Genoveva Caves


Adrian Ludwig Richter, 1872, Genovevahöhle, Germany. Public Domain.
Ludwig Richter: Schneewittchen, Germany. Public Domain.
Adrian Ludwig Richter, 1841, Genoveva in der Waldeinsamkeit, Germany. Public Domain.
Genovevahöhle, Germany. Public Domain.

There are several caves in Germany and also in neighbouring Luxembourg and Belgium that are called Genovevahöhle (Genoveva Cave). This is a reference to a medieval legend. According to the current state of science, it is a fictional story that was put together from widespread basic motifs (archetypes) and names. In other words, the characters never lived, the story never happened. The plot is a metaphor. But in the 19th century, due to the then rampant historicism, many stories were romanticised and revelled in. Thus, many caves were given the name Genovevahöhle, although they are clearly younger than the legend, and even if it weren't fictional, could not possibly be the place described. It was much more about romance, about the thrill of standing in a historical place, and perhaps also about marketing in the burgeoning tourist industry. But first, a rendition of the legend. As there are countless variants, this is of course only one version of it.

Genoveva was the daughter of a Duke of Brabant and the wife of a Count Palatine Siegfried. After Count Palatine Siegfried went to war, Genoveva was courted by Siegfried's governor Golo. But she was faithful to her husband and out of anger that he was spurned, he accused Genoveva of adultery with a cook and sentenced her to death. But the executioner spared her and set her free. She then lived in a cave with her newborn son for six years. The Mother of God Mary provided for them through a doe. When her husband Siegfried returned from the war, he did not believe in her guilt, but had to accept Golo's decision as governor. He searched for her, finally found her, and built a pilgrimage church in thanks for Genoveva's salvation. He had Golo quartered after the true course of the story was revealed.

After a version of the legend was written down in 1448 in the monastery of Maria Laach, it became more widespread. Copies were made, it was stylistically revised, and extensively expanded and embellished variants were written. The story is also attributed to the Capuchin priest Martin von Cochem, who is said to have written it down in 1640. According to another source, the story was written in 1687.

Genoveva was the daughter of the Duke of Brabant and is often called Genoveva of Brabant. She is said to have lived around 750 AD and to have been the wife of Siegfried, Count Palatine of Trier. One day Siegfried went off to a feud. On his return, the steward Golo accused Genoveva of adultery. Siegfried orders his servants to kill her, but they help her to escape. As she wanders through the forest, she discovers the cave and uses it as a shelter. Pregnant from her husband, she has her son Schmerzensreich (painful) in the cave. They live together in the cave in the forest for many years. Six years later, Siegfried discovers Genoveva's innocence. He searches for her and retrieves her. Golo is quartered as punishment for his betrayal.
Legend according to Capuchin Father Martin von Cochem around 1640.

The basic motifs are easy to recognise. The good-natured executioner is reminiscent of Snow White, the hind is also common, as is the unfaithful governor. The material was later transformed into a German folk tale, the Brothers Grimm included the legend in their collection Deutsche Sagen (1816), based on a source from 1612. Friedrich Müller (Maler Müller) created the play Golo und Genoveva (1775) based on this material. Ludwig Tieck wrote Genoveva in 1834 and Friedrich Hebbel wrote Genoveva in 1841. Author Christoph von Schmid adapted the legend, Friedrich Hebbel wrote the play Genoveva, Robert Schumann an opera of the same name. Mathilde Wesendonck wrote a tragedy, Jacques Offenbach an operetta and Gustav Schwab included the material in his Deutsche Volksbücher. Right up to the present day, the story serves as the basis for further works, so that its basic features seem familiar to everyone.

We have listed two caves so far, both of which are located at the place of origin of the legend in the Eifel. There are probably others that bore this name, at least in the 19th century, but are no longer called so today. There are also no caves abroad that are officially named after her. But in Belgium there is even a type of beer called Geneviève de Brabant.