Cologne, Christmas, and Crystal Balls

In early December some friends and I spent a couple days in Cologne. When we stepped out of the train station, this is the sight that greeted us:

It almost made up for the fact that we passed by Aachen without stopping. The cathedral was built in the 13th century, on the site of a 9th century cathedral that unfortunately burned down. The cathedral itself was gorgeous, as was the view from the tower. The really exciting bit, however, was below ground, in the cathedral’s Treasure Chamber, a series of rooms exhibiting the cathedral’s riches many treasures, mostly consisting of its many reliquaries, including the famous Shrine of the Three Kings:

Still, nothing there is quite as exciting (in my perfectly unbiased opinion, of course), as the display of the grave goods from a 6th century Frankish burial that was found beneath the cathedral. These included some garnet jewelry, knives, buckles, etc., and… a crystal ball! I can’t find images of the one at Cologne (and I wasn’t allowed to take photos, of course), but it looked something like this:

Crystal balls are fairly common in women’s burials, especially in high-status graves, both on the continent and in England. These are small, no more than an inch or so in diameter; they were often set in a metal sling (as in the photo above), and were usually worn on chatelaines – long chains that women suspended from their belts, which usually carried (mostly, but not always) ornamental tools for sewing and housework as well as amulets. Crystal balls were the latter, and may have been used for healing. They were not, of course, used for divination: that association came much later. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at Audrey Meaney’s Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones.

Outside of the cathedral was one of the town’s four seven (thanks to Sabrina for the correction) Christmas markets:

If you angle your monitor right, you can actually see some of the cathedral’s windows in the background.

While perusing the lovely christmassy trinkets, I couldn’t help but think about the continuity of the whole thing. In the Middle Ages markets would often have come together in the shadows of cathedrals, especially those that were pilgrimage destinations. The pilgrims have been replaced with holiday travellers, the candles with twinkle lights, and the badges with jewelry and pretzels, but I can’t help thinking that in the middle ages the place must have felt much as it does now: buzzing with energy and excitement, and crowded with awe-struck foreigners shopping for souvenirs.

Plus ça change…

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