Church History Live: A Visit to the First Female Tower Keeper of Münster

We are back from our Christmas break and start the year with an excursion: In our feature “Exploring Münster with our Fellows”, we take you to unusual, bizarre, beautiful and unique places and institutions in Münster that have something to do with the research of our Fellows. Since Giulia’s research field is church history and the role of Catholic women in historiography, we thought: a visit to the (first female!) tower keeper of Münster (“Türmerin von Münster”) is exactly the right thing. The tower keeper of Münster? Huh? Yes, Münster still has a tower keeper!.

Martje Saljé – the First Female Tower Keeper of Münster

The institution of a tower keeper is a very old one: In many towns and cities, it was established hundreds of years ago, mostly by churches. A tower keeper generally had the task of warning of dangers like a fire from the city’s highest tower – this usually was a church tower. In Münster, the institution of a tower guard was approx. established in 1383. Now, 631 years later, a woman is doing this job for the first time: Martje Saljé is Münster’s tower guard at St. Lamberti since January 2014. Every night (apart from Tuesdays), Martje keeps an eye out for fires in the city from the vantage point of the 75 meter tall St. Lamberti steeple. But see and read yourself, what Martje told us about her job! 

Martje Saljé – with a view from the top. © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban
Martje playing the horn at the top of the tower. © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

300 Steps to the “Türmerstübchen”

About 100ish steps to go. © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

On a winter evening with freezing temperatures we make our way to St. Lamberti. Hopefully modern heating technology has arrived in the tower, we all think, as Martje Saljé happily greets us at the inconspicuous, small side door of the church tower. She prepares us for a challenge: we have to climb 300 steps to reach her workplace. Here we go, up the narrow spiral staircase. After just a few meters Giulia mumbles “Pooh, I am starting to feel giddy”… Luckily we soon arrive in a large round room. Those weren’t so many steps, we think: But, well: We have only arrived at the first level of the tower. With the sound of majestic organ music in the background – the organist is practicing, Martje lets us know – we take a look at the room. The giant metal pole in its middle is an extendable flagpole, Martje explains – so modern technology actually has arrived in the venerable tower! Relieved and hoping for warmer temperatures in Martje’s “office”, we take a look at the photos and drawings on the walls telling the story of St. Lamberti:

St. Lamberti has seen a lot of turmoil.
© WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

St. Lamberti: A Church Tower in the Spotlight of History’s Turmoil

St. Lamberti’s turbulent history began at the end of the 11th century, when a small church was built here. The tower may only have ended at the height where we are standing now. Around 200 years later, Münster’s citizens and merchants had become pretty wealthy. They wanted to express their piety and love for art by building a particularly magnificent church. Around 1375 they began to build a new main and secondary choir in its present form. The old church building was demolished, but the old steeple remained untouched.
In the following years, there were two tower elevations. A macabre story is told about one of them: In 1382 the plague claimed countless victims in Münster, so that the gravedigger of St. Lamberti at that time came to great wealth. A part of his wealth he put into the elevation of the tower on which we are standing at the moment. Well, even though this might just be an urban legend, you’ll see: St.Lamberti’s story gets even more awkward. But more of it later: Martje just reminded us that we still have a few steps to go! She must not blow the horn too late … so we move on.

A Giant Old Bell, a Great View …

The majestic bell high up the tower of St. Lamberti’s. © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

Here we go: Step by step we venture further up. The next door Martjes opens leads us to a kind of viewing platform, framed by beautiful curved sandstone arches. Phew, if you have no head for heights, you must keep your distance from the edge! From below, the tower’s rosettes look so small – with a distance of twenty centimetres, they seem like a formation of Hulahup tyres. Before we get closer to them, Martje draws our attention to a huge bell that rests in the middle of the ‘room’. How on earth did it get here, we ask ourselves – in any case not through the narrow spiral staircase through which we have worked our way up. Well, the answer must be: The bell was brought up during the construction of the tower. According to its inscription, it was produced in the 1594. Martje tells us another curiosity: For centuries this bell has only rung when elections are held in Münster. In 2020, Martje may let it ring for the second time – she is already looking forward to it!

… and The Cages

The impressive bell and the breathtaking view that we can admire through the huge openings of the rosettes almost make us miss another highlight of this tower level: The famous ill-famed cages of St. Lamberti hang only an arm’s length away from us on the outside of the tower! Wow, we think: One rarely comes so close to such weird, authentic memorials of history! If you don’t know their story: In 1536 three important Anabaptist rulers, who had carried out their reign of terror in Münster for more than 16 months, were executed. Their corpses were then displayed in the iron cages on the tower of St. Lamberti. In medieval criminal justice, public displaying of living delinquents or their corpses after execution were common in many places. In addition to the deterrence effect, this public presentation had the purpose of aggravating the punishment, because the body of the executed person was at least temporarily excluded from a burial.

What terrible times, we think, and are happy when Martje pushes us to move on to the next tower level – 9 pm is approaching and she will have to blow her horn soon!

Giulia on her way up to the Türmerstübchen © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban 

Finally at the Türmerstübchen!

All kinds of equipment in the Türmerstübchen. © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

After some more rounds up the narrow staircase, we finally arrive at Martje’s “office”: It’s much cosier than we imagined. A small room in the form of a semicircle with three small windows and doors facing in all directions: a tiny old wooden desk opposite the door, to the left of it a small sitting area with chairs, behind it a comfy resting corner, dark blue carpet everywhere (which doesn’t remind of a historical building at all), many photos and pictures on the walls, all kinds of fancy old equipment everywhere, chains of lights giving warm light, lots of musical instruments, and thank God: Two electric radiators! The fresh breeze on the first two tower levels has made us feel a little cold – so the moderately warm air coming from the two heaters (not sure if it reaches 10 degrees?) is more than welcome! Martje just has enough time to pour us her special tea – which keeps her awake and warm during her nightly shifts – before she has to enter the “balcony” that surrounds her office to do the first round of “toots”. While Martje blows the magnificent horn in different directions for the first time this evening, we once again enjoy the wonderful view of Münster at night. But take a look yourself:

View from the “Türmerstübchen’s balcony” towards the St. Paulus Cathedral with Münster’s Castle lit in the background.
© WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

The Job of a Tower Keeper in the 21st Century: “Toot – Blogging – Toot – Blogging”

Martje using a break to check emails and blog! © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

After Martje has finished the first round of “toots”, she tells us a lot of interesting stories around her job by tea and candlelight. We learn for example, that Martje’s career as the first female tower keeper of Münster began many years ago. Back then she visited the sculpture projects in Münster as a child and she had absolutely wanted to live in this lively picturesque city ever since. When her predecessor retired a few years ago at a proud age of over 70 years, Martje didn’t hesitate a second: She applied for this unique job with its particular working hours – almost every evening between 9 pm and midnight the horn is blown every half hour – and she got it! When we ask Martje why she actually applied for this job – which seems quite exhausting from the outside – we immediately feel that a pot has found its lid here: Martje does not even know where to start! She obviously loves everything about her job: The wonderful views of St. Lamberti that change over the course of the year, the tranquility in the “Türmerstübchen”, the tooting, the exciting guests that she receives time and again (only press representatives and important guests of the City of Münster are allowed to visit her) … and of course: blogging! Well, yes: blogging! Today the office of the tower keeper no longer consists only of looking for fires and burglaries (once or twice Martje was the first to inform the police and fire brigade about a fire and an alleged burglary, she tells us proudly). An important part of Martje’s job nowadays is sharing her experiences in the Türmerstübchen online. So yes, in short, Martje describes her job as “Toot, blogging, toot, blogging” … Apropos: Half an hour has already passed and it is time for the next round of “tooting”!

One More Tower Level…

On the way up to the highest tower level. © WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

We expect Martje to step out onto the balcony for a moment, toot and come back quickly: but far from it! “Now join me at my favourite tower level”, she invites us and steps through a small door into another room. From this, a really really steep wooden staircase leads up. So even more steps! Phew. But the difficult ascent is worth it, as Giulia immediately notices: The view from up here is really magnificent! Martje produces the foghorn-like sounds again and sends it to all directions. And the city once again knows that the world is in order around St. Lamberti.

Between the tooting, Martje also tells us a secret: She once blew the horn one time too often – and guess what: A particularly attentive citizen of Münster called the next morning to point out that there were too many tooting sounds. Well, the world really seems is order in Münster, doesn’t it;-)?

Ein Ständchen zum Abschied

Martje performing her Münster song.
© WiRe / Nikolaus Urban

Back in the Türmerstübchen we ask Martje a little more about her predecessors: Not much is known about them. Martje tells us that she wants to change this: She has been doing a lot of research recently and wants to compile the results in a book about the history of the tower keepers of Münster. Well, maybe Giulia can give her one or two expert tips on how to write a book about history;-) … but back to the facts.
What we know is this: In the last hundred years the tower keeper job has always been done by men. And it used to be socially undesirable. Of course, that has changed completely.
Today, Münster’s citizens are very proud of their tower keeper. So no wonder we just hear some students (whose nightly way home takes them via Prinzipalmarkt) shouting a cheerful “Good Night” up the tower to Martje. Speaking of: Time has come for us as well to pack up the many exciting impressions and stories Martje told us and make our way home. Martje surprises us with something very special to say goodbye: Her very own Münster song.