Written by Leon Gomoll
Deggendorf → Vilshofen → Jochenstein → Passau
Bridge-Building and Nature Conservation on the Donau
Early Modern Bridges and Politics in Bavaria
On the second day of our field trip, we learned about Early Modern bridge-building in Bavaria. Martin Keßler’s talk focused on the politics of bridges, using as an example the bridge of Vilshofen, a small town near Passau. In the Middle Ages, Passau was an autonomous bishopric, independent from the duchy of Bavaria and archbishopric of Salzburg. It maintained its autonomy from Bavaria until 1802. Early Modern Bavaria included the lands between the rivers Lech to the west, the Danube to the north, and the Inn to the east. Within the territory of Bavaria there were many other stand-alone territories, for example imperial free cities like Augsburg and Nuremberg.
Passau was one of Europe’s most important cities for salt trade in the Middle Ages: in the sixteenth century, 1.2 million people received their salt from Passau. A notable portion of the funding for Passau’s architectural monuments can be attributed to the salt trade, which generated a lot of revenue for the city. It was also Bavaria’s main source of income. Salt was mined in the Alps and the brine (liquid salt) was transported via pipelines from Reichenhall and Hallein (hall is the Celtic for salt) down from the Alps, where it was then collected by merchants. Vilshofen was a town located right at the border between Bavaria and Passau. It was founded in the eighth century and in the early thirteenth century, it received its town rights from the duke of Bavaria. Between 1591 and 1592, when Vilshofen had around 2,000 habitants, a bridge was built at the convergence of the rivers Danube and Vils. The bridge was built with the intention of diverting some of Passau’s salt trade to Bavaria, as merchants could trade salt in Vilshofen without having to pay the Passau tolls. Salt has been one of the most important resources throughout human history due to its many uses, such as treating leather and conserving food. Under these circumstances, the bridge can be seen as a political tool and in the following years, a “salt war” erupted between Bavaria and Passau. Passau merchants did not like the new competition from Vilshofen and fought it vigorously and the bishop of Passau tried to intervene. However, the dukes of Bavaria were well connected in the seventeenth century, and Vilshofen itself had ties to Prague, which was the seat of the Roman emperor. From this point on, Passau lost its stronghold of the salt trade and declined in prosperity.
The new bridge at Vilshofen was made of wood (oak and spruce) which came primarily from the ducal parts of the Bavarian Forest. To secure the bridge against ice jams and floods, wooden blocks were placed six feet deep in the river. The bridge was built upon these block and around 1,000 tree trunks were needed in total. Grafenau, a small village north of Passau, shipped the wood to Vilshofen, which laid ground for yet another political conflict: as part of the duchy of Bavaria, Grafenau was obliged to do its share of compulsory labor, i.e. cutting wood for the bridge-building. Not everyone accepted this, however—many of the duke’s subjects there did not understand why they had to work so hard for the relatively remote town of Vilshofen.
The St. Nikola monastery, which has been part of the Passau municipality since 1870, also had ties to the salt trade, as we learned during our short tour through Passau. Several kilometers downstream from the Vilshofen Bridge, the site was formerly used by Bavaria as a center for salt trade. Storage warehouses were built there on elevated stilts, partly overhanging the Danube . In this way, both boats and merchants on foot had access to the warehouses. The monks were in constant conflict with the salt traders over use of space and the incompatibilities of trade and religious services.
The architect who designed the bridge was Hans Reitenstahl, who also constructed a ducal court in Munich and the brine pipelines of Reichenhall and Hallein. He acquired his skills in Italy, and was regarded as Bavaria’s “water expert” of the sixteenth century.
Conflicts in Nature Conservation in “Donauleiten”
The conservation area, founded in 1986, reflects ongoing efforts to give back parts of the Danube to its indigenous species, which are no longer prevalent in the more intensively managed and built-up areas along the river. Among these native species are the European green lizard and the Aesculapian snake, both of which fare quite well in the Donauleiten.
Declaring a location a nature conservation area requires serious consideration, especially in the transition phases. The concept of “using” a forest is obviously poblematic to conservationist agendas and thought must be given to a multitude of potential consequences, such as the reaction of farmers if they can no longer use the forest for cutting firewood or beams for construction. In this particular case though, firewood was not a problem; local farmers have not relied on firewood economically since the 1970s. For gathering wood for construction purposes, farmers would normally thin woods out every 20 to 30 years so that remaining tree trunks can grow strong and thick, making them useful for construction purposes. The forest in a conservation area, not tended to in this way, regulates itself; the soil is not strong enough to support really big trees and, at some point, old trees die and make space for new ones. Species that cannot not compete under managed thinning can prosper in a “wild” forest ecosystem.
The boundaries between farmland and nature reserves also have to be taken into account. An important issue concerning both farmers and conservationists is: how does the farmland influence the nature reserve, and vice versa? Questions like these arose often during our trip through the conservation area.
At the Donauleiten, one can observe these differences between the cultural and natural landscapes. On the opposite shore to the reserve, where Austria lies, one can see large expanses of cultivated forests used for wood production, many acres of agricultural land and, of course, built up areas of towns and villages. The shore of the nature conservation area is wilder, left alone, providing a space for nature.