Walls and Freedom

“Don’t fence me in.”

Freedom today means freedom of movement, at least for a lot of people. Walls are a rejection of that. They constrain people, keeping some out who want (or should be?) in, and lock in those who really want to be out and about. The Berlin Wall was an outward and visible sign of the failings of the East German Communist system. Activists decry talk of a border wall between the US and Mexico, and hurl epithets at the new walls and fences between Hungary and other places.

Five hundred years ago, without a wall, you were not free. You had no independence. Walls meant freedom.

A city without walls was not a city. Anyone could march in and take over, give commands, and force the residents to obey. Without being able to defend yourself, you could not be counted among the free peoples. You were dependent on the good graces of someone else, be it a noble, a bishop, or hired soldiers. Walls meant the ability to defend your rights and liberties, to keep out unwanted people and protect what was good and valuable.

The walls of Goslar. East is at the top of the map.

The Wide Gate at the eastern end of Goslar’s inner walls.

If you go back to the Old Testament, you find walls. Jericho’s walls kept the city free until Joshua and the Most High brought them down. The Philistine cities had walls. Babylon had walls. Jerusalem? Walls. Archaeology shows that walls sprang up as soon as settlements reached a certain size and power, with a few exceptions. After Rome’s power faded, people tucked themselves into the corners and bits of the old Roman walls, reusing them. They also tore down unneeded walls, or excess wall, and incorporated the stones into other things, often more compact and easily defended rings and forts.

The Limes, Rome’s wall between the Germanic peoples and civilization. Near Schwäbisch Gmünd.

Reconstructed Roman watch tower near Lorch, beside the imperial abbey of Lorch, overlooking two river valleys and a major trade route.

In western Europe, walls meant that the city or town could defend itself. Over and over you read about towns building walls to spite their local overlord, or buying their freedom and spending lots and lots of money on walls. Lose a war? The victor often demanded that walls be torn down as proof of his power. The loser could no longer protect himself, be the loser a city or an individual. All that remained was flight, and often towns and settlements had a “Fluchtberg,” a mountain or hill everyone ran to in times of danger. That hill often had a palisade, or some other form of defense.

The former moat at the Cistercian Abbey of Maulbron. The men of peace had serious walls to keep out the wilderness.

“City air brings freedom,” Stadtluft macht frei, but only if a person could stay in the city for a year. That meant remaining inside the walls. City citizens had a duty to help defend those walls, in some cases women as well as men. Militias practiced with bows, crossbows, then firearms. People knew how to work the gates and when to keep watch. Cities had their own water supplies, and often kept grain and other food stuffs inside the walls, just in case. You can imagine people listening to the priest reading the description of the New Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation and nodding. Of course it would have gates and walls, since that defined a proper city!

I love sniffing out old walls. No idea why, but I really like going out in the early morning hours and trying to trace fortifications and walls. Goslar was excellent for this, because almost half the old inner wall remains intact, with a nice trail and good signage in German and English. You can start at the eastern end of the southern wall and follow it past the secondary moat, looking up at the outer dirt wall as you stroll along. There are still water-gates, and part of the wet moat remains wet. Great towers loom until you walk past the former imperial residence, the Kaiserpfalz, then out to the wall again, down the steep western end of the hill, and to the old western gate that led to the Rammelsberg mines. What is left of the inner moat is up to five meters deep (fifteen-twenty feet) and even though it is overgrown with trees and nettles, you still get a sense that the people of Goslar were serious about being left alone.

And sometimes you don’t even have to leave your hotel.

Charles V slept here. And this connects to what was once an outer city wall, built in the early 1000s in the city of Schwäbish Hall. My room was at the head of the stairs.

There’s going to be a story, perhaps a third novel, in the Merchant world about walls. You see, a city has to keep its freedom for two generations to be considered truly free and recognized by the Great Northern Emperor as a candidate for his protection and law…


9 thoughts on “Walls and Freedom

  1. Oh give me land, lots of land
    Under starry skies above…
    (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    This is fundamental, basic stuff.
    That the vast majority of our population is completely ignorant of.

    • It took floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean for the better part of a year for me to *start* getting a gut understanding of it– I understood fences because I grew up in ranching, but “most people will want to kill you for profit, crits’n’giggles” wasn’t really a thing.

      That said, took years for my parents to stop correcting folks who called them “cowboys.” A “cowboy” was seasonal work who probably was a cattle thief when he DIDN’T get hired, they were ranch hands.

  2. Very insightful post. Americans have lived for a century and a half in a country in which it is unlikely that the invaders…foreign or domestic…will descend on their town, and hence don’t tend to have a direct appreciation of this point.

  3. That ability to close and bar the gates is enormous, especially with food and water reserves inside. Any attacker has unpleasant choices: direct assault on prepared militia, siege, or go away. They’re probably not carrying much food, and forage or pillage is limited. Leaving an un-reduced town behind is not smart. It or town people keep their lives and immediate property, at the cost of damaged crops

    If you go 100 km south, the walls become mountain chains, and gates are valley entrances. Ja, force your way in , but will you leave? Don’t ‘canton’ it.

    • Walls are awesome. There’s so many ways they can be built, and are especially neat in and around gardens. Besides walls that border one’s property though, my favorite walls are inside houses.

      They’re the places that say “I can put a bookshelf against them.”

      And sometimes the walls become shelves.

  4. I once perused a book with a title something like, “Walled Cities in the Neolithic Era.” The “walls” were mostly trenches and outward-leaning stakes in the earliest ones, but I’m sure they got the “get off my lawn!” idea across…

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