Till Eulenspiegel Was Here

By Rachael Haring

His tales are known to adults and children all over the globe, and yet his name is relatively obscure. He has been described variously as an "avenger of peasants, a representative of the oppressed, a romantic loser, a rebel, a nilhilist, a callous judge of humanity, an embodiment of German motherwit, a critic of language, a good-for-nothing, a cataloguer of Low German humor, a symbol of Satan, a parasite....a traitor to humanity, a cynic, and a representative of a new age."[1] Printed versions of his myriad, fanciful tales have been translated into some 30 different languages, from French to Czech to Serbo-Croatian to Afrikaans to Japanese to Esperanto. It is said that he "occupies a position of secret happiness in the German soul" and that he "rivals the positions of King Arthur in the soul of England and Roland of La Chanson de Roland in the soul of France."[1] He is a legendary hero and a notorious scamp, and the question of his very existance as a real person still confounds scholars today. His misdeeds have inspired literally thousands of world artists; Goethe, Dürer, Strauss, Nietzsche, Nijinsky, C.S. Lewis, and many others have shown their familiarity within their masterful works. The earliest known record of his life was written in the year 1500, and yet his legacy lives into the 21st century, in music, film, dance, theatre, and literature.

Who is this mythic folk hero, this German fool-rogue, who has enchanted generation after generation with his rebellious, uproarious, vulgar stories? He is none other than Till Eulenspiegel, often regarded as "Germany's, if not much of the world's, jester par excellence for the past five hundred years."[1] His tales are an interesting literary, sociological, and even psychological glimpse into a pre-national, medieval Germany on the verge of the Renaissance and the midst of the reformation.

And yet many mysteries cloud this hero/villain and his literal tales of antagonism and medieval humor, mysteries that have been explored again and again by curious scholars who feel the universal, jovial appeal of this Eulenspiegel and yet cannot reconcile his existence. Did a Till Eulenspiegel ever really exist, and if so, did he truly take part in so many clever adventures? Who wrote the tales of Eulenspiegel and set them to paper? What, exactly, is the significance of Till's philosophies and his odd name? What makes Till's character so timeless and universal, so celebrated and wide-spread?

Perhaps the best way to delve into the enigma of Till Eulenspiegel is to begin at the beginning- to explain the foundations of his tales and the basics of his character.

The earliest and most extensive record of Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks is a book called "Till Eulenspiegel: His Adventures", written in the year 1500 by an anonymous author calling himself merely by the letter "N." This book consisted of a short foreword and 95 tales of Till's life, from birth in the town of Kneitlingen until his death and every adventure in between. From the very first tale, it is clear that our hero is no ordinary baby (he is baptized thrice; once at the altar, once in a muddy river when his godmother falls in, and once in a warm bath), and by the second tale, he has already begun to "apply himself to all sorts of mischief, so all the neighbors complained together." From there, throughout the rest of the tales, Till travels from city to city, from village to village, and even into other countries such as Poland and Italy, tricking the foolish, playing pranks, and deflating the egos of the scholarly or rich. He pretends to be a doctor and dupes a hospital out of money, he wins a jesting contest against the king of Poland's jester, he "paints" a blank white picture and claims that whoever is illegitimate can not see it, and he debates with the students at the University of Prague. He prides himself on always following instructions exactly and takes everything as literal; for example, he once shod a king's horse with golden shoes because the king had asked for "the best" kind of shoes. Eulenspiegel believed that people, for all their achievements and intellect, were no better than the animals, and he delighted in showing people their folly.

This simple belief in the primality and baseness of humanity leads to a very interesting subject- the origin and meaning of Eulenspiegel's name. The stories explain the name "Till," given to the baby in honor of his godfather, but what of the odd name of "Eulenspeigel," or literally, "Owl- Mirror?" It seems that Till himself was aware of some sort of meaning to his last name- in the fortieth chapter of the 1500 book, a simple but revealing habit of Till's is displayed:

Now, Eulenspiegel had this custom whenever he did some mischief where he was unknown: he took chalk or coal and drew an owl and a mirror over the door, and underneath wrote, in Latin, Hic fuit (He was here). [1]

And so it is seen that Till recognized the symbolism of his name and took it as a sort of personal identity, but the significance within remains fairly unclear to the modern reader. There are many theories on this nomenclature, none of them proven but all of them intriguing. First, it has been suggested that Till acted as a kind of "wise mirror" to the people he humiliated and tricked; he showed them as they truly were and reflected their inadequacies without flattery. Furthermore, the owl has many connotations and hidden meanings: though today it is counted as a symbol of wisdom, in Eulenspiegel's day, the owl was a symbol of the "stupid and evil or wicked man". And so his name would imply "a mirror of the stupid and wicked" in this case. The owl in the middle ages was commonly seen as "the devil's bird", which could also be a fitting name for a rogue who often seemed diabolical or wicked when meting out his peculiar brand of truth and justice across Germany and beyond. Returning to the idea of the owl as knowledge or enlightenment, Till's name could likewise allude to the fact that his quest for the truth and the literal resulted in the improvement or enlightening of the overly-satisfied masses. Still another interpretation of his name considers the self-division of Till as a source of foolish happenings- "The source of knowledge (the owl) and our means of experiencing it (the mirror) are linked by the fool, who makes knowledge and meaningful action difficult, if not impossible."[2] There are even meanings associated with his name that have little to nothing to do with the images of a 'owl-mirror'. For example, it has been suspected that the name can be easily understood as the hunters' slang "Ul'n speghel", which is a command to "wipe one's arse"- a vulgar saying that perhaps is quite appropriate for a character with such a delight in the vulgar and excremental. Other theories contend that the name derives from a tale of Till's in which he carries an empty frame around the town, holding it up to frame his face and grinning at townsfolk, "Ik ben ulen Spiegel", a Low German phrase meaning, "I am your mirror". This story beautifully captures Till's personality and also raises a very humorous misunderstanding of "I am Eulenspiegel." And also not to be overlooked is the comparatively dull fact that "Ulenspiegel" was an identifiable family name of the time period, though most scholars agree that this was probably not Till's real family name, if indeed a true Till Eulenspiegel existed.

This is perhaps the most wonderful and terrible question surrounding Till's beloved stories- Did such a man actually live in Medieval Germany? Or, like so many legends, was he the creation of an exceptionally ingenious, gifted writer? In the foreword of the tales, which is incidentally the only section of the book written in the first-person singular, the effectually anonymous author gives only a few vague facts about himself. The author, who calls himself merely "N.", says that he is compiling a group of Till's adventures together into one book at the request of some of his friends, in the year 1500. This "N." goes on to maintain that he lacks the adequate "intelligence and understanding" to compile these accounts, ignorant to Latin and high education, but that he will try his hardest to truthfully convey Eulenspeigel's exploits and "create a happy feeling in hard times".[1] The mysterious author peppers Till's story with concrete details and happenings of the time, naming particular cities and wars and rulers all throughout, creating a vivid historical backdrop for Till's life. The character breathes and lives within the pages, and yet, no one knows if Eulenspiegel was an actual person. The 1500 book tells that Till died of old age in the year 1350, in the village of Luneburg, and that his tombstone bears the images of an owl with a mirror between its claws, followed by the epitaph, "Don't move this stone: let that be clear- Eulenspiegel's buried here." There is no evidence of such a stone today- there were reports that a man had once seen a stone in a graveyard marked with a picture of an owl, but no mirror, and this graveyard was subsequently destroyed. And thus no physical evidence is linked to his actual existence, and no historical records point to the birth or death of one "Till Eulenspeigel". Some scholars do believe that he once lived, others think that Till was purely a literary creation, and still others think that the tales are a gross exaggeration of the life of a clever, renowned peasant who liked to play tricks.

Whether Till was real or not, there is still the question of "N.." the invisible author of the Eulenspeigel vintage. It is probable that the "N." is not an initial at all, but rather a way to express "Name", as in "Name to be inserted". An early scholar of Eulenspiegel by the name of Lappenburg proposed in 1854 that a Dr. Thomas Murner was the true author of Till's tales. Thomas Murner was a writer of the time period and had four books published by the same publisher who worked on the Till book, hence the connection. However, this theory is generally disregarded- there are no explicit connections besides the dubious link of the common publisher, and Murner's writing style is seen to be vastly different than the type exhibited in the Till book. Another theory states that more than one man had a hand in the scribing of Eulenspiegel's adventures, a theory founded in the belief that these 'compiled' tales were previously known and spread about as folk tales. Some claim that the sheer moods or styles of the 95 tales are inconsistent, that there are several writers who add to the book with their own distinct voices. This idea of multiple writers is also generally discounted because of the fact that Till's tales are altogether so symmetrical and follow a pronounced story arc from beginning to end. For example, Till's mother, who speaks in the ninth tale, also appears in the eighty-ninth; his youth, in which Till seems to have lost to other jokers, is very neatly complemented by the last few chapters of his life, where he gains uninterrupted victories over his victims; and the story in which Till meets his "false death", where the people of Lubeck come very close to hanging him but he saves himself with a ridiculous last request, falls in the exact middle of the book (chapters 56 and 57), acting as a fitting centerpiece for the whole of the book.

The last widely-known candidate for the authorage of the Eulenspeigel book is a man by the name of Hermann Bote, a most gifted poet and writer of the 15th century. Bote was a native of the town of Brunswick and, like many other medieval writers who feared censorship or arrest, he had a habit of leaving his books nameless, working complicated acrostical patterns into the writing to reveal his name to those clever enough to decipher. The first suspicion that Hermann Bote might be the author was stated by medieval- literature scholar Christoph Walther in the year 1892, though Walther did not live long enough to publish his evidence in favor of his suspicion. Instead, another scholar by the name of Honegger has taken the job of persuasively arguing for Bote's authorship, adding greatly to the established amount of knowledge about the Eulenspiegel tales. Honegger has assumed, quite reasonably, that the author of the tales was probably from the Hanseatic town of Brunswick, because almost all of the tales center around that general area. Though Eulenspiegel is said to have traveled widely and as far as Poland and Denmark, it is suspected that this declaration of running "around through every country"[1] is mostly a literary device and not intended literally, perhaps intended to enhance the humanistic, broad-perspective atmosphere of the book. Honegger goes on to say that there are a "stuning number of parallels" between Hermann Bote's writings and the writing in the Eulenspiegel book, citing common sayings that appear both in the Eulenspiegel tales and in Bote works, "Der Koker", "Weltchronik", and "Radbuch." These parallels are remarkable but prove relatively little, since common sayings and proverbs could be repeated by many different authors of the time period. Honegger also believes that Bote did indeed leave one of his trademark acrostics within the text of the Eulenspiegel book- he points to the fact that the starting letters of the last 5 tales (in the original Low German and original numbering sequence) form the acrostic "ERMANB", which Honegger takes as the author's name. The problem in this lies in the fact that Botes's full name is not present and thereby could mean that the "acrostic" is merely a coincidence. In Bote's other books, the acrostics clearly spelled out his entire first name and last name. And so, despite the wisps of evidence that support Bote as the mysterious author, scholars still cannot be quite sure.

It is indeed intriguing and amazing that such an authorless, jumbled, fanciful collection of tales has fostered such an eternal, universal character who has been admired and commemorated for nearly 500 years. Along with his books, Till Eulenspiegel has been featured in almost every imaginable art form, his character and image used again and again by an astoundingly large number of greatly talented artists. There is some speculation that the great German artist Albrecht Dürer had a hand in the woodcuts produced for the Eulenspeiegel book; it is noted in his diary that he had bought a copy of the 1519 version of the Eulenspiegel book, and it was around this time that Dürer was producing woodcuts for various satiric books like Brant's "Ship of Fools". Goethe was familiar with the tales of Eulenspiegel and once remarked, "Eulenspiegel: all the chief jests of the book depend on this: that everybody speaks figuratively, and Eulenspiegel takes it literally."[1] Richard Strauss was a great admirer of the Eulenspeigel stories and intended to compose a one act opera on the subject; however, Strauss was not a sucessful librettist and instead finished "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, After the Old-Fashioned Roguish Manner, in Rondo Form, for Full Orchestra, Op. 28" in the year 1895. This tone poem musically tells the tales of Till, romantically moving through his exploits and trickery and fun with wonderful vitality and grand orchestration. Strauss' music was later used as the basis for a Till Eulenspeigel ballet which premiered in America in 1916 but was then dropped from the repertoire soon after. This ballet was Vaslov Najinski's last and little- known work. The German abstract painter Wolfgang Grasse used the image of Till in several of his odd, colorful paintings, most notably "Festival of Fools", which depicts Till in a motley jester's costume, sitting and reading a scroll as an owl perches on his shoulder and odd, clownish, animalistic figures dance about.

Till has also inspired a surprising number of monuments, sculptures, and even businesses. One of the most famous is his statue/fountain in the town square of Brunswick, rumored to be right across from the site of the baker's shop where Till once played one of his tricks. There are Till Eulenspiegel-themed restaurants in both Kassel and Nurnberg, and the Eulenspiegel-Museum in Schoppenstadt is totally dedicated to Eulenspiegel information and research. This museum is run and maintained by an organization called "Freundenkreis Till Eulenspiegel", who publishes a yearbook full of facts about Till and any new related discoveries that may occur. The Belgium association of people interested in Till is called the "Uilenspiegel's Kring," and this society, headquartered in Damme, Flanders (where incidentally, Till's Belgian stories say he was born), also publishes its findings and news in a biannual magazine, called "Tijdschrift voor Uilenspiegelkunde."

And so it is seen that Till's spirit and memories live on today, in business and art and reverent public display. Why, in this age of computers and modems, Till Eulenspiegel can even be found on the information highway! In a web search, one can find numerous web sites dedicated to Till and his adventures, including no less than two sites claiming to be the "Till Eulenspiegel Homepage."

Why is it that this 500-year-old character has endured throughout time, adapted to the progression of art and technology, and held the interest and love of so many different people across the globe? His appeal is universal and primal—he is a rogue and trickster who shows the honest truth and deflates the egos of the pompous. He is a complex jester who shows a wicked cleverness above all expectation. He delights in wordplay and deceit, sadism and humor, weaving a raunchy tapestry of the inherent bumbling and figurative dishonesty of man and woman, rich and poor, noble and common. He disgusts our sensibilities even as his mischievous genius delights our intellect. It truly matters little whether such a man ever drew breath; Till Eulenspiegel will continue to live in the hearts and minds of those who know him, winking and smirking at the eternal foolishness in us all.

[1] Openheimer, Paul. Till Eulenspiegel: His Adventures. Garland Publishing, New York, 1991.

[2] Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter. Northwestern University Press, 1969.

[3] Till Eulenspiegel. Filmstrip, Educational Audio-Visual, Pleasantville, New York, 1967.

[4] Ulenspiegel Homepage, a website by Jaap Vogel. Previously at http://www.ulenspiegel.net

[5] Till Eulenspiegel Homepage (does not exist anymore), a web site by Till Holzknecht.

© 2003 Rachael M. Haring