Still from the latest film adaptation of Gotthelf’s The Black Spider.
Thanks to the pact with the devil, the poor farmers of Sumiswald manage within just a few days to comply with the wicked knight’s command to build an avenue of beech trees leading up to his castle. Still from the latest film adaptation of Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. © 2022 Ascot Elite Entertainment Group

The forest of the Black Spider

Gotthelf’s novel “The Black Spider” explores themes of greed, conflict and the power of the plague. But the author also voices his frustration over unchecked forest clearance in his home canton of Bern.

Noëmi Crain Merz

Noëmi Crain Merz

Noëmi Crain Merz is a historian at the University of Basel.

When Jeremias Gotthelf wrote The Black Spider in the early 1840s, he was aggrieved about the political situation in his homeland. Although he had welcomed the fall of the old regime in Bern in 1831, the new one had left him disillusioned. The poetically inclined pastor derived his own ideals of freedom from divine revelation, not from human reason. He was contemptuous of the radical forces that, increasingly, held sway in the Swiss Confederation, and secularisation and economic liberalisation were abhorrent to him. He saw the old aristocracy being superseded by a new one: a money aristocracy in which the strong get rich on the bent backs of the weak. “O doctrine of personal liberty,” he lamented, “how alike you are to the principle that the stronger shall be master!”
Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854).
Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854). Swiss National Museum
Manuscript for The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, 1842.
Manuscript for The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, 1842. Burgerbibliothek Bern
And the law of “might is right” also applies in the novel The Black Spider, published in 1842. Wealthy knight Hans von Stoffeln routinely exploits the poor peasants who work his lands, and he gives them a seemingly impossible task. The entire Sumiswald, the forest of Sumis, must be transplanted from its original site to a new location.

My castle is ready, but one thing is still missing: summer is coming and there is no shady path out there. In one month you are to plant me an avenue of trees; you are to take a hundred full-grown beeches from the Münneberg, with branches and roots, and you are to plant them for me on Bärhegen, and if a single beech is missing, you shall pay for it with your property and your blood.

Hans von Stoffeln in "The Black Spider"
Residence of the fictional knight Hans von Stoffeln. Sumiswald Castle in an etching from 1744.
Residence of the fictional knight Hans von Stoffeln. Sumiswald Castle in an etching from 1744. Swiss National Library
In desperation, the farmers agree to a pact with the devil. Lucifer demands a terrible price for his services: an unbaptised child. His demand sows discord and ruin among the villagers. Should they, or must they, sacrifice a child to save their community? There are quarrels and finger-pointing, and scapegoats are found – in the outsider, in the emancipated, independent woman. When the priest baptises the newborn, calamity unfolds in the wake of this act. A deadly black spider plays the role of avenger. The arachnid attacks indiscriminately, sparing neither little girls nor old men, neither mothers nor infants. Out of the blue the villagers hear screams of mortal terror, as if someone had “stepped on a glowing spike”, and then sees the spider, which “gazes around balefully and maliciously”. Before the bystanders have recovered from the shock, they become victims themselves.
In the drawing Die Schwarze Spinne (chalk on paper, undated), the artist Franz Karl Basler-Kopp (1879-1937) shows the scene in which the mother protects her child from the avenging spider.
In the drawing Die Schwarze Spinne (chalk on paper, undated), the artist Franz Karl Basler-Kopp (1879-1937) shows the scene in which the mother protects her child from the avenging spider. Kunstmuseum Luzern
The terrible drama has its origins in the knight’s ludicrous demand. Not only does he persecute and harass the simple rural folk, but he also massively interferes with nature on a whim. Is Gotthelf alluding here to what, in his eyes, is the devastating exploitation of the forests in his home canton of Bern? Since it was liberalised in 1831, the timber trade had been an important sector of the economy. Rising demand due to a growing population and industrialisation was pushing prices up. While dealers and forest owners enjoyed the profits, firewood became expensive or even unaffordable for consumers. In 1840, Gotthelf vented his anger in newspaper articles: The countryside would perish if “the sins that have been committed and continue to be committed” were not put right. Poor people would be “effectively forced” to steal wood. Gotthelf was filled with indignation about a world in which every forest owner can chop down trees “wherever and however he wants, until our mountains are bare and nothing will ever regrow there”. He wanted to see sustainable resource use and reforestation.
View of the Ofen Pass area, where the forests were ruthlessly cleared in the 19th century – the remains of the clear-felling are clearly visible in the centre of the photograph – and where the National Park was created in 1914.
View of the Ofen Pass area, where the forests were ruthlessly cleared in the 19th century – the remains of the clear-felling are clearly visible in the centre of the photograph – and where the National Park was created in 1914. Archives of the Swiss National Park
At the time of his death in 1854, neither the National Councils nor the Federal Council, all of which Gotthelf contemptuously referred to as “windige Fötzelzeug” (that bunch of disreputable good-for-nothings), was yet aware of the urgency of this issue. It took decades for the tide to turn in the Federal Parliament, and in 1876, Switzerland passed the first Federal forest law governing the use of forests. This finally accomplished, in part of the country at least, what the writer had wanted: in the Swiss National Park opened in 1914, the first in Central Europe, the forest is left unmolested. The writer, whose works were well received in Germany but unpopular in his homeland during his lifetime, experienced a revival around that time. A complete edition of his works was assembled in 1911. The Black Spider has long been acknowledged as a masterpiece. The novella still intrigues today. The coronavirus pandemic has given a rush of popularity to the plague element of the story, and in 2021 director Markus Fischer turned the book into a film. Even in the 21st century, the story’s themes appeal to a wide audience: the pact with the devil, scapegoats, societal disintegration, contact with the strange and the new, and the independent-minded woman. In particular, however, the human interventions in nature which Gotthelf depicts, and the disastrous consequences, are depressingly topical. Full text of Die Schwarze Spinne on Wikisource (in German).
Trailer for the Swiss feature film "Die Schwarze Spinne", 2022. AscotElite / YouTube

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