A Trip To Dörrenbach, Germany

Part 2

by Bishop Jude Speyrer


In my previous account describing last July's trip to Dörrenbach when the Speyrer ancestral village observed its 1000 anniversary, I signed off with the promise of furnishing newsletter readers with more details from village archives about Balthasar Speyerer's employment there as the schoolmaster.

But in case you just tuned in -- that is, if you missed the first installment -- let me bring you up to date. That article listed mainly the name, the place of origin and the date of birth of the earliest-known Speyrer ancestor. Preserved in its archives, Dörrenbach's school records show that in 1565, one Balthasar Speyerer (notice how the name is spelled) a native of Wertheim am Main and who was born in 1546 was hired to replace schoolmaster Frick who had died in office. From this one man, all who ever bore the Speyrer name in Dörrenbach are descended.

In Dörrenbach proper, my guess is that today fewer than half a dozen males bear this name. Fortunately, the same can not be said about the Speyrer descendants in America!

Before going farther, an explanation about the way the family name is written is in order. I have copied this spelling exactly as it was found in the original records when mention of it first appears. The form Speyerer within a century or so becomes Speyrer confirming an assumption I had long earlier made based on my acquaintance with German and the way names based on places are formed in that language.

A person (or thing) from Berlin, for instance, is referred to as a Berliner as our 35th President once proudly claimed to be. What JFK was doing was what the German language does commonly, i.e., simply add the ending ER to the name of a place (town, region, country etc) to create its adjective form. Following that rule, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Wien have all given us colorful words which have entered the English language to become everyday, household words.

When I got a letter recently from a friend just back from Germany with pictures of the Dom [Cathedral, Editor's Note] in Speyer, I was not surprised that on her own she had drawn the logical conclusion that somehow there was a connection between my family name and that cathedral town.

But what is peculiar in the case of our family name Speyrer is that the town's name Speyer already ends in ER. By adding another ER, one achieves an awkward, stuttering succession of ER's, as in SPEYER-ER. Swallowing one of those syllables happens easily, and Speyerer with no great effort turns into Spey'rer, (a form of the adjective I have often seen in print); before long, even the apostrophe disappears.

Since Speyrer simply means a person from Speyer, our original ancestor, had to have come from there. Who that was, we do not know at this time and probably never will. For the time being all we can state is that Balthasar Speyerer whose ancestor hailed from that Cathedral town and burial place of German kings, was from Wertheim am Main and was in actuality a...class!...you guessed it!... a WERTHEIMER!

But enough of our language class for today. All kidding aside, what about those details about Balthasar Speyrer I promised you?

On page 290 of the 700-page chronicle published by anniversary organizers called D”rrenbach 992-1992, we find in the list of schoolmasters, this entry:

Headmaster Frick's successor who hailed from Wertheim am Main, was called Balthasar Speyerer. He was slightly better paid than was his predecessor: he drew about 40 Guilders for teaching and 20 Guilders as the bell-ringer. This second amount, collected door to door was topped off with community and church funds. He had use of the house of the former chaplain who celebrated early week-day Mass.

A Guilder was one of various gold and silver coins, formerly current in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. In 1960, the Guilder was worth about 27 US cents in Holland. Its purchasing power in the last half of the 16th century, although not precisely known, was considerably greater, perhaps by as much as ten times.

Reading the above citation carefully we also find more indications that the Protestant Reformation had quickly reached the countryside to include small villages like Dörrenbach. We see this in the reference to the house of the celebrant of early week-day Mass for the village.

When the reformers took over, they confiscated church buildings and converted them to their use. What had previously served Catholic purposes was now at the disposal of the `new' religion. Nevertheless Dörrenbach remained between 30% to 40% Catholic, a proportion we still find there today. Konrad Speyrer, a Protestant when he emigrated to America in the 1840's, remained one until his death. Lovers of history may have noticed that Balthasar Speyerer was born in 1546, the year Martin Luther died. Luther who was 9 when Columbus discovered America, lived to be 63. His break with the Catholic Church occurred in 1520 when Pope Leo X issued his decree of excommunication which took effect on January 3, 1521. The forces he unleashed spread like wild-fire. How else can we account for such a sea-change in the daily lives of citizens in a hamlet the size of Dörrenbach?

In the next issue: Balthasar Speyrer, schoolmaster and court official. Court official?


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