A friend of mine just posted this CBC article on Facebook: “Wife Carrying Championship: An unusual Nordic tradition returns”. It’s just what you’d think: a race in which husbands lug their wives over a predetermined course. The winning couple gets the wife’s weight in beer, and five times her weight in cash (and a trip to the world championships in Finland). For some reason my man doesn’t want to participate, even though I pointed out to him the serious benefits if we would win (I’m no featherweight). But then, neither of us drinks beer, so it’s perhaps just as well.
However, banter aside, the first thing this news item reminded me of is an old German tale, a story that really happened.
The year was 1140, the place a small South-Western German town called Weinsberg (Wine Mountain – if you look at pictures of the place, you’ll know why it’s called that: there’s vineyards everywhere). The solid castle overlooking the town was held by the Welfs (or Guelphs), who, in this hard autumn, were in a war with the royal house of the Staufer. The Staufer King Konrad III, after weeks of besieging the castle, finally defeated the Welfs in an open battle on December 21, 1140; the starved-out castle garrison surrendered. However, Konrad was harshly resentful that so many of his many good men had been killed by the Welfs on the field of battle; he threatened his revenge: all the men in the castle were to die as soon as he set foot in the fortress. The women, however, begged for their lives; they had had no hand in the bloodshed, they claimed, and asked for free passage out of the castle. The King, being the noble sort, consented, and what’s more, promised they could take with them whatever of their dearest possessions they were able to carry.
Early in the morning, the great castle gates creaked open to let out the first of the women. But imagine the surprise of the besiegers when out of the castle came woman after woman, carrying on her back – her husband.
King Konrad, the story says, laughed, and confessed himself outwitted. He had given his word, and his word he would keep. The women and their “dearest possessions” were given free passage; the faithfulness of the Wives of Weinsberg became legend, and the castle of Weinsberg is to this day called Burg Weibertreu, Wives’ Faithfulness.
I don’t think I ever visited the castle myself (it’s just a ruin today), but I’m pretty sure we drove past it when I was a kid on the way to visit my grandmother. My mother told me the story then, and I’ve loved it ever since. A wife-carrying race to win some beer is a fun thing, but for my money, give me those feisty Swabian women who had the guts to take a King at his word, the brawn to carry out their plan, and their husbands alive and well to show for it. A live husband beats a barrel of beer any day.
Life, the Universe, and the Faithful Wives of Weinsberg. Still one of my favourite stories ever.
PS: Just four more days to the big announcement!