German Hamlet

Zscheiplitz, Manor of wine, jewellery, history and Hamlet…

The Manor of Zscheiplitz, in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, is an impressive piece of medieval architecture in itself, but the long and largely ignored history tethered to the area just west-south-west of Leipzig is perhaps a key basis for one of England’s most famous scripts: Hamlet!

Yes, you may ask with reason: Is the story of Hamlet rooted in medieval Germany? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. The history local to Zscheiplitz, of the beautiful Adelheid, nefarious Count Ludwig and Adelheid’s son Friedrich is told, somewhat piecemeal, by several local historical chronicles and is one that inspired several romantic writers of the time. 

One of the best-known middle English romances still known, the Bevis of Hampton, is said to be inspired by it, as is a part of Saxo Grammaticus’ Deeds of Danes. And lest we forget, Shakespeare’s masterpiece opens with the Prince being summoned back from his studies in Wittenberg, not far away from Zscheiplitz.

The parallels to Hamlet from the local story are unmistakeable: Friedrich IV of Saxony, is increasingly disturbed by the suspicion that Count Ludwig of Thuringia murdered Friedrich’s father (Friedrich III and Ludwig’s cousin) so as to wed his mother, Adelheid of Saxony, and eventually openly accuses Ludwig of murder, challenging him to a duel.

An oft-accepted version of Hamlet’s creation is that Shakespeare penned it on the basis of an earlier play by Thomas Kydd, known as the Ur-Hamlet. 

Kydd was known to travel Europe extensively during his time, while Grammaticus’ work is often thought itself to be a source of inspiration to Hamlet, while others have asserted that Hamlet is a mixture of Grammaticus’ work, Kydd’s work and Histoires Tragiques, a French translation of Grammaticus’ work by Belleforest . But no copy of Kydd’s Ur-Hamlet has survived, so it is hard to say with certainty.

What is easier to say with certainty is that the Manor at Zscheiplitz is stacked with history, troubled young princes roaming the halls or not. It sits on a Neolithic historical settlement dating back 5,000 years, a picturesque location at the top of a hill beside the Saale valley. Currently the world’s oldest continually-inhabited house (at over 1,000 years old), it was bought and restored by the von Hahn family in 2008 in a completely privately-funded project. 

Aside from guided tours of the area in multiple languages, the Manor also welcomes conferences and events and hosts wine-tastings with some of the local tipples – the Saale Unstrut wine region is known for producing dry, white wines with refreshing acidity from Müller-Thurgau, pinot blanc, silvaner and Riesling grapes and is one of Europe’s northernmost wine regions. The Manor houses a vast cellar as well. 

But it is the history that marks the place out more than anything, and makes it well worth a visit – if for no reason other than to take a moment in the gardens and wonder: To be, or not to be…

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Background: the full story of the beautiful Adelheid, Lady of Weissenburg

The story of the Lady of Weissenburg became one of the most well-known dramas of the early medieval Europe. Its ‘theatrical’ quality, its dramatic power — a collision of love, betrayal and retribution — for centuries aroused the imagination of poets, singers, writers and painters. It entered the folklore of German-speaking people from Holland to northern Italy. In Slovakia, the version of the Ballade of the Lady of Weissenburg was known — and sung — up until after the second world war.

Count Friedrich, Imperial Palatine of Saxony, married Adelheid, daughter of the powerful Count of Stade. Things were rarely that simple in marriage even back then, and soon after the wedding, Adelheid fell in love with her neighbour – young Ludwig, Count of Thuringia and Friedrich III’s cousin. Together, they conspired to murder Friedrich, staging a hunting accident: One gloomy winter day a party of hunters enter the forest near Friedrich’s residence. Reacting to Adelheid’s warning, he dashed off to intercept and to arrest the trespassers, who ambushed him and killed him. He was buried at the Goseck monastery nearby.

However, while Friedrich was gone, his genetic legacy was not. Adelheid, who had by now wed Ludwig with almost indecent haste and without properly observing the period of mourning, bore the dead Count a son, Friedrich IV.

The young Friedrich was less than happy with his step-father, who was briefly detained by Emperor Heinrich IV of the time, but escaped – and earned the epithet ‘The Jumper’ – by jumping into the Saale River. As Ludwig won back favour with the Emperor over time, so his power as Count of Thuringia grew. He was no slouch as a politician, bestowing generous deeds of appropriated land and privileges on his subjects. He then built the Neuenburg Castle, barely 3km away from the Weissenburg Castle: Friedrich’s court. This was a grave affront to Friedrich, opening up the rift between them further. Friedrich would go on to openly accuse Ludwig of his father’s murder and challenge him to a duel.

In something of an anti-climax, the duel never happened. Friedrich left the state to marry Agnes, daughter of Count Henrik van Limburg, with whom he had two children. Most likely to his glee, he outlived his stepfather, who died in either 1123 or 1126. His mother had, meanwhile, died as a nun in 1111, in the monastery at Zscheiplitz which Adelheid had established as a place of repentance and remembrance for Friedrich III and which still stands today.

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