Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Aschaffenburg on the Main

Illustrated by Thomas Sulman.


As the Rhine and the Moselle have their distinctive characters, so has the Main. It is through the whole of its course a peculiarly smiling, happy, devil-may-care river.

As the Rhine is strong, the Moselle beautiful, so is the Main genial. Its nature is fitly imaged in the pages of its peculiar poet, who however seems rather to have drawn inspiration than to have drunk water from its bed; the poet who was actually too full of the spirit of song to suffer the fetters of verse: Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, who died in his house at Bayreuth as genially as he had lived, in his easy-chair, with his pet canaries hopping about his head. Well may the Germans call him the “only one!”

The Germans are proud of the Main, as they are proud of Richter, for his freedom from foreign shackles. If they cannot boast of their river as the Spartans did of their women, that he has never seen the smoke of an enemy’s camp, they can boast that an enemy has never permanently possessed a foot of his banks. But this is in great part owing to his central situation. Certain it is that the same race of Franks, freemen or nobles par excellence, who came into the country at the great migration, and went forth, a part of them, to subdue Gaul and make it France, still are dominant in their old haunts, and their women bind their heads in the traditional red kerchief of a thousand years ago. So Schiller testifies of this river—

Mine are but ruinous castles, in sooth, but still I console me,
Seeing the self-same race flourishing there as of yore.

The derivation of the word Main is a puzzle. Some say it denotes a stream with two arms, and was originally Mān, comparing it to that “forked radish with head fantastically carved” which is Carlyle’s definition of the species to which he belongs. Some again derive it from Mān or Mon, the moon-god, as having, like the crescent moon, two horns. This Mān is pronounced in middle Franconia, Moyn or Moen, hence the Mœnis of Pomponius Mela, and the Mœnus of Tacitus. Others think its name only denotes the main affluent of the Rhine, the Big River, as the ocean, from its size, is called the main.

In old times the Menapii dwelt on its banks, and derived their name from their habitation. The Main has the honour of having something in common with the Nile. As the Egyptian river is formed by the junction of the Blue and White Niles, so is the Frank river formed by the junction of the White and Red Mains, which, after it becomes a single stream, fertilises banks that bear wine, both white and red. The colours attributed to the streams are most probably derived from the colour their respective waters take from their bottoms. The Red Main springs from the Rothmansbrunnen in the Semmelsbuch, a lonely hamlet near Schwärtz, flows through Creuser, St. Johann and Georg near Bayreuth, and meanders on across fat Franconian plains to Steinhaus, where it is joined by the White Main after a run of twenty-five English miles. The White Main rises in the Fichtelgebirge, close to the Ochsenkopf mountain. Markgrave George William in 1717 surrounded its source with masonry, since which time it has been known as the Fürstenbrunnen, or Prince’s Well. But, as several sources contribute to the stream, it is as hard as in most other cases to fix on the authentic one. The Main is mostly a wide, shallow, superficial, and easy-going stream, and seems to have a general objection to the performance of tours de force, as it makes a wide bow to the north to avoid the Franconian table-land, turning south again to receive an accession of strength from the Regnitz at Bamberg, then north to avoid some more hills to Schweinfurt, then south again to take a degree at Würzburg, then north again to Lohr, then south again to round the soft sandstone mountains of the Spessart, instead of cutting them in two as the Rhine would have done and as the railway does (which loop constitutes the most beautiful part of its course), then, from Aschaffenburg flowing lazily on through the level past Frankfort, into the Rhine at Mainz.

Aschaffenburg may derive its name from the brook Aschaff (Ascaffa), meaning water that flows through tilled lands. The Romans called it Ascapha. It appears to have been, in A.D. 69, one of their most important stations, and was doubtless strongly fortified, as lying close to a very assailable point in the Limes Transrhenanus. A votive stone, now lost, was discovered in the last century, which recorded that an offering was made here by the eleventh British legion and the twenty-third to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, to the gods of Britain generally, and those of Mancunium or Manchester in particular. The eleventh and fourteenth legions, which went to Britain under Claudius in the year 43, were ordered by Vespasian to Germany and Dalmatia, and a considerable number of native troops had been enrolled with them. It does not appear that in those days Manchester was the metropolis of the Peace Society.

Schloss Johannisburg (Sulman).png
Castle of Johannisburg.

The Alemans drove the Romans away from the Main, and were themselves driven southward by the Franks in 496. In the eighth century, under Charlemagne, the Benedictine convent of Honau, in Alsace, planted here a missionary colony, which was changed by Duke Otto of Bavaria, a grandson of Charlemagne, into a collegiate foundation. In 1122, Archbishop Adalbert of Mainz took refuge here from the Emperor Henry V., and surrounded the town with walls, and built a strong castle. The town remained subject to the Electors of Mainz till 1803, when it became the capital of a principality. The conditions under which the Confederacy of the Rhine was formed made its territory a grand duchy, which lasted until the fall of Napoleon, when it was ceded to Bavaria, which retains it now. On arriving at the station from Frankfort, the first object of note is the so-called Pompeianum, erected by King Ludwig on an eminence upon the bank of the river. It is a square building, with a terrace and upper story smaller than the lower, built after the model of the house of Castor and Pollux at Pompeii. Its site, aspects, and environments are quasi-Italian, and the contiguous gardens produce a rich golden wine which smacks of the sunny South. The house is by no means imposing externally, but the frescoes and mosaics with which the interior is decorated represent faithfully those found in Pompeii. The great object of the Romans in their dwellings seems to have been to exclude glare and heat, and secure in every direction a thorough draught of air. They appear to have had a peculiar horror of that stuffiness of living by which the people of the middle ages ruined their constitutions, and of the prejudices engendered by which civilisation has hardly yet rid itself, especially on the Continent. Those imperial men whose frames were kept at the acmè of strength and beauty by the bath, and the gymnasium, and the wrestler’s oil, would have stood aghast at closed windows and curtained beds, and would very soon have kicked on the floor, as Englishmen generally do now, those abominable eider-down over-beds, under which the Teutonic race smothers itself nightly, even in the dog-days. I have heard of an instance of a fat German gentleman, whose wife tied down the over-bed on her husband every night, to prevent the accident of its rolling off. It is remarkable what glowing health beams from the faces and figures of gods, heroes, goddesses, and heroines, in those Pompeian paintings, which must have been copied from the women and men of these days. Luxurious and sensual they doubtless were, but robust and healthy, and of superlative personal cleanliness. It remained for the superstitions of a later day to connect sanctity with filth and squalor. From the terrace of the Pompeianum there is a fine view of the Main with its mediæval bridge, and the parade-ground of the sky-blue Bavarian troops, with the way leading to the Schöne Busch, a royal shrubbery and pleasure garden. To the left are seen the softly broken hills of the Spessart; altogether a charming landscape.

The town ditch has now been changed into a pleasant garden, with lofty trees, and cool shady walks. One gate, named the Herstall-thor, is of great beauty. Two little towers stand at the other end of the causeway which leads into it over the ditch, and add greatly to the picturesqueness of its effect.

The castle of Johannisburg was completed in 1614; it was founded by Johann Schweikard, one of the Electors of Mainz. It contains a moderate library and a famous collection of engravings. The buildings form a square, with a great tower at each of the angles 180 feet high, with five stories. There is one more window than there are days in the year. The length of each façade is 295 feet. The area of the central court is more than 30,000 square feet. The whole is built of a pinkish sandstone. King Ludwig of Bavaria has occasionally occupied this palace; but from the air of out-at-elbows majesty and splendid discomfort that reigns in its halls, one is not surprised that it is by no means the favourite seat of that artistic monarch. The saloons contain a vast number of pictures, mostly very old, very small, and very indifferent. Rubens, however, is represented by a Silenus, very well painted, and there are some good Rembrandts, and one or two striking Holbeins. The pictures are mostly pseudo-Pre-Raphaelite performances of the Dutch and German schools. Taken altogether the building, as viewed from every side, stands well upon its legs, and has a sumptuons, palatial air, as most buildings of the Renaissance period have. In the gateway are several branching antlers, the spoils of stags slain in the chase, some of King Ludwig’s killing; and there is a still more ancient boar’s head, with a broken spear sticking in it, with which the steady and sturdy hand of some sporting archbishop pierced the skull of the brute in the act of lunging at his reverence.

The Collegiate Church of the town was built in the Byzantine style, in honour of Saints Peter and Alexander, and dates from 970 to 980 A.D. It stands on a hill, and is approached by a double staircase. The prevalent form is that of the Latin cross. Formerly it had two towers, now it has only one, and that in the Pointed Gothic style, showing it to be later than the bulk of the building. The interior is populous with armoured monumental effigies, amongst which one of the most striking is that of Duke Otto of Bavaria, Saxony, and Suabia, erected in 1574. He it was, a nephew of the Emperor Otto II., who is supposed to have endowed the foundation in 969. The hill on which the church stands is called the Badberg, or Bath-mountain, and its steep slope is clad with vineyards on the other side. The bridge of Aschaffenburg spans the Main with 10 arches. In its present form it dates from 1430, Archbishop Willegis having found on the spot the foundations of a Roman bridge, and on them erected one of wood, which was doubtless swept away by the weight of those masses of loose ice which the stream carries with it after every thaw, and the grinding of which is even said to loosen the present stone buttresses.

G. C. Swayne.