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Wartburg Castle is at the center of Germany and its history

SHARE Wartburg Castle is at the center of Germany and its history

One of Germany’s most significant historical places is Wartburg Castle, built in the 11th century and located almost exactly at the nation’s center.

It stands on a 1,350-foot precipice above the Thuringian town of Eisenach, where the reformer Martin Luther attended school and sang in the boys choir and where, later, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born. In 1777, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent five weeks in the castle, sketching its buildings. In 1999, UNESCO included Wartburg among its World Heritage Sites.

The castle’s name probably comes from the German word “Warte,” meaning a “watchtower.”

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Wartburg housed one of Germanic Europe’s most important noble courts. Its rulers patronized great medieval poets (“Minnesaenger”) such as Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach (the author of “Parzifal”), and Albrecht von Halberstadt (the translator of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” into Middle High German). Moreover, according to very old accounts, it was the site of the great “Saengerkrieg” (“minstrels’ contest”) that forms the centerpiece (in Act II) of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhaeuser.”

In 1211, 4-year-old Princess Elizabeth of Hungary was sent to Wartburg for her eventual marriage to Ludwig IV of Thuringia. The wedding took place in 1221, when she was 14. The marriage appears to have been a happy one, and when she came under the influence of the teachings of their contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi, Ludwig apparently shared her enthusiasm for serving the poor. She spun wool for their clothing, used her dowry to build a hospital at the base of Wartburg, distributed money to the needy, and personally ministered to them.

One day, while out hunting with some of his retainers, her husband met her as she carried bread to the hungry, concealed beneath her cloak. The suspicious courtiers accused her of stealing from the castle’s treasures (something that was actually done on a massive scale by the Soviets after World War II). So Ludwig asked her to open her cloak and reveal what she was hiding — and, miraculously, her accusers saw only a vision of red and white roses.

Unfortunately, just six years after their wedding, Ludwig died in Italy while underway to join the Sixth Crusade. “He is dead,” Elizabeth is supposed to have lamented when she received the news. “He is dead. It is to me as if the whole world died today." But now she threw herself with even greater devotion into serving the poor and the needy, effectively becoming both nun and nurse. Just five years after her death at the young age of 24, she was canonized and, today, she is perhaps Germany’s most beloved Catholic saint.

But Wartburg is probably most famous as the place where, between May 1521 and March 1522, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German — providing not only the basis for much of European Protestantism but the standardized modern German language itself. More than three centuries later, Joseph Smith, who restored The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would pronounce Luther’s Bible “the most correct that I have found.”

By this point, Luther had been excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Furthermore, summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to appear before the Diet of Worms — an unfortunate title, in English, for a deliberative assembly that was convened in a city whose German name should be pronounced, roughly, as “Vorms” — he had refused to recant. Accordingly, on May 25, 1521, Charles V issued the “Edict of Worms,” which reads, in part, “We forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. … We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves. … Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.” Luther’s writings were banned, and anybody could kill him without legal penalty.

However, on the way back to his post at the University of Wittenberg, Luther was “kidnapped.” Masked highwaymen sent by Frederick III (“the Wise”), the Prince Elector of Saxony, intercepted him in a forest near Wittenberg and spirited him away to the security of Wartburg. From this refuge, which — alluding to the exile of John the Revelator, he later described as “my Patmos” — Luther poured out an avalanche of important writings along with his historic biblical translation. Accordingly, the Wartburg has ranked for centuries among the most pivotal places in Christian history.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.