Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wells and treasure (and nastier things)

Anyone who has read my debut novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden will know that there is a scene involving a well (don't worry, no spoilers coming up). The book was first published in the UK in 2009, but long before it was written I was researching the topic of wells for an article I wrote for the excellent M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, whose website can be seen here:
I have been a fan of M.R.James' ghost stories since I was a child, and when we moved to Germany in 2001 we found ourselves living not far from the setting of one of them, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.    The tale concerns treasure concealed in a well at Steinfeld abbey and protected by a grotesque supernatural guardian.
I have written several articles about Steinfeld and I became very interested in the topic of wells and their place in local folklore. In 2005 I wrote an article about it which was published in the Newsletter. It is not one of those articles available on the Newsletter's website, and the issue is now out of print. Therefore, with the permission of editor Rosemary Pardoe, I am pleased to reproduce it here.

"Depositum Custodi"
Wells and Treasure in German Folklore

"...I have tried to make my ghosts act in ways not inconsistent with the rules of folklore,“ wrote M.R.James in the introduction to his Collected Ghost Stories. MRJ never visited Steinfeld Abbey, scene of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“, and there are inconsistencies between the Abbey as portrayed in the story and the Abbey in reality (cf. G&S Newsletter 5, pp. 4-8); however, his tale of treasure hidden in a well and guarded by a supernatural creature is thoroughly consistent with German folklore, and specifically that of the Eifel, where the Abbey is situated.
The fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm include a number featuring the inhabitants of wells. In "Das blaue Licht“ ("The Blue Light“), a soldier jumps down a well to retrieve a blue light for a witch he is forced to serve; when he lights his pipe at the blue light, a dwarf appears to do his bidding. With the dwarf’s assistance the soldier acquires the witch’s store of gold and silver, and eventually marries the king’s daughter. In the better-known tale "Frau Holle“, the heroine jumps down a well after a lost spindle, and finds herself in a wonderful land; she enters the service of Frau Holle and for her good work receives a shower of gold pieces and a golden dress. Frau Holle’s gold is not freely given to all, however: the ugly and lazy sister who enters Frau Holle’s service in the hope of a fortune receives a shower of black pitch instead!
"Der Froschkönig“ („The Frog King“), also known as "Eiserne (Iron) Heinrich“, is a variation of the Frog Prince story, in which a frog recovers the princess’s golden ball from a well. The well in this version is situated in a great dark forest, and the frog which dwells in it has a distinctly unpleasant appearance, "stretching forth ist big, ugly head from the water“. Later, as the princess was at dinner, "something came creeping up the marble steps, splish splash, splish splash“; when the princess opens the door she slams it again and sits down at the table once more, her heart beating violently with terror. Shades of that "horrid, grotesque shape – perhaps more like a toad than anything else“ in "Abbot Thomas“...
From the Eifel town of Kall, not far from Steinfeld, comes the tale of the "Kaller Erdmännchen“, the "Little Man of the Earth“[1], which features a kind of "well of treasure“. The story goes that a starving widow sent her eldest son out to beg; the young man met a little man dressed as a miner who led him to a deserted shaft full of precious metal. The young man could remove and sell as much as he liked, on condition that he told no-one where the treasure had come from. Many people, curious at the young man’s sudden wealth, tried to find out where he was obtaining it, but he refused to tell. Finally some of them contrived to get him drunk, and he revealed the secret. The next morning when the young man descended into the hole, the little man was waiting for him, glaring with anger... A little later, the men who had discovered the secret came and eagerly hauled up the bucket on its winch  from the hole; in it lay no metal but the young man’s dead body. After that none dared enter the shaft, and at last the entrance became overgrown and lost. At the end of the story, as in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“, the site of the treasure is nce more left to become overgrown.
In the mediaeval town of Bad Münstereifel, some ten miles west of Steinfeld, there is a local tradition that ecclesiastical treasure was hidden in a well somewhere in the town. As in MRJ’s story, the tale of the Bad Münstereifel treasure also has its Mr. Somerton, in the form of local businessman and philanthropist Alex Schlierf. Herr Schlierf kindly agreed to share his experiences with the G&S Newsletter[2].
The story of the Bad Münstereifel treasure has been handed down orally.[3] Tales of hidden treasure are about as old as mankind, dating back to the times when precious items were buried with their owner in his grave. A well, especially one located under a house, is a particularly good hiding-place, since anything in it is protected even in the event of the house burning down. According to local legend, the nuns of the Carmelite convent in Bad Münstereifel hid treasure belonging to the church in a well when the French invaded the town[4] – and the treasure still lies there, awaiting discovery.
Bad Münstereifel has two public wells, with winch and bucket still extant, in the south end of the town. What is not so obvious to the casual visitor is that most houses in the old town also had their own well in the cellar.[5] There were many advantages in having one’s own well: apart from the saving in the labour of fetching water from a public well, the inhabitants could deal with a house fire more quickly, and last out longer in the event of a siege. These wells were capped according to new sanitary regulations after World War II, and water pipes were installed instead. Whatever lay within a particular well was seemingly sealed off forever.
Alex Schlierf was born in his family home in the town in the 1950s. As an apprentice of fourteen he listened to older me relating tales dating back a hundred years, which had been handed down from their own grandparents – tales such as that of the grisly discovery made under the crypt of the Jesuit church in the 1920s, for example[6]. There was also an unsubstantiated rumour that a number of skeletons of unwanted babies had been found close to a wall in the Heisterbacher Strasse.
In 1973, Herr Schlierf acquired the house in which his business, Optik Alex Schlierf, is now conducted. The building stands on the site of a mediaeval mill belonging to the collegiate church in Bad Münstereifel, extensively renovated in the eighteenth century. Alex Schlierf was convinced that there was a well somewhere in the cellars of the house. Could it be the one in which the nuns’ treasure was concealed? Since the mediaeval mill was church property, and it stands only a short distance from the site of the old convent, it seemed a likely candidate. With an enthusiasm of which Mr.Somerton would be proud, Herr Schlierf had the floor tested, and after some false starts a well-shaft was found and excavated. Alas! The excavations revealed a lot of masonry and part of the mill-wheel axle, but no treasure. If the treasure of the church really was deposited in a well in the town, thus far it has obeyed the injunction, keep that which is committed to thee. [7]Readers of the G&S Newsletter may take the view that this is for the best...
Finally, here are some general observations about wells in the mediaeval Eifel from Herr Schlierf, which provide interesting background to the location of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“:
Having one’s own water supply (as did Abbot Thomas) increased the capital value of a building. Well-building in itself appears to have been a hazardous occupation, quite likely to produce its own ghosts. The procedure was to dig downwards, sometimes as far as fifteen metres, supporting the excavated sides of the well with stones as the work proceeded. The stones were not cemented, and therefore there was always the risk that the sides would collapse, or that the water table would suddenly break through. Many workers never got out of the well at all! The completed well also represented a risk to the unwary: some wells were bottle-shaped, and others had a bend in the neck. Either way, if anyone fell in, their chances of ever getting out again were slim.
Furthermore, all the wells in a town like Bad Münstereifel were connected, since each householder sunk his well into the water table which also supplied his neighbour’s house. Co-operation was vital; if, for example, an animal fell into the well at the top of the street and was left to decay, it would poison every well further downstream. It was an arrangement which could only work if the inhabitants of the town shared their water responsibly. For Alex Schlierf, this is significant: "Teilen ist der grösste Schatz“ – "The greatest treasure of all is sharing.“
A well could be valuable, very dangerous, and sometimes the repository of secrets – whether hidden wealth or a tiny skeleton – in fact, the ideal location for Abbot Thomas’s treasure and its unpleasant guardian...

With thanks to Herr Alex Schlierf.

[1] The story of the "Kaller Erdmännchen“ is retold by Hans Peter Schiffer in his collection of Eifel folktales, Die Drachenlaterne (1998). The Grimm quotations are from Grimms Märchen (Knaur Verlag, 2003); the translations are mine.
[2] As the original interviews were in German, I have related the content as reported speech.
[3] I have not been able to find any record of the story in collections of local folk tales, etc. This may be its first appearance in print!
[4] This gives a probable date of 1689, since that year the castle was burnt by invading French troops. The fear of war and plundering was instrumental in the history of the Steinfeld glass (see G&S Newsletter 5), which was repeatedly removed and hidden.
[5] It is possible to see the location of one of these wells in the local history museum, one of the oldest houses in Germany. It is, of course, now capped, but the staff report that a few items were found in it, including coins.
[6] Allegedly, three skeletons were found with bound hands!
[7] It seems unlikely, however, that Alex Schlierf’s treasure hunting will end here. He lent me a document written by his daughter, in which she describes how she and her father explored another well, in his parents’ house in the Wertherstrasse. The well was only accessible via a hole in the cellar wall, though which the water could be seen gleaming. Undaunted, Herr Schlierf used a waterproof torch on the end of a rod and line to explore the waters! 

Above: well in the Heisterbacher Strasse, Bad Münstereifel

Above: gazing down the well! 

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