Colmar Remembered


Most people have never heard of Colmar, a tiny French Alsace town near the German border.  Charlemagne knew it as a Saxon settlement, and it existed as one of the many little spaces connecting the Holy Roman Empire.  Not all of its residents were Christians.

Colmar’s “street of the Jews” once housed a synagogue, a school, a mikveh, and a thriving community, Jews living side by side peacefully with their Christian neighbors in a tumultuous Medieval landscape.

That is, until the Black Death. Jews received the blame for the plague in 1348-49, and, despite protestations from the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope, their neighbors turned against them.

They were burned alive by Colmar’s residents.

What thoughts went through their 14th century Medieval minds when they buried their treasure- a treasure no one found until 1863? And can we learn from this episode in human history? I’ve stopped asking “what can we learn” because I feel that few can see the patterns anymore.

Maps of Colmar come later, including a stunning bird’s eye  view of its homes, businesses and street life from the 1540s.  In the 1540s, there was no sign of Jewish life in Colmar.  The synagogue is gone. The school is gone.  No one remembered the Jews.

This photo is of a wedding ring from the Cloister’s current exhibit on the Colmar Treasure. Its letters represent Mazel Tov, and it depicts the Temple, which had been destroyed by Romans centuries earlier. It belonged to a human being, who most probably planned to hand it down through the generations.

Studying history through its objects offers a deep perspective.  What objects remain to tell the story?




When A Pope Quits

celestine V

Today, Pope Benedict XVI made the decision to step down.  For Roman Catholics, this is a shocking surprise.  For historians, it is a moment in which we “watch history happen”  – a very overused phrase, but one which means that we witness an unusual event which will be discussed long after we’re no longer here.

Benedict is not the first Pope to step down.  Perhaps the most famous is Celestine V, a former hermit who was named as Pope against his will, kidnapped, and sent to Rome.  He was 79 at the time.  He served for five months, stepping down in 1294 in order to head back to his cave in Abruzzi.   Sadly, he didn’t make it very far.  The next Pope in line kidnapped him and imprisoned him.  He died in prison, either by disease or he was murdered.

Before Celestine, who would probably prefer to be remembered as Peter Marrone, there was Pope John VIII, who stepped down in 1009 for reasons unknown.   John battled the power of the Ottonian Emperor Henry II over the issues of church and state – the idea of a non-Church controlled Empire was beginning to heat up at the time.

Gregory XII was the last Pope to step down.  In 1415, the Church was faced with two Popes:  one in Rome, and another in Avignon, and then a THIRD Pope was named to reconcile the schism between the two Popes.  The Council of Constance reconciled the schism, naming a NEW Pope, Martin V.

Pope Benedict XVI is not the first Pope to step down, but in nearly 2,000 years, he is Number 4, and perhaps the first to step down for being too tired to continue.   Let’s keep watching this story to see how it unfolds!


Medieval Renaissnce

Bringing Up the Dead – How Something (or someone) Lost Can Be Found Again

In our Medieval classes, we mentioned the story that Attila the Hun was buried in a three coffins made of gold, silver and iron, and then buried below a river.  One student asked if there is a chance of ever finding this coffin, which, if the story is true, should be somewhere in Hungary (or, just the gold!).

Even without such an elaborate burial, there is always a chance for discovery.  King Richard III, who died in 1485, was recently found in a parking lot!   We’ll learn more about Richard in our upcoming late spring Renaissance class, but you can read about the discovery here!

Richard III