Monsters in the Old Town


PETERAt the corner of Heumarkt and Seidmacherinnengäßchen in the Old Town you will find the "Gasthaus zum St. Peter" (St. Peter´s Guesthouse) dating from 1568. It is one of the very few really old houses in our so called Old Town, as most of them were destroyed in the 30s, when the whole area was reconstructed, or during World War II, when more than 90 % of the city centre of Cologne were destroyed. The guesthouse also is one of the most beautiful ones amongst the few that are left. The round-cornered windows that are set closely side by side are as typical for Cologne houses of that time as the gable with three curves.
At its side you can still find a very well preserved specimen of a "Grinkopf"
What terrible secret may lurk behind this frightening mask? An old legend gives the answer to this question:

At the time of Archbishop Anno at the end of the 11th century there lived a widow in Cologne, who did not have any relatives or children left who could have supported and helped her. One day she went to a rich merchant to order a lot of things that she needed to replenish her stocks before winter. As it was the custom the deal was sealed with a handshake and the woman payed right away. She went home feeling secure in the knowledge that the merchant would inform her as soon as her goods had arrived. But weeks went by without anything happening.
Finally she returned to the merchant to ask what took him so long to deliver. As it turned out he was a deceitful man and felt sure he could trick the old lady without fear of punishment. He pretended to know nothing about the deal and denied ever having got her money. When she proved to be stubborn he finally grew very angry and shouted at her to bring her witness. "Witness I have none save God Almighty. And may He reward you well for what you´ve done to me." she said and left.
There should be some place where she could demand her due. The obvious move was to go to the twelve lay assessors of Cologne and that is what she did next. But the merchant had been faster and had already bribed them well. So like him they asked her to bring her witness and once more she could only answer: "Witness I have none save God Almighty. And may He reward you well for what you´ve done to me."
Driven to despair the woman decided to turn to the archbishop for help, for he was the one who ruled the city. Anno was staying at Siegburg Abbey at that time, so she had to do some travelling before being allowed an audience with him. But once arrived she did not have to wait long for it. She told him all that had befallen her and implored him to help her. Anno grew extremely angry and swore that he would allow no such evil to happen in his "Holy Cologne". He immediately demanded that the merchant and the twelve assessors be brought to him.
As soon as they had arrived he started interrogating them. In the beginning they of course tried to deny everything. But one of the assessors, who once had been a servant to Anno, knew what a wrathful master the archbishop could be and decided he better tell the truth.
The sentence delivered by Anno proved to be very cruel indeed: he had them all blinded except for the one who had spoken the truth. He was allowed to keep one eye so that he could lead the others back home. Gruesome stone masks with eyes that looked like dead were put above the entrances to the houses of the thirteen in order to remind the citizens of Cologne of what would happen to people who did not abide by the law in this city.

Thus the legend.
Reality is much more harmless. The head does not have a lower jaw. But it does have very impressive metal teeth, which at their points almost touch each other like a V. Behind them there is a hole in the wall. And underneath an original "Grinkopf" you will find the entrance to a cellar. (By now we have a few modern ones as well, which are purely ornamental.) In former times they used to put a rail between the teeth, which was then safely held inside the hole. Across the rail they hung a rope which could be used as a very simple sort of pulley to get things out of the cellar or lower goods into it. The mask is simply there for decorative reasons.



Text and photos © Yvonne Plum



Home