WITTENBURG and WITTENBERG as descriptive terms

Witt, Witte, Witten

WITTENBURG and WITTENBERG are the composites of two words, ‘Witten’ and ‘Burg’ or ‘Berg’ respectively. ‘Witt’ stands for ‘White’ in Low-German, a dialect spoken in the north of Germany, where the names originated. ‘Wit’ and ‘Wyt’ are also the translations for ‘White’ into Dutch and Frisian respectively, ‘Hvid’, ‘Hvit’ and ‘Vit’ into Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, the other threesome of North Germanic languages, and ‘Hwit’ into Old English. The ‘i’ is pronounced in English either as a sharp, short ‘e’ for Low German and Danish or a soft, long ‘e’ for Norwegian and Swedish, the ‘u’ in ‘Burg’ as in ‘do’ or ‘two’, the ‘e’ in ‘Berg’ as in ‘bear’. ‘Witten’ is the Low German adjective to describe a white object.

While the above is the likeliest and most widely accepted explanation, one must keep in mind, that in the German language, just as in others, similar words may carry different meanings, depending on context. They may even have evolved from the same ancient root, but later come to be understood differently through regional language development. So it is with ‘Witt’, ‘Witte’ and ‘Witten’, which, being components of the Low German language group, did not undergo the High German language shift in the early Middle Ages, and are therefore still much closer to the other languages cited above than modern standard High German. It is therefore important to explore their other meanings as well.

Grimms’ German Dictionary (Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm,[1] (yes the same who collected and published in the first half of the 19th century the so familiar fairy tales, which also gave us ‘Schneewittchen’ or ‘Snow White’) associates the old and middle high German ‘wit’, wid’, which emerged from the Germanic and Celtic ‘widu, witu, wito’, with woods and wood, the old verb ‘witten’ with ‘procuring oneself with wood’. ‘Widu’ is also associated with the name of the pagan Saxon leader ‘Widukind’[2] who at last submitted to Charlemagne after the long Frankish-Saxon wars of the late 8th century. His name evolved into ‘Wittekind’, which itself generated many name associations in the north and northwestern part of Germany. It means ‘Child of the Woods’, and is said to project from the one so named the strength coming from the forest and its creatures, particularly the wolf. His name has come up in speculations on the origin of the name for both the Wittenburg in Lower Saxony, now part of Elze, as well as Luther’s Wittenberg in Upper Saxony, although there is no hard evidence connecting Widu/Wittekind to either of them.

Petrus Albinus’ ‘Meissnische Land- und Berg Chronica’ 1589[3] (Meissen Land & Mountain Chronicle) has ‘Wittechindus’ conducting a campaign as an ally of Charlemagne against the Slavic Sorbs, and upon its success build several fortresses in the conquered lands, one of them the emperor is said to have named for Wittekind, presumably ‘Wittechindusburg’, today’s Wittenberg, to honor him for his help during the campaign. This is likely more legend than fact, because firstly there is very little to go by on the fate of Widukind after his surrender and baptism in 785 and secondly, as Samuel P. Schalscheleth, (Johann Gottlob Heynig) pointed out in his ‘Historisch-geographische Beschreibung Wittenbergs und seiner Universität’,1795[4], (Historic-geographic Description of Wittenberg and its University), had a castle or small fortified settlement existed this far back at that location, it would surely not have escaped the monastic chroniclers of the High Middle Ages.

As to the Wittenburg in Lower Saxony, the assertion is even scantier: Wittekind as a possible name patron here is based on no more than the assumption of its one time likely owners, the Billung Dukes of Saxony, being descendants of Widukind. So is another speculation about the origin of the name being ‘Witegowo’ as the purported name of that clan before they became known as the Billung. All guesses without evidence to support these claims.

It is generally accepted by researchers into the roots of German geographical place names, that those beginning with the singular ‘Witt’ refer to woods, so the German town Wittstock’s equivalent in English is Woodstock[5]. Does it therefore follow that putting the old German verb ‘witten’ – to gather wood – at the start of a place name makes it automatically into ‘a place where one gathers wood’, as has been suggested in a forum discussing the meaning of Wittenberg? Not when looking at all the other possible interpretations of ‘Wit/Witten’ within context.

Another example is ‘whitten’, a regional English term for the guelder rose and wayfaring tree. At first blush it looks like a connection to the old Germanic ‘Witt’ for woods. Not so, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.[6] It is assumed to have originated from old English ‘hwit’ for white, and both of the named shrub and tree do indeed stand out with their abundant white blooms.

The term ‘Witfrau’ or what emerged from it, ‘Witwe’ – widow in English -, has been suggested as another source for the name – through ‘Wittisburg’ – of the Wittenburg castle in Lower Saxony, said to have been the widow-seat of one of the families who had a connection to it. The surname ‘Witte’ (also known as the ‘Albus’ = The Whites)[7] has been proposed to be the source for another, the castle and town of Wittenburg, in Mecklenburg.

‘Witt’ and ‘Witte’ were also associated with money, to be precise with a coin being currency as the ‘Witte’ in the North German Hanseatic cities from 1330 onwards. Another similar coin was created during the reign of Emperor Charles IV and became currency through most of the Western part of the Holy Roman Empire from 1360 on. Just as the Hanseatic ‘Witte’, it was silvery through ‘white boiling’ and its brightness, in contrast to other coins made from copper, led it to be called ‘Wittpfennig’ (denarus albus, Weisspfennig). The coins were also called ‘Wittenpfennig’ in the northern part of Germany.[8] Tongue in cheek, some voice on the internet therefore suggested that Wittenberg could figuratively also be interpreted as ‘Mountain of Money’ or ‘Mountain of Coins’.

Not enough with associations to woods, widows, white and coins, there is yet another meaning of ‘wit/witt’ deserving attention: That of Low German for ‘smarts’ and ‘wisdom’, the same as the modern English word ‘wit’. The English version is said to have come from old English ‘witt’ [9] and that again from Proto-Germanic ‘witja’[10], which developed into the contemporary German word ‘Witz’ (joke, but also associated with smarts and wisdom). It leads us to the ‘Witten’ in a 1819 German translation of John Millar’s 1786 ‘An historical View of the English Government from the Settlement of the Saxons to the Revolution in 1688’ [11] That book mentions the Anglo-Saxon wisemen as ‘Witten’ and also refers to their ancient Council as the ‘Wittena-Gemote’, the Witenagemot.

‘Witte’ as an expression for wisdom was also suggested in his ‘Disquisitio Historica D. Martini Lutheri’ of 1750 by Georg W. Kirchmaier,[12] a scholar at the University of Wittenberg, to be the proper meaning for Wittenberg as the ‘Mountain of Wisdom’ or in High German ‘Weisheitsberg’. He was dismissed as a dreamer, even ridiculed for that assertion by a number of researchers on the same subject after him. Kirchmaier may well have shown a bit too much enthusiasm in producing the impression of even the very name of that insignificant place from where the Reformation began, as somehow a portend of what was going to happen there. As a linguist he was, however, correct in also pointing out that other meaning contained in ‘Witt/Witte’. Whether it was appropriate in this context is another matter. More recently there were also those who, following the progression from ‘Widukind’ – Child of the Woods -, to the more German sounding name ‘Wittekind’ detected the ‘light’, ‘bright’ and ‘wise’ contained in ‘Witte’ as the other defining qualities of that heroic ancient Saxon leader – a view that was promoted particularly in the 1930s.

The renown Wittenberg gained as the place from where the Reformation began and radiated all over Europe was followed by a search for the significance of that hitherto unimportant town as the place chosen for divine revelation. Attempts were therefore made to link it to antiquity, which produced somewhat eclectic results: That ‘Calegia’, the Germanic city mentioned by ancient geographer Ptolemy was none other than Wittenberg. That, according to Friedrich Myconius, another professor in Wittenberg during the time of Luther, Israelites had settled in Wittenberg’s vicinity after the destruction of Jerusalem and their expulsion from their homeland, and that most of the geographical features and towns near it could be traced to Hebrew names. That Wittenberg is a derivation of the biblical mountain ‘Libanus’, the semitic root for its name being ‘white’, and, of course, also known as the ‘Mountain of Wisdom’. One can see where, despite the passing of more than two centuries, Kirchmaier’s inspiration for ‘Weisheitsberg’ came from. Even Philipp Melanchthon appears to have got caught up in this enthusiasm for antiquity in that heady time of the Reformation. Incidentally, the University founded 1502 in Wittenberg, and at which both Luther and Melanchthon taught, was named ‘Leucorea’ (leukos oros – Greek for ‘white mountain).

The more fantastic claims mentioned above were already questioned in the Meissner Chronica of 1589 and further debunked by Georg W. Kirchmaier in his ‘Disquisito Historica’ and by others in the 18th and 19th centuries, the unfamiliar names recognized as being associated more with Slavic rather than Hebraic origin. These ideas probably emerged as a result of Luther’s musings in his writing ‘Vom Missbrauch der Messen’[13] (Of the Abuse of the Mass) in 1522, wondering ‘why God would have chosen this insignificant place in the world.[Wittenberg] to awaken His Word, a miracle which, as far as I know, happened to no other land, and that the towns and villages around Wittenberg, even their inhabitants have Hebrew names, just like the towns and villages around Jerusalem’. He goes on to ask: ‘What is the origin of Ephrata, Hebron, Ressen, Panneck, Globog, Zidon, Jessen, Damatz, Dibon and others? And even Wittenberg, which is Weissenberg, what else is this but the mountain Libanus? Libanus means white, and enough with speculation’.

One may wonder what could have led Luther to such speculations. Perhaps there were indeed numerous Jewish communities existing in the region at the time, maybe there were other reasons. Albrecht Beutel points in a footnote of his work ‘Im Anfang war das Wort, – Eine Studie zu Luthers Sprachverständnis’ (In the Beginning was the Word – A study to Luther’s Understanding of Language) to the rediscovery and interest of ancient Greek and Hebrew during that epoch. It was likely no more than a ‘Gauckelspiel’, as Luther called it, and in that sense translated as ‘musings’ or ‘play of ideas, of words’, – reflective of academic interest at that time, but it obviously generating a lot of interest and enthusiasm beyond of what Luther could have imagined. What is important within the context of this chapter, is that amidst all the meandering and musings on the origin of Wittenberg and its name, Luther too acknowledged readily for ‘Witt/Witten’ to stand for ‘Weiss’/White.

It is hoped that this article illustrates clearly the danger of making inferences on the origin and definition of names simply by associating ideas without reference to language development as well as regional dialects and context. Ignoring them can all too easily lead to faulty conclusions. So let us return to the definition of the first lines in this chapter and examine their validity within the language context they were made. – the regional dialect. Low German and Frisian dialects translate ‘white’,’pale’ into ‘witt’. The corresponding adjective is ‘witte’, but can also be ‘witten’, depending on what it describes. ‘Witten’ as a verb means ‘to whiten’ something. All three mean the same also in modern Dutch, a language very closely associated to Low German, Frisian and Flemish. Note the above ‘pale’: In earlier times the term ‘white’ was not confined to the narrow sense of the colour spectrum as it is understood today. It encompassed also ‘pale’, ‘shining’ ‘light’, ‘bright’. etc. Now let us move on to context of geography and object.

The regions in Germany that are now Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt, where one of the two Wittenburgs and Luther’s Wittenberg are located, were once the domain of the Slavic Wends, also known as Sorbs, until conquest by the Dukes of Saxony in the 11th and 12th century. Alexander Buttmann[5] wrote in his work of 1856 on German place names that the Sorbs’ name for what is now Wittenberg was ‘Belagora’ – White Mountain – There is evidence of the Slavic people living there at the time using the name ‘Belagora’ as far back as 983 at least for another place in the same region. It lives on in today’s town of ‘Belgern’. Buttmann suggests Wittenberg might be the translation of the Slavic name following the arrival of Saxon and Flemish settlers. He cautions, however, about the sheer impossibility to determine now what came first, the Slavic or German name, since Christianized Wends continued to live in that area. One has to keep in mind that conquest in those days did not equate with what we are familiar with from the experience of the 20th century. People were valuable assets to rulers of largely agricultural societies, and as long as the fealty of the conquered was transferred to the new lords and their god, they were normally not expelled.

While speaking about movements of people and gods, the Slavic ‘bel’ for white or bright does not have to be a description of colour or light alone. For ancient Slavic peoples colours were also associated with cardinal directions – white for West, and bright/shining, as in light, to describe the benevolent god Belbog or Belobog in contrast to the one of darkness, Chernobog, also known asTschernibog[5] , One could surmise that a fortified settlement on the Western frontier of Slavic territories might have had a double meaning in terms of its location, but let us not speculate about ‘bel-‘ in the context of the Divine here, lest we  wish to follow in Kirchmaier’s footsteps.

White as a descriptive colour appears thus often in Slavic place names, and there were at least two Belgards in Pomerania, their names staying unchanged even throughout all the time Pomerania was Prussian/German. They are now Polish Bialogard and Bialogarda respectively, still meaning the same – white castle/town. The same region also has several Bialagora, some likely changed in the Middle Ages to German Weissenberg and after 1945 to the Slavic name again.

A.M. Meyner also refers in his 1845 ‘Geschichte der Stadt Wittenberg’[14] (History of the City of Wittenberg) to Carl Schramm’s 1735 book about bridges and river crossings[15], where the latter alludes to the possibility that a river crossing existed there in Wendish times, which ‘was called Well- or Bell-Brod, also Bell-Brad, – White Crossing – to distinguish it from the village Broda’ on the other side. The colour white seems to have referred to the white banks of the Elbe River. According to Schramm, the crossing was later called ‘Wittebrod’ or ‘Wittekind-Crossing’. Albinus in Meissnische Chronica and Kirchmaier in Disqusitio both make mention of the ‘Belbrod’ as well, and adding their own speculations about the change from ‘brod’ to ‘berg’

This is not all, however: H.L. Leopold in ‘Wittenberg und die umliegende Gegend’ of 1802[16] (Wittenberg and its surroundings) and Eduard Pietzsch in ‘Saxonia’[17] in 1836 deliver yet another theory about name development: Pietzsch writes of a Saxon burgward being established there for defensive purposes in 1180 and that a fortification was built with stones of whitish colour, and that it was called the ‘wite Burg’, later ‘Witburg’, ‘Wittenburg’, ‘Wittemberg’ and finally Wittenberg. Meyner supports the whitish rock in his ‘History of the City of Wittenberg’  when discussing the subsoil of the city and also the whitish petrified trees found buried there in sediments during other, subsequent, construction work.

In terms of translating the name of the place, whether they were Saxons or settlers from the Netherlands, and whether a settlement named ‘Belagora’ or ‘Belbrod’ already existed where Wittenberg is now, whether ‘-burg’ or ‘-berg’ there may have been no need for translating anything: The newcomers saw the same landscape features as the Wends, the white sandbanks of the river Elbe, the low forested sandy hills to the north and the whitish walls of the burgward’s fortification, – enough to also associate ‘white’ with the new place, but in their own dialect.

Why the colonizers from the Netherlands in the 12th century? G. Stier writes in ‘Wittenberg im Mittelalter, 1855’[18] (Wittenberg in the Middle Ages) that they were refugees from various environmental disasters, among them the catastrophic All Saints Flood of 1170, which made large regions of the Netherlands uninhabitable and turned the Zuiderzee from fresh water lake into one of saltwater. This is also mentioned already in the ‘Meissnische Land und Berg Chronica’ of 1589. It talks about the settlers from the Netherlands and the geographical names in the region associated with them. These ‘Flemish’ settlers are noted throughout the lands where the ‘Wendish Crusade’ played itself out. Apart from that, the Saxon settlers from the old heartlands of what is now Lower-Saxony spoke a dialect very close to Dutch, the language spoken in the Netherlands. It follows therefore that one finds many other ‘Flemish’ and Low-German sounding geographical names in the area.

As to the association with whitish hills/mountains, further downriver on the banks of the Elbe from Wittenberg and displaying similar landscape features, – largish white sandy dune hills among which it nestled -, another new settlement was established, Wittenberge, the ‘e’ at the end plural for ‘mountains’. The same goes for Wittenbergen, located on the Lower Elbe River west of Hamburg and now a part of that city. Its name naturally also refers to the white sands of the dune-‘mountains’ there and in a similar way, through local white chalk deposits, does the other small village named Wittenbergen, now part of the District of Steinburg, in Schleswig-Holstein.

Following the remarks on the influence of also Dutch on name development, it is fair to ask here whether there are any Wittenberg and Wittenburg in the Netherlands and in Flanders. The answer is yes, but they came into existence a lot later than the German towns discussed here and will be covered under the heading ‘Geographical Names’.

Now to Wittenburg again, to the ancient castle which gave the present village, now incorporated into the small city of Elze in Lower-Saxony, its name. Its history may extend into the 8th century and before, but no discernible ruins are visible anymore other than the white limestone chunks (see header and picture below ) which made up a wall around the garden of the namesake monastery established there in 1328 and which is long since gone too.

The bright shining castle on a commanding height must have been an incredible sight from the sparsely populated plains to the south and east, and the ‘witte Burg’ observed became most likely this landmark’s name as Wittenburg, notwithstanding other naming suggestions made subsequently.

Wittenburg Monastery
Wall on periphery of former Wittenburg Monastery, where once stood Wittenburg castle. Could these be the stones used for building the castle? (Photo W.Wittenburg, March 2014)

There existed also two other namesakes in Lower Saxony: One was the fortified refuge named Wittenburg in the Goettinger Forest, which archaeological evidence places into the Iron Age. Its walls were built with the whitish shell limestone at hand, which may have been the source for its later name. but it could also have come from the name of the hill it was located on, – Wittenberg -,  which derived its name likely from the same geological features.

The other was the ‘Witteburg’, also known as ‘Witteborg’, built in 1220 on the river Weser downstream from Bremen with the purpose of extracting duty from river traffic to and from that city. This small river fortress constructed from bright stones, hence its name according to chroniclers of the time, did not even last to end of the century before it was destroyed by irate city merchants over what they considered an outrageous harassment of traders. ‘Robber barons’ overplaying their hand perhaps?

The small city of Wittenburg in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has a very long history too, since it is recorded that a Slavic castle and settlement existed at the location of the present town probably already in the 9th century. The land around it is flat and was likely a lot more forested and swampy in the Middle Ages. To protect their settlement, the Wendish tribe of Polabians/Obotrites constructed a fortification, a wall castle. They first built up a large mound (today’s ‘Amtsberg’) to serve as its base with whatever would serve them as building materials: Boulders left throughout the landscape from ice age glaciers were heaped up and together with earth intertwined with log reinforcements, then stamped into a hard mass. Once finished, the palisade castle built on this manmade mound must have looked impressive, a bright spot in the dark forested land. Would it be a stretch to think that they might have given their brightly appearing castle/burgh a name reflecting that?

This is how Belgard, later Wittenburg could have looked like. The rebuilt Slavic castle in Raddusch, Eastern Germany, (Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo Marcin Szala)

Of course, since it also was literally on the western frontier towards Saxony, the color white as a descriptive of ‘Western’ cannot be discounted either, perhaps it was the ‘Western Castle/City’?

Otto Vitense suggests in his 1919 classic ‘Geschichte von Mecklenburg’[19] (History of Mecklenburg) that the Slavic fortified settlement was named ‘Belgard’ or ‘Belgrad’ = White Castle/City’, and that this name could have been adopted and translated by the Saxons for the castle they built on the ruins of the Wendish castle following their conquest of these lands in the first half of the 12th century. Vitense thinks that the Slavic name must have gotten lost early through the rapid Germanization, since even the oldest available documents do not mention anything of it. He writes also that ‘Belgard’ in Pomerania (now Polish Bialogard’, still meaning the same), its name never Germanized, was, when mentioned, often casually translated into ‘Wittenburg’. This fact could by itself also put into question why the ‘Belgard’ further west should have been translated at all, unless the circumstances allowed the continuation of Slavic names when Brandenburg-Prussia took possession of Pomerania a few centuries later, after the Thirty Years War, but those existing following the Wendish Crusade by the Saxons did not. Should a name translation indeed have taken place, the Saxon conquerors would obviously not have related the colour white to one of the cardinal directions. They would simply have taken ‘white’ as meaning ‘light’, ‘shining’.

The first reliable Saxon documentation of 1194 mentions a provincia Wittenburgh and nothing of a former name. A supposedly earlier document of 1154 appearing in various literature mentions the provinciie Wittenburg either in connection with the foundation of the bishopry of Ratzeburg or a gift of land by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. Its authenticity is, however questioned, as there is evidence of tampering in the 13th century. Perhaps the document itself is a later forgery to shore up someone’s legal claims[20].

Could this Wittenburg’s name also be the result of a name transfer as suggested by one of the Wittenburg researchers of the seventies of the previous century, the indefatigable Walter Erich Wittenburg of Heidenheim? From the Wittenburg in Lower Saxony of which some of the Saxon dukes appear to have had personal ownership, to their new castle in the land that what was to become Mecklenburg? Such name transfers did happen then, as witnessed in all colonizing enterprises, but the practice was not widespread. A further suggestion is that the name of this new, Saxon Wittenburg, was taken for both castle and ‘burgh’ from the name of a wealthy landowning and well connected family of Saxons in the region, the ‘Witte’[7], also known as the ‘Albus’. They indeed owned the castle for a while as lien holders to Henry the Lion, but this is all that is known with certainty.

One thing is clear from the foregoing chapter, there is a bewildering array of possibilities for what the ‘Witten’ in the name of the towns examined stands for, and therefore a good opportunity to apply Ockham’s Razor, to look for the simplest explanation without resorting to farfetched assumption. On that basis, the ‘Witten’ in both Wittenburg and Wittenberg is best interpreted as describing the object’s characteristics of being associated with the colour ‘white’, no matter how that colour was also interpreted otherwise.

Burg, Berg

The German word ‘Burg’[21], or ‘Borg’[22] in Scandinavian languages, and ‘Burh’[23], Burgh’[24] in Old English, (deviations borough, bury) is the term used for a ‘stronghold’, a ‘fortification’ or a ‘fortified settlement’. These slightly different terms are said to have descended from the Proto Germanic ‘burgz’[25], which in turn traces its origin to the Proto Indo-European * bʰergʰ-[26], a term for ‘high, lofty’, ‘hill, mountain’.

Closely related are *bʰergʰ-[27], a verb translating to ‘safeguard, to protect, to preserve’ and its descendants, the Proto Germanic verb berganą[28] with the same meaning, and the Proto Germanic noun *bergaz,[29] the meaning of which is also ‘hill, mountain’, but also ‘refuge, shelter’. The association of the two definitions makes sense when considering that in the past, higher elevations often meant refuge not only from enemies, but also from natural calamities such as floods and other hazards of open plains. *Bergaz’s descendant, the German word ‘Berg’, originally retained this double meaning, particularly when used as an ending in naming a fortified settlement, but through the centuries the connection with ‘refuge’ and shelter’ became gradually lost to eventually leave only the association with ‘Berg’ as in mountain.

Modern derivatives of ‘Berg’ with the meaning of shelter still exist, however, as for example in the noun ‘Herberge’ – hostel, inn, refuge in English – , which incidentally also had originally a martial connection in the word’s beginning of ‘Her-‘ as in ‘Heer’ – Army. It also happens to be the origin of the English word ‘harbour’. As a verb, we find the Proto-Germanic berganą in the modern German word ‘bergen’, – in English to recover, to shelter, to rescue, and in ‘verbergen’ – to hide, conceal. The meaning of *bergaz’s cousin ‘burgz’, and later ‘Burg’[30], as a stronghold, a place of refuge, remained essentially unchanged.

Why this etymological excursion into the origins of not only ‘Burg’ but also ‘Berg’? It is primarily to illustrate how interchangeably they were once used as endings when naming fortifications or fortified settlements. Christina Blackie writes in ‘Geographical Etymology – A Dictionary of Place-Names Giving Their Derivations’ in 1887 ‘The word berg, however, is often applied to the names of towns and fortresses instead of burg; and when this is the case it indicates that the town was built on or near a hill, or in connection with a fortress’. She goes on to say in the entry about ‘Burg, Burgh, etc. ‘As these fortified places were often erected on heights for security, as well as to enable their inmates to observe the approaches of an enemy, the word berg (a hill) was frequently used synonymously with burg, as in Königsberg and other towns.’[31]. Grimms’ German Dictionary comes to a similar conclusion. It should also be noted here that during the German eastward expansion in the Middle Ages the ending –bór of former Slavic towns occasionally became -burg as is assumed of formerly ‘Ratibór’ to ‘Ratzeburg’ in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, mentioned in the previous chapter as most likely having derived its ending berg from the white sandy mounds on the banks of the Elbe and the sandy hills north of it, is an even better example for the interchangeability of the terms ‘burg’ and ‘berg’. The first documentation we have is from 1174 mentioning a Count Thiederich von Witburc or Wittburc as burgrave of a burgward there.(Stier, 1855)[18] He is named Wittenburg in some literature, but that might be a later adaptation. Still, it raises the question about whether his name came through his position as the burgrave or the burgward received the name from him. He must have been Saxon. What might have been his family connections, who his descendants? ‘Wit’ or ‘Witt’ here as in ‘white’ or ‘Witt’ as in ‘woods’?

Wittenburg of Luther
View of the Wittenberg of Luther, but clearly named as Wittenburg by (Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia 1544, source: Wikimedia Commons)

The whitish rocks used for the construction of the castle there, and also that this could therefore have served as the source for the ‘Witten’, was mentioned earlier. What one should be aware of here within the context of burg and berg is, that both Wittenburg and Wittenberg were used as names synonymously until the beginning of the 17th century, as is attested visually in the name of a drawing of 1536 from the travel album of Elector Palatine Otto Henry, and another shown here from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia of 1544 as well as still one more from Abraham Saur’s ‘Theatrum Urbium’ of 1610 and possibly in more documents from these times.

This refutes clearly the assertions made by Samuel P. Schalscheleth in his 1795 treatise ‘Historisch-geographische Beschreibung Wittenbergs und seiner Universität;[4] (Historical-geographical description of Wittenberg and its University) that according to this knowledge, there had never been an instance in Germany where a place with the ending –burg had ever changed into –berg. He was obviously not taking into account the earlier synonymous meaning of both -berg and -burg. Perhaps he was not aware in his time of the name given to the original burgward. Perhaps the settlement which formed around the defensive structure, this –burg, was from the beginning known by the ending –berg. Maybe he was pedantic, and thought the occasional use of the ending –burg was an error made by the uninformed. No matter Schalscheleth’s reasoning, the fact remains that in the case of Wittenberg and other similarly ending town names, changing occasionally from one ending to the other was hardly an issue in a time where they both signified very much the same. Add to this the not yet standardized spelling of writing at that time, and variations are inevitable. The inscription of the oldest seal of the city from around 1300 (Wittenberg was granted city rights in 1293) is a case in point. It reads ‘S[igillum] BURGENSIUM DUCIS SAXONIE IN WITGENBERGN‘.

In whatever ways the subsequent name attributes and endings evolved to, once a settlement had formed in the new burgward in Saxon times or an already older Slavic settlement absorbed into this burgward, there can be little doubt that today’s Wittenberg had its beginnings as the burgward ‘Witburg’ or even ‘Wittenburg’, and that the ‘Burg’ – castle erected there also appears to share a narrative similar to at least the Wittenburg and Witteburg in Lower Saxony with regard to the ‘whitish’ stones used for its construction. There are also the similarities of its Slavic background and subsequent Saxon conquest in the 12th century with the Wittenburg in Mecklenburg, and both of them obtaining city rights during the 13th century..

The German word ‘Burg’ has, over time, undergone changes in its understanding too: While it meant originally, just like in Anglo-Saxon England, primarily a fortified settlement, a ‘burh’ or ‘burgh’, – ‘borg’ in Scandinavia, but also sometimes in Northern Germany in the past, it gradually came to describe only the typical medieval castle, the purpose of which was mainly to serve as a military stronghold and place of refuge in times of trouble as well as the protector of nearby trade routes and/or a settlement, often at the foot of a hill from which the castle towered. Interestingly, the Romans borrowed this Germanic word in the later period of the Roman Empire and made it into the Latin ‘Burgus’[32] to describe small tower-like fortifications, particularly in the Germanic provinces.

It should also be of interest in the context of ‘-burg’ as a settlement, that its inhabitants were considered ‘Bürger’ in German, (‘Burger’ in some dialects), which translates to ‘burghers’ in English. The description evolved in time to much more than just that for city dwellers – ‘Bürger’ as citizens of a nation. It is also where the terms ‘bourgois’ and ‘bourgoisie’ come from, the root of which is the French ‘-bourg’ That word is in turn a derivation from the above mentioned Latin ‘burgus’.

We have already concluded that the translation of Wittenberg into modern standard German is ‘Weissenberg’, white Mountain, and for Wittenburg it is ‘Weissenburg’. It is therefore appropriate to also briefly mention the various Weissenburg and Weissenberg, each found not only in Germany, but also in France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and at one time even in Transylvania. We will come back to them under the heading ‘Geographical Names’, and fortunately there is a valuable resource already available through research by Ulf Beier, teacher-historian-author in Weissenburg, Bavaria, in three articles on the name ‘Weissenburg’ on that city’s very own wiki. Not surprisingly, he came in his own way to similar conclusions about the evolution of the term ‘white’ and the naming of the various ‘Weissenburg’ as I did here on Wittenburg and Wittenberg. Here the endnote with the link to his first article.[33]

The most obvious translation of Wittenburg – Weissenburg – into modern English would appear to be ‘White Castle’, the term ‘castle’ as derived from Latin ‘Castellum’. Indeed, some medieval texts on ‘Weissenburg’ and Wittenburg name each as ‘Album Castrum’ in Latin. Contemporary English uses the term ‘castle’ for both medieval castles and all others built later for more representative rather than defensive purposes. The German language uses mostly the term ‘Schloss’ for those, (Scandinavian slot, slott), ‘Burg’ being reserved for the medieval stronghold.

The literal translation to ‘White Castle’ into English would be correct if the German words stand alone as in ‘witte Burg’ or ‘weisse Burg, but what when ‘-burg’ is the name’s ending in describing a settlement? Would ‘-burg’ in these circumstances not rather be a reference to the original fortified settlement itself? Should a translation into English then not more likely have to begin with ‘Whit(e)-Whitten‘ and end in ‘-borough’, even ‘-bury’ or better yet ‘-burgh’ as for example Edinburgh – say ‘Whittenburgh’ ?

Wittenberg or ‘Weissenberg’ raises the same questions with regard to its translation into English, assuming –berg as it is interpreted in contemporary German translates to ‘mountain’. ‘White mountain’ would obviously be the translation from the simple description ‘weisser Berg’, the composite being ‘Whitemountain’ or in looser translation even ‘Whitehill’. Taking into account the alternate old meaning of ‘berg’, as shelter, from middle English ‘bergh’, ‘Whitebergh’ or better yet, ‘Whittenbergh’ would be closer to its old Germanic root.

‘Bergh’[34], has multiple meanings as a verb as well as a noun, yet all associated with ‘shelter’, ‘safeguard’ in the old sense of what an elevated place had to offer, and closely related to ‘burgh’.  Now while pronunciation in modern standard German clearly differentiates between Burg and Berg, and where they have even parted company in what each means, whether as nouns or as endings to place names, there is no such distinction in modern English, neither in definition nor in pronunciation between –burg(h) and -berg(h). It appears as if English, in contrast to German, still retains the original old Germanic meaning for both terms. We have come back to their Proto-Germanic root, *bʰergʰ-[26]

We have also come to the end of this study of the etymology of the names Wittenburg and Wittenberg The places so named each have their own history, but all have a connection through their names’ development and meaning.

September 2020, edited October 2020.


[1] Der Digitale Grimm

[2] Widukind/Wittekind

[3] Meissnische land- und Berg Chronica, Petrus Albinus, 1589, pages 89-90

[4] Historisch-geographische Beschreibung Wittenbergs und seiner Universität, Samuel P.Schalscheleth, 1795, pages 22-41

[5] Die deutschen Ortsnamen, Alexander Buttmann, 1856, pages 6-7,65,79-80,162,164

[6] Merriam-Webster Dictionary

[7] Witte (Albus) – ‘Wackerbarth’

[8] Witte (Coin)

[9] Old English ‘witt’

[10] witja, Proto-Germanic noun

[11] Historische Entwicklung der englischen Staatsverfassung, Volume 1, John Millar – Schmid 1819

[12] Disquisitio Historica de D.Martini Lutheri, II Disputatio Historica de Witteberga Saxonum, Georg W.Kirchmaier, 1750, pages 109-118

[13] Vom Missbrauch der Messen (From the Abuse of the Mass), Martinus Luther, 1522

[14] Geschichte der Stadt Wittenberg, A.M.Meyner, 1845, pages 5-11

[15] Historischer Schauplatz, Merkwürdigste Brücken, Carl Christian Schramm, 1735, pages 125-126

[16] Wittenberg und die umliegende Gegend, Friedrich Heinrich Leopold, 1802, pages 18-20

[17] Saxonia, Museum für sächsische Vaterlandskunde, Zweiter Band, Eduard Pietzsch, 1836, page 83

[18] Wittenberg im Mittelalter, Heinrich Christoph Gottlieb Stier, 1855, pages 1-3

[19] Geschichte von Mecklenburg, Otto Vitense, 1919, pages 12,64

[20] Digitale Monumenta Germaniae Historica

[21] Burg, German language Wikipedia

[22] Borg – Nordic names, ancient Germanic

[23] burh – Old English

[24] Burgh, English – Scottish

[25] burgz, Proto Germanic noun

[26] *bʰerǵʰ- Proto Indo-European noun

[27] *bʰergʰ- Proto Indo-European verb

[28] bergana, Proto Germanic verb

[29] bergaz, Proto Germanic noun

[30] Burg, Wiktionary

[31] C. Blackie, Geographical Etymology, A Dictionary of Place Names giving their Derivations, 1887

[32] Burgus, latinized Germanic word

[33] Der Name Weissenburg im europäischen Vergleich

[34] bergh, middle English noun