Curio #1: The Erfurter Latrinensturz

Depiction of Henry VI in the Codex Manesse

Depiction of Henry VI in the Codex Manesse

The Curio series in the Fortweekly will dig into curious snippets of history and culture. The more odd and obscure the subject, the better. This first Curio comes from the twelfth century in the Holy Roman Empire (but what is now Germany) with the Erfurter Latrinensturz.


The Erfurter Latrinensturz was a bizarre tragedy that occurred in the city of Erfurt in the year 1184, involving some of the most powerful figures in the Holy Roman Empire at the time (if your German is decent you might already guess some of the gruesome aspects of the event from the name). The three central people were Landgrave Ludwig III of Thuringia, Archbishop Konrad I of Mainz, with whom Ludwig III was locked in a bitter quarrel, and King Heinrich VI, who I will refer to by his English name Henry VI. Landgrave Ludwig III was equivalent to a duke in British nobility, and King Henry VI was the second son of the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa and next in line for succession for the title “Emperor”.

There were often tense squabbles in the Holy Roman Empire between the various Landgraves, Counts, Archbishops, et cetera over land control, with the maps of the Holy Roman Empire carved into a plethora of small, winding tracts. In 1180, Archbishop Konrad I began construction of the fortified Castle Heiligenburg, on a strategic hill near Kassel, which was nestled near Ludwig III’s territory. The castle was protection, of course, against a potential attack from Ludwig III; however, its construction was signaled an aggressive move by Konrad to secure a new hold in this chequered area in which each plot of land had shifting claims of ownership. By 1184 the disputes between Ludwig and Konrad had reached the point where King Henry VI, on his way to Poland for other business, called a Diet (a deliberative assembly) in the city of Erfurt to mediate between the two.

Present at this mediation were several other counts in the Holy Roman Empire, including Gozlar III of Ziegenhain in Hesse, Count Friedrich of Kirchberg, and Count Heinrich I of Schwarzburg. Heinrich of Schwarzburg had his own quarrels with Ludwig III, whose Thuringian troops had razed some of Heinrich’s castles. Heinrich in his own turn was likely the thief of the Eneasroman, a literary manuscript that was stolen on Ludwig III’s wedding night, perhaps as revenge or as leverage. Manuscript thefts were, if not common, at least occasional acts between feuding houses because of the prestige and immense work that went into creating them. Moreover, following the Erfurter Latrinensturz, the manuscript found its way back to Ludwig III via Heinrich’s brother. Indeed, Heinrich’s role in the event was itself quite literary and ironic: according to sources when showing his daring and his trustworthiness, Heinrich would often utter a saying along the lines of: “If I fail, so may I die in excrement.” [1]

Depiction of Erfurt circa 1493 from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Depiction of Erfurt circa 1493 from the Nuremberg Chronicle

The party of nobles and their retinues gathered in a room within the Church of St. Peter in Erfurt, where only a few years earlier Henry the Lion was forced to submit to Emperor Barbarossa. There the large group of men, many perhaps also wearing chainmail for further weight, began the mediations between Ludwig III and Archbishop Konrad I. Under this room, however, was the latrine pit for the monks that lived there. In a miserable turn of events, the beams of the room floor could not hold the weight of the party and collapsed, plummeting most who were there into the fecal pool below. Perhaps up to one hundred people died, either through drowning in the ordure or from the falling structure. This includes Count Heinrich I of Schwarzburg, who indeed met his end as he said he would: drowned in shit.

Those who did survive the disaster fortuitously included Landgrave Ludwig III, Archbishop Konrad I, and King Henry VI. The latter two were saved because they had withdrawn into a smaller nook of the room in order to discuss matters; once the floor collapsed, both Henry VI and Konrad held on the iron rails of a window until help came to rescue them. Henry’s survival is perhaps most consequential, since he would go on to become Holy Roman Emperor only a few years later.


References

[1] Gottfried, J.L. (1743). Johann Ludwig Gottfrieds historische Chronik oder Beschreibung der merckwürdigsten Geschichte. P.H. Hutter