A new home for the Huguenots

The town of Friedrichsdorf (= “Friedrich’s village”), Germany, was founded in 1687 by Huguenots, French Protestants who had fled to escape religious prosecution in France. They were invited to settle here by the local ruler, Friedrich II (1633-1708), who at the time was the Landgraf of a small, impoverished and sparsely populated jurisdiction called Hessen-Homburg.

Friedrich II was widely admired for welcoming the Huguenots and allowing them to preserve their language, customs and religion, but aside from tolerance and altruism he had practical reasons for doing so. His little country had never recovered from the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, and he needed skilled, energetic people to re-build the economy, which is exactly what the Huguenots proceeded to do.

Many of the Huguenots who settled in Friedrichsdorf in 1687 were skilled craftsmen, particularly in the craft of weaving textiles. Weaving had not yet been industrialized, so it was still feasible to make a living by weaving cloth at home. The Huguenots of Friedrichsdorf were particularly successful in marketing their flannel cloth, which up to then had not been common in Germany.

How they dyed textiles in Friedrichsdorf

When weaving became industrialized in England, the English flooded the market with cheap textiles. It was no longer economical to weave cloth on small looms at home, so around 1800 the Huguenot craftsmen of Friedrichsdorf started specializing in the dyeing of cloth, which required a great deal of skill and knowledge because each color required a different kind of dye made of different ingredients.

The street of the dyers in Friedrichsdorf

Unfortunately the dyes had a strong and unpleasant smell, so the dyers built small dyeing sheds next to the houses where they lived. In the nineteenth century there were 45 of these little dyeing sheds on the Huguenottenstraße, the main street of Friedrichsdorf. (These dyeing sheds are shown in red in the above photo, and the residential houses are shown in blue.) Four of the old dyeing sheds still exist.

The dyeing of cloth by hand in small batches was a reasonably profitable business throughout most of the nineteenth century, until synthetic dyes were invented and the process of dyeing quickly became industrialized.

CD booklet for “Die Frau ohne Schatten”

For us opera goers, the craft of dyeing textiles by hand immediately brings to mind an opera by Richard Strauss called Die Frau ohne Schatten (The woman without a shadow), which was first performed in 1919. One of the main characters is a dyer, an idealized skilled craftsman who supports his wife and brothers by working with his hands. (His name was Barak, by the way — no relation to Barack Obama.) The opera is set in some shadowy past time and place in which cloth dyeing was still done by hand, not in factories.

I must admit that I didn’t like Die Frau ohne Schatten the first four or five times I saw it, mainly because I was put off by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s pseudo-mythical libretto with its chorus of unborn children and its idealization of large families. But after a while Richard Strauss’s music started getting to me, and I decided that the libretto couldn’t be so bad if it inspired the composer to such fantastic music. (I’m listening to it as I write this. And you can hear an excerpt by clicking here.)

Monument to Friedrich II of Hessen-Homburg

In front of the Café Central on Landgrafenplatz, which is the central square of Friedrichsdorf, there is a monument to Friedrich II, the one Friedrichsdorf was named after.

This Friedrich II (1633-1708) was the Landgraf (local ruler) of Hessen-Homburg starting in 1681.

He should not be confused with the other Friedrich II (1720-1785), who lived later and was the Landgraf of Hessen-Kassel. This later Friedrich II was the one who achieved notoriety by renting out his subjects as mercenaries who fought on the side of the British in the American War for Independence.

And neither of these should be confused with Friedrich II of Prussia, later known as Friedrich the Great because of his role in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Aside from presiding over the most militarized country in Europe, Friedrich the Great was also an ‘enlightened’ ruler who spoke French, corresponded with Voltaire, supported the arts and even wrote the libretto for an opera, Montezuma, which I once saw in a complex production in the city theater in Lübeck, Germany.

Á Frédéric II, Friedrichsdorf reconnissant

A closer look at the column in Friedrichsdorf reveals that it is written in French: Á Frédéric II, Friedrichsdorf reconnissant (= to Friedrich II, from thankful Friedrichsdorf.) 1687 was the year the first Huguenot settlers arrived and founded the town of Friedrichsdorf.

Before becoming the Landgraf of Hessen-Homburg, Friedrich II had a career as a military officer. He is still remembered today because an episode from his military career was adapted (quite freely) by the German author Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) for his play Prinz Friedrich von Homburg.

My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2020.

See more posts on the town of Friedrichsdorf, Germany.
See more posts on the composer Richard Strauss.

3 thoughts on “A new home for the Huguenots”

  1. Very interesting parallel to the history of London’s Spitalfields where the architecture has also been heavily influenced by the Huguenots who settled there

    1. Good question, Linda. Actually, it never occurred to me not to go back. I have six opera subscriptions here in Frankfurt, so I automatically see each production more than once. Also some friends of mine were singing in it or playing in the orchestra, and they all liked it, so wanted to see what I was missing.

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