By Martin Odote
“… the chapel was later used for profane purposes.” reads the tourist guide to the city. This sentence, coupled with the unusual name the church building had, got me super curious. It triggered a chain reaction in my mind, my curiosity kicked into high gear. The lack of immediate information on the profanity that occurred here opened the floodgates of my imagination. “Witchcraft was a very real thing during medieval times, maybe they conjured the spirits of the dead at this place, why else would they name it the place of bones?” I thought to myself. The placement of small windows on the roof and a front door to the basement didn’t do much to quell my curiosity. I just had to find out more about its history. This is the story of Beinhaus Alsfeld.
There is no clear indication as to the exact point in time this unique building came into existence. What they know is that it is a medieval Chapel known as Beinhaus Alsfeld. Based on evidence of ancient texts, the chapel was already in existence in 1368. From my readings about the origins of places, I’ve learnt that a common way of contextualizing the origins of places is through their mention in historical records, but I digress. The design of the building points to its first life as a church building. As a place of worship, it is likely to have been at its prime at the start of the 16th Century. The number ‘1510’ is etched on the wall to commemorate extensions made to the original structure. A few years later, the reformation took place, effectively diluting the power previously wielded by the Roman Catholic church. What followed was a loss of significance for this church.
The period following the reformation was marked with some serious rivalry between the Protestant and Catholic church. The disagreement moved from zero to 100 real quick when Protestants in Bohemia (present day Czech Republic) threw a handful of governors representing the catholic emperor out the third floor window. This incident is termed as the defenestration, and it was not the first time people were resolving political disputes in this manner. What was essentially a localized political dispute quickly spread and took a life of its own, with all major European powers of the time taking advantage of the chaos to settle scores. It was like a WWE wrestling match with everybody coming in the ring to fight everybody. It’s therefore no wonder that they call it the 30 year war. Wouldn’t it have been awkward if the war lasted 37 ? Like any prolonged conflict, many people lost their lives, not just from the violence, starvation and a series of plagues plagued the population. This brings us back to Alsfeld.
The location of this city, almost in the middle of present day Germany, meant that it too had its fair share of the conflict. The disproportionate loss of life during this period brought with it the unique challenge of inadequate burial space. To solve this problem, locals had to convert this building to an ossuary. I prefer the term ‘house of bones’ though. The next sentence will explain why. They used a two step process; initial burial in a short-term grave, followed by the exhuming of bones for storage in the former chapel. This helped reduce the pressure on the little available burial spaces. The dead also appreciated as it gave them the chance to hung out with their kind. If ghosts exist, I’m sure they always had a good laugh whenever one of them said “I see dead people.” All jokes aside, this part of the building’s history explains the origin of the name ‘Beinhaus.’ According to city records, the skulls and bones were relocated in 1824.
By and by, the war came to an end and a semblance of normalcy returned. In an effort to adapt itself to the times, the building took on a new life, this time as part of a brewery. Grain, meant for the brewing process was malted here. Someone working at the brewery must have proposed and went through with the idea of using the building’s space for this purpose. His conscience probably quipped, “They have been dead a long time, they won’t mind us storing grain here, plus it’s the 18th century and news travels slowly anyway.” Superstition must have still been rife, given that the age of enlightenment was still in its infancy. Even people with nerves of steel have to draw the line somewhere.
As the city transformed through the years, so did the Beinhaus. An early sports association used the space as a gym of sorts. This continued for about three decades before the city took over the premises at the turn of the century. In the 1970s, the building was earmarked for restoration and re purposing into an archive. Plans were approved and after successful restoration work, the building was reopened as an archival center. After being moved around to different buildings through the years, the city’s historical documents finally found a permanent home. The upper part of the building was torn down and reconstructed, with the most visible change being a modernized roof. The cellar was largely untouched. Residents of Alsfeld as well as descendants of past residents come from far and wide to find out about the adventures their ancestors had back in the day.
The thing I admire most about this beinhaus is its adaptability. That’s something that everybody could learn from it. Maybe it was a church pretending to be different things, or a building that embraced flexibility. Intact buildings from the 14th century are a rarity, and this one made the cut by adapting, and getting its hands dirty when it needed to.
As I come to the end of this post I have mixed feelings. I didn’t really find out everything about this mundane building’s history. It was sure interesting to know that a chain of events in Bohemia led to this place getting its eerie name. A part of me feels like I failed to uncover the profane acts that took place here. German texts call it ‘profane Zwecke’ but there is little to no information pointing to specific events. I searched far and wide, scouring through historical documents in English and German, all to no avail. Perhaps there is part of the story that I missed. Initially, I thought the profanity lay in the act of brewing alcohol on the premises. I was on the verge of resigning to the fact that I will never find out the ‘real story’ of what took place here. I was beginning to assume that the profane events that happened here were so grave that someone decided the best recourse would be to omit it from the annals of history, save for the occasional vague reference, but alas! I was wrong.
I went on a wild goose chase through history when the truth was under my nose the entire time. Turns out, the German term ‘Profane Zwecke‘ simply means ‘non-religious’ or ‘not associated with the church’. The word originates from the Latin words, pro (before) and fanum (Temple), translating to ‘not sacred.’ In my everyday vocabulary, the word ‘secular’ would easily substitute profane. English definitions carry a similar meaning, closely associating it with actions of the heathen. Profane has many synonyms, with some more dramatic than others. Secular, would have been fine, but I gravitated towards the more colorful substitutes, like obscene, sacrilegious, raunchy, and unconsecrated, in hope of coming uncovering a juicy story.
As always, hearty thanks for reading 🙂
I guess many of you are wondering what Alsfeld is. This is a small city in the municipality of Vogelsberg and state of Hessen in Germany. I lived there for a year and can attest that it is a lovely place with great people and beautiful buildings.
Fun fact: Vogelsberg mountains in Germany share their name with Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The names of both directly translate to the ‘mountain of birds’