by Alf B. Meier
On a damp evening in the hills surrounding Darmstadt, Germany I first saw Frankenstein Castle. It is much like other castle ruins that dot Germany‘s heartland, yet I had the eerie feeling something about it was different. Could it be only the prejudice toward the name Frankenstein, fostered by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley‘s famous novel I had read as a kid. Or was it the movies loosely based on this novel I had seen in my childhood?
The building was originally used as some kind of highway precinct to control and tax the traffic passing through. It was not much of a castle at that time, consisting only of the west tower and a perimeter wall. As time went by, powers and frontiers shifted.
The once insignificant castle located on an insignificant hill (named Frankenstein) became part of a frontier fortification. A defense perimeter wall and drawbridge were added in the 14th century. A comfortable house was built inside and the tower was abandoned as the living quarters. During this period the von Breuberg family probably changed their name to von Frankenstein.
The last additions to the castle were the family chapel and the second defense perimeter wall, completed in the early 16th century. The von Frankensteins stayed in possession of their castle until after the 30-Years-War, but then moved to the Baden region, where their offspring are still considered esteemed citizens.
Frankenstein Castle quickly fell into disrepair.
Peasants used the family chapel and crypt as a stable. The main buildings were used first as a military prison and later as an asylum for disabled veterans, when the definition of asylum was more intended to mean “put away” than “taken care of.” It must have been quite a disturbing view to see all those ragged casualties of war, fed slightly more than they needed to die and slightly less than they needed to survive, occupying the run-down castle.
Does Frankenstein Castle fit into Mary Shelley‘s novel as the castle‘s historian claims? Maybe. The fact is Mary Shelley used to attend the reunions sponsored by Lord Byron, where scientists, writers and other artists would discuss, among others, scientific—and sometimes not so scientific—progress.
At one time a topic was a treaty from one Erasmus Darwin on animating non-living objects. This monograph describes the treatment the eccentric Dr. Darwin subjected a glass noodle to, up to the point it started to “develop a life of its own.” This discussion incensed the imagination of all attending, turning to visions of living cabinets and chairs and at the end, someone suggested something about creating a being by this method.
Shelley’s thoughts on the matter went deeper and she started writing the novel Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus, which appeared two years later.
The fact that Shelley‘s stepmother was from the general area of the von Frankenstein family castle, (the Odenwald hills between Frankfurt and Heidelberg) makes some historians believe she was influenced by the dark tales of the castle.
In any case, Frankenstein Castle does not need additional visions of horror created by writers. New roofs were put on whatever buildings were still standing and century-old manure was removed from the chapel—which was completely restored and rededicated. Today it serves as a wedding chapel used by the local priest.
While the castle is not a major tourist attraction by any means, it is worth an afternoon visit if you‘re in the area. There is no entrance fee, but the gates close at darkness. The von Frankenstein family’s gravestones are adjacent to the castle. Wear comfy shoes for the uphill climb from the parking area and don‘t forget your camera!
Photos by Alf B. Meier