The 65km-stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley, with its castles, historic towns and vineyards, graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape. It is intimately associated with history and legend and for centuries has exercised a powerful influence on writers, artists and composers.
There has been human settlement on the terraces of the Middle Rhine Valley since the last Ice Age. It came under Roman rule in the 1st century BCE, as a frontier province, and a military road was constructed on the left bank, linking military fortress and camps. The Rhine was also a major shipping route during this period, linking northern Europe with the Alpine massif and the Mediterranean lands, a role that exerted a major influence on the subsequent history of the Middle Rhine Valley.
There was continuity of settlement following the departure of the Romans in the 5th century. The Roman settlements were taken over by the Frankish kings and most of the area from Bingen downstream to Koblenz was crown property until well into the Carolingian era. However, the process of divesting the state of this property began in the 8th century and was not to be completed until the beginning of the 14th century. Much of it was donated to the church and the monastic orders. As bailiffs of the abbey of Prüm the Counts of Katzenelnbogen established control in the area around St Goar and Rheinfels, and this was to pass to the Landgraves of Hesse in 1479.
With the partition of Charlemagne’s empire in 842 the left bank of the Rhine was assigned to the Middle Kingdom. Lorraine was not to be united with the East Frankish Kingdom until 925. It remained a heartland of royal power until the election of the Hohenstaufen King Konrad III in 1138. This saw the fragmentation of power in the Middle Rhine area, with parcels of land being distributed among the bishop-electors of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier and the counts palatine. Some forty castles were constructed between Bingen and Koblenz, as symbols of power and also as customs stations on this flourishing trade route. Towns such as Boppard and Oberwesel struggled to maintain their independent status as free towns, as testified by the remains of their defensive walls.
The Middle Rhine Valley was a core region of the Holy Roman Empire. Four of the seven Electors, the highest ranking rulers within the Empire, held portions of the area and it was here that they would meet to determine the succession.
Bacharach was the centre of the Rhine wine trade in the later Middle Ages. Vines had been cultivated on the lower slopes since Roman times, and this expanded greatly from the 10th century onwards. Some 3000ha of vineyards were under cultivation by 1600, five times as much as at the present time. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) witnessed a substantial decline in viticulture, the land being converted partly into orchards and partly into coppice forest. The 14th-16th centuries were the golden age of art in the Middle Rhine, which saw the convergence of artistic influences from the Upper Rhine (Strasbourg) and the Lower Rhine (Cologne). Gothic masterpieces such as the Werner Chapel above Bacharach, the Church of Our Lady in Oberwesel, and the former collegiate church of St Goar date from this period.
Since the 17th century the Middle Rhine has been the scene of conflict between Germany and France. During the War of the Palatine Succession (1688-92) there was extensive destruction of fortresses and town fortifications, and much of Koblenz was destroyed. In the late 18th century the left bank of the Rhine became part of, first, the French Republic, and then the French Empire. This came to end in 1814, when the region came under Prussian rule. Extensive fortifications were constructed, including the fortress at Koblenz, and trade was fostered by the construction of the Rhine highway from Bingen to Koblenz, the widening of the shipping channel, the abolition of tolls over long stretches of the river, and the introduction of steam navigation. Railways were constructed on both the left and the right bank in the 1850s and 1860s.
A deliberate policy of promoting the Rhine as a “German” landscape was adopted by the Prussian state. This led to the renovation of fortress ruins in the Romantic style and the reconstruction of historic monuments, and also to the beginnings of the modern monument conservation movement.
The 20th century has seen major structural changes, notably the decline of the traditional winemaking sector and of mining and quarrying. Freight traffic has become concentrated on a small number of large harbours. The most important economic sector is now tourism. Ordinances of 1953 and 1978 have focused on the preservation of the cultural landscape, which is the main economic asset of the Middle Rhine.