It is time to give some information concerning the town in which the chief events of our history will take place.
Frankfort ranks as one of the most important towns in Germany, not merely on account of the number of its inhabitants, nor because of its commercial standing, but by reason of the political position which it occupies as being the seat of the Imperial Diet.
One continually hears phrases repeated until they become familiar without the person precisely understanding the exact meaning. Let us in a few words explain what the functions of the Imperial Diet really are.
It is the duty of the Diet to watch over the affairs of Germany in general and to smooth down disagreements between the confederate States. The president is always a representative of Austria. The decisions of the assembly are called Recesses. The Diet, which has existed since very remote ages, had at first no fixed seat, but was held sometimes at Nuremberg, sometimes at Ratisbon, or at Augsbourg. Finally, June 9th, 1815, the Congress of Vienna established Frankfort as the permanent seat of the Diet of the Germanic Confederation.
Thanks to the new constitution Frankfort has a quarter vote at the Diet, the other three-quarters belonging to the three free towns of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck. In return for this honour, Frankfort was to raise seven hundred and fifty men for the Germanic Confederation and fire a salute on the anniversary of the battle of Leipzig. The execution of this latter obligation was at first a trifle difficult, for the reason that since 1803 Frankfort had ceased to possess ramparts, and since 1813 had owned no cannon. But in the first moments of enthusiasm a subscription was opened which allowed the purchase of two four-pounders, so that since 1814, on the proper day, Frankfort has duly paid the debt of fire and smoke owed to the Holy Alliance.
As to the ramparts, they exist no longer. Instead of old walls and muddy ditches, Frankfort has seen the gradual formation of a charming English garden, a gracious and perfumed enclosure, which enables one to make the circuit of the town, while walking on the smoothest of paths and under magnificent trees. So that, with its houses painted white, green, and pink, Frankfort looks like a bouquet of camellias set in a border of heather. The tomb of the mayor to whom this improvement is due stands in the midst of a delightful labyrinth of walks, much frequented by the burghers and their families about four or five o'clock in the afternoon.
The Teuton name Frankfort means a free ford, and the town owes its origin to an imperial castle built by Charlemagne at a point where the Namur is fordable. The first historical notice of it is the date of the Council held there in 794, in which was discussed the question of image worship. As to Charlemagne's palace, no trace of it can be found, but antiquaries say that it stood where now is the Church of St. Leonard.
It must have been about 796 that Charlemagne founded the colony of Sachsenhausen peopled by the Saxons whom he had conquered and baptized. In 822 Louis le Debonnaire built the Sala on the site of the present Saalhof, and in 838 Frankfort had already a court of justice and walls of defence.
In 853 Louis the German raised it to the rank of capital of the eastern portion of the French empire; extended its borders, and built the church of St. Saviour close to where the autumn fair was held, in accordance with the traders' custom of setting up their booths under the walls of churches and temples.
The custom of electing the emperor at Frankfort was begun by that great Swabian house whose name alone calls up a host of terrible and melancholy recollections. In 1240 Frederic II granted letters of safe conduct to all going to the market of Frankfort; and the Emperor Louis of Bavaria, wishing to show gratitude for his election, proved his attachment to the town by granting great advantages, among others the right of holding a fair for fifteen days during Lent, which was known as the Easter fair.
The Emperor Charles IV confirmed the right of the Imperial Election to Frankfort by the famous Golden Bull issued in 1356. This Bull provided the Emperor Napoleon with an opportunity for displaying his excellent memory. Dining one day with half a score of sovereign princes, at the meeting of Erfurth, the conversation chanced to turn on the Golden Bull, which, until the Confederation of the Rhine, had laid down the rules for Imperial elections. The Prince Primate, being on his own ground, gave some details concerning the Bull, fixing the date for 1409.
"I think you are mistaken, prince," said Napoleon. "If my memory is correct, the Bull was published in 1356 in the reign of the Emperor Charles IV."
"Your Majesty is right," said the primate, reconsidering, "but how is it you remember the date of a bull so exactly? Had it been a battle it would be less wonderful."
"Shall I tell you the secret of this wonderful memory, prince?" enquired Napoleon.
"Your Majesty would give us all much pleasure."
"Well," continued the emperor, "you must know that when I was a sub-lieutenant in the Artillery—"
Whereupon there was so decided a movement of surprise and curiosity among the illustrious guests that Napoleon paused an instant, but seeing that all were waiting for him to continue, he resumed with a smile:
"I was saying that when I had the honour of being a sub-lieutenant of Artillery I was in garrison at Valence for three years. I did not care for society, and lived very quietly. By a lucky chance I had rooms opposite a well-read and obliging bookseller, whose name was Marcus Aurelius, and who gave me the run of his library. I read and re-read everything in his shop two or three times during my stay in the capital of the Drôme, and I remember everything I then read—even to the date of the Golden Bull."
Frankfort continued to govern itself as a free imperial town until, after having been bombarded by the French in the wars of the Revolution, it was one fine day handed over by Napoleon to the Prince Primate Charles of Dalberg, when it became the capital of the Grand Duchy of Frankfort.
The most interesting building in Frankfort is undoubtedly the Römer, a huge building which contains the Hall of the Electors, now used for the sittings of the Upper Senate of Frankfort, and the Hall of the Emperors in which the latter were proclaimed. A peculiarity of this hall, which contains the portraits of all the emperors from Conrad to Leopold II, is that the architect who built it made exactly as many niches as there have been sovereigns wearing the Imperial crown. So that when Francis II was elected, all the niches were already filled, and there was no space found for the new Czar. There was much discussion as to where his portrait could be placed, when in 1805 the ancient German empire crumbled into dust at the noise of the cannon of Austerlitz, and the courtiers were relieved from their difficulty. The architect had exactly foreseen the number of emperors to come. Nostradamus himself could not have done better.
After the town hall the most interesting place is the street of the Jews. When the writer of these lines visited Frankfort for the first time, some thirty years ago, there were still Jews and Austrians there—real Jews, who hated Christians even as Shylock hated them, and real Christians who hated Jews as did Torquemada.
This street consisted of two long rows of tall houses, black, gloomy, sinister in aspect, closely crowded, looking as if they clung to each other in terror. It was Saturday, which no doubt added to the gloom of the street. Every door was closed, bastard little doors made to allow only one person to pass at once. All the iron shutters were also closed. No sound of voice, or step, or movement was heard; a look of anguish and terror seemed spread over all these houses. Occasionally an old woman with a hooked nose like an owl glided past and disappeared in a sort of cellar or basement in this strange street. To-day all this is more civilized and the houses have a more active and lively appearance.
The population of Frankfort consists of a historic bourgeoisie forming the aristocracy of the Imperial town, the coronation town by right of the Golden Bull. The chief families are those of the old nobility; those of French extraction expatriated by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and who by their intelligence and industry stand in the first rank of society; thirdly, Italian families, in whom the feelings of race have been stronger than religious differences, and who, although Catholics by profession, have mingled with the French Protestants. Finally the Jewish bankers, who naturally group themselves around the house of Rothschild as being incontestably members of the same clan. All are devoted to Austria, because to Austria the town owes its peculiar position, the source of its wealth and independence, and all these classes, though divided by race, language, and religion, are united by their common affection for the House of Hapsburg—a love which perhaps hardly attains to devotion, but which, in words at least, amounts to fanaticism.
One must not omit the suburb of Sachsenhausen, situated on the other side of the Main, the colony founded by Charlemagne. Its inhabitants, living closely together and only marrying among themselves, have retained some of the roughness of the old Saxon character. This roughness, contrasted with the growing politeness among other nations, now seems to be absolute rudeness, but rudeness which is not intentional. They are said to be ready in the use of the somewhat harsh, but occasionally witty retorts, wherewith the weak sometimes retaliate upon the strong. We can give two specimens of the rough speech of the people of Sachsenhausen.
As is usual in the month of May, owing to the melting of the snow, the Main was in flood. The Great Elector himself came to judge of the rise of the water, and the damage it would probably cause. Meeting a man from Sachsenhausen:
"Well," he asked, "is the Main still rising?"
"Well, idiot that you are!" replied the individual addressed, "can't you see that for yourself?"
And the old Saxon went on, shrugging his shoulders. One of his comrades ran after him:
"Do you know to whom it was you spoke?" he asked.
"No, I don't."
"Well, it was the Elector of Hesse himself."
"Thunder and lightning!" exclaimed the old man, "how glad I am I answered him civilly!"
At the play one of these honest people leaned against the man sitting in front of him; the latter moved away:
"Am I annoying you?" demanded the aggressor, "because if it were you who annoyed me, I should give you a punch you would remember the rest of your life!"
Since 1815 Frankfort has been garrisoned by two detachments of fifteen hundred to two thousand each, one Austrian, the other Prussian; the former were much beloved; the latter equally, or even more, hated. A Prussian officer was taking some friends to see the curiosities of Frankfort. They arrived at the D?me. There, among other votive offerings, representations of hearts, hands, or feet, the sacristan exhibited a mouse, made of silver.
"What was that for?" some one asked.
"Through the divine wrath," answered the sacristan, "a whole quarter of Frankfort once found itself eaten up by swarms of mice. In vain they fetched all the cats of the other quarters, all the terriers, bulldogs, every sort of animal that can kill a mouse; the plague increased. At last a devout lady thought of having a silver mouse made and dedicated to the Virgin as a votive gift. At the end of a week not a mouse was to be seen!"
And as the listeners were somewhat astonished when they heard this legend:
"What fools these Frankforters are!" said the Prussian, "to tell tales of that kind and believe them!"
"We tell them," said the sacristan, "but we do not believe them. If we did we should have made a silver Prussian and offered him to the Virgin long ago."
It is to be remembered that our friend Lenhart, Benedict's coachman, was a citizen of the Sachsenhausen colony.
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