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Danish Island Takes Tourists On Journey Into Middle Ages

Hammershus fortress on Bornholm
Hammershus fortress on Bornholm
Monika Maier-Albang

BORNHOLM A meadow on this Danish island looks like it's straight from the Middle Ages. Small, robust cows, sheep, geese and pigs are kept cool by the rains. Only a history expert would be able to recognize the small details that contradict what appears to be the perfect historical accuracy in depicting a medieval scene.

Historians aren't sure what type of cows used to graze on Bornholm 1,000 years ago, which is why they are now rearing Dexter cattle, a breed that was originally Irish. The East Prussian Skudde sheep, whose wool is excellent for spinning, also feel at home on this island. And the geese? Historians believe they played an important role in medieval settlements. The difference is that while geese were allowed to roam freely during the Middle Ages, they are no longer allowed to do so. In order to keep the shoes of tourists clean, geese are now kept in an enclosure.

Europe's history across the continent has been a major attraction for tourists for years. There isn't a castle that is not trying to make a profit from people's fascination with the Middle Ages. Medieval festivals featuring archery competitions and Christmas markets draw in the crowds.

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Bornholm landscape — Photo: Eleleleven

In Bornholm as well, locals want to provide something special to visitors. Instead of plastic knights, you can find earthenware or glass items blown by mouth in the souvenir shop. Rabbit skins are also available. These skins, which are popular with people who enact scenes from the Middle Ages, used to line hats and clothes to make them soft and warm. Bornholm, which has no foxes and therefore plenty of rabbits, has no dearth of these skins.

The town has an extensive program for children that includes dyeing yarn, making straw puppets, pottery, writing runes with quill and ink, and searching for buried marbles in sand. On one plot of land, children are even encouraged to look for buried coins with metal detectors.

Bornholm-born Klaus Thorsen likes to research the island's history in his spare time. He founded a group that goes on archaeological digs. They hand over anything interesting they find to the Bornholm museum. The island has been rebuilt based on what it might have looked like in the Middle Ages. It includes a weaver's house, a potter's house and a guild hall where people used to gather on important occasions. The door frame of this hall sports a sun cross to keep evil spirits at bay.

The island also features the Stormandsgård, an old stately home typical of 14th-century Bornholm. The house includes an industrial outhouse, a residential building for medieval nobility as well as a central tower, which serves as a refuge if there's an attack. Lena Mühlig, an expert on local history, says that when civil war ravaged Denmark, the Stormandsgård survived because of its high palisades and because it was surrounded by a moat.

Many Danish schoolchildren and Swedish tourists visit the island between May and October. Communication isn't a problem as Danish and Swedish are similar languages. Bornholm in the Middle Ages had four dialects. In the north, stonemasons from Sweden found work and helped to shape the local language. In the south, the dialect had the influence of Slavic languages. Today, there aren't many young people who can speak the Bornholm dialect, says Thorsen.

But that could be changing now.

"In the past, people were ashamed of speaking it," says Mühlig. "People are only starting to appreciate their own history now."

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