The Thalsaline was a confusing place with its own law and complicated rules. These had evolved in the Middle Ages and had hardly changed since then. The changes around 1700, however, confronted the traditional working world of the Halle salt works with new, more efficient economic practices and finally heralded the slow end of the old Thalsaline. The time of the "modern" state-owned salt companies had dawned.

There are four noble salt wells in Saxony-land/ From which the sharp salt comes with heaps of water/ There is built the far-famed city/ Which has no equal in the whole country. This is the beautiful city / that is called Halle

Susanne Elisabeth Zeidler (1657–1706)From a poem in praise of the visit of the »Great Elector« Friedrich Wilhelm to Halle on 4 June 1681

The salt work in Halle

[Translate to English:] Grundriss der Stadt Halle von 1748, Kupferstich von Gottfried August Gründler, 1748. Halle, Franckesche Stiftungen: AFSt/A 01/05/21

Since the Middle Ages, salt was extracted from an enclosed area within the city walls of Halle, called the »Thal« or »the Halle«. Here, to the west of the market square, were four brine wells: Deutscher Brunnen, Gutjahr, Meteritz and Hackeborn. All the wells – up to 35 metres deep – carried brine of varying quantity and quality. Around them, about 110 boiling houses crowded into a very small space. These were called »Kothen« in Low German, which means small simple hut. In these Huts, salt workers and their servants boiled the brine to produce table salt.

Place and border

[Translate to English:] Plan der Thalsaline von 1705, kolorierte Federzeichnung. Magdeburg, LHASA MD, Standort Wernigerode: Rep. F 2 1d, Nr. 1, fol. 12r

The area of the Thalsaline was precisely marked out with boundary stones. The carved coats of arms indicated whether one was moving on city or Thalsaline territory.

Every few years, a commission walked the boundaries of the Thal area and also checked the proper condition of the boundary stones. The dates on the stones confirmed these inspections. Today, only two boundary stones remain.

Brine and owners of brine

As city and regional rulers, the archbishops of Magdeburg basically owned the rights to the Thalsaline. They gave the brine in varying proportions mostly as fiefs to wealthy citizens of Halle, who thus became owners of a certain amount of brine. In 1479, as a result of intense inner-city conflicts, the archbishop confiscated a quarter of all Thal estates – the »Quartsole« and some boiling huts – for his own purposes. These sovereign rights were also claimed by the Hohenzollerns as new sovereigns in 1680.

The owned amount of brine was inheritable, but only to male descendants. Surviving women, however, could claim compensation for their livelihood. Brine could also be sold, exchanged or mortgaged, which happened quite often in Halle. As a result, the owners changed again and again, but they always belonged to the upper class.

The feudal bond was converted into free, hereditary property in 1722. This meant that for the first time women could dispose of her amount of brine on an equal footing. From 1730, they were also granted the right to boil.

The ceremonial »Lehntafelhalten« at the end of the year served to officially confirm new brine owners. In the presence of representatives of the court, the town and the salt works, all the ownerships were carved into wax tablets with a stylus. Each well had three of these elaborately bound wooden tablets with the same content: one each for the Thal court, the sovereign and the town council.

The lending of Halle citizens with shares in the saltworks was an important court-city ritual that underlined the great influence of the sovereign on the saltworks. At the same time, all those involved were able to present themselves in an advantageous light and demonstrate the harmonious and prosperous cooperation between the saltworks, the city and the court. Behind the scenes, however, there were often disagreements.

Pfänner and Pfännerschaft

Brine owners were not allowed to have their brine boiled into salt without further ado. Only Pfänner – many of them successful merchants – were entitled to do so. To do so, they had to be married townspeople with their own house and household in Halle, own a boiling hut and have an amount of brine. That is why most Pfänner were also owners of brine amounts. Those who did not have a boiling hut or brine amounts could lease both from other owners for a fee.

As independent entrepreneurs, the Pfänner organised themselves into the Pfännerschaft, an early form of cooperative with its own assets, coat of arms and seal, in order to run the saltworks collectively for the benefit of all. They were responsible for the maintenance of the saltworks and issued instructions to their workers. As many Pfänner were usually represented on the city council, they formed a weighty factor in Halle's city affairs.

Those who let boil the salt from the brine in the boiling huts are called Pfänner.

Dr. Friedrich HondorffDas Saltz=Werck zu Halle in Sachsen befindlich […], Halle 1670

Pfänner werden

The solemn »occupation of the Thal estates« determined each year anew which persons belonged to the Pfännerschaft. Those who wanted to be Pfänner and earn an income from the sale of salt, went to the town hall shortly before the end of the year. There he had to explain to a commission of the sovereign and representatives of the town and the salt works in which boiling hut he wanted to let boil. Only then was he granted the boiling right.

[Translate to English:] Alte Darstellung, die zwei reich verzierte historische Gebäude nebeneinander zeigt.

New Pfänner

When the town changed, there was also movement in the Pfännerschaft. This is particularly evident in the Brandenburg-Prussian period after 1680. Around 1700, most Pfänner still came from a Pfänner family or had married into one, but there were more and more newcomers: professors from the Friedrich University founded in 1694, for example, but above all Prussian civil servants.

The physician and university professor Friedrich Hoffmann, for example, worked with salt out of medical interest and published on the subject. As a Pfänner, he was keen on innovation and experimentation and was one of the first members of the Pfännerschaft to convert their boiling huts to run on hard coal.

Der Mediziner und Universitätsprofessor Friedrich Hoffmann etwa beschäftigte sich aus medizinischem Interesse mit Salz und publizierte dazu. Als Pfänner war er innovations- und experimentierfreudig und zählte zu den ersten Mitgliedern der Pfännerschaft, die ihre Siedehütten auf Steinkohlenfeuerung umrüsteten.

The close social intertwining of Pfännerschaft and Prussian administration is typical of the time around 1700. It was quite profitable to combine the office of a privy councillor, court councillor or justice councillor with the Pfänner income. The prospect of a career in the civil service led many a person beyond the city limits to Berlin, sometimes crowned by the award of a Prussian title of nobility. For example, Johannes Andreas von Kraut (1661–1723), the son of a Pfänner and founder of the Royal Warehouse, rose to become one of the most influential personalities in Berlin's economic life as an entrepreneur, banker and minister. For his services, he was raised to the Prussian peerage, as was his older brother Christian Friedrich von Kraut (1650–1710), who was also a Pfänner.

Thal House and Thal Court

The exclusive position of the Pfännerschaft was also evident in the Thal House, first mentioned in 1464, with its magnificent rooms. Not only did the Thal Court meet here, but it also provided a dignified ambience for meetings and festivities of the Pfänner. The Thal House was demolished in 1882, but the interior furnishings of the courtroom and banqueting hall were saved. Today, the historic rooms can be seen in the Talamt of the Moritzburg Art Museum, a free replica of the former Thal House built in 1904. 

»Thal’s Law«

The saltworks formed a separate legal area within the city. Production and administration, ownership and use, peacekeeping and sanctions, but also occupational health and safety and disposal issues were regulated in the Thal Law – a kind of company code. It ensured the smooth running of salt production and provided the greatest possible yields.

The oldest known record of Thal Law dates from 1386. The norms formulated there in Middle Low German go back to even older law, were repeatedly revised over time and supplemented by several rules. The 1482 version remained valid in essence for the following two centuries, but inhibited innovation in the face of changing times. After 1680, Thal Law gradually lost importance as an independent form of jurisdiction.

Those who had done something wrong in the city sometimes sought refuge in the Thal, where they were more or less safe from the immediate grasp of the city courts. Quite a few students hid temporarily with salt workers, with whom they maintained a good relationship, for example after serious confrontations with the city guards.

The Salt Count

The salt count represented the rights of the sovereign to the saltworks. As the highest judge, he presided over the Thal court, which met several times a year to hear violations of the Thal Law: from negligent handling of fire to embezzlement of brine to homicide. He was assisted by several lay assessors.

In addition, the salt count appeared at traditional ceremonies and public events as a representative of the saltworks and the Pfännerschaft. He was thus an important mediator between the peasants and the authorities. Among the most famous salt counts in Halle were Friedrich Hondorff (1628–1694) and Johann Christoph von Dreyhaupt (1699–1768).

Salt counts have been documented in Halle since 1145. They were usually elected for life by the city council and confirmed by the sovereign. The 48th and last official salt count, the Halle jurist Karl-Friedrich Zepernick (1751–1839), was inaugurated in 1785.

Well master and Thal head

Three senior well masters stood by the salt count as administrators. They supervised the brine wells and the entire salt production and were elected annually by the city council. Subordinate to them were the sub well masters, who supervised the correct distribution of the brine to the boiling huts as well as necessary construction measures and mediated in disputes. In addition, four Thal supervisors were responsible for the maintenance of the wells and well houses as well as the paths and buildings in the Thal Salt Works.

Incidentally, there has probably never been a saltworks whose ownership and legal relationships were as complicated as they were in Halle.

Johannes Mager (1925–2015)Salz, Gott erhalt's, 1993, p. 27

From archdiocese to duchy – the new sovereignty of the state

With the death of its last administrator, August of Saxe-Weissenfels (1614–1680), the Archdiocese of Magdeburg – to which Halle also belonged – became a secular duchy in the dominion of the Electorate of Brandenburg in 1680. Now the Brandenburg electors and later Prussian kings from the House of Hohenzollern were the ruling sovereigns.

Duke, Elector, King

Halle's salt for Brandenburg

Until 1680 there were no salt works on Brandenburg soil. That is why the electors had to import their salt at great expense, mainly evaporated salt from Lüneburg, but also sea salt from the Atlantic coast. Now, however, this time seemed to be over at last. For Magdeburg's newly acquired territory had no fewer than five productive salt works, including the salt works in Halle. Above all, its salt was to supply the provinces of Electorate Brandenburg in the future, end the long dependence on Lüneburg and fill the state coffers.

Brandenburg's subjects, however, were dissatisfied with the salt produced by the Pfännerschaft of Halle. It seemed too coarse and not as brilliantly white as the Lüneburg salt, which was boiled in lead pans. The Pfänners also declined the offer to lease the sovereign shares in the Thalsaline and to boil salt for Brandenburg in the name of the Elector.

The salt works in Lüneburg

City view of Lüneburg with Saline, coloured copper engraving by Franz Hogenberg, [1599?]. Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek: A 330 A Gross RES::5, https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/braun1599bd5/0150, Public Domain Mark 1.0

Two companies in one place

In order to be able to compete with the quality of Lüneburg salt, the »Great Elector« Friedrich Wilhelm decided to set up his own salt production. The proposal for this came from the Brandenburg finance official Christian Friedrich von Kraut, the son of a Pfänner. Kraut was appointed salt director and managed the electoral boiling plant. From then on, there were two salt companies directly next to each other on the Thalsaline: the old Pfänner's salt works and the new state salt works with their own boiling huts, separate administration and sworn salt workers.

Since the wells always carried more brine than the salt workers could boil, the Pfännerschaft simply let the surplus quantity – the so-called extra brine – flow into the Saale river. From the Elector's point of view, this was pure waste, of which he was already aware before his visit to the Thalsaline in 1681. He therefore ordered that these extra brines be profitably boiled in his own salt huts. It became the basis of salt production in the so-called "Domänenkothen" and the later Royal Saltworks outside the city. When production was running as desired, the king leased his own business to a knighthood.

Loss of interest and decline

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Halle's importance as a salt town dwindled and with it the value of the old salt works. This was not only for economic reasons. For the Pfänners were increasingly distancing themselves from their saltworks, which offered a small, reliable income, but hardly any prestige. More social prestige was promised by the civil service, with or without a title of nobility.

The waning interest of the Pfänners is one of the reasons why the Thalsaline gradually lost touch around 1700. New technologies, production methods and trading opportunities were now being introduced by the competition – the new state-owned salt works of Prussia and Electoral Saxony. The Pfännerschaft reacted to this too late.

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Tradition & Change

Man & Work

Production & Technology

Trade & Transport

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