THE VILLAGE 1750-1850
Rising birth rates and falling death rates throughout the country had brought the population back to about 20 million by 1750. In the case of Nieder-Weisel, this was augmented by new arrivals to the village. In spite of the obvious disadvantage of its location on the north-south military route, Nieder-Weisel offered a somewhat greater degree of safety to its residents than did some of the neighbouring villages; consequently, a number of migrants arrived during the 18th century. The newcomers were mainly tradesmen, who initially had little competition from the inhabitants.
Anton Wetzel came from Gambach and established a sieve-making business that his sons and grandsons continued for many years; the millers and flour-makers used their products. Johannes Klippel, a master shoemaker, came from one of the Catholic villages. Martin Landerer brought to Nieder-Weisel the skills of the stonemason. Christoph Volk became a sought-after tailor in the village, but his son David chose the more gregarious role of village barber. Georg Matthaus was the first to bring the craft of tapestry weaving to Nieder-Weisel. Christian Heinz was another shoemaker; he was one of the first to build a home out-side the town limits on the Butzbach road. Henrich Schaefer was one of the first to practise the art of stocking making – he was probably from Griedel. Joh Peter Samm from Frankfurt was another skilled baker and confectioner.
The increase in inter-village trade called for reliable wagons; Philipp Seip, probably from Griedel, was one of the early cartwrights in Nieder-Weisel. The associated craft of blacksmithing became equally important – the Kissler family came from Steinbach to fill this need. The increase in winemaking and beer brewing called for the production of casks and Johann Geibel introduced the trade of coopering.
Other new arrivals were labourers or semi-skilled workers, some of whom were brought in by the Order of St John. There were also traders, including Gottfried Marstellar from Gruningen, and money-changers, who were always Jews. By these immigrations, the skills and the variety of names in the village increased slowly as the years passed.
Pomp And Ceremony
As the civic and religious ceremonies became fixed in tradition, they were made more and more elaborate. The installation of a pastor was celebrated with a banquet that cost far more than his annual stipend; this was paid for by the Commander. Similarly, the installation of a burgermeister each November became a cost burden on the community. The judicial function of the Court of Jurors became secondary to the installation and other organisational procedures – the “simple repast” which the newly-appointed juror was required to provide for his colleagues became such an elaborate meal that only the well-to-do could afford to accept the appointment. The court met less and less frequently until it had no real relevance in the community.
By this time, the halcyon days of the Order were long past, and the position of Commander was little more than a sinecure; the administration of the estates was left in the hands of a steward/manager. The stewards tried to opt out of some of the traditional obligations, but the community resisted and threatened legal action. For example, the yearly Pepper Meal had degenerated into a noisy drunken orgy but the council would not take an offer of 150 florins as payment in lieu – the cost to the Order was almost twice this amount, equivalent to about the value of five fat oxen.
The Seven Years War; 1756-1763
When the state of Prussia appeared to be preparing to challenge the authority of the Emperor, the nations of the Holy Roman Empire united against it. France moved her troops into the Wetterau and turned Friedberg into a stronghold and military storehouse. They also occupied Frankfurt.
The French army moved north each spring and returned to Frankfurt in the autumn; they spent a rest day in Nieder-Weisel each time, usually camping on the Landstrasse, and behaving as they had always done, with no regard for property or person. They took over the commandery church in 1758 and used it as a military hospital, causing considerable damage to the building. They also severely damaged the great south gate by trying to pull a cannon through it that was somewhat wider than the gate opening. With difficulty, quarters for a single regiment could be made available in the village but, at times, the villagers had to billet and feed four at a time. In 1759, the entire army of Marshal Comtade camped outside Giessen and the villagers had to take fruit and hay to them, a round trip of 35 km.
Ordeal By Fire
The village was spared troop movements in 1761, but the residents were forced to make many deliveries of fruit and fodder to Kassel. However the unaccustomed quiet in the village was shattered on the morning of 6th May by an outbreak of fire in the pigsty of a house just outside the northern gate, where the Heinz family lived. A description of the fire, translated from a German History of Nieder-Weisel, is set out below.
The Great and Terrible Fire of 1761
May 6, 1761 was a fateful day for the hamlet of Niederweichsel. Along the road from Butzbach to Niederweisel, left hand side, a small fire started at the pigsty of the fourth house from the village gate. Because of the great drought, and lack of water, this small fire spread rapidly within minutes, and a few hours later all houses along that side of the road, from the lower to the upper gate, were destroyed. Behind the burnt houses, the fire moved towards the common, and the total loss of larger buildings – counted a few days after the fire had died down – from gate to gate, was 54 houses, 74 barns, 75 large stables; a total of 203 buildings, not counting small stables. The total estimated damages were 15,927 Talers, not even counting the mass of burnt furniture. For one the fire moved too fast to rescue much of the furniture, and secondly, most of the more valuable pieces were stashed away in secret hiding places because of wars in the area, and were not easily accessible.
But, thanks be to God, not one person and very few cattle lost their lives. But as long as Niederweisel stands, the 6th of May, 1761 will be an unforgettable day. It was strange that during five years of war, there was constant fear of the French starting a fire in the town, but on this day of great misfortune, there was not a single Frenchman in the village.
Therefore, at the beginning, there was a cry that the inferno which burnt a large section of the village was caused by supernatural means. However, upon investigation it was discovered that the cause was a burning tobacco pipe.
It was quite natural that the whole section was without rescue because the wind blew from the woods towards Friedberg and in the whole section of building up to the Moerler, no rescue was possible and no human could go because of the spelt Terible smoke.
Even though many thousand persons from the whole area worked from five to six hours, they could not do anything to prevent the other part from catching on fire.
There were about 80 very large 100 year old trees around the village which were damaged by the fire.
This description shows clearly the enormous range of the fire disaster of 1761 as the whole eastern half of the village along the Butzbach road from the wheat field to the new street was a victim of the flames. The damage was probably even higher than the above estimate.
After finding temporary accommodation for the homeless, the villagers crowded into their church, which like all public buildings, had escaped the flames, while Pastor Hissgen gave thanks to God that not a single person had perished in the fire and that almost all their animals had been spared. The pastor himself had lost everything, and a parishioner gave him accommodation whilst the manse was being rebuilt.
Although there were French troops in the region on the day of the fire, none were actually in the village at the time. The Count of Solms gave the timber from 80 year-old oak and fir trees that used to be part of the moat defences to be used for the re-building of the houses destroyed, but even this was not sufficient.
Undoubtedly the most significant loss was that of the church records, including all the personal statistics, which had been thoughtlessly housed in the manse rather than in the fire-proof church tower; probably 400 years of vital information was irrevocably lost. The pastor did attempt to gather from private sources and personal recollections some of the more recent statistics. These are not arranged in the Family Book format and it is consequently very difficult to follow pedigrees beyond 1761.
A Village In Peril
England provided support to Frederick of Prussia, and in August 1762 their allied armies crossed the River Wetter between Steinfurt and Oppershofen. The French retreated from Gruningen to the south, setting up their outposts at Ostheim. An allied army corps moved through Butzbach into the Nieder-Weisel market gardens, and for 24 hours on 1st September the village was in mortal danger as two mighty armies faced one another with only Nieder-Weisel in between. Patrols from each army reconnoitred through the village in turn while the terrified residents kept their doors locked, and prayed. In the home of tapestry-weaver Johann Philipp Hildebrand, his wife Anna Katharina nee Marx went into labour with her first child; in a room next to one occupied by four French officers she gave birth to a daughter just before midnight. Susanna, the 18 year-old daughter of the magistrate Jakob Marx, risked a great deal to help her cousin with the birth.
Luckily, the allied army retired to Munzenberg without joining battle, leaving the French to their favourite pastime of looting. They brought animals through the village and caused an epidemic to break out which cost Nieder-Weisel 120 cattle from its herds. Even when the French marched north the villagers were forced to carry supplies to them – on their backs after all the horses were commandeered. Peace came at last in 1763. Prussia, superbly led by Frederick the Great, had out-generalled the Imperial Forces, and was authorised to establish an independent state; in time, this would be the foundation from which a truly united Germany would rise.
Peace And Prosperity
The next few years brought an unaccustomed peace to the Wetterau and to Nieder-Weisel. The weather was favourable and the crops flourished. Corn prices were high in relation to the cost of the necessities bought into the village and the residents were able to enjoy the fairs and festivals. Pastor Hildebrand, the first local-born appointee to that post, consecrated the vows of 8 or 9 couples each year and baptised about 35 babies. Only 25 or so people were buried in the church-yard annually, and so the population numbers increased steadily.
When joint burgermeisters Johannes Adami and Konrad Koch completed their twelve-month term as financial assistants to Mayor Georg Henrich Riegelhuth in November 1778, there were over 1,000 persons living in Nieder-Weisel. A complete census is not available, but using the church records the following list of residents (by birth name) has been constructed (Males, Females, Total).
Excluded are (a) adherents to the Catholic and Jewish faiths whose statistics were not recorded (they would have amounted to less than 2% of the population), and (b) 7 women from other villages who married residents and whose personal statistics are not on record.
As can be seen, the 15 most populous families were Hildebrand, 93 living members, Haub 74, Schimpf 64, Bill 58, Hauser 52, Wilhelmi 47, Jung 36, Heinz 32, Reuter 28, Klein 25, Marx 25, Krausgrill 24, Koch 23, Winter 23, and Maas 22. These accounted for 61% of the population.
Seventeen other families were represented by 10 to 19 members – Adami 19, Zimmer 18, Kissler 17, Riegelhuth 17, Rumpff 17, Worner 17, Geibel 16, Reuss 16, Lander 15, Fett 13, Bodenroeder 12, Draudt 11, Lenz 11, Loh 11, Alt 10, Haffer 10, and Jost 10. These families comprised another 23% of the total population; the other 49 family names made up the remaining 16% of villagers.
The male/female ratio was significantly biased towards the males – 51.8 to 48.2; this probably reflected the effect of child bearing on the women. The average age of males and females was the same at 26 years 9 months and the life expectancies of the men and women in the village at the time were also identical at 57 years 10 months.
The oldest person in the village was the tapestry-maker Johann Georg Hildebrand, born in May 1696. The oldest woman was Anna Katharina Winter nee Hildebrand, who was in her 80th year. The widow Anna Dort, 78, also a Hildebrand, was destined to become the first villager to reach the age of 90 during the 18th century.
There were more than 160 children of school age in the village by this time, and this placed a heavy strain on the teaching facilities. It had become the custom that the pastor at Hausen should also serve as instructor in the Nieder-Weisel school. Johannes Hildebrand, who was the first of the locals to hold these positions, began the practice of using an assistant – Johann Riegelhuth, the organist, in this case. This appointment was not an official one and the income from pastoral and teaching duties was shared; this was augmented by rights to take some of the produce from the church garden and orchard.
The villagers were intensely loyal to their teachers as well as their pastors. When Johannes Hildebrand died of exposure after falling into a ditch on the walk back to Hausen one night, Johann Kaspar Kapp of Windecken took his place, using Johann Jakob Eberts as assistant. When Eberts, who was betrothed to a local girl, was suspended on quite trivial grounds, there was such an outcry from the community that 30 villagers were sent to jail for several weeks pending the payment of fines imposed. The use of makeshift helpers, and even of non-academic instructors, had a disastrous effect on the standard of education, and was later to produce an entire generation of students who could not even sign their names. The situation was not rectified until the appointment of Johannes Frees from Budingen in 1817; he and his son and grandson were to give almost a century of service to the village school. The authorities later recognised the importance of the teaching function and approved salary scales that were sufficiently generous to attract qualified applicants from the training institutions.
There were 182 men with full citizenship rights in the village and 18 with limited (Beisass) rights. Another 18 men lived in the affiliated village of Hausen. The families of immigrants contributed to the increase in numbers – Johannes Nicolai and David Hengst were hired as shepherds in the commandery; Henrich Buchenschutz of the tiny hamlet of Oes-by-Hausen brought his boot-last to the village; Johann Konrad Fritz, charged with the safe-keeping of the state’s woods and highways in the area, decided to make his home in Nieder-Weisel; the teachers Johann Georg Caus and Henrich Gerlach transferred from Eberstadt; the setting-up of mills near the south pond and in the woodlands to extract vegetable oils brought the mill-wrights Konrad and Johann Adam Feiling to service them; Philipp Pfaff began a poultry trading business; other artisans, including Kaspar & Johannes Giehl and Konrad Luk, also took up residence.
Changing conditions opened up new employment opportunities:-
But, as had been so for over a millennium, the prosperity of the village continued to rest on the harvests produced by the hard labour of the peasant farmers and the cooperative soil.
Marriages And Births
Peace and prosperity throughout the Wetterau continued into the final decade of the 18th century. The harvests were bountiful and taxes moderate. The villagers enjoyed their traditional fairs and the marriage processions which circulated round the streets 12 to 15 times each year, and the baptism processions three times as often. The following accounts of a marriage and a subsequent baptism give some flavour of the associated ceremonies and celebrations.
On Wednesday 21st November 1787 Konrad, 23, elder son and third child of Land Militia Sergeant Philipp Zimmer and Anna Margaretha, 20, sixth daughter and eighth child of the Court Official and Court Juror Johann Georg Haub III in the Nieder-Weisel Church.
Philipp Zimmer’s duties often brought him in contact with the court officials, and he became friends with Johann Georg Haub. Both families were delighted when, on the occasion of the Church Anniversary in 1785, their children chose to partner one another for the first dance on the village green, indicating to the others present that they had agreed to marry. Thereafter, Konrad and Anna Margaretha were often seen walking together through the village in the evenings and going to the markets in surrounding villages at weekends.
Most marriages were scheduled to take place after the harvests were brought in and, in most cases, they took place on Sundays. However Konrad and Anna Margaretha decided to celebrate theirs on the monthly mid-week prayer day and they chose Wednesday, 21st November 1787. They obtained their baptism certificates from the pastor and took them to the mayor. Their parents signed the consent forms and the marriage certificate was drawn up at the district court. They gave the documentation to Pastor Hildebrand and the public notices were arranged. On the three Sundays before the wedding, the banns were read from the pulpit, with the couple not present. As there was no challenge, the wedding date was confirmed.
On the Tuesday, female relatives from both sides roasted meats and baked cakes; Anna Margaretha and Konrad took a fine cake to the home of the pastor and then each went to formally invite their relatives to the wedding. After lunch on Wednesday, Konrad had a sprig of rosemary pinned to the lapel of his best suit; a spray of flowers was fixed to his black hat. As the church bells rang out he walked behind his friends to take his place in the church. Anna Margaretha was dressed in a pleated frock, with an apron over it. The white sleeves had black knitted cuffs. Over the black bodice of her dress she wore a black and white knitted bib; from this hung a silver embroidery pin, given to her by Konrad. A black shawl around her neck contrasted with a white one which hung down her back. A white cloth covered her hands; on one finger she wore Konrad’s other gift – a heavy silver ring. In her hair she wore a spray of flowers interwoven with glass beads. Hose of black wool and shoes with black rosettes completed her attire. Thus dressed, she led her and Konrad’s relatives to the church, preceded by her many bridesmaids.
In the church, Anna Margaretha curtseyed and sat unmoving before the altar until the church service was over. Then, while the congregation sang “The State of Matrimony is Holy”, she moved to the altar with Konrad, curtseyed again and they exchanged their vows. The bride’s procession, followed by the groom’s, walked to the Zimmer house where cakes and wine were served. Everybody then paraded through the village, singing solemnly. Later, the guests returned for a hot meal and dancing, which went on until midnight. The bridal couple led the first three dances and then sat out the rest, indicating that they were leaving the carefree days of their youth behind them. Anna Margaretha’s attendants then removed her flowers and shoes as the guests sang “You are no longer a Young Girl but a Woman”.
On Wednesday 4th June 1788, at 5 am, to Konrad and Anna Margaretha, the first child, a daughter. Mother and baby are doing well.
The first signs of the impending birth of her baby became apparent to Anna Margaretha on the Tuesday afternoon, and Konrad went to warn the village mid-wife. She called in and arranged to stay the night in the Zimmer house. The couple were living with Konrad’s parents – as were his sister Anna Elisabetha and her husband Konrad Adami, married just a year before them.
This would be the first grandchild, so there was little sleep for anybody that night. They were all awake when the first shrill cry heralded the arrival of the baby. The mid-wife made a careful check and pronounced the baby healthy. Had there been any doubt, the father would have fetched the pastor for an in-house baptism, no matter what the hour; a child who died unbaptised could not be buried in hallowed ground. (In such a case, the body was disposed of privately by the mid-wife). The mid-wife also arranged that a wet nurse was available should Anna Margaretha not be able to suckle her baby.
Later that day, the mid-wife reported the birth to the pastor for entry in the Family Book and Konrad arranged with him for his daughter to be baptised on the following Sunday. The god-parent played an important role in the life of each child and Konrad and Anna Margaretha had considered the choice very carefully. More often than not, the sponsor was chosen from among the unmarried relatives or friends of the parents, but in this case they decided to ask Konrad’s sister, who had been such a help to Anna Margaretha during her pregnancy. Anna Elisabetha accepted the honour with pleasure and visited the pastor to be told of her obligations. The mid-wife invited to her house those women who wanted to attend the baptism and arranged the details of the procession.
On the Sunday, the women assembled at the Zimmer home and adorned the baby with miniature sprays of flowers like bridal bouquets. The child was carried to the church on a large feather-filled pillow, decorated with coloured ribbons at each corner; this pillow was never used again except perhaps as an adornment for the marital bed. The mid-wife led the procession, followed by the grandmother, the sponsor, the women who had been invited and the friends of the parents. Konrad, Anna Margaretha and her father waited in the church; no other males were invited. When Pastor Cornelius Hildebrand had baptised the child with the name, Elisabetha Zimmer, he took Konrad and Anna Elisabetha to sign the document attesting to the birth and baptism. As was his custom, he checked the date of the parents’ marriage and wrote on the document “This birth came twelve weeks too early”.
The baby’s procession returned to the Zimmer home and she was put on display in a special cradle, first for the children and then for the adults. Those who had been present at the parents’ marriage brought gifts – the most important of these was that from Konrad’s godfather Konrad Wilhelmi, comprising a range of kitchen utensils. The guests helped themselves from tables heaped with cakes, and washed them down with brandy, or with coffee brought in shining bronze pots from Konrad Wilhelmi’s home. Food was taken to infirm relatives who could not attend. The women went home to milk the cows and then came back to share in the meal of meats and salads. Beer and spirits circulated freely and pipe smoke filled the air. After more coffee the guests departed at midnight to let the baby’s family get some rest. Windows were opened to clear the air and the baby’s ordeal was over.
But although times were good and there was a general air of optimism, this, sadly, was about to change!
The French Revolution
News of the storming of the Bastille in Paris on 14th July 1789 caused little comment in the village; nobody could have envisaged the consequences that the revolution in France would have on the lives of millions of people in Europe generally and in the village of Nieder-Weisel in particular.
The wave of nationalism sweeping France brought a flood of volunteers into its citizen army. These were largely untrained but enthusiastically willing to fight for the causes of the revolution against the hated aristocrats. Other European nations were appalled at reports of the butchery taking place in Paris, where 17,000 men, women and children were guillotined during a reign of terror. Pro-revolutionary sympathisers in these countries, such as the Jakobins, were persecuted; this gave the French an excuse to turn their vast armies loose against those who were now seen to be enemies of the new republic. In 1792 they invaded Belgium, Savoy and the Rhineland, and abolished feudalism in those areas. A coalition between Britain, Austria and Prussia was formed to oppose them.
To the Wetterau, enjoying yet another bountiful season, the first portent of the forth-coming cataclysm came in June, when ill-equipped French soldiers appeared in the town of Bad Nauheim to the south of Nieder-Weisel. Here they commandeered the stockpiles of salt from the mines and sold it to pay their troops and to buy provisions. For their behaviour in the past, the French troops were universally detested.
The Austrian troops counter-attacked and Nieder-Weisel avoided for the moment the horrors of occupation. Over the horizon, the tide of battle ebbed and flowed until, in 1795, the shabby French uniforms appeared once again in the High Street and the commanding officers made the usual outrageous demands for money and provisions.
The young Corsican general, Napoleon Bonaparte, came to prominence when he put down a royalist insurrection in Paris. Taking over a badly-trained, under-fed, and poorly-equipped rabble of an army, Napoleon thrashed his opponents and forced Austria to sue for peace, ceding Belgium and Holland to France; French armies soon occupied the Low Countries, parts of Prussia, Switzerland and the Rhineland.
On 1st June 1796, Jourdan brought a French army of 100,000 men over the Rhine near Dusseldorf. When he reached the Lahn, he sent three divisions over the Taunus Ranges to capture Frankfurt; a second force occupied the Butzbach plain. Archduke Charles deployed the opposing Austrian infantry on the heights of Ober-Morlen, and the cavalry on the Nieder-Weisel plain – the unprotected village was thus surrounded by over 80,000 troops.
A French attack on 9th July drove the Austrian cavalry from Nieder-Weisel and General Ney bivouacked his infantry in the village, callously giving them “plundering rights”. The soldiers rampaged like animals for 18 hours, killing livestock, abusing residents, wrecking and torching properties and stealing personal possessions. Few families suffered no loss and some lost everything they owned – it was arguably the worst night and day in the history of the village. The mayhem went on until the Austrians counter-attacked and forced the French to retreat. Then reinforcements arrived and the Austrians were again driven from the village at the point of French bayonets, leaving the hapless villagers at the mercy of the marauding troops once more.
Archduke Charles eventually drove the invaders back to their bases, and a cease-fire was called early in 1797. One proviso was that all warring troops would remain in the area they occupied until the truce was signed; as a French formation had just entered the Nieder-Weisel area, they prepared for their next battle by forcing the community to re-equip them, provide fresh mounts and refill their food stores. Every unreasonable demand was met at great cost; despite this, the villagers were again assaulted. The truce failed and the fighting continued for another three years.
Unable to tackle Britain directly because of her naval superiority, Napoleon sailed in 1798 for Egypt, gateway to British India. On route, he invaded and captured the strategic island of Malta, destroying the last vestige of the military power of St John. Nelson, in the Battle of the Nile, destroyed the supporting French fleet and Britain formed a second coalition – with Russia, Turkey and Austria – which drove the French armies back beyond their own borders.
This ended the revolutionary wars, but Napoleon, in full command as “First Consul” introduced universal military training in France and raised a force of over a million men to embark on a war of aggrandisement, convinced of his right to be absolute master of Europe. This enabled him to deploy individual armies of up to 250 thousand men – more than three times the normal strength – and France again became the dominant power in Europe.
The New Century
The celebrations which normally would have attended the ringing-in of a new century were greatly dampened by an air of uncertainty in Nieder-Weisel. The old order was fast fading; the traditional dress had been replaced by imported fashions, the traditional drinks by the costly alternative of coffee. Moral standards were deteriorating, as evidenced by the increasing number of marriages not preceded by the reading of banns, and of babies who were baptised in their mother’s family name.
Control of killer diseases such as smallpox and the elimination of plague epidemics by improvements in sanitation steadily increased the rate of population growth – from 5 per year in 1790 to 30 per year in 1840, putting a lot of pressure on domestic housing. Families of 10 or more found themselves forced to live in the inadequate back rooms of parents’ residences.
The Treaty of Luneville in 1801 should have seen an end to the fighting, but Napoleon’s ambition was unsated. He was thwarted in his plans to invade England by Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and ordered his armies to the east again, attacking Austria in 1805. This conflict brought hordes of French troops swarming over southern Germany, some of whom were billeted in Nieder-Weisel during the autumn and into 1806. The Austrian defeat saw the final demise of the Holy Roman Empire. Franz Joseph put aside a crown which had long since lost its lustre and became known as Emperor of Austria. The south-western principalities were forced into a “Confederation of the Rhine” in which the hereditary princes lost their autonomy and became vassals of the provincial rulers. The Solms-Lich estates became part of Giessen and villages like Nieder-Weisel were subjected to the harsh taxation measures of the Grand Duchy, causing additional hardships to the harassed inhabitants, still subject to the never-ending levies imposed by the occupying troops.
Order Of St John Dissolved
By 1808, most of Europe from the Channel to the Russian border, with the exception of Sweden, Corsica, Portugal and Switzerland, was under French control. As had been done already in France to raise the money necessary for the support of his army, Napoleon seized the properties of ecclesiastical organisations in the occupied territories. In 1809, the Order of St John was dissolved and its enormous wealth was distributed among supporters of the French in a number of states. The properties in the village of Nieder-Weisel were handed to the Grand Duchy of Hessen – they were sold three years later to a Privy Councillor, Baron von Wiessenhutten of Frankfurt, for a sum of 66,000 florins. The last traces of an Order that had been an integral part of village life for more than 600 years were removed from Nieder-Weisel in 1812 and a new era began.
With a callous disregard for the fitness of things, von Wiessenhutten converted the ancient doppelkirche into a barn for his animals and allowed the interior fittings to be badly damaged. He amalgamated the farmlands into one large agricultural complex which he leased out to a farmer from outside Nieder-Weisel – this new arrangement had a devastating effect on the lives of those families whose livelihood had been dependent upon the farms they had worked for centuries under the benign feudal system operated by the Order of St John.
The lessee hired, on a day-to-day basis, the labour he needed from time to time to do the ploughing, planting, harvesting etc. This was the only source of income for some of the dispossessed farmers – for others, there was literally no work at all. Even farmers who had freehold title to their smallholdings found that the increase in taxes and charges made it very hard, if not impossible, to earn a living. These changes in land ownerhip were the single most important factor in bringing about the emigration from Nieder-Weisel which was to take place a few years later.
Downfall Of Napoleon
As the Grand Duke continued to support the French army, mercenary soldiers were conscripted from Nieder-Weisel and other villages in the Wetterau and forced to fight, and in many cases die, in foreign countries while their families were being outraged by the French soldiers who occupied the area. Some of the young Nieder-Weiselerns were part of a Hessen regiment despatched to put down a mutiny of Spanish troops revolting against Napoleon.
In 1812, Napoleon launched his ill-fated attack against Russia and finally met his match. The forced retreat in atrocious weather conditions from the suburbs of Moscow brought the French losses to nearly half a million men: sadly, some of them were the young men of Nieder-Weisel who had been impressed into the Grand Duke’s regiments. The sixteen names of those who did not come back to the village from these wars represent 20% of men of military age at that time, and 10% of all of the male adults in the bereaved community.
Following this Russian disaster, Napoleon’s allies lost faith in him and switched to the side of the coalition. This at last put the Nieder-Weisel conscripts in opposition to the hated French troops, who were pursued back into France. It was the turn of the allies then to move through Nieder-Weisel and the villagers were quickly to learn that there was precious little difference between their rough Russian allies and the French conscripts. A large proportion of their herds died that year from the disease spread by these uncouth, unwashed and unwelcome liberators. Many people – particularly the very old and the very young – died during the following year from an exotic disease, carried by these northerners, for which there was no local immunity.
Even after Napoleon had met his Waterloo, had abdicated for the second time and been exiled, the principals of the Confederation continued to strengthen their armies, which saw a continuation of conscription – at least for the young men whose families could not afford to buy an exemption for them.
In 1817, a bright note was struck when a third bell was installed in the bell-tower, providing for a much wider variety of peal changes; this trio would bring pleasure to the villagers for 100 years, when the demands of war would deprive the Maria bell of her two companions. The installation of the bell coincided with the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Reformation, which gave the villagers a welcomed excuse to put aside their many troubles, if only for a short time. These celebrations were highlighted by the coming together of the Lutheran and Calvinist communions to form a united Protestant or evangelical congregation.