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Back in the Middle Ages

Mainz has lots to offer to history fiends, from an ancient cathedral to the Gutenberg press, writes Sonia Nazareth.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2008 14:31 IST
Sonia Nazareth
Sonia Nazareth
Hindustan Times

When I think of Germany’s ancient city of Mainz, four adjectives come to mind — powerful, fascinating, inventive and educational. Unlike pleasure travel, journeying through Mainz carries a cultural cachet of awe. Not only does it involve the earnest consumption of art history in cathedrals but also includes the investigation of an invention as revolutionary as the printing press. <b1>

In the Middle Ages, Mainz had archbishops who were well-known and highly regarded. However, what casts a veritable halo over the place is the invention of the printing press by the city’s most famous son — Johannes Gutenberg.

I begin my exploration of the city at the Gutenberg Museum. I am temporarily lost in a wilderness of the old-fashioned and outmoded. Middle Age manuscripts, historical prints, printing presses, and typesetting machines of ages past round up the ancient spectrum of items on display.

As I watch a “live” demonstration of printing like it was done 500 years ago, I take my hat off to the big G. For the museum reminds us that not only did Gutenberg give us his world-renowned Bible, but also invented a means to disseminate tasty snippets of information, like this one — “Mainz is the supposed birthplace of Pope Joan, the woman who, disguising herself as a man, was elected pope and served for two whole years during the Middle Ages.”

Standing the test of time
Mothers who believe in birthday parties with an educational slant have brought their little ones here to experiment with the printing workshop. I follow Frau Engles, a particularly ardent mother along with her brood, as they troop from printing press into a celebrated church. Eager to give her children the best possible history lesson, Engles hires a guide and buys the pamphlets.

The guide starts the tour with the sort of story that will keep the young enthralled. She says of the Mainz Cathedral, “In the course of its 1000-year existence, it had an eventful history. Fires caused by unfortunate accidents, lightning and wars have all inflicted wounds, which succeeding generations attempted to heal with a variety of architectural styles. Thus each century has contributed to the appearance and conservation of this house of God….”

The stories continue as the children gather around a hive of honey-sellers seated outside the church. As they dip their little fingers into the purchased pots of honey, I imagine the legendary archbishops of Mainz doing quite the same. Licking away at honey dessert, drops spilling on their lacy vestments, as they recover from some particularly arduous ministry to the faithful. <b2>

Faith of different kinds
Devotees still visit in large numbers, solemn and reverent as they kneel in the Episcopal building to listen to a sermon. As I shuffle around examining the burial vaults, a lady puts a large sum in a donation box. A relic is given to her in exchange. She clutches it to her breast, with the happy assurance that the Lord above will grant her a peaceful death.

The myriad artists who visit Mainz for a lesson in art history are searching for narrative of a different sort. They gaze in rapt attention at the memorial tags which are affixed to many of the pillars. These indicate the artistic developments of memorial design between the 13th and 19th centuries. But the big draw is at the Church of Saint Stephan. We gaze in collective rapture at the post-war paintings on the windows by Marc Chagall. They convey his avant garde interpretations of biblical themes. Our wonder-struck faces convey our admiration of his work.

Postcard pretty
I step out into the courtyard and find as much poetry outside as inside. A tree with a natural eye carved into the middle of its trunk, regards me wisely. It seems to advise me not to dawdle over souvenir shopping of teddy bears donning Mainz sweat shirts. Instead I ought to hurry to the Roman-Germanic Central Museum before it shuts.

After observing some Roman remains including Jupiter’s column, Drusus’ mausoleum and the ruins of the theatre, I head to one of the ancient taverns for which Mainz is famous. I order the famous “Blue Nun” — one of the first branded wines in Germany.

In restored good-humour, I conclude my visit with a leisurely stroll to the 13th century iron-tower that marks the position of the former iron market and the 14th century wood-tower that tells me where the wood market once was.

As the light fades, I make tracks to leave having relished the sights of Mainz immensely. Thanks to good old Gutenberg and his printing press, I have a stock of postcard mementos to carry away.

When she’s not lecturing at St Xavier’s College, Sonia can be found brandishing pen and camera as she travels around India and the world.

First Published: Oct 18, 2008 14:22 IST