Somewhere in the forests west of Kassel, near the ruins of a medieval castle…
My first morning in Kassel, I was invited by my host Claudia to have some breakfast with her. On the breakfast table was a huge spread of German smoked ham, Spanish cheeses, toast I didn’t recognize and jams I couldn’t pronounce. She also gave me some good advice on what to see in Kassel, and had a slew of city maps and guides to go through.
The morning was an exploration of all the famous Grimm fairy tales, especially of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Kassel is where the Grimm Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm spent 30 years of their lives collecting and writing their famous fairy tales. Right next door to Kassel are the tiniest towns of Waldeck & Bergfreiheit. This is where the story of Snow White was inspired by the life of Countess Margaretha von Waldeck, the daughter of Count Philip IV of Waldeck and Countess Margaret of East Frisia.
Margaretha was born in 1533. At the age of 4, her mother died in childbirth. Count Philip IV remarried two years later to a woman named Catharina of Hatzfield. Margaretha was known to be a local beauty, with pale skin and black hair.
At a young age, Margaretha was sent to Brussels to live at court since she and her stepmother could not get along. There, she met the future King Philip II of Spain, and the two fell in love. They became lovers and intended to marry. The union was forbidden by Philip’s father, who had already arranged a marriage for Philip to the future Queen Mary of England. Margaretha died suddenly on March 15, 1554 at the age of 21, after what was later discovered that she had been poisoned. A common method of poisoning was through food, though how exactly Margaretha was poisoned is unknown. Her last letters showed the tremors in her handwriting typical of a poisoning victim. She also wrote a final will, so she knew that she was probably going to die soon. Margaretha was likely killed by the Spanish, since her step mother Catharina had herself already died in 1546.
So far, we have a beautiful heiress, a far away prince, an unkind step mother and the inspiration behind the poisoned apple. We are still missing a large portion of the Snow White fairy tale however – the mining dwarves. Mining in the area of Bergfreiheit was first mentioned in 1252, 300 years before Margaretha was born, when mineral rights were awarded to the Cistercian monks of Haina. On September 14, 1561, Count Samuel von Waldeck (Margaretha’s older brother) announced the opening of the Bergfreiheit copper mines. In order to entice miners to work for him, Waldeck offered them many privileges, including hunting and timber rights, as well as exemption from both military duty and clamping services (which has something to do with service to an authority figure, although I cannot find a concise modern definition for this reference). Unfortunately, this mining town soon degraded due to early depletion of the copper ore reserves. Soon after the opening of the copper mines, the town reached a peak of 1000 inhabitants. But by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), hardly 50 years later, the population had dropped to a mere 15. Many tried at great expense to revive the mining town over the next several centuries, but all attempts were soon abandoned.
So here are our miners, but the fairy tale of Snow White specifically includes in the story, 7 dwarf miners. Most likely, these dwarves were inspired by the children who worked in the mines. These children made a significant percent of the miners since they could fit into the narrowest of copper veins, some of which were only a foot tall. Because these children worked for days hunched over without adequate food or rest, they often developed great arm strength at the expense of a stunted height, resulting in small, crippled adults.
The “jewels” the Grimm dwarves were mining were likely a reference to copper, or to the locally occurring Kellerwald agate, a red jasper laced with veins of white quartz, sometimes used in jewelry and small household items.
The miners lived inside miner’s huts known as Einzimmerhāusers. These houses are exactly as the Grimms describe them in Snow White: a house of only 215 square feet, consisting of one room. One section of the room served as the kitchen and dining room, while the other was a bedroom. The houses were often lived in by 6 or more miners.
Fairy tales are often just that – tales. However the local legends from the Schwartzwald and Schwalmstadt regions of Germany (aka the Black Forest and slightly north) are all deeply rooted in the real lives and experiences of real people. Of course, over time they become warped and exaggerated; this is how we receive the variations that are familiar to us as children today. The Grimm brothers knew nearly 200 years ago that they had to preserve these quickly disappearing stories of local heritage and age old culture. The original stories have since disappeared, as is true with most oral traditions in a modern world. All we are left with are the Grimms’ variations, but with a bit of digging, the true stories still do come out.
Now I’m just on the hunt to find that magic mirror…*wink*