Brewing, Politics and Society in an Early Modern German Town – a case study of Görlitz in Upper Lusatia
By Katja Lindenau
Brewery History, Issue 135 (2010)
Introduction: On the evening of 12th June 1525, cloth workers Alexander Boltze and Nickel Werder visited the public house of Johannes Hass, town clerk of Görlitz. They reassured him that they had just come for a beer and promised not to cause any trouble. At around 9 pm, there were almost one hundred guests in attendance. When, at half past midnight, Hass returned from his cellar, Alex Boltze met him with the words ‘Sir, there’s a fire!’ whereupon all the guests left the building. Not much later, when the news of the fire had already spread throughout the town, Hass and Boltze met again, with the cloth worker worriedly enquiring ‘Sir, what will happen now?’ Yet, rumour had it that shortly afterwards he told other people that the fire should be left alone and that it was doing its ‘proper work’.
The account of the Great Fire 1525 by town clerk Johannes Hass sheds much light on the history of brewing and beer-retailing in early modern Görlitz. It reveals certain peculiarities and poses a number of questions which this article intends to explore: why did a town clerk sell beer and to what extent was this unusual? Why did the cloth workers apologize for their visit and emphasize their good intentions? Were they perhaps opponents or competitors who normally did not get along? And where exactly was this house of Johannes Hass where – before the fire broke out – so many guests enjoyed an evening drink? Before we can answer questions of ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘where’, however, it is necessary to take a closer look at the location.
In the Middle Ages, the Upper-Lusatian town of Görlitz – today situated on Germany’s Eastern periphery close to the Polish border – was at the heart of a wider European trading network. It occupied an important place on the ancient East-West route linking Paris and Frankfurt/Main with Leipzig, Silesia and the Ukraine. With its 10,000 inhabitants, Görlitz was one of the largest towns between Erfurt (Thuringia) and Wroclaw (Silesia), two of the other main stations on the so-called Via Regia. Throughout the medieval and early modern centuries, Görlitz’s economy was dominated by the production and sale of cloth. A woad staple granted by the monarch forced anybody dealing with the plant (used in dying cloth) to stop at Görlitz. From the eleventh to the seventeenth century, the King of Bohemia ruled over both Görlitz and Upper Lusatia; after 1635 it was the Elector (and later King) of Saxony. Despite this formal subordination, the town ret ained very considerable autonomy, not least because of the long distance from Bohemia’s capital Prague.