Where does the Wittenburg Family Name Originate?

By Walter Erich Wittenburg (22.09.1905 to 04.09.1992), Heidenheim Germany (my grandfather)
English translation by Günter Wittenburg (my father)

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Presented at the meeting of west German holders of the name Wittenburg/Wittenborg on April 21, 1979 in Deutz, Cologne.

Honored guests, dear friends,

I would like to begin my deliberations with the wisdom of Johann Wolfgang Goethe: "Whoever is unable to account for threethousand years of history, has not lived consciously". But please, don't let this disturb you. Although history going back to ancient times has been my hobby for a great many of years, today I shall go back only some 700 to 800 years.

So now, down to business: What brought us together here today is our common family-name WITTENBURG. I shall therefore come straight to the subject "Where does the family-name Wittenburg come from?" It is of importance here to ask ourselves, since when have there been family-names at all? Tribal names appear in the earliest history of the ancient Germans, for example Amali, Knytlingar, Nibelunge. However, the tradition of inheriting family-names came during the 12th Century under the influence of trade with Italy where this had been customary since the 8th/9th Century. The growth of cities too demanded in legal business a more exact differentiation of persons(1). Prior to this, during the 11th Century, only the southern German Nobilty boasted names, which designated their ancestral seats; this was imitated by the attendants of the nobility, then by townspeople and finally, by the peasants.

This process, which commenced in the 12th Century, continued over several hundred years, although family-names were formed to the greatest extent during the 14th Century (3). In the course of this presentation, I will be giving examples of this as they relate to the name WITTENBURG. Added to this, of course, was the fact that the possibilities of creating family-names did not run into the thousands, but into the tens of thousands. The following example reveals what could happen to an old name of a person by reshaping and slurring over the course of time: from Dietrich emerged Diederich, Dietz, Dirk, Tiede, Tiedge, Tieck, Tietjens, Thiel etc. (1).

Without a doubt, our family-name WITTENBURG belongs to the group of names which determined a person's place of residence and origin. The names of places of residence are obtained "at home" and the names of origin "abroad" (2). Characteristic is the difference in the formation of names of origin between the North and the South of Germany: in the South with the suffix, e.g. "Nürnberger", in the North with the place preceded by a "von" or "van", in Latin "de". Such a "von" or "de", however, did not designate nobility during the Middle Ages. It was just the north german custom at the time to describe the person's place of origin with "von", "van" or Latin "de" instead of the now used "from" (2).

But back to our name WITTENBURG. Admirably fitting into the framework of the statements just made are the findings of Hans Joachim Wittenburg, gleaned from Lübeck and Mecklenburg archives, which were published in his article "On the tracks of the WITTENBURGS" in 1967 (4). As early as the 4th and 7th paragraphs of this article, it is stated that the family-name WITTENBURG is a name of origin pointing to the town, castle and surrounding countryside named after it in western Mecklenburg. The fact that names were written in many different ways in ancient times should not be irritating. The first documentary recording in 1154 displays in High German "provincia Wittenburg", while the oldest known municipal seal of 1296 carries the inscription "Burgensiu de Wittenborch" (5/15). In Carl Mollwo's book about the business records of Hermann and Johann Wittenborg (7), also referred to by Hans Joachim Wittenburg, there is an abundance of different ways of writing the same name,particularily in the printed texts of letters and in the extracts from Lübeck municipal records. In these, following a certain Johannes Wittenborch, comes a "Johanni Wittenborch consuli in Lubeke 1353" and a "Johanni Wyttenborch in Lubeke"; after a "Johann Wittenborg" follows a "Johanni Wyttenborch proconsuli in Lubic 1363". Side by side with a "Hermannus de Wittenborch 1318-1328" there is a "Hermannus Wittenborch 1334-1338", next to a "Marquardo dicto Wittenborch 1333" is a "Marquardus de Wittenborch 1349", next to a "Makoni de Wittenborch 1331" a "Mako Wittenborch 1333. 1337 we find once "Marquardo de Wittenborch", then simply "Marquardo Wittenborch"; also, 1337, "Hermannus Wittenborch et Johannes Wittenborch", yet in 1338 again "Johannes de Wittenborch". From 1343, the entries read only "Johannes Wittenborch".

Referring to the statement made earlier to the effect that the creation of family-names commencing in the 12th Century reached it¹s peak in the 14th Century, I have just gained the following knowledge from a study of the book written by Mollwo (7): together with the countlessly named bearers of our name, regardless of whether they were at that time spelled WITTENBORCH, WYTTENBORCH or WITTENBORG, or whether written with or without "van" or "de", I also found a large number of obvious names of origin such as : Hermannus de Warendorpe, Syfrido de Rotzstok, Jacobo de Kriwitze, Woltero de Bardewik, Bernardo de Coesfeld, Godscalco de Atendorn, Helmici de Quakenbrugge, Hermannus de Seedorpe, Henricus de Bocholte, Conradus de Luneborch etc. etc. In a work dealing with the historic aspect of the rat-catcher of Hamelin legend (8), I also found the following entry: Hermannus de Hamelen acquires in 1296 a piece of land in the Johannisstrasse in Lübeck from Wasmod and Eberhard von Alen and Johann von Danzig. Arnoldus de Hamelen left children in Wismar around the middle of the 13th Century.

They all named themselves after places or towns, never after a district or region. I am therefore convinced that the origin of our family-name WITTENBORG/WITTENBURG is only to be found in the castle of this name and to the village growing next to it, which as early as 1194 was a church community (9), and not, on the other hand, in the region which appears earlier in documents only: 1154 provincia Wittenburg, 1218 terra Wittenburg (4/9). The history of Wittenburg, from which the surrounding land as a castle district received its name, begins at least as early as 1093 when the three main castles of the Wendish Polaben: Ratzeburg, Gadebusch and Wittenburg, which had been in existence for centuries, where occupied by Saxon warriors.

As an example of how insignificant the first documentary recording of a place is, in an assessment of its actual age, I would like to mention the castle of Ertheneburg. Ertheneburg stands on the steep northern bank of the river Elbe opposite Artlenburg. The castle of Ertheneburg is first named in a document as the place where the last Billunger Duke Magnus died on 25th August 1106 (12/13/14). It is certain however, that this rivercrossing, the only one safe from flooding on the entire reaches of the lower Elbe, had existed since ancient days. And everything speaks for the fact that the Francs of Charlemagne built Ertheneburg here as a bridgehead guarding the crossing to North Albingia at the end of the Saxon Wars which lasted from 772 to 804; only that this was not mentioned in a document until 300 years later!

So I am able to maintain with a good conscience that all our ancestors who have left us the family-name WITTENBORG/WITTENBURG as our inheritance were once resident many, many generations ago in the castle or place of Wittenburg. When they changed their permanent place of residence, they were named in their new homeland after their place of origin WITTENBURG. Unrefutable evidence of this can be found in Carl Mollwo¹s book on Hermann and Johann Wittenborg (7). On Pages II and III the author presents a wealth of references to the effect that Hermann Wittenborg actually resided in Lübeck from 1310, and his sister Adelheid from 1331, both having come to Lübeck in all probability from the place in Mecklenburg called Wittenburg. Indeed an unnamed sister of Hermann and Adelheid even remained in Wittenburg! The testament of Adelheid Wittenborg (in the original text "Alheydis") dated 1st August 1344 sustantiates this and states among other items:

Now, the author Carl Mollwo well knew that every explorer is bound in and by his time, and that even a splendid discovery at one moment does not need to be the final testimony for all times. For this reason he used on pages II and III of his book the cautious formulations: "It is quite probable that the name of the family leads back to the place of Wittenburg in Mecklenburg, and that from that location the move of the family to Lübeck was undertaken." And to the testament of Alheydis: "Now, this testament only proves that the generation of Hermann in Mecklenburg, especially in Wittenburg, Eldena, Rhena, Ribnitz etc. possessed relationships of a very close nature, which lead one to conclude that either they themselves, or their preceding generation, were resident in Wittenburg in Mecklenburg, and other, not so close relatives are still to be found there two generations later.". And finally: "I would like to put up no more than the conjecture that Hermann first came to Lübeck from Wittenburg".

For me, as a descendant of the 20th Century, who does not need to anticipate that other knowledge could be forthcoming in the future, the conjectures of Carl Mollwo are proof enough: Hermann came from Wittenburg; he and his better known son, the Mayor of Lübeck Johann Wittenborg, received as family-name the name of their place of origin, Wittenburg. This agrees absolutely with the statements of Hans Joachim Wittenburg in his article "On the tracks of the WITTENBURGS" (4) to the effect that in documents of the Ratzeburg Count the names de Wittenburch and de Wittenborch crop up as early as 1212, partly with the addition "militis" meaning warrior or knight. These then were the attendants to the Count of Ratzeburg serving in Wittenburg, to whose estate the other castles of Gadebusch and Wittenburg also originally belonged.

A few explanations to this: in the year 1142, Heinrich von Badewide received Ratzeburg and the Po- labenland as a feudal tenure from the young Duke Heinrich the Lion (16/19). In 1154, Heinrich von Badewide is still designated as ³comes Polaborum² and as Count of Ratzeburg only from 1155 (16). Accordingly, in the year 1160, Gunzelin von Hagen becomes military commander of the castle and district of Schwerin, although he does not call himself Count of Schwerin until around 1167 (16/17). The family of the Edlen von Hagen (Nobles of Hagen) from which Gunzelin came, had its place of residence between the towns of Hildesheim and Halberstadt, while Heinrich von Badewide came from the place known today as Bode near Erbstorf in the district of Lüneburg.

On this subject, I found the following interesting details in Hamann¹s "History of Mecklenburg" (10). "The first German Castellans endowed with fiefs by the Counts of Ratzeburg to defend the fortresses of Gadebusch and Wittenburg descended from less wealthy ministerial families, or were people who, from wherever they came, were skilled in the art of war. No less the knights with whose help Gunzelin von Hagen was able to hold his ground in the district of Schwerin. For obvious reasons the Counts brought in these people from their own homelands or from neighbouring areas of North Germany.

If now, from 1240, people with the family-name Wittenborg appear as landowners in Lübeck, a certain Henricus van Wittenborch is a member of the city-council of Lübeck from 1250 to 1271, and is even the Mayor in 1256 and 1271 (4), one instinctively wonders from which circles of the inhabitants of Wittenburg castle and village, which was first raised to the status of town on 28/29th August 1226 (19), could these arrivals to Lübeck have originated. Well, from 1226 the City of Lübeck granted the privilege of citizenship to all people originating from Hamburg, Schwerin, Ratzeburg and Wittenburg (9). Prior to 1226, Wittenburg, as Gadebusch, was nothing but a village (10) whose mostly peasant inhabitants, together with craftsmen, had the task of supplying the occupants of the castle. With the raising to the status of town, a market was opened, and many an inhabitant of Wittenburg will have discovered his talents as a merchant. And the privilege of free movement to Lübeck will have done the rest in enticing enterprising inhabitants of Wittenburg to the flourishing seaport of Lübeck. In Hamann¹s History (10), I found the following statements: "In those days, as today, the greatest profit was made in trading, in particular with foreign countries. And so, those few cities whose merchants were dedicated to it, very soon left others way behind in greatness and financial strength..." During the first Century of their existence, any increase in industrious working people was an asset to the seaports. In this respect, it was still the attitude of Lübeck in 1350 to maintain: "If a Slav is worthy of becoming a citizen, he should be treated like a citizen".

A move up to patrician status in a city, as we see took place in the case of Henricus van Wittenborch in the 13th Century, and in the case of Hermann and Johann Wittenborg in the 14th Century, would simply not have been possible in the farming town of Wittenburg. There, as in many country towns in Mecklenburg, no patrician circles at all were formed. As an illustration of this, we find no less than five craftsmen amongst the eleven councillors in the Wittenburg council list of 1358(15).

A number of people with the name of Wittenburg, who have attained some standing, have tried in modern times to establish a connection between their branch of the family and the already "historic" Wittenborgs of the 13th and 14th Centuries. However none of them have gone back further than the middle of the 17th Century, and their research has often ended with an ancestor of peasant status. This on the other hand has not prevented several to simply maintain their descendance from the Lübeck side... At a pinch, a relationship of ALL Wittenburgs of today could be linked to the very earliest times.

Siegfried Spantig thus states in the beginning of his essay "The Inhabitants of Wittenburg" (6): "During the 13th Century, Wittenburg counted no more than 50 to 100 adult inhabitants". With such a small population, sooner or later a state must have been reached in which every person was related to the next in some way or another... My own interests, therefore, were primarily centred upon the bearers of the name Wittenburg who did not move into the city at an early date, but who remained in the country and only much later moved into the towns, often as craftsmen. I am sure that my ancestors on the paternal side up to my great-great-grandfather remained on the land. It was my great-grandfather, Jochim Diedrich Wittenburg, born the son of a day-labourer, who was the first to move to the town of Wismar as a common worker.

However, what sort of inhabitants must have made up the fabric of the town of Wittenburg in those times, from whom all of us in the long run have descended? We have learnt that the inhabitants of Wittenburg, probably as early as 1093, at the latest however from 1142, were Saxon castellans who were naturally induced to settle in the neighbouring village by peasants from their homeland. Certainly, of the German colonists settling to an increasing degree in the county of Ratzeburg since 1164, a number will also have moved into the area surrounding the castle, just as a number of the inhabitants of Wittenburg are sure to have moved out into the countryside. However it will be shown, that the majority of German colonists settling to an increasing degree after 1164 in the southern part of the county of Ratzeburg, i.e. in the Wittenburg area, came from approximately the same parts of present-day Lower Saxony as those resident in Wittenburg itself in former times. In Struck's book (15) we find the following statement based on his research: "Modern dialect geography, as well as field-name research, has shown for the north of Mecklenburg a strong wave of immigrants from the western parts of Holstein, while the southern part received its inhabitants primarily from the territory around the present-day city of Hannover. Statements of this nature are not hampered by the known fact that colonists in no insignificant numbers also moved in to settle from Westphalia (which, as we know, originally belonged to Saxony), Friesland, the Netherlands, and from Flanders. We can therefore hardly go wrong in assuming that the "old" Wittenburgers of the 11th to 14th, or even 15th Century (by that time practically every peasant had received the family-name) were for the largest part recruited from the regions known today as East Lower Saxony; and here in particular, the Lüneburg district, the former Bardengau, yet also from the Braunschweig and Hannover areas.

I believe that we have now reached a point where we have exhaustively and graphically dealt with the origins of the family-name WITTENBURG. It now remains for us to explain where the place called Wittenburg, giving us its name, aquired this name. The Slavic castle of early history, whose name we do not know, was situated on an imposing man-built mount, the present-day "Amtsberg". As all other Slavic castles of that time, it was fortified by an encircling wall of palisades and surrounded by moats receiving their water from the nearby stream, the "Motel". The buildings later erected on the castle mount by the Saxons were partly made of field-stones, yet largely of red clay bricks.

We still have evidence of this today, since the impressive remains of the lower tower of Wittenburg still stands on the Amtsberg. Even the crest of the city shows only red buildings. How can this castle come to have received the name of Wittenburg - in High German "Weissenburg" - or White Castle? I am convinced that this happened during the course of transference of names, and this as early as the days of the Billunger Dukes of Saxony.

The first known Billunger Hermann, the same Hermann who built, or extended, the castle on the chalk hill of Lüneburg, was conferred the Margravate of Transalbingia, i.e. Holstein, Stormarn and Sadelbant, in the year 936 by the Emperor Otto I (the Great), and from 966 the entire Dukedom of Saxony (12/14).

This included the souvereignity over the later called Billunger March, made up of Wagrien, Polabia, the Abodrite country, and the countries of the Kessins and Zirzipans. - Now just about 30km south of Hannover , there is a small village called Wittenburg which, until modern times was merely a domain of the state, and a few years ago was incorporated into the town of Elze (on the river Leine). On the site of the present, somewhat exessively large, pilgrimage church on top of the hill, there actually stood a white (witte) castle in the 11th Century, as this was built of the white shell-limestone indigenous to the area. The castle served to protect the nearby, important intersection of the road leading from North to South through the valley of the Leine with the road leading from Minden to Hildesheim via Coppenbrügge. And this white castle, with its associated holdings in the now derelict village "Asithe" = Ösede, is recorded to have been in the possession of the third Billunger, Bernhard II (1011-1059) during his lifetime (12). According to a register of the cathedral chapter in Hildesheim dating back to the 12th Century, it was given the castle and farmsteads by the Duchess Adelheid (20). Many people have assumed that this Adelheid was the Countess of Hallermund with estates in this area; however, such a present would have been too great for a Countess, and we have to assume that it was a Duchess. Now, although among the Billungers there are no ladies with the name of Adelheid, but only a certain Eilika, the wife of Bernhard II. Philipp Meyer explains in his article "The Castle and Hermitage of Wittenburg" (20) that the name Eilika is the Low German form of Adelheid. I have also found confirmation of this in the book on "Albrecht the Bear" by Otto von Heinemann (21). It is therefore highly probable that Duke Bernhard II's wife Eilika made this present of the Billunger Wittenburg to the Hildesheim cathedral chapter.

Now, it is also known that this very Bernhard II frequently asserted his souvereignity over the Slavic country, although not always with a fortunate hand (10). Therefore, it is safe to presume that he, as well as his successors, the Dukes Ordulf and Magnus, often crossed the Elbe between Artlenburg and Ertheneburg and travelled along the military roads forking there on their way to Hamburg, Ratzeburg, or to the principal castle of the Abodrite country, the Mecklenburg. By the way, only the German name for the Mecklenburg is known. Emperor Otto III recorded here in the year 995 the place designation "Michelenburg" = large castle (10). On the way to Mecklenburg, the Saxon Dukes are sure to have passed by Slavic castles to which one of them, for whatever reason, gave the name of their own castle in Eastphalia, Wittenburg, as early as the 11th Century.


1). Brockhaus Enzyclopädie 14. Band 1972, "Personennamen"
2). M. Gottschild: "Die Deutschen Personennamen" , Berlin 1955 (Sammlung Göschen Band 422)
3). Hans Bahlow: "Deutsches Namenbuch", 1933
4). Hans Joachim Wittenburg: "Auf den Spuren der Wittenburgs" in "Lübeckische Blätter", 127. Jahrgg. No.9, 29.4.67.
5). Festschrift "750 Jahre Stadt Wittenburg 1226-1976", published by the council of the town Wittenburg in Mecklenburg, 1976. Author Siegfried Spantig, Hagenow.
6). Supplement to the Festschrift (750 Years Town Wittenburg) "Die Einwohner von Wittenburg", Author S. Spantig, Hagenow.
7). Carl Mollwo: "Das Handlungsbuch von Hermann und Johann Wittenborg", Leipzig, 1901.
8). Hans Dobbertin: ³Wohin zogen die Hämelschen Kinder 1284?" in Niedersächsisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte, Bd.27, 1955.
9). Deutsches Städtebuch von 1939.
10). Manfred Hamann: "Mecklenburgische Geschichte bis 1523", Köln, 1968.
11). Hans Witte: "Mecklenburgische Geschichte", Band I, Wismar 1909.
12). Hans Joachim Freytag: ³Die Herrschaft der Billunger in Sachsen", Göttingen 51.
13). Handbuch der historischen Stätten Deutschlands, 1. Band "Schleswig-Holstein und Hamburg", Stuttgart.
14). Handbuch der historischen Stätten Deutschlands, 2. Band "Niedersachsen und Bremen", Stuttgart.
15). Wolf-Heino Struck: "Mittelalterliche Selbstverwaltung in den mecklenburgischen Landstädten", Rostock 1938.
16). Wilhelm Meyer-Seedorf: "Geschichte der Grafen von Ratzeburg und Dannenberg" in Jahrbüchern des Vereins für mecklenburgische Geschichte und Altertumskunde, 76. Annual 1911.
17). A. Rische: "Geschichte der Grafschaft Schwerin bis zum Jahre 1358" Ludwigslust 1893.
18). Ruth Hildebrand: "Der sächsische Staat "Heinrichs des Löwen", Berlin 1937.
19). Karl Hoffman: "Die Stadtgründungen Mecklenburg-Schwerins", Schwerin 1930.
20). Philipp Meyer: "Burg und Klause Wittenburg" in the Journal of the Gesellschaft für niedersächsische Kirchengeschichte, Nr.26, 1922.
21). Otto von Heinemann: "Albrecht der Bär", Darmstadt 1864.

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