[Help] [Aide] [Up]

Science Tribune - Article September 1997


Halle : From one of the largest to smallest salt producers in Europe

R. Just

Technisches Halloren- und Salinemuseum, Mansfelder Str. 52, 06108 Halle (Saale), Germany.
Fax : (0345) 2 02 50 34

The ancient Indo-Germanic word for salt is 'hall' and many towns involved in the production of salt contain the syllable 'hal'. The place-name "Halla" is first mentioned in 806 (Chronicon Moissiacense) but a record of the presence of brine springs is not found until 961 when King Otto I granted the neighbouring castle of Giebichenstein and its brine spring to the Moritz monastery. The monastery was later to become the archbishopric of Magdeburg and to reign over the area for over 700 years.

Salt production in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, salt was produced in the valley salt-works ("Thalsaline" ) from four shallow wells (the Gutjahr, Deutsche Brunnen, Hackeborn and Meteritzbrunnen) in a place called Hallmarkt not far from where the town market-place stands today.

The salt technology used in Halle is described by Friedrich Hondorff in "Das Salzwerk zu Hall in Sachsen" (1670). Whether Hondorff knew of Georg Agricola's "De re metallica Libri VII" (1556) is uncertain but there are many similarities between their treatises. Agricola only mentions Halle briefly but his explanations and illustrations evoke this medieval salt-works more than any other.

Brine was raised by workers at the springs with a winch or treadwheel which was replaced by horses at the Gutjahr and Deutscher Born springs in 1731. However, for technical reasons, there was a return to the use of the treadmill two years later at the Gutjahr springs. A steam machine was introduced relatively late, in 1831, at the then only remaining springs (Gutjahr).

The brine was conveyed by carriers in large tubs to small pan-houses called 'Kothe', of which there were as many as 116 in 1485. By tradition, the Kothe were named after different birds, four-legged animals and objects depending upon how large they were. In the Kothe, brine was boiled in pans that were heated over burning wood and straw. Once the brine was on the boil, both cows blood and beer were added. The blood helped dirt particles accumulate in the foam which was skimmed off; the beer promoted the crystallisation of the salt which was gathered as a kind of sludge from the bottom of the pan. This sludge was drawn toward the edge of the pan with special tools looking like those used to shove snow. The salt was then placed in baskets to dry. In the 18th C, the fuel was changed to coal.

Highly concentrated brine (192-217 g/liter) was raised from a depth of only 20 to 35 m from all four wells in the valley. The two main wells were the Gutjahr (35m) and Deutsche Brunnen (20m) and they were linked. The two others, which were of lesser importance but which nevertheless continued to produce salt until the beginning of the 19th C, were the Hackeborn (20m) and Meteritzbrunnen (22m) (a) (b).

Between the 13th and 16th centuries, Halle became one of the most important salt-works in Europe; its main competitor was Lüneburg. Annual production in its heyday was 20 000 tonnes and the salt was sold to traders from many areas of Germany, Poland, Böhmen, etc.

The hierarchy of a salt-producing town

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the archbishop of Magdeburg was officially represented by the 'Burggraf'' but, because the Burggraf only came to Halle three times a year, a local adjudicator - the 'Salzgraf'" - dealt with day-to-day matters (c). The Salzgraf was, in fact, the most powerful man in town combining the functions of overall 'manager' of the valley saltworks and judge of the salt-works court (this was not the town court). He also held the right to mint coins. The Salzgraf was nominated initially by the archbishop and later on by the kings of Prussia. The official title was last held in 1785 by the 48th Salzgraf.

The archbishop of Magdeburg leased the brine resources and pan-houses to burghers of the town and granted certain individuals the right to oversee salt-production in these pan-houses. The brine resources thus belonged to the "Gutsherren" and the pan-houses to the "Kotheigenthümer". The overseers - employers - in the pan-houses were the "Salzjunker", or Pfänner" as they were known in Halle; the oldest register (1479) lists 104 names. The right to be a Pfanner ran in the family and those who had not inherited such rights had to obtain a concession from the prince of the land. With time, because of links through inheritance and marriage, the three functions of Gutsherr-Kotheigenthumer-Pfanner - that were initially distinct - often ended up being held by the same person. The Pfänner wielded great economic and political influence until 1478 when they divested of their authority by the town guilds.

The Halloren and their Union

Pfänner did not need to master salt-making technology; this was the responsibility of the salt-workers (Halloren) who operated an efficient division of labour in which workers of different echelons supervised the running of the salt-works, for instance, the "Unterbornmeister", "Oigler" (someone who has an eye on things), and "Oberbornmeister" (foreman).

Halloren rarely became Pfänner but they were nevertheless highly privileged labourers even though, at times, they had to fight - even strike - for their privileges. When salt production was momentarily halted, they continued to receive rations of bread, cheese, and beer. The small pan-houses with no chimney provided excellent conditions for smoking food and the Halloren were allowed to smoke bacon, meat and sausage in the Kothe. They held the exclusive right to catch fish and also birds (larks) which they enticed into a net with a revolving mushroom-shaped wooden instrument studded with pieces of mirror. A more unusual prerogative, that derived from their origins as a religious brotherhood (see below), was that of undertaker (d). This role slowly fell into disuse but has fairly recently been reinstated. Of course, rights were matched by duties and the Halloren had to defend the town-walls in times of war and bring assistance when there was danger from fire or water.

The Halloren, who were held in high esteem by the ruling classes, made the reputation of Halle. They were members of a Union, the 'Salzwirkerbrüderschaft im Thale zu Halle', which originated in a religious brotherhood of the end of the 15th C and that fought for the workers' interests. In time, this union merged with a union of workers involved in the supply and transport of brine at the springs (the Bornknechte) which was founded by archbishop Ernst in 1509. The joint union still exists today but its members now come from other professions. In the past, Halloren showed their mettle in competitions on the river Saale where the object was to push the opponent into the water with a long staff-pole. Although such events take place today, the participants are no longer the Halloren. However, on festive occasions, union members still wear highly distinctive dress that dates from the 18th C. Their jackets have 18 ball-shaped silver buttons, each of which is named after an official title or post within the union (flag-bearer, captain, accountant,....).

The decline of the old valley salt-works and the birth of a museum

In 1680, the archbishopric of Magdeburg became part of Brandenburg-Prussia and, in 1719, the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm I, ordered the construction of a new salt-works near the town. The old valley salt-works lost their prestige. Between 1790 and 1799, most of the little pan-houses were demolished and replaced by two large pan-houses which produced salt until 1868/69. However, the neighbouring new salt-works, which changed hands several times, remained in operation until 1964.

The present-day complex - a museum - has buildings dating from many different epochs. The Technical Halloren- and Salinemuseums are situated in two buildings from the "new" salt-works. The pan-house was built over 100 years ago with material from an earlier pan-house in the Hallmarkt after production ceased there in the 19th C. The actual pan was built in the 1960's using 19th C technology. Three employees produce salt once a week from brine transported by road from nearby. Halloren-salt is a coarse-grained salt that dissolves well and is sold to the bakers of Halle and to a gherkin-factory. We are the only museum which produces salt on a regular basis in Europe and the smallest salt-producer in Germany !


(a) A fifth spring in the valley, actually located in the "zur Glocke" pan house, was operated for 7 years only because of the low concentration of the brine.

(b) Apart from the wells operated by the valley salt-works, there was a further well, sunk in 1706, which obtained brine from a spring near Giebichenstein castle. Brine from this well was boiled in four pans in the offices of Giebichenstein which belonged to the Prussion state. Because of the low concentration of this brine, expensive graduation works were built but the salt still remained of much poorer quality (grey and containing saltpetre) than the valley salt. Operation costs were so high that production ceased in 1710.

(c) Known under the latin names of judices salinarii, Salinatorium Baesides, Salzgravius.

(d) In the Middle Ages, religious brotherhoods organized the funerals of their members. When the union of the salt-workers' brotherhood (Salzwirkerbrüderschaft) was formed, it maintained the task of performing funerals not only for the union members but for other townspeople.

Other reading

Mager J (with the collaboration of Just R.) Kulturgeschichte der Halleschen Salinen. Technisches Halloren- und Salinemuseum Halle (Saale), 1995.