(We had been away for much of this month attending a cousin’s wedding in Hamburg, Germany and then making brief stops at Amsterdam and Brussels. The next few posts will be about my experiences on the trip. Not the usual touristy stuff but sidelights about some of the interesting things I saw and my impressions about the different cultures we experienced).
Luneberg is a pleasant university town of about 70,000 which is undistinguished today, but in the middle Ages, rose to prominence because of its salt mines. We drove there from Buchholz, a suburb of Hamburg that is about an hour away. Tourism is the mainstay of the Luneberg economy today and we took a jitney ride through the town as a guide gave us the town’s history. He was very good and it was a most interesting experience.
Luneberg sits atop a huge underground salt dome which was discovered by accident. According to legend, a hunter saw a wild boar wallowing in a pond and shot and killed it. He took the carcass home, skinned it and hung the skin to dry. When it did, he found white flecks among the bristles on the boar skin. They were salt crystals. The hunter retraced his steps, located the salt pond and the underground deposits and thus began the salt industry in Luneberg, way back in the 12th century. Initially, the salt was mined and hauled to the surface in buckets; later,the salt deposits were dissolved in water in situ and the resulting brine was pumped to upper levels, still underground, where it was boiled and purified to reconstitute the salt. Luneberg was a member of the Hanseatic League and is on the river Elbe. So, the salt was packaged and transported up the Elbe to the port of Lubeck and thence to other parts of Germany and southern Sweden. Today , we take salt for granted but it’s importance cannot be overestimated. It is an essential both for humans and livestock and, in the middle ages, it was vital for the preservation of fish ( mainly herring which were caught in large numbers then). Luneberg salt was prized for its quality and the burghers grew rich on the profits they made off the salt trade.
As we drove slowly through the town, the guide pointed out the elaborate town hall and the luxurious houses that medieval merchants had built. We were also told that, as the salt was mined , parts of town started to settle… some as much as six feet. This caused some buildings to shift and we saw several that leaned drunkenly against each other. Salt mining tapered off after the 16th century as salt became more easily available and prices fell. A sudden drop in the herring catch did not help. In 1980, the mines were closed for good and the subsidence in town has stopped.
History focuses on the winners and those who are successful, but , too often, the human cost of these successes is forgotten.Thanks to our guide, we got some insight into the toll that the salt mines of Luneberg exacted on those who worked in them.The working conditions were, to say the least, hellish. The brine was drawn in buckets and dumped into a huge rectangular iron pan that sat atop a wood-burning furnace. As the brine boiled, impurities were removed by the addition of certain catalysts which caused them to form a scum that was carefully removed. The brine had to be stirred continuously during the process until it resulted in fine crystals which were dried in conical baskets. These were then packaged for export. Work went on twenty-four hours a day. The salt pans were in use continuously except for a once-a-week cleaning. The entire operation required only three people: a master salter, an assistant and a boy to stoke the furnace. Very often, these were members of the same family: a man, his wife and his son. Children were conscripted into the business at the age of seven ( seven!) and spent the rest of their lives toiling in the salt mines. Temperatures near the pans were as high as 55 degrees Celsius( 131 degrees F) and workers had short lives, often dying by age forty. Our guide pointed out a row of houses which were meant as retirement homes for workers. They were never occupied as none of the workers reached retirement age. Eventually, the houses were used as an elementary school.
In the States, office workers heading back to work on Mondays sometimes remark facetiously” Well, I guess it’s back to the salt mines!”.
If only they knew.