Either way, human filth ended up in the streets, and the town made only halfhearted stabs at
removing it. You were supposed to clean in front of your house twice a week, for example. It didn't work.
The town got so ripe in summer that the rich moved out. Health problems stayed: For centuries,
they had the black plague, a disease so virulent that it killed one of every three people in Europe.
To try to cure the plague, Rothenburg's shepherds danced around the wells, which didn't work,
and the residents prayed, which didn't work either. Then they decided the Jewish population had put poison into the
well, so they kicked the Jewish people out of town.
The pogrom, one of many in medieval Europe, didn't work, either.
Plague and illnesses continued. So did war. But Rothenburg was better protected against armies than germs.
It was under siege many times, but thanks to its encircling fortifications, the city survived
unconquered for nearly 600 years, from its founding in about 980 until a siege in 1631 during the Thirty Years'
To understand Rothenburg, you have to give in and learn the war's bracketing dates: 1618 to
1648, and its cause: religious strife between Catholics and Protestants.
Rothenburg was a Protestant town, which made it a target for Catholic armies during the war.
Rothenburg's population was about 5,500 but when it lost the siege of 1631, 40,000 enemy soldiers moved in for
three months, and they were not nice guests.
After they finally left, the plague took their place. When the whole mess was finally over, less
than half of the prewar population was still alive. The town fell asleep for 200 years.
People had absolutely no money, so they didn't change anything. That was why they kept it. Not
because they thought it was nice to live in an old city - they were forced to. Its long sleep saved it.
This is the story of historic towns all over the world: The Belgian city of Bruges, for example,
survives because it failed - its route to the sea silted in, trade died and the citizens could not afford to tear
down or build new.
By the late 1800s, Rothenburg's crumbling walled beauty had attracted artists, another
predictable step on the preservation pathway. Artists focused attention on the town, tourists followed, and
Rothenburg began to revive.
By 1900 local leaders had caught on: They were living in an architectural gold mine, and to keep
it producing, they had to keep it the same.
The result was tough historic-preservation laws, and later generations stuck to them. That's why
the golden arches on Schmiedgasse are so tasteful: If you want to do business in Rothenburg, you play by
The next Europe-wide conflict to wash over Rothenburg made the Thirty Years' War look like a
sightseeing tour. Half the town lay in ruins in 1945, just months before the end of the Second World War. (It
would have been totally destroyed if an American general hadn't intervened.)
Now, the only indications of that damage are literally signs: small plaques honoring donors, who
contributed funds to heal the scars. Today, Rothenburg's restored perfection draws two million visitors a year from
all over the world.