Danish Castle Road Trip

I spent last week in Denmark at a friendly, informative and rather unusual conference. The thirteenth Castella Maris Baltici conference (“castles of the Baltic Sea”) was a moveable feast. In five days we slept in three different towns on Zealand and Funen and spent a sum of only two days presenting our research indoors. The rest of the time we rode a bus around the area and looked at castle sites and at fortifications, secular buildings, churches and a monastery in four towns. Our Danish hosts had planned all of this so well that the schedule never broke down. Add to this that the food and accommodation were excellent, and the price very humane, and you will understand that I was very happy with the conference.

This was my second CMB. Last year in May I attended the twelfth one in Lodz, Poland. It's an excellent education for me as I delve into High Medieval castle studies with my ongoing project about castles in Östergötland.

You might think that within such a specialised field there would be lots of debate at the conference, but actually participants present work that is mainly of local or national relevance. Your audience takes a polite interest in what you're doing, but nobody presents any results or methods that change the game for everybody else. I imagine that this has to do with written history's specificity. These scholars aren't dealing with large generalised prehistoric cultural categories. They're dealing with specific people and events at specific castle sites. If someone has found out new stuff about the architectural phasing of a certain castle in Lithuania, then this will not change the way someone in south Jutland thinks about her subject much. But every specific case presented, and every site visited, offers a wealth of details that add up to help castle scholars contextualise their work at home.

The presentation that I found the most interesting was Christofer Herrmann's and Felix Biermann's about recent fieldwork at Barczewko / Alt-Wartenburg in northern Poland. This wooded area, Warmia, saw a planned colonisation effort sponsored by German lords in the 14th century. Written sources document that a settlement was founded at Barczewko in 1326 and razed to the ground by Lithuanian raiders in 1354. Attracted by a long-known but undated defensive bank-and-moat, my colleagues have now mapped the site with geophys and excavated key buildings. The geophys showed a neatly planned mini-town, with a main street, a town square and a town hall. The cellars are still full of the debris from the fires set by the attackers, on top of the goods stored in the cellars, and a few bodies of murdered inhabitants. Almost a little Pompeii, and very painstakingly excavated. The pottery is dominated by Silesian designs (from the south-west part of modern Poland), giving an idea of whence the colonists came.

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I have lived in Scania all my life and I can only say thanks to this great bucket list of castles. I know Kronborg but not the others.

By Thomas Ivarsson (not verified) on 02 Sep 2015 #permalink

Very cool trip; sounds like great fun, particularly with your own excavations to share. People who have dug up castles must be a rare elite.

I assume some of the sculpture you photographed here occasioned your observation on the grotesque nature of 17th-century Scandy sculpture vs. painting. Does this represent a "folk" style as opposed to upper-class classically trained artists working in oil painting? Would any contemporary painting surviving in these contexts be similarly grotesque?

The style looks medieval, with only the baroque acanthus leaves to indicate its date.

Fascinating, Martin, I wish I could see all the things you've seen. The music lover in me is tempted to see a general northern European appetite for the grotesque (opposed to direct, idealized classical simplicity) that lasted through Bach's era, with his intricate, learned, unfashionable counterpoint, so different from what southern Europe was producing at the time. Bach's patrons complained at his style; I wonder if these guys, too, would have preferred a classical style or were tempted to import Italians like Peter the Great.