The Margrave’s Charnel House
Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany (1634): During the seventeenth-century, the four horsemen of the apocalypse stalked Germany with a vengeance. Religious conflicts erupted into open violence. War left entire cities and regions devastated. Hunger and pestilence became everyday occurrences. The theologian Jan Schülteiss was hardly exaggerating when he claimed he believed himself to be living at the end of days after visiting the towns of the Rheinpfalz region in 1634.
For Baron Christian von Altheim, margrave of the Rhineland-Palatinate during the 1620s, death and misfortune knew no bounds. Over the decade, the district he governed saw its population dwindle by two-thirds due to plague and famine. In 1626, plague claimed the lives of his wife and two children. Grief-stricken, Altheim became obsessed with his own mortality. He consulted with leading medical practitioners of the day on the means of preventing disease and even invited apothecaries and alchemists to his court to draw upon their expertise. It is believed that Altheim’s patronage was, in part, responsible for The Boke of Sectretes of the Vertues of Herbes and Stones written by Albrecht Fürst later in the century.
After much consultation, Altheim became convinced that the only means of conquering death was to become death incarnate. As his chronicler recorded, “Thou shalt trade thy flesh for bone, for Death ne’er claims one of his own.” While this proposition may seem absurd today, at the time it had roots in medieval death culture and harkened back to such traditions as the Dance of Death and the Ars moriendi. Altheim’s plan was to surround himself with death in the hopes of keeping Death at bay. To this end, Altheim built a large palace adorned with lavish death imagery and skeletal statues in every room. Branded the Margrave’s Charnel House, the grounds possessed a mortuary and cemetery that the bodies of all residents in the vicinity were ordered to be deposited in by law. Between 1628 and 1634, it is estimated that over 10,000 bodies were delivered to the palace.
In 1634, Altheim’s stringent demands mixed with more general grievances to ignite a local revolt in nearby Melhensdorf. Villagers accused Altheim of insanity and clergy members expressed concerns over whether the bodies buried on the palace grounds were receiving proper Christian burials. In early November, angry mobs stormed the palace. Finding Atlheim barricade in his sanctuary, the mob lynched the unpopular margrave and proceeded to hack his body to pieces. According to chroniclers, Altheim’s arms and legs continued to writhe after being severed from the body while his head exhibited signs of full consciousness despite being decapitated. Accounts in the dioceses archive indicate that priests attempted to urge Altheim’s severed head to repent on numerous occasions over the next five days. One cleric ostensibly performed a baptismal ceremony, claiming that the water turned to blood when he poured it over Altheim’s severed head.
The accuracy of these accounts is difficult to verify. Altheim’s remains were burned in a public ceremony a week after the riot, leaving no physical evidence to corroborate the story. Today the Margrave’s Charnel House with its lavish décor remains a testament to this strange history.