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Castle romanticism in the Basel area (3): Pfeffingen

Not only are the ruins of Pfeffingen castle the largest of their kind in Basel,but,  towering on the Blauen spur, they are also a feast for the eyes.

By Nicole J. Bettlé

Coming from the north, just before you reach the ruins of Pfeffingen castle

When it became too dangerous for visitors, the ruins of Pfeffingen castle were closed to the public – now they are open for free visits again. Since 2013, with a budget of around CHF 7m, they have been comprehensively renovated. Finally, in the middle of August 2017, the works came to a close. At last rid of its steely scaffolding, they again seem to be majestically watching over the lower Birs valley.

Construction and conversion
With an unmissable tower block, the elongated shield wall, with gates set with towers and a massive stone bridge, the ruins of Pfeffingen castle are without a shadow of a doubt one of the most impressive relics from the age of chivalry. All of these stony monuments were erected between the 13th and the 16th century when the hill-fort culture was at its peak.

The view towards the castle’s ruins from the south-east

However, the foundations for this castle complex in the Birs valley were laid quite some time before that; this seems to have taken place in the early 11th century, though no remains of this first construction can be found nowadays. The oldest parts of the castle that can still be seen today date back to the 13th century when the castle underwent a major conversion.

During the great Basel earthquake ,(1356) it suffered massive damage, but, in contrast to many of the other castles in the surrounding area, it was rebuilt relatively quickly. The impressive residential tower dominating the whole complex was built in the between 1380 and 1390. Added to it during these years were the western ward and the outer gate.

The descriptions may be extensive, but in contrast to the Landskron a few miles west only in one language

The “witch tower”, also situated on the western side, was also built during the 14th century. Why it was given this name is unclear; witch trials in Baselland (a bishopric at the time) only began to take place in the years after 1440, and  mainly in the areas around Muttenz, Liestal and Waldenburg. Moreover, there are no documents proving that anyone accused of witchcraft  was ever an inmate here.

Moving history in the dark
Almost as mysterious as the history of its earliest construction and of the witch tower are to some extent the tenure statues. However, it is easy to explain why only sparse information is available about these very early incidents and why many things remain in the dark. It was not until the Early Middle Ages that legal claims and tenures were recorded in writing for posterity.

At the western gate

Even when it comes to Pfeffingen castle, many things remain a mystery:Who its founder was can only indirectly be traced. Although a “Notker von Pfeffingen” first appears as its owner in a deed in 1135, it cannot be proven whether he was related, as many historians believe, with the powerful family of the counts of Saugern, as supporting documents are missing.

Nevertheless, Pfeffingen castle, during its first few decades of existence, was verifiably owned by the Saugern family, a dynasty originally from Alsace. Although this family had managed to bring forth a number of very influential rulers,  little is known about it. Not even its family crest is known, it can only indirectly be recreated, with a lot of speculation. The first documented appearance of a Count of Saugern dates back to 1102.

However, there is a plethora of information available about the Saugern family’s heirs, the aristocratic family of Thierstein. It originally came from the Frick valley and became owner of the castle around 1200. But even with this family, the sources available sometimes raise questions. For example, between 1247 and 1288, no less than four different “Berchtold of Pfaiffingen” (or “Pfeffingen) are mentioned in official documents. In what relation to the original Thierstein family these descendants stood remains unclear. After all, it was a custom at the time that the first name was passed on from father to son.

The view towards Gempen and Dornach

It is certain, however, that the bishopric of Basel acquired the fiefdom sovereignty over Pfeffingen castle during 13th or 14th century, but with the castle remaining the main seat of a branch of the Thierstein family. From 1212 onwards, a Schaffner family resided there, vassals of the Thierstein family. How it came about that the bishopric acquired the feudal rights over the castle remains a mystery. It seems obvious that the relationship between Basel’s bishop and the Thierstein family was not the best as the bishop had the castle put under siege in 1335. Perhaps it came to this conflict as at the same time the Wider family obtained the documented right to name the castellan – the Wider family were the heirs of the Schaffner family.

Troubled times
When the family line of the Thierstein-Pfeffingen passed away, troops from Basel occupied the castle. However, Solothurn also laid a claim to it, and it came to an inheritance dispute. It was only in 1522 when it was finally settled by handing over the undivided feudal rights to the bishop of Basel. From then on, the castle was the seat of the bishop’s bailiffs. In 1583, Bishop Jakob Blarer von Wartensee transferred the castle protectorate to his brother, Wolfgang Dietrich. In the end, the Blarer family also received the documented right to bequeath Pfeffingen castle from one generation to the other.

During the 16th century the castle became a bone of contention between Basel and Solothurn. Already prior to that, both cantons had been trying to gain ownership of the castle by force. In 1376 and in 1406 troops from Basel arrived at its gates and laid siege on it. Forces from Solothurn then attacked it in 1499.

On a few occasions, even foreign powers were more than eager to gain possession over this castle. In 1466, bailiff Peter von Mörsberg conquered Pfeffingen castle in the name of the Austrian-Sundgau dynasty. During the Thirty Year War, on the other hand, Bernhard Duke of Saxony-Weimar, took over the castle (1637). It was only 11 years later, and only after it had been heavily damaged by Swedish troops, that it was again returned to its previous owner. His successors abandoned it for good in 1748. After that a hermit lived within its walls for some time, but in 1761 it was finally cleared to be demolished.

The view towards Basel and the Black Forest

At the peak of the Age of Chivalry, Pfeffingen castle, thanks to its strategic position, was a heavily fought after object of prestige and status. During the 18th century, its status had faded and it use had completely disappeared. Just about two centuries later, interest in the castle’s ruins grew again. In 1931 private citizens acquired the ruin and had the castle’s remains exposed and also had some restoration work done. Ten years later the canton of Baselland bought it.

The ruins of Pfeffingen castle, which allow a wonderful view over the Birs valley up to the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains, can easily be reached from Basel. For those using public transport it is best to take the regional train S3 from SBB station to Dornach-Arlesheim and then change to post bus #65. Getting off at bus stop “Pfeffingen Post” you can reach the castle within around 15 minutes on foot. Those who prefer to use the car should take the N18 motorway (south) until the Aesch exit, from there on towards Pfeffingen. A tip for those keen hikers: the hiking trail “Via Jura” goes past close to the ruins.

You can find additional stories about castles here:
“When a Country Castle Was all the Rage” (The Basel Journal, 3/2014, pp 6-13)


Translation by Martin Pütter, editing by Andi Curran
All pictures © 2017 copyright TBJ/ Martin Pütter

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