The Roots of the Black Forest
“Liberty, that lovely thing, was discovered in the wild forests of Germany”
This was the Black Forest of centuries ago, wild and untamed, known only to the ancient people who made this forest their home. Nestled in the southwestern tip of Germany, the Black Forest has been host to many migrant tribes through the centuries. The forest and its people have experienced centuries of war and devastation, from the Roman Empire, European rulers, their own robber-knights, the Christian church and the black plague. This turbulent history through the centuries has made the people of the forest who they are, strong, stubborn and proud. There are several beliefs as to the origin of the German name. Some believed that the Romans bestowed the name of Germans or war-men to the “blue-eyed, skin-clothed giants,” because of their strength and aggressiveness. Still others believe that their allies, the Celts, were responsible for their name, referring to them as ‘Germani,’ which means ‘neighbor’ or ‘men of the forest.’
No matter which version of the story is believed, both speak of a strong and passionate people with deep loyalties to their forests. The Black Forest is shrouded in legend and mystery. The name Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, comes from the dense growth of conifer trees that block out much of the sunlight, giving the depths of the forest a dark, mysterious feeling. Many times, fog rolls in like a blanket, covering the forest in mist, adding an aura of mystery and foreboding to its depths. This forest has inspired many legends and stories through the centuries, including the original version of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” and “Rapunzel.” The brothers’ collection of folktales published around 1812, contained graphic violence, premarital sex, incest, child abuse, anti-Semitism, and more adult content. Of course, these stories have since evolved into the stories that are known today.
The history of the Black Forest is fascinating, but it is the people of the forest that hold the most interest. Lisbeth Seguin’s book, The Black Forest: Its People and Legends, was first published in 1879. In it, the author gives us unique insight into the culture of the Black Forest people during a time when the rest of the world was quickly changing. Except for the railroad, industry had not yet reached into the forest, but this did not seem to interfere with the daily lives of these hard-working, self-sufficient people. They were farmers and loggers as well as skilled wood carvers, world-renowned clock makers, glass blowers, and music box and hat makers. The Inns and guest houses were known for their cleanliness, good food, and great hospitality. The people of the forest were friendly and welcoming to strangers, genuinely curious to know more about the visitors who came to explore their world. Seguin’s book is a rare glimpse into what life was like so long ago for the Black Forest community. Historically speaking, our rapidly changing world has disrupted indigenous people’s culture, stripping them of their way of life, destroying the traditional roots of the past.
Like so many cultures that have been lost to globalization, I was curious to explore how our modern world might have changed the Black Forest people’s cultural traditions. Vacationing there holds the same draw to outsiders as it did 140 years ago. Tourism plays a major part in the economy of the people who live there, giving visitors a tiny glimpse of the deep culture and history of this area of Germany. When visiting the larger towns and cities in the Black Forest, visitors can enjoy the thermal spa baths, which originated in the early 1800s, the half-timber houses built with Black Forest wood, Castle ruins, skiing, art galleries, vineyards, fine dining, and a healthy night life.
But it’s in the smaller villages, away from heavy tourism, that visitors can experience the people and their origins of century’s old craftsmanship much like it was long ago. Steeped in traditional culture, these artisans take great pride in their work, carving and crafting their wares with precision and skill. This is where a person will find a quieter way of life with small hostels or inns, serving great food, and drink with the same traditional pride that is the core of the Black Forest people. You can enjoy a slice of authentic Black Forest Cake, which is a chocolate cake made with fresh black cherries, whipped cream, and dark chocolate. It is not overly sweet but has deep rich flavor and plenty of Kirsch, or Kirschwasser, a clear cherry-flavored fruit brandy from the Black Forest. This cake is something to experience, and unless it can be enjoyed in its traditional form, it is not worth eating.
The history of clock making in the Black Forest dates back nearly 400 years with the creation of the Waaguhr or Rock Clock, which used a heavy rock to power its movement. The inhabitants of the Black Forest were extremely skilled at wood working, and clock making became a very profitable business for them. The first recorded cuckoo clock was created by Franz Anton Ketterer in the mid-18th century. The Cuckoo Clock became known throughout the world because of the hand carved wood designs and beautiful detailing of these clocks. Through the years, new tools and technology have replaced many of the old ways yet the clock makers of the Black Forest still craft and carve their clocks by hand.
The artistry of wood carving in the Black Forest, dates back to the early 16th century. In the small village of Oberammergau, the Albl family’s long history in wood carving is a great source of pride. Their family tree has been documented back as far as 1556 and their generations of experience and core values have helped to shape this “magical mountain” village and the forest it calls home. Technology has improved equipment and techniques used in this craft but the family continues the wood carving tradition to this day.
But that is not all the Albl family and its ancestral roots contribute to the Black Forest. Oberammergau is also known worldwide for its Passion Play. In 1632, in the middle of the brutal Thirty Years war of central Europe, the bubonic plague reach this Black Forest village and by 1633, the Black Death had claimed more than one quarter of Oberammergau’s residence. The villagers made a vow to God to perform the Passion Play every 10 years if he would spare the village from the plague. The disease ceased, and it is said that not another life was lost to the Black Death. The Albl family’s ancestors, Franz-Xaver-Joseph and Paul Albl, were among the survivors who made the original vow to God. In 1634 they fulfilled their vow, holding the first performance on a stage built over the graves of those who died in the plague. It has been held every 10 years with two exceptions due to government interference and war. The 42nd Passion Play will be held May through October of 2020 with over 100 performances. To me, this over 380-year-old tradition is probably the most impressive part of Black Forest History.
Since Seguin wrote about her experiences with the people of the Black Forest, some things have changed. Most villagers depend on local markets to feed their families in place of family gardens with pigs and chickens. There is running water, electricity, phones throughout all the communities of the forest. The people don’t wear lederhosen or dirndl dresses daily, reserving them for special occasions. The open friendliness that Sequin experienced 140 years ago has also changed. For the most part, this is due to WWII, which changed the way they looked at outsiders, making them more suspicious and cautious around strangers, until they get know you, of course, then the friendliness returns.
Although it is evident that change has affected the lives of the people of the forest, they have managed to evolve and change with the world around them, while still holding true to their culture and traditions. They continue to honor their ancestral heritage and their forest with great pride and strength of character that has served them well through centuries of wars, plague, and political unrest. Just like the forest that surrounds them, these strong people are rooted deep in the mystery and legends that have shaped their way of life. They are the Germani, the people of the Black Forest.
Susan Andrews has been a resident of Colorado for 26 years. She is currently pursuing a degree in Fine Art with a focus on painting and photography. Susan loves the outdoors and spends her free time gardening and painting.