Berlin Long Reads | Medieval Berlin – The Neglected Tale Of Two Towns

Medieval Berlin - The Old City
A view of Berlin’s river Spree near the Mühlendamm, 1910

In the first installment of our Berlin Guides Association Long Reads series, member and professional archaeologist Jamie Sewell takes a closer look at the neglected history of medieval Berlin. Berlin’s growth from two twin towns brought together by a river to a thriving economically vibrant city and the second home to the royal House of Hohenzollern.

In the heart of the modern metropolis of Berlin today, there seems at first sight to be little indication that there was once a small but thriving medieval town here. But if you know where to look, and have a good guide, medieval Berlin may be re-awoken in the visitor’s imagination.

The river Spree still meanders through the city just as it did at the beginning, on which two towns were originally founded, Berlin and Cölln, facing one another on opposite banks in a region known as Brandenburg. Any medieval documents that might have informed us when, why, or by whom the two towns were founded were already lost to the flames of catastrophic fires during the towns’ early history. Yet slowly but surely over the last three decades, historians and archaeologists have been piecing together the fascinating story of the early city, a process it has been my privilege to be involved in.

The medieval Marienkirche in the late 1960s surrounded by buildings sites
The medieval Marienkirche in the late 1960s surrounded by buildings sites

The drama of Berlin’s twentieth century history is largely responsible for why this investigation is a relatively recent phenomenon. Wartime bombing of the historic centre was particularly intense, the entire area of which ended up in Soviet controlled East Berlin in 1945. In turn, with the creation of the German Democractic Republic in 1949, East Berlin became the socialist state’s capital, and its leadership was intent on leaving the past far behind. Grand plans for a modern futuristic city were realised in the 1960s and 1970s exactly in the area of the early town, for which the ruins of pre-war Berlin were swept aside. Yet the most important of the surviving medieval structures were left standing, punctuating the futuristic urban landscape with incongruous reminders of Berlin’s historic roots.

Since German reunification in 1990, building activity in the old centre has once again become frenetic, but with an important distinction from the earlier projects of the 20th century; systematic archaeological excavation has taken place ahead of each new construction project within the areas of medieval Berlin and Cölln. As the medieval walking-surface lies up to 2.5m below the street level, much has been preserved, much has been found, and bright new light continues to be shed on the town’s early history.

The new story of old Berlin

Most importantly, Berlin has been re-dated as a result of new archaeological data. For many years, Berlin’s “birthday” was believed to be 1237. But this is merely the year in which a surviving document from the nearby town of Brandenburg on the Havel was undersigned by Simeon, who is listed as a priest of the St. Peter’s church in Cölln. This merely proves Cölln already existed in 1237, while the earliest surviving document mentioning Berlin dates to 1244. Using the latest scientific techniques, radio carbon (C14) dating of skeletal material from the oldest urban cemeteries makes it almost certain that both Berlin and Cölln were actually already established by the mid-twelfth century, a century earlier.

Berlin's medieval townhall in the 19th century
Berlin’s medieval townhall in the 19th century

Why two towns in the same place? This remains a difficult question to answer, but it was certainly not unusual, as dozens of cities across central Europe originally comprised multiple distinct urban nuclei founded alongside one another. Over time they fused into one urban entity. Berlin and Cölln only merged definitively in 1709.

Berlin/Cölln was founded as part of a much broader eastwards migration and settlement of German-speaking people from the Holy Roman Empire, a movement encouraged by its emperor. Huge numbers of new villages and towns were founded in Brandenburg in this era in areas that had formerly been occupied by Slavic-speaking peoples. Berlin/Cölln was founded towards the eastern limit of this migration, perhaps with the character of a frontier town in its early days. One of the more popular theories regarding the origins of the name ‘Berlin’ is that it is derived from a Slavic word meaning ‘swamp’. Possibly, but we now know the last Slavic settlement in the area of the future medieval town was abandoned long before the latter was founded. To what degree the Slavs moved on or integrated themselves in the new communities is a question that new scientific techniques developed for the study of ancient DNA are in the process of helping us answer.

By far the most important determinant for the location of Berlin/Cölln was the river Spree. It was possible to sail downstream from Berlin along a series of rivers all the way to the market at Hamburg, and then beyond to the North Sea. A return journey was facilitated by beasts of burden on tow paths that hauled the flat-bottomed river barges back up the river. Long distance river-borne trade was thus foreseen as the primary source of income for the two new settlements, and mercantile entrepreneurs were surely among the interested parties who were responsible for founding the twin towns. Finally, at the centre of every medieval town was a church, and Berlin/Cölln was no exception, meaning that the papacy’s representatives were involved in all new foundations of towns and villages.

Berlin’s original church was dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of merchants, but also sailors, suggestive of an intertwining of mercantile and ecclesiastical interests in the foundation.

A thriving vibrant settlement and member of the Hanseatic League

By late thirteenth century, Berlin/Cölln was thriving, and has since been described as the most economically vibrant settlement between the Oder and the Elbe at this time. It had received an urban charter that conveyed the right of self-government and specific commercial privileges and legal protections for it citizens. Effectively, these measures regulated commerce to the benefit of the local merchants and artisans. The body of the town council comprised the wealthier of the resident merchants who made sure their interests were prioritised.

Moreover, Berlin had become a member of the Hanseatic League by this time, a vast network of towns run by merchants pursuing policies of mutual economic benefit. From the surviving contemporary documents, we know that the main exports of Berlin/Cölln were timber and rye, with salted fish and textiles from Flanders brought back down the river. But more exotic items such as cinnamon, figs, ginger, oil, pepper, rice, saffron and wine, also made their way to the two towns. It’s easy to forget in today’s era of modern transport, just how vital the river was for the conveyance of goods to and from the city, all the way down to the early 20th century.

The economic prosperity of Berlin/Cölln in the thirteenth century is reflected in the archaeology. Berlin almost doubled in size, with the creation of a new market area and a second church dedicated to St. Mary (Marienkirche). Cölln’s population seems also to have grown rapidly as the cemetery of its church of St. Peter (Petrikirche) was greatly augmented at the cost of the habitation around its perimeter. New fortifications of stone and brick, equipped with towers, were built around the two towns. Houses at this time were timber framed with clay floors and roofs of thatch or shingles. Extensive areas of domestic gardens have been found archaeologically in the urban area. Pollen and other botanical remains indicate they were being used horticulturally to produce vegetables and fruit.

I helped in the excavation of a large structure in the back garden of a property, dated to the thirteenth century, which has been securely identified from its contents as the oldest known brewery in the city. Although Berlin has undergone many dramatic transformations over the centuries, it’s comforting to know that the Berliners’ love of beer has never been affected by them, and has remained a cultural constant.

The arrival of the House of Hohenzollern

By the thirteenth century, the Margraviate of Brandenburg had been created under the rulership of the House of Askania. The margrave had a mobile court, moving from place to place to control the populace and collect revenue. When in Berlin, the margrave resided in a large property, the oldest surviving reference to which dates to 1261. Around this time, he donated a parcel of this urban plot to the Franciscan order of friars who founded a priory on it, the church of which still survives as a visitable ruin near Alexanderplatz.

Rediscovery of the medieval residence of the margrave during demolition work in 1931
Rediscovery of the medieval residence of the margrave during demolition work in 1931

The last Askanian margrave was still a child at the time of his death in 1320. With no Askanian heir, Brandenburg subsequently passed through the hands of two other noble houses before being acquired by the House of Hohenzollern in the early fifteenth century.

This marked the beginning of the downturn of Berlin and Cölln’s medieval prosperity, especially under the rule of Frederick II (1440 to 1470). To the great dismay of the local population, Frederick had a palace constructed on the island of Cölln, effectively ending the tradition of the peripatetic court, making Berlin/Cölln the permanent capital of Brandenburg. Step by step, Frederick expropriated the land and the revenue of the city’s ruling merchants, and in 1442 he forced all of the towns in Brandenburg out of the Hanseatic League. Economic stagnation was the result, reflected in the oldest surviving plan of Berlin/Cölln, drawn up by Johann Gregor Memhardt.

The Memhardt plan of Berlin/Cölln, 1652
The Memhardt plan of Berlin/Cölln, 1652

Although it dates to 1652, the full extent of the city depicted in the plan only corresponds to the area of the city as it had been in the late thirteenth century, complete with the original old medieval fortifications. This reflects a complete absence of further urban growth between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the plan also reveals the now extensive area taken up by the growing palace complex and its manicured gardens. In time, the palace would be enlarged still further under the Hohenzollerns and become the primary official residence of the King of Prussia and, subsequently, of the Emperor of the German Empire.

What remains of medieval Berlin?

Visitors can still see architectural traces of the Middle Ages in Berlin.

The Nikolaikirche - The main church in medieval Berlin
The Nikolaikirche – The main church in medieval Berlin

No wooden buildings have survived intact above ground, and only the most important public buildings of the era were built from stone and brick masonry. Of those, the most significant for the medieval population were the churches. Continued investment over time altered their appearances according to changing architectural trends, so each is a result of multiple structural phases. Berlin’s oldest surviving church is the St. Nicholas Church (Nickolaikirche) close to Alexanderplatz. A significant portion of its original Romanesque phase is visible in the form of worked granite blocks comprising the lower half of the westwork or western tower. These blocks of granite have travelled a great distance.

Geologically speaking, Berlin is located within a former meltwater valley created at the end of the last Ice Age. Melting glaciers deposited vast quantities of sand and gravel upon which Berlin was later built. Large granite boulders were transported from Scandinavia within the glaciers and then dumped in the Berlin-area as the climate warmed. These boulders were used by the medieval Berliners in the construction of their more monumental buildings. Another example of a church tower built of this stone is the thirteenth-century St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche), located about 400m to the north of the Nickolaikirche. In the nineteenth century, a late medieval fresco was rediscovered just inside the entrance of the church depicting a so-called Dance of Death, a reminder to the parishioners of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. It has been restored and is on display. Perhaps older still, is the Holy Ghost Chapel (Heilig-Geist-Kapelle) located in the nearby Spandauer Straße. It was formerly the chapel of one of the three medieval hospitals of Berlin/Cölln that cared for the sick, poor, and elderly. Its lower walls comprise the same granite blocks upon which a late Gothic red brick and white painted superstructure was subsequently built.

Excavation in 2008 of the medieval cemetery and settlement of Cölln
Excavation in 2008 of the medieval cemetery and settlement of Cölln

On Littenstraße, several disparate sections of medieval Berlin’s town wall are visible and memorialised, as are the substantial ruins of the church of the Franciscan priory. Long term and large scale archaeological excavations are currently underway at the adjacent Molkenmarkt, the results of which should enhance our understanding of Berlin’s medieval phases still further.

On the other side of the river Spree in former Cölln, if one enters the lobby of the Hotel Capri on the junction of Breite Straße and Getraudenstraße, it has a large glass floor beneath which one can view the foundations of excavated medieval houses. At the time of writing there is a large building site immediately to the west of the hotel, where from 2007 to 2009 a team, including myself, excavated Cölln’s church and corresponding cemetery. We also found the foundations of a medieval school that have been conserved, and upon which a new archaeological visitors’ centre is currently being constructed. When finished, this will become the primary location for the public presentation of Berlin’s medieval archaeology.

There is a high level of awareness among tourists who visit Europe’s great cities that many of them are very old. Probably because of the dramatic and high profile historical events of the twentieth century associated with Berlin, its medieval roots are not so well known. But if you take the time, you don’t need to stray far from the well beaten tourist route to find surviving medieval architecture that serves as a reminder of the city’s fascinating early history.

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Jamie Sewell. A professional archaelogist with experience supervising university-run excavations in Britain, Romania, Germany and Italy, Jamie has spent many years in Berlin shedding new light on the city’s Medieval and Early Modern history from its buried material culture. For more information on Berlin’s medieval history, visit Jamie’s profile to book him as a guide.