What is the Difference Between a Burg and a Schloss?
It sounds like a fun game, doesn’t it? Burg or Schloss? (Almost like a harder version of Stadt, Land, Fluß). Those grand, and not so grand, castles in Germany get very specific names. But is it a Castle? Is it a Palace? What is the difference between a Burg and a Schloss? (To make things even more confusing, there is an actual place called Schloss Burg, the ancestral seat of the Berg family.) Who lives in a Residenz, and what is a Kaiserpfalz? And how does a Palais/Palast fit in? Here is how you can make the distinction… and some of the history behind the naming conventions.
And to help… there is a chart at the bottom that summarizes everything.
What is the Difference Between a Burg and a Schloss?
Mostly the distinctions are due to fortifications… and who lives there.
What is a Burg?
Even the basic definition of Burg is a bit confusing. A Burg is a fortress, or a castle built within a fortified wall. In German, the word Festung means also fortress, and refers mainly to the walls and fortifications. So, Burg is the building, Festung is the fortification. Most Burgs were built during the 6th to 15th Century CE, some of the early ones improving on the Roman or Celtic fortifications. (In Latin, these fortifications were known as Castrum… the root for Castle) The buildings inside housed local nobility, and they were built for defense, not for comfort. (It’s CHILLY inside) But, because the nobility depended on the peasants, their work, and the trade they brought in, a Burg protected the people and local market.
Often the Burg would be build on a mountain or high place, surrounded by a heavy wall to keep it even safer. (So, yes, a Burg might be built on a BERG… a sort of homophone that adds to the confusion)
In flat areas, a Burg would be surrounded by water and a wall. Like Schloss Vischering in Lüdinghausen (one of the more famous of the Münsterland Wasserschlösser). (The water may not seem dangerous, but it’s teeming with giant Carp)
For hundreds of years, thick walls and deep ditches kept people safe from mauraders and foreign armies. And then, the canon was invented, and the walls started to fall.
What is a Schloss?
Around the 13th century, nobility came out from behind their walls. A Schloss, or castle, is basically a big house for nobility. (Another meaning of Schloss is “lock”… so think of a Schloss as a closed or locked building that you need a key to get into. Regular houses didn’t need keys) What is the difference between a Burg and a Schloss? Generally, a Schloss was designed for beauty and comfort. And it’s possible that the family maintained more than Schloss, and used them by season. Or the family rotated between a Stadt or City Schloss and Country Estate.
And while we have fancy fairy tale castles like Schloss Neuschwanstein in our head when we think of a Schloss.
Most just look like really big houses. Like Schloss Neuhaus in Paderborn…
Schloss Neuhaus in Paderborn
Or a Wasserschloss like Schloss Buldern
A Residenz… another type of Schloss
When the Schloss is used as a home AND for official business (by nobility or high ranking Bishops) then it’s called a Residenz. Like the one on the Domberg (cathedral mountain) in Bamberg that is home to the Prince-Bishop. It holds living space, offices, and Halls for recieving important (and not so important) visitors.
(Fun fact. To see the Prince-Bishop, you would have to wait in a series of anti-chambers or waiting rooms. You always knew just where you stood by which waiting room you were put into. A well appointed room right outside the Hall meant you were important, and would be seen soon. A distant room with no carpets meant you had a long way to go… and maybe had mud on your shoes)
Another word to remember Palast
Ok, so Burg is an old fortified castle, Schloss is a fancy home or castle for nobility, a Residenz is a sort of castle where leaders (religious and nobles) live and work on administrative stuff… so what is a Palast?
Think of a Palast/Palais as a spectacular and huge Castle. It’s a Palace! It’s designed to be magnificent and imposing, because THIS is the building designed to be the seat of government. It represents the State. Frederick the Great built his Neue Palais to show the world just how strong and important Prussia was after the Seven Years War. The building is opulent in the extreme, designed using the Baroque style. (If you get the chance… take the tour. The Grotto room alone is worth it!)
(And yes, Germans did use the word Palais… French terms crept into German vocabulary, especially in the upper classes.)
Another “castle” that you will come across in Germany is the Kaiserpfalz. This Imperial Palace acted as a temporary home for the Holy Roman Emperor. Why temporary? Since the Holy Roman Emperor wanted to stay close to the people, he moved around a lot. These residences were built to house him and his enormous entourage. (And they were enormous… hundreds of people and horses needed a bed and food.) Kaiserpfalz were generally built near Monasteries, and overseen by a court palatine, who hoped to rise to the position of Prince Elector. Inside the Kaiserpfalz the Holy Roman Emperor would hold court to deal with local issues, then move on to the next one.
Kaiserpfalz in Goslar
So… What is the Difference between a Burg and a Schloss? A Residenz and a Palast?
(And, naturally, it’s not an absolute, terms are fluid. Just like the words Dom and Kathedrale, things get re-labeled because of common use…. Sigh)
Maybe this chart can help….
CASTLES ALONG THE RHINE 8 Days | Basel to AmsterdamUniworld
Love the history – so much to learn. thank you.
Wow! This is so interesting! I am working on a historical romance about my German grandparents who lived in Kutter, Russia, before coming to the USA in the early 1900s. It’s a prequel to my historical novel, Rainbow of Promise, about my parents’ love story during WWII. Yes, so much to learn. I’m trying to find out where my grandparents’ ancestors were from in Germany. I need all the help I can get. Thanks for all that you do on this site.
I’m glad I could help. Go ahead and send me an email if you have questions [email protected]
Thank you so much for this article. I am a citizen of the US, but I was born in the Pflalz, but not in a Burg! lol