Wild man stories abound in medieval and ancient Europe there are references to wild men in the Bible as well. The wild man is seen as the antithesis of civilization and therefore very frightening; there are numerous fables, stories and artwork surrounding the concept of the wild man. They were called “woodwose” or “woodehouse” in England; “schrat”, “scrato” and “scrazo” in old German; and “fauni”, “silvestres” or “pilosi” in Italian. In Tyrol, they were referred to as “Orke”, “Lorke” or “Noerglein”, which obviously influenced Tolkien when he dreamed up his “Lord of the Rings” series. The French term “ogre” still works for us in this day and age. So right from the beginning of recorded history and culture, starting with the “Epic of Gilgamesh” where the first wild man was recorded, to our modern day with Sasquatch sightings by somewhat impaired hunters and halfmad trappers, we’ve been inundated with stories of wild men.
12 Mariengroschen ,Braunschweig- Wolfenbuettel, 1674. This coin shows a more “Baroque” form of the Wildman which was popular in the later part of the 17th Century.
The Wildman of our area of interest seems to have originated somewhere near the town that bears his name – Wildermann, in the Harz Mountains. According to lore, the Wildman is a robber and a thief who runs away to avoid getting arrested and goes to live in the mountains. He is usually depicted clad only in a wreath of oak leaves and branches around the waist and is carrying a pine tree that was torn up by the roots. Needless to say he protects his turf and scares away anyone who comes near. He’s usually referred to as being very tall and muscular, and is sometimes depicted with a rainbow halo. This last point ties him in with the “Brockengespenst” or “spirit of Brocken mountain”, which is a peculiar atmospheric anomaly that has frightened many a climber over the years. What it appears like is a wild man, with a rainbow halo, carrying a large pine tree staff that seems to be mirroring the course of the climber. There have been more than a few deaths attributed to this weird phenomenon over the centuries. Apparently, when conditions are just right, this vision can still be seen even with the smog and heavy pollution that pervades Europe today.
There are a number of different variations to the Wild Man story. It seems that every little coal mining area within the Harz has its own spin, depending on who and how much beer they’ve been fed, so finding “the” definitive story has been very difficult.
The Wildman theme first appeared on coins of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel starting in the late 16 century. Starting with Thalers in 1600, the Wildman makes periodic and frequent appearances on just about every denomination down to the 4 Mariengroschen pieces. His likeness was very popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Numerous mint masters have experimented with poses for the Wildman but the most popular depiction is when he’s standing in a nonchalant, uniquely European fashion, with one hand on his hip and the other holding the uprooted tree trunk.
Wildman Thaler, Braunschweig-Wolfenbuettel, 1628. Note the styling; it’s very late Medieval in its execution. The Coat of Arms is very elaborate and depicts every branch of the family, and in some cases territory that this branch of the family doesn’t even have a right to anymore due to inheritances and marriage.
My Thaler is one of the more common ones from the early 17th century. It is listed as KM #52.1 in Krause’s Standard Catalog of World Coins, (17th Century, 3rd Edition) and as Dav. # 6303 in Davenport’s Standard Price guide to World Crowns and Thalers. It was minted in either Goslar or Zellerfeld in 1628, and features Heinrich Schlueter’s mintmarks of “HS” with crossed keys. The obverse inscription is “DEO PATRIAE ANNO 16Z8” (For God and the Fatherland). The Wildman is standing facing head on, and the “HS” and crossed keys on either side of his head. He is depicted holding his uprooted tree trunk which extends up enough to border the date from the mintmaster’s initials. The reverse side has “FREDERIC VLRIC D.G. DVX BRVNSVIC ET L”, (Friederich Ulrich, by the Grace of God Duke of Brunswick and Luneburg) which surrounds the coat of arms of the Welf family. This intricate Coat of Arms has all the family crests of the ruling family, and is topped with 5 helmets and a staff with a Celle horse appears to come through the middle one. As is typical of the day, the engraving is very intricate and detailed; the master engraver certainly took pride in his work, the mintmaster however did not. The coin, while nicely centered, was double struck on the obverse, which was also typical of hammered coinage. My coin weighs 28.93 grams, which is close to what it should be; meaning when it was mounted there wasn’t much taken off the coin.
It seemed to be a typical thing to do during the 18th and 19th centuries, to take an old Thaler and mount it into a necklace or some other piece of jewelry. In fact, it is fairly rare to see these coins without mount marks, and those that were lucky enough to survive the ages in a cabinet or a collection are more prized than those that weren’t. So there is a very good chance that my coin has been cleaned or polished at some point, even though the patina on it is very old. There are some marks at the top of the wild man, indicating this was where there was a loop soldered on to the coin.
The wild man theme was repeated many times on the coinage of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and was the most popular effigy until the Hanoverian horse began to replace it in the late 17th century. The Hanoverian horse and the Stud at Celle were gaining in popularity at the time, and it was fast becoming what Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel was famous for. This particular breed of horse had a better temperament than most of the other war horse breeds around, and was second only to the Lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna in terms of training and selective breeding. As the horse breed became more popular, the wild man disappeared from coinage. He still has a place on the Coat of Arms of the Welf family and was on the Coat of Arms of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel up until 1918. Once the Prussians incorporated more of the territory of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel during the 19th century, the Wildman was added to their crest as well.
The Duchy of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel didn’t contribute much to German politics throughout the 19th century and was basically on a terminal decline. They had by this point established a quasiparliamentary body which controlled the day-to-day issues in the Duke’s name. There was a succession problem in the late 1800’s, which was resolved in the Prussian’s favour and not that of the other famous Royal House, the Hanoverians of England.
Coats of arms – Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel
Coats of arms – Prussian
The Duchy had been fractured by numerous inheritances, wars, and succession battles throughout the 16th through to the 20th centuries. The House of Hanover had been one of the leading houses of the area, but had never fully controlled the entire Duchy. They had started out as the major ruling family in Hanover, a Free City of the Hanseatic League, and then they were eventually tossed out by the Hansa. The Hanoverians controlled the area around Hanover, but not necessarily in it. Two kings of England, George I and George II spent most of their time there, fighting for more control over the entire area of what is now Brunswick. The last straw was in 1884, when the Duke of Cumberland tried to assert what was supposed to be his birthright and succeed to the Dukedom of Brunswick. The Prussians had denied his family the kingdom of Hanover in 1879, and weren’t about to let a family with strong English ties take over an area that was in the middle of the new country of Germany. So they settled for someone who was acceptable to them, the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, who fled once the Germans lost the war in 1918.
These small duchies and sub-states were all unified as the State of Brunswick (Braunschweig) as their respective royal houses fled after the First World War. Since 1918, the state of Brunswick has more or less existed in it’s same shape and size, first as a Weimar state, then as a Nazi Gau and then finally as it is today, a fully democratic state within the German Federal Republic. Its capitol remains the city of Braunschweig, which is smaller than city of Hanover, and retains its unique status as a Free city of the Hansa within the state of Brunswick.
The amount of coins produced by all the small states and divisions in what is now the state of Brunswick is huge. There were at least 3 major houses within Brunswick that used the Wildman effigy on their coinage. Collecting the whole issue would amount to a life-long challenge. Even assembling a type set of one of those states would be daunting. For Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel Krause lists 695 different coins in the 17th century alone. There are undoubtedly more, as even I have a coin from that area that isn’t listed in Krause yet. Add to that the fact that almost all of the issues of one Thaler or larger are fairly rare and very expensive. Most are beautiful coins, very elaborate and typical of the age. Mintage figures seem to be unrecorded or unknown at least for the 17th century issues.
So with all that in mind, all I wanted was to collect a nice wild man Thaler and be done with it. I’m not looking for more coinage from that area, but if a nice affordable coin crops up, all bets are off. That’s how I got the two coins depicted here, they were nice, and they were affordable. I have no desire to spend the rest of my life trying to build a type-set of coins from the Brunswick region.
For the next instalment of this series we’ll head to one of Brunswick’s neighbours, Saxony. I’ve written about Saxon Thalers before but I’ve acquired a couple more since then. Saxony was in conflict with its neighbours in Brunswick and the emerging state of Prussia for hundreds of years. After that, I’ll head up to an area where I am trying to build a type-set; my home town of Luebeck, the head city and the “Queen of the Hansa”, which really frosted the King of Hanover up until the very end!
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Magazine Vol-56 Issue-11