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Tornators: In the Mill of History, 2

Benedikt Dreyer, "Meeting of Saints Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gate." Oak with polychromy and gilding. Ca. 1515–20.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In judging the historicity of past events, the best we can hope for is what a Renaissance rhetorician might have called “the probabilitas that reveals itself to reflective reason.”[1]

But our love of a good story tends to prevail: “Inventing, one offends against history; not inventing, one offends against poetry,” the seventeenth-century Transylvanian encyclopedist Johann Alsted observed.[2]

            Around the year 1150, seeking to displace the pagan Abotrites and other Slavic tribes who occupied the land to the east of his realm, Count Adolf II of Schauenberg and Holstein sent messengers to the west and south to invite people to come there. In response, “an innumerable crowd of divers nations”[3] set out with their chattels and families for the country of the Wagrians to take possession of the land Adolf had promised them. On a high peninsula lying between two rivers, where there was “the rampart of an abandoned castle built in former times by Kruto, the enemy of God,”[4] a place called Liubice (“Lovely”) in Polabian, Count Adolf founded a town that he named Lübeck.[5]

            Over the centuries, merging of the Germanic and Slavic populations occurred on many levels in northern Europe. “Not only did Czechs, Poles, Wends and Hungarians learn to lay out their towns and plough their fields in the German manner; their rulers aspired to look, act, marry, live and speak like Germans.”[6]

Unfortunately, the German language rang like the barking of dogs on native ears. Slavs “call every Teuton ‘Niemecz,’ that is to say, dumb” (i.e., unable to speak a Slavic tongue), a contemporary Slav pamphleteer noted. In the margin of a volume of John Wycliffe’s writings, a reader in fourteenth-century Prague scribbled: “Ha, ha, Germans, ha, ha—out, out!’”

            Patterns, later to be familiar, emerge in the Middle Ages: around 1350, Wends were excluded from the grocers’ guild in Lüneburg, and in 1409 the Lüneburg town council ruled that they could no longer be accorded burgher rights. Still, in thirteenth-century records, numerous Lübeck councilmen have Wendish names. Lübeck and its sister cities on the Baltic coast—Kiel, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, and Pomeranian towns like Greifswald, Stettin, and Anklam—constitute a league of “Wendish towns” (first mentioned in 1280).[7] As late as the 1970s, the orgulous Danish and Swedish monarchs styled themselves, inter alia, kings of the Wends and the Goths.


“Dreyer,” “Dreher,” “Draier,” “Drayer,” “Dreger,” “Dreier,” “Dreiger,” “Drejer,” and so on, are all equivalents of the English “Turner,” meaning a worker of wood, metal, bone, or ivory on a lathe. The modern German common noun is Dreher. Henry VIII’s chaplain John Palsgrave defines “tourners” as “makers of bolles and dishes.” These were commonly shaped, not only of clay, but of ash or alderwood. This technology survived in Europe as late as World War II. The vernacular name “Dreyer,” evidently first attested to around 1359 in Mecklenburg, east of Lübeck, became common enough in the Middle Ages. There were lots of turners, since everyone needed their products.

            In earliest written records, however, not all of my paternal clan are thus identified. Their humble surname is latinized to the grander “Tornarius” or “Tornator” (and sometimes we find the hybrid Dreierus). In fact, they were mostly no longer lathe workers, but had become furriers, goldsmiths, artists, manufacturers, and merchants, in the vast swathe of Hanseatic space from Münster and Lüneberg to Skåne in Sweden and Reval in the wild East (now Tallinn, the capital of modern Estonia).

             A Henricus Tornator of Lübeck is spoken of in 1296 as the father of the pellifex (furrier) Floreko.[8] In 1298, Floreko sold half of their house, Muhlenstrasse 779; a couple of years later, in 1301, Henricus’s widow, Sweneke, sold the other half. In 1310, another ancestral Dreyer, Wennemarus Tornator, inherited half a granary in Lübeck at An der Trave 809–810A—not far from the seventeenth-century Dreyer family home at An der Trave 282.

            The celebrated painter and wood carver (Bildschnitzer) Benedikt Dreyer was born in Lübeck in the 1480s. Apprenticed in Lüneberg in 1506–7, he is identified as a member (gheselen schaffer) of the Lukasbruderschaft (Saint Luke’s Guild) of painters, sculptors, and glass workers. From the style of his work, he had very likely spent time in Swabia in southern Germany, near Burgundy. He returned to Lübeck around 1515 and died there sometime after 1555.

            One source identifies Benedikt’s mother as Geseke or Greteke Dreyer, the owner of a house at Pferdemarkt no. 5 in Lübeck, and says that he married Taleke, the daughter of a fellow painter, Hinrik van dem Kroghe; another says he married a woman named Gretke; a third, however, identifies Benedikt and Gretke as brother and sister, the children of Hans and Cillye Dreyer. The famous Bildschnitzer seems to have had brothers named Jürgen, also a painter and wood carver, and Hans, both of whom lived in Reval (an old name for Tallinn), the northernmost city in the Hanseatic League.[9] Benedikt may have left three sons, one of whom may have been called Christopher.

His finest works, in the Lübeck Marienkirche, were destroyed by RAF Bomber Command in 1942 when it used Lübeck as a trial target for its incendiary strategy. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Baronet, GCB, OBE, AFC, etc., a bugler in the 1st Rhodesian Regiment during World War I, known as “Bomber” Harris, but often called “Butcher” Harris in the RAF, judged that its medieval wooden buildings would burn briskly (as they did).

            Johannes Bugenhagen, who in 1530 was the organizer of the Lutheran Church in Lübeck and Pomerania, and who wrote the preface to Johann Dreyer’s Herford Kirchenordnung a few years later (on which see In the Mill of History, 1), was Benedikt’s almost exact contemporary. Benedikt’s reliefs for the pulpit of the Lübeck Marienkirche were carved under Bugenhagen’s guidance. Their legends are taken from Bugenhagen’s Low German Bible, published in Lübeck in 1534, three months before Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into High German Saxon—“das Ei vor der Henne” (the egg before the chicken), as people said. Northern Germany and Scandinavia were then in the process of rapidly converting to the Reformed Religion. Around this time we find the Swedish Catholic Archbishop Olaus Magnus declaiming against “the despicable Lutheranism newly imported by German merchants.”[10]

Schonenfahrer Dreyers, who traded with what was then the Danish possession called Schonen (Swedish Skåne) at the southern tip of Sweden, would have been among the latter.

            The “bourgeois revolution” was strongly felt in Lübeck, and we should probably not be surprised to find “Benedictus Dreger Kauffmann [merchant]” listed as no. 44 in the Lübecker 100er Ausschuß, the “big council” (großer Rat).

            This Council of 100 was split evenly between patricians—among whom Großkaufleute, prominent merchants, counted—and tradesmen. In the order of precedence in Hansa society, Kaufmann came right after (and sometimes overlapped with) the statuses of knight (Ritter), squire (Junker), and rentier (Rentener). Moreover, a merchant’s son could also be an artist. Thus, for example, Bernt Notke (1440–1509), one of the very greatest artists of the German Renaissance, and perhaps one of Benedikt’s teachers, was the son of a wealthy Pomeranian merchant family. Notke studied in Lübeck, where he was admitted in 1467 to bourgeois status as a “free master” without being required to be a member of the company of painters or of goldsmiths, no doubt thanks to his family connections.

            The upper classes in the Hansa cities formed merchant guilds: in Lübeck, this was the Holy Trinity Company; at Münster, Bremen, Osnabrück, Magdebourg, and Stendal, the Company of Clothiers. At Reval, where Benedikt’s brothers lived, we find mention in the year 1506 of a Hinrik Dreyer dealing in cloth: Tuch.[12]

            A key fact about early modern history—and perhaps all history prior to the latter-day simplification of jeans and T-shirts—is the extraordinary degree to which it involves dressing up. “Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon cloth,” Carlyle writes.[13] The Quartermaster of the overweening Order of Teutonic Knights, ranking just under its Grand Commander, was titled the Trapier—which is to say, “the Draper."


[1] Kurt Johannesson, The Renaissance of the Goths in Sixteenth-Century Sweden: Johannes and Olaus Magnus as Politicians and Historians, trans. and ed. James Larson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 243n44.

[2] Johan Heinrich Alsted, Scientiarum omnium encyclopaedia (3rd ed., Lyon, 1649).

[3] So says Helmold, priest of Bosnau in Holstein, in his Chronica Slavorum (ca. 1171).

[4] Kruto is a historical figure, son of Grin, from the Baltic island of Rügen, d. 1093, leader of the Abotrites and other Polabian Slavs against the Germans.

[5] The name may perhaps relate as well to that of Lübbecke, twelve miles north of Herford in Westphalia. Lippe, to which Lübbecke is adjacent, is still today said to have the largest population of persons named “Dreier” of anywhere in Germany.

[6] Len Scales, The Shaping of German Identity: Authority and Crisis, 1245–1414 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); this is the source for the details in this paragraph and the next two: see there 409, 411, 384 (Gottwald), and 427 (Lüneburg) with nn. 205, 209.

[7] Philippe Dollinger, La Hanse, XIIe–XVIIe siècles (Paris: Aubier, 1988), 66–67. The Baltic Slavs were actually the most recent arrivals. “They had moved in from the south-east, and occupied areas left vacant by migrating Germans at various dates from the first to the sixth centuries. . . . All these [Baltic] peoples were linked to each other primarily by the exchange and purchase and transportation of goods and slaves” (Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades [London: Penguin Books, 1997] 27, 43). Note also apropos of ethnic discrimination Swedish treatment of the Lapps, “whom sheriffs and nobles forbade conversion to Christianity—for then one could not oppress them so cruelly and demand such high and illegal taxes,” says the Portuguese diplomat and humanist Damião de Gois (“Deploratio Lappianae gentis” [1540], cited in Johannesson, Renaissance of the Goths, 185).

[8] Henricus Tornator and his son Floreko Pellifex: Hermann Schröder, “Topographische Register,” 10 H.S. 314, 650, archives of the Hansestadt Lübeck. Wennemarus Tornator[e]: ibid., MAR S. 704.

[9] Revaler Regesten, vol. 1: Beziehungen der Städte Deutschlands zu Reval in den Jahren 1500–1807, ed. Roland Seeberg-Elverfeldt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck u. Ruprecht, 1966), no. 124, 88–89, notes for July 11, 1520, that “nach Aussage des Hinrik Hyntze u. Johann Tolner der Benedictus Dreyer u. Gretke Dreygers (!) Geschw. u. Kinder von Hans Dreyer u. s. Fr. Cillye u. die nächsten Erben ihres † Br. Jurgen Dreyer wären.”

[10] Olaus Magnus, “the despicable Lutheranism newly imported by German merchants”: cited by Johannesson, Renaissance of the Goths, 155.

[11] “Benedictus Dreger Kauffmann”: Günter Korell, Jürgen Wullenwever: Sein sozial-politisches Wirken in Lübeck und der Kampf mit den erstarkenden Mächten Nordeuropas (Weimar, DDR: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1980), app. 2, 127–28, “Der Lübecker 100er Ausschuß,” a list of the members of the Council of 100 Lübeck Bürger chosen on October 22, 1530. Dreger/Dreyer is no. 44. Engels explains: “Die bürgerliche Opposition, die Vorgängerin unsrer heutigen Liberalen, umfaßte die reicheren und mittleren Bürger sowie einen nach den Lokalumständen größeren oder geringeren Teil der Kleinbürger. Ihre Forderungen hielten sich rein auf verfassungsmäßigem Boden. Sie verlangten die Kontrolle über die städtische Verwaltung und einen Anteil an der gesetzgebenden Gewalt, sei es durch die Gemeindeversammlung selbst oder durch eine Gemeindevertretung (großer Rat, Gemeindeausschuß).” Engels, Der deutsche Bauernkrieg, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke (Berlin, DDR: Dietz, 1960), 7: 336.

[12] Hinrik Dreyer in Reval: Kämmereibuch der Stadt Reval, ed. Reinhard Vogelsang (Cologne: Böhlau, 1976), November 14, 1506.

[13] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (London: Chapman & Hall, 1901), 48.

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