August 31.

Cancel the Castle?

The landscape being what it is here in Habichtswald, I came across a castle ruin quite by accident while exploring a new path through the woods. It’s not what you would think of when you think of a castle—it’s only a rough pile of stones. What I have here in front of me, this brooding lump half-hidden by shrubs and scraggly trees is the Blumenstein, so the sign at its base tells me. It was at one time the site of a small castle, about 800 years ago, at the height of the encastleation era in western Europe. Now there’s no evidence of any fortification or dwelling except an overgrown wall and ditch. Castles come and go.


Accidental Lump. The castle come full circle, from order to disorder.

In Germany, there are still hundreds of Burgs (hill-top castles) and many of them are in regions like Hessen, where single hills spaced at a convenient distance afforded both an easily defended vantage point over the land below and plenty of stone to build with. The dome-shaped wooded hills of Habichtswald, looking like dark green dumplings dropped into the landscape, are actually old volcanoes. Where rock formations protrude on these hilltops you cans see the stone breaks easily into cubic bits, cobblestones of basalt.

These Burgs were the product of aggression and war, but  it’s easy not to be bothered about any of that on a pleasant summer day. Who wouldn’t want to sit on top of one of these hills and see for miles (why else do so many people go for mountain-top homes?) and who can blame anyone for wanting to see trouble before it gets to you?


Deliberate Pile. Artificial ruins were an expensive hobby of the 18th century elite.

But if castles are lookouts they are also keeps. Keeping not so much treasure as prisoners. Sometimes in the tower, sometimes hanging in a cage outside. These stone towers were not mere symbols of oppression and persecution but actual instruments of torture and murder. In more than a few towns and cities are Hexentürme—witches’ towers. Nowadays these are quaint relics, handy rendez-vous points and backdrops for colourful fairs and markets. But think about what these places were and what they did. The towers get their name from the women they killed. Historians estimate that from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries as many as 60,000 people in Europe, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned, tortured and killed.  Hey, why don’t we meet at the Hexenturm for coffee and cake!

Of course, not every stone tower is a Hexenturm. The name has been applied as a touristy gimmick to many old stone towers that were simply that—watchtowers that were part of the town’s protective wall. So when do towers, palaces, castles begin to make us feel uncomfortable? They don’t if we don’t know why they’re there in the first place. It’s also a matter of scale. Just how much murder and persecution are we talking about? A few prisoners here and there and long in the past seems somehow fine to most people, adds some gory colour, but a few hundred, a few thousand… where do you draw the line?

The distance of time makes castles blurry outlines. All of this muscular, brutal war making and persecution is fossilized and candy coated in our minds, becomes acceptable because it’s in the distant past. Castles  become “quaint”. Long before Disney movies, stone towers and fortresses worked their way into fun/scary stories for children and adult tourists and gawkers.


Sleeping Beauty once lay comatose here.

If we must—for the sake of educating girls—stop glamorizing Sleeping Beauty, shouldn’t we also stop romanticizing castles? Or only some castles? Should some of them even be taken down? Which ones? The movement to take down Confederate memorials in the U.S. has given an extra shove to the movement to topple symbols of slavery and colonialism in Europe. I can’t say that I am either for or against #CancelCulture. I think the meaning of that tag is still being formed. It does raise some interesting questions.

The trophy house of an eighteenth century slave trader is an obvious target. But why stop there? What about the fortifications the Normans built when they colonized England? Why keep any reminders of war and oppression? Some historians would argue that the encastleation of Europe was itself a kind of slow death. The end of community, of the commonweal. Castles mean the appropriation of the land for the benefit of the few.


Back to the Hexenturm. What to do with this thing that is too heavy to move and too much trouble to demolish but sits right in the middle of some busy part of town? It’s like the somewhat ugly urn a relative once gave you. You don’t ask what’s in it, you just pass it down to the next generation who will have to figure out what to do with it. So they kept the tower in Spangenberg and made it into a backdrop for a playground. (Nothing sinister here!)

There. Now I’ve ruined your European vacation, even if it was only something you enjoyed on the internet. I’ll leave you with one more thought, so we all might be able to save face the next time we catch ourselves admiring some ancient stone ruin.

What draws us to wood and stone? Perhaps the ‘just right’ feeling of natural materials and the human touch and thought so evident there: a gesture, a motion captured forever. Something like that must also be there in concrete and linoleum but so much harder to perceive, muffled. Things made by hand are different. Many of us have a sense of awe and astonishment when we walk into a cathedral. Being married to a stone carver I feel this awe too and something else: a feeling of closeness to the men who worked there. Tears come to my eyes when I understand just what went into making something like this. Constant toil but also pride, duty, fellowship. These are awe-inspiring places but also warm, familiar, heart-stirring. Human hands—with chisel and mallet—made this, all of this. I feel the same way looking at any stone wall. Someone carefully planned this construction and put these stones into place. The same is true for the palaces of the one-percenters. Allow yourself to admire these structures; there’s a good chance they were not built by prisoners or the enslaved but regular joes of centuries past.

solidly middle class

Solidly middle class. A not untypical town hall.

Admiration for workmanship is the right attitude that will allow you to “go there” and wonder what can be built to last that was not born out of fear or greed. A stone cottage, perhaps. Let’s start here.  The same care and skill needed to build a castle but on a more Everyman scale. Nearby, a stout and rustically beautiful spring house. Perhaps a stone bridge. From there, you can see your way to the half-timbered houses and stables of the prosperous farmers. That sits well with you. Okay. Next stop is the town hall, tolerably opulent. Notice the elaborate wood carvings and count the slate shingles—these were never cheap.  There you might stop and begin to have questions, doubts, some uneasiness. You can sense money and power starting to gather itself up into piles. Look up and you see the castle looking down on the town.

Don’t cancel the castle yet—but think about where it comes from and what it stands for.