My novel, The Running Wolf, is set in two main locations: Solingen in Prussia and the north east of England (Shotley Bridge in County Durham and Morpeth Gaol in Northumberland), so I thought it might be useful to give a brief outline of Solingen and Prussia. While carrying out my research, I went to visit Solingen and had a good walk around to try and get a feel for what it must have been like 300 years ago.
Nowadays, Solingen is a city, which is part of North Rhine-Westphalia in north-west Germany. Its nearest airports are Düsseldorf and Cologne Bonn (both are about a 20-minute train ride away from Solingen). I flew from Newcastle to Düsseldorf and it was a very easy trip to Solingen from there, involving a short trip from the airport to the platform on something excitingly called the Sky Train and then a direct train to Solingen.
Solingen is part of the Bergisches Land, which is a hilly area with woods, reservoirs and rivers (sounds very familiar). While staying in Solingen, when I walked down the steep hill to the River Wupper to visit an old forge there, I was struck by how similar the walk was to get to the River Derwent. Shotley Bridge nestles in a valley near the North Pennines, and since the swordmakers would have needed quite a bit of water power to run their forges, I suspect this is no coincidence. If you read Tuesday’s article (admittedly an extremely long one), you’ll recall that I mentioned Douglas Vernon saying that the River Derwent’s sources are 1,300 feet (about 400 metres) higher than Shotley Bridge (Douglas Vernon, The Iron Thread, 2003).
Solingen has a long history of swordmaking. According to Richard H. Bezdek, Passau in Bavaria was the biggest swordmaking centre in the 14th century but Solingen in Prussia eventually overtook it. The Crusades (1095–1271) greatly increased the need for swords and also helped Solingen swordmakers to develop new techniques. Bezdek says that the Knights of St John of Jerusalem took some swordmakers to the Holy Land. Damascus steel (pattern-welded) was in particular demand, and Adolph IV of Berg was only one noble who imported Damascus bladesmiths to Solingen. The ensuing newly gained knowledge helped make Solingen the swordmaking centre of the world. (Bezdek, German Swords and Sword Makers: Edged Weapon Makers from the 14th to the 20th Centuries, 2000, p. 15).
It seems there was industrial unrest in late 17th-century Solingen. In particular, David Richardson mentions disputes involving hand forgers who objected to the emergence of small grinding machines; he suggests there were too many craftsmen and not enough work, a problem compounded by these ‘little wheels’ (Richardson, The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge, 1973, p.15). Since the Thirty Years War ended in 1648, demand for swords might have declined, leading to unemployment, or underemployment at the very least.
If you look on a modern map, you will find no mention of Prussia because it was abolished in February 1947 when the Allies passed a law consigning the State of Prussia to the history books. Prior to its abolition, Prussia’s boundaries moved over time. Beginning with Brandenberg, it eventually expanded to stretch across most of northern Germany from the Netherlands in the east to Poland in the west.
It is perhaps worth noting the various rulers of the pertinent period, including the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire: Ferdinand III, Leopold I and Joseph I (1637–1711), as well as the rulers of the Duchy and then Kingdom of Prussia: Frederick William, the Great Elector, (1650–88) and Frederick I (1688–1701), who then ruled as king from 1701–1713).
In the 17th century, one of the most significant events for Prussia, and also for Europe more widely, was the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Although a deadly war, it must have created considerable demand for edged weapons, thereby contributing to wealth and job security in Solingen. However, the Peace of Westphalia, which resulted from a number of treaties in 1648, while a welcome end to the fighting, must have signalled a period of decline for weapon makers and armourers.
The Thirty Years War resulted in over eight million deaths and a fifth of the German population alone died. Initially, it was a religious war between the prevailing Catholic powers and the emerging Protestant powers but it ultimately became a power struggle that spread across Europe. As well as people dying during fighting, the war created extreme hardship and many people died of starvation and disease.
Perhaps the most harrowing massacre in this war was the Sack of Magdeburg in May 1631. The Protestant city was destroyed by the Holy Roman Emperor’s Imperial Army, which vastly outnumbered the population, about 80% of whom were massacred. On 20 May, the city was razed to the ground and the River Elbe overflowed with corpses. During the inferno, dreadful events took place. In his excellent book, Iron Kingdom, Christopher Clark shares an eye-witness description of the scenes:
‘Everything that the unfettered licence of the soldier can devise when nothing restrains his fury; all that the most ferocious cruelty inspires in men when a blind rage takes possession of their senses, was committed by the Imperials in this unhappy city; the troops ran in packs, weapons in hand, through the streets, and massacred indiscriminately the elderly, the women and the children, those who defended themselves and those who made no move to resist them […] one saw nothing but corpses still flexing, piled or stretched out naked; the cries of those whose throats were being cut mingled with the furious shouts of the assassins…’ (Clark, Iron Kingdom, p.24.)
It’s also well worth reading The Lamentations of Germany by Philip Vincent, 1638. I have provided a link to this book, which is held in the Yale University library. You can read it online, but please be warned that it provides some very grim and graphic details of the suffering in Germany at this time.
If you’re interested in reading a novel about Magdeburg, then you might like to try Heather Richardson’s novel, Magdeburg. While my own novel is not set in Magdeburg, one of the main characters, Anna Mohll, is from there. (She is fictional though as there is no evidence that Hermann Mohll’s mother came from Magdeburg, or that she was called Anna.)
Bezdek, Richard H. (2000) German Swords and Sword Makers: Edged Weapon Makers from the 14th to the 20th Centuries. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.
Bezdek, Richard H. (2003) Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.
Clark, Christopher (2006) Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Richardson, D. (1973) The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Frank Graham.
Vernon, Douglas. (2003) Thread of Iron: A Definitive History of Shotley Bridge and Consett and District, County Durham with Particular Reference to Iron and Steelmaking. Knebworth: Able Publishing. [Please note that this book is being reprinted by the Land of Oak & Iron on 12 September 2020, which will make it easier to find. However, the page references may well differ to the original version I used. I’ll be speaking at the launch of this remarkable book on 12/09/20. Due to COVID-19, this will be an online event. Keep an eye on my Events page for more information.]
Vincent, Philip (1638) The Lamentations of Germany Wherein, as in a Glasse, we May Behold Her Miserable Condition. And Reade the Woefull Effects of Sinne. Composed by Dr Vincent Theol. an Eye-Witness Thereof; and Illustrated by Pictures (Printed by F.G. for Iohn Rothwell, and are to be sold at the signe of the Sunne in St. Pauls Church-yard.) https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3445506