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The Double Marriage of the Gleichens

There is hardly any Thuringian legend which has become so widely spread as the one of the two-wifed Count of Gleichen. And there is hardly any which has ruffled so many scholarly feathers - only the “Püsterich”[1] has exceeded it in prompting so many pointless treatises. There is a deplorable addiction to refusing to let a legend simply stand as a legend, but either forcefully stamp it as a historical truth, or, conversely, putting in an all-out effort to prove that which should be self-evident - that a legend is not history. This kind of effort spoils all poetry, and is completely wasted for this world.

The legend says: Ludwig (others call him Ernst), Count of Gleichen,[2] participated in the crusade which Ludwig the Pious, Landgrave of Thuringia,[3] had joined under the banner of Emperor Frederick II.[4] Count Ludwig was educated in the knightly virtues in the court of the Thuringian Landgrave, and was allegedly married to a Countess of Orlamünde, who had given birth to two children to him.

After Margrave Ludwig had paid for his devout zeal with his life, Count Ludwig followed the Emperor to Acre,[5] and stayed behind to protect the city of Ptolemaïs[6] after the Emperor had already embarked on his return journey by ship. During a sortie or a skirmish against the Saracens which were laying siege to Ptolemaïs, the German Count was captured by the Arabs, sold to the Sultan of Egypt, and brought to Alkair.[7]

There, the Count had to perform many hard labors as a slave, and languished as a prisoner for nine years. Finally, the daughter of the Sultan, whose name was Melech-Sala (which means “King of Weal'' or “King of Peace”)[8] became smitten with him. During their first meeting in the gardens, she tried to lift up his spirits. Finally, due to her great love for him, she proposed to flee with him if he would take her as his wife. Count Ludwig was honest enough to tell the beautiful Saracen maiden of his station and his heritage, and to confess to her that he already had a wife and two children in his distant home. This did not disturb the Saracen maiden in the slightest, as the Mohammedan faith permits every man to take as many wives as he can support[9]. And the love of the maiden, the hope for liberation, and perhaps his own feelings overcame the Count, and he finally promised the Sultan’s daughter to become united in marriage with her if she would help him find freedom and follow him.

The love of the maiden knew how to overcome all obstacles which stood in the way of their plan of escape, and, carrying her best treasures, they escaped on a ship and reached Venice after a six-week journey. In Venice, the Count found his dearest and most faithful servant, who had searched for him in all the three parts of the world which were known at the time.[10] From him he learned that everything was still in order at home, and that his wife and his two children were still alive.

Upon learning this news, Count Ludwig traveled to Rome without delay, where Gregor IX - also known as “the Great” - sat upon the papal throne. There, he told the Pope of his fate and all that had happened to him. Then the Pope provided him with grand gifts, blessed the Saracen maiden with the sacrament of Baptism, and gave the Count strongly-worded letters of recommendation for the Emperor. The Count and his entourage them embarked on the fastest route back to Thuringia through Italy, over the Alps, and through Bavaria and Franconia.[11] And when he was still two days distant from Gleichen Castle, he traveled ahead of the Saracen woman, reached his wife and children, and was most joyously recognized by his spouse and welcomed. The Count then related everything that had occurred to his spouse, and that he would never have seen his kin and country again without the help of the Saracen maiden from a royal lineage. Thus, he moved his wife to gratitude and affection towards the foreign woman.

When the latter now approached Gleichen Castle, the Count and his wife, and his numerous friends who had congregated to greet and congratulate him, approached her to meet her halfway in a grand procession. He then solemnly led her up to the castle as if in triumph. The site of the first meeting at the foot of the mountain, where the two women hugged and kissed each other in a sisterly manner, was soon called the “Freudenthal” (“Valley of Joys”) and the long-neglected and now quickly restored path into the castle was called the “Türkenweg” (“Turk’s Path”) from that moment on.[12]

At all times, the Countess of Gleichen honored and loved the Saracen woman as the savior of her beloved husband, and the latter repaid this with humility and friendliness. There was never any indication that any kind of misunderstanding or complaint arose between the two wives of the Count. Instead, both of them were united in honoring their lord in love and friendship at all times. While the Saracene woman had been adorned with great beauty, children of her own were denied to her.[13] Instead, she loved the children of the German countess, and was diligent to the utmost in caring for their well-being. She was an exemplar of devoutness, dignity, humility, charm, and friendliness. She died at a quite advanced age, and was interred within the Peterskirche church in Erfurt.[14] Two months later, the German countess, who had given her husband three further children, likewise passed from her worldly life, and was laid to rest next to her sisterly friend. The count himself passed in his 60th year, and his children - two sons and three daughters - had him interred between the two women. They furthermore commissioned a splendid gravestone for the three where their likeness can be seen.[15] For this same stone was brought down from the Petersberg,[16] and raised up in Erfurt Cathedral[17] - an eloquent witness of the legend for all subsequent centuries.



[1] This refers to the “Püstrich of Sondershausen”, a 54 cm tall bronze figure in the shape of a naked, rather rotund young boy which was found in 1540 in a ruined chapel on Kyffhäuser Mountain. Its true purpose has been a source of speculation ever since, with various interpretations being an ornament supporting a baptismal font, a heathen idol, an early steam apparatus, and an instrument of psychological warfare belonging to Emperor Barbarossa (who is supposed to sleep beneath Kyffhäuser Mountain according to German legend). One of Bechstein’s “pointless treatises” that I could find was “Der Püstrich zu Sondershausen, kein Götzenbild” (“The Püstrich at Sondershausen, no Heathen Idol”) by Martin Friedrich Rabe, which reaches a length of 234 pages.

[2] This most likely refers to Count Ernst IV von Gleichen, whose year of birth is unknown and who died in 1287.

[3] This should be Louis III, Landgrave of Thuringia - also known as “the Pious”. He was born in 1151/1152, and died in 1190 during the Third Crusade when he fell ill during the Siege of Acre, decided to return home, and succumbed to his illness on the ship.

[4] Emperor Frederick II lived from 1194 to 1250, and organized the Sixth Crusade of 1228-29 after failing to personally join the Fifth Crusade earlier in his reign. And if you are saying: “Hey, wait a minute - the timelines for these rulers don’t match up!”, then you are catching on…

[5] Acre, now in modern-day Israel and known locally as Akko or Akka, was conquered in 1191 by the Third Crusade and became the main port of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem until it was recaptured and razed by Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil in 1291.

[6] An older name for Acre.

[7] An older German term for Cairo.

[8] It is not altogether clear whether the name “Melech-Sala” refers to the sultan or his daughter. The provided translation - which I trust no further than I can throw it - would imply that this refers to the sultan, but another source claims that “Melechsala” is the daughter.

[9] Wrong, of course - while rulers at the time could and often did maintain a large number of concubines, they could only have up to four actual wives. Even so, the practice was not recommended by Islamic scholars if the husband could not deal fairly and equally with all four of them.

[10] I.e. the continents Europe, Africa, and Asia.

[11] Franconia was once a region of independent fiefdoms between Bavaria and Thuringia until Bavaria attained it thanks to allying with Napoleon in 1803 - and then kept it by stabbing Napoleon in the back when he started losing.

[12] There is a parking lot named “Freudenthal” in the valley to the northeast of Gleichen Castle, so I suppose that at least this name is still in use.

[13] Conveniently, this also erases any evidence of her existence in the family trees of the lineage.

[14] The Peterskirche church - located on the Petersberg hill - was consecrated in 1147 as part of a Benedictine monastery. Erfurt is a mere 17 km to the northeast of Gleichen Castle, and it was not unusual for nobles to be interred in churches.

[15] The image of the gravestone can be seen here, in the second volume of “Trachten, Kunstwerke und Geräthschaften vom frühen Mittelalter bis Ende des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts: nach gleichzeitigen Originalen” from 1879. The illustration is captioned “Count Ernst von Gleichen 🕇 1264 with his two wives”. That this year of death doesn’t match up with the death of any known Count of Gleichen should not surprise anyone by this point.

[16] For the record, this is the same Petersberg hill where a mage crash-landed after being pushed off his flying wheel of fortune by the Devil, according to the tale “The Twelve Johannesses”.

[17] The graves of the Counts of Gleichen were moved from the Peterskirche to the Erfurt Cathedral in 1813, when the fortifications on the Petersberg were upgraded in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. The Peterskirche had already suffered major damage during a siege in 1814, and the parts of the structure that remained were subsequently used as a granary.



This tale is a great example of how folk tales are gleefully uncaring about any kind of historical accuracy. What initially started out as a gravestone depicting a Count of Gleichen and two women - one of whom was most likely his daughter - was reinterpreted by folk storytelling into pope-sanctioned bigamy. The mixing and matching of historical dates and people is part and parcel of this approach (see the footnotes), and I can definitely sympathize with Ludwig Bechstein’s little rant at the start of the tale.

Nevertheless, if we assume that the Count was captured around the First Siege of Acre in 1189-1191 and spent seven years as a slave, then his captivity would have taken place during the reign of the Ayyubid dynasty - which meant that the “sultan’s daughter” would be the daughter of Al-Aziz Uthman, and the granddaughter of Saladin himself. How an uncastrated Christian slave would have been able to have unsupervised access to a sultan’s daughter is something that the story glosses over, of course.

This portrayal of the Crusades is fairly typical for German folk tales - they largely serve as background color so that the protagonists can have fantastic adventures in exotic, faraway places (and possibly woo native maidens). Another good example of this type of narrative is the tale “The Knight of Land Harm”, which also involves a siege, and where the protagonist infiltrates the enemy sultan’s camp in the guise of a harpist.

As for whether the relationship between the knight and his two wives was a straightforward case of pope-sanctioned polygamy, or whether the “sisterly love” between the two women could be interpreted as a polycule… well, this is a question I will leave to the fanfiction writers.

Author’s Note: 

I wish to apologize in advance to my Muslim readers for the, shall we say, lack of cultural sensitivity in this tale. Nevertheless, this is fairly representative of a certain type of tale that shows up repeatedly in German folklore.


This is a translation of a German folktale contributed by Jürgen Hubert.

It is a part of our series, Folklore Worldwide. We are currently open to submissions from around the world, and you are welcome to send us your stories!

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