Till Eulenspiegel  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Till Eulenspiegel is an impudent trickster figure originating in Middle Low German folklore. His tales were disseminated in popular printed editions narrating a string of lightly connected episodes that outlined his picaresque career, in Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries, Poland and Italy. He made his main entrance in English-speaking culture late in the nineteenth century as "Owlglass", but was first mentioned in English literature by Ben Jonson in his comedic play The Alchemist or even earlier – Owleglasse – by Henry Porter in The Two Angry Women of Abington (1599).


Origin and tradition

"General opinion now tends to regard Till Eulenspiegel as an entirely imaginary figure around whose name was gathered a cycle of tales popular in the Middle Ages," Ruth Michaelis-Jena observes "Yet legendary figures need a definite background to make them memorable and Till needed the reality of the Braunschweig landscape and real towns to which he could travel—Cologne, Rostock, Bremen and Marburg among them—and whose burghers become the victims of his pranks."

According to the tradition, Eulenspiegel was born in Kneitlingen near Brunswick around 1300. He travelled through the Holy Roman Empire, especially Northern Germany, but also the Low Countries, Bohemia, and Italy. His mobility as a Landfahrer ("vagrant") implicitly surpasses the constitution and consciousness of the Late Middle Ages.

Since the early 19th century, many German scholars have made attempts to find historical evidence of Till Eulenspiegel's existence. In his 1980 book Till Eulenspiegel, historian Bernd Ulrich Hucker mentions that according to a contemporary legal register of the city of Brunswick one Till van Cletlinge ("Till from/of Kneitlingen") was incarcerated there in the year 1339, along with four of his accomplices, for highway robbery.

While he is unlikely to have been based on an historic person, by the sixteenth century, Eulenspiegel was said to have died in Mölln, near Lübeck and Hamburg, of the Black Death in 1350, according to a gravestone attributed to him there, which was noted by Fynes Moryson in his Itinerary, 1591. "Don't move this stone, let that be clear – Eulenspiegel's buried here" is written on the stone in Low German.

In the stories, he is presented as a trickster embodying an implicitly higher consciousness who plays practical jokes on his contemporaries, exposing vices at every turn, greed and folly, hypocrisy and foolishness. As Peter Carels notes, "The fulcrum of his wit in a large number of the tales is his literal interpretation of figurative language." In these stories, anything that can go wrong in communication does go wrong due to the disparity in consciousness. And it is not the exception that communication gives rise to complications; rather, it is the rule. As a model of communication, Till Eulenspiegel is the inherent, unpredictable factor of complication that can throw any communication, whether with oneself or others, into disarray. These irritations, amounting to conflicts, have the potential of effecting mental paradigm changes and increases in the level of consciousness. Although craftsmen are featured as the principal victims of his pranks, neither the nobility nor the pope is exempt from being affected by him.

In the end, Eulenspiegel's pranks are not so much about the exposure of human weaknesses and malice, as much as the breaking up and sublation of a given status of consciousness, by means of its negation, a consequence of his implicitly higher consciousness. Thus, a common theme to these stories is that of turning the prevailing mental horizon upside down, and unseating it with a higher one.

The tales in print

The two earliest printed editions, in Early New High German, "Ein kurtzweilig Lesen von Dyl Ulenspiegel, geboren uß dem Land zu Brunßwick, wie er sein leben volbracht hat …", are Johannes Grüninger's in Strassburg, 1510–11 and 1515. The 1510-11 edition is considered the definitive text as far as it has been preserved; only one relatively complete copy (missing about 30 leaves, which were replaced by leaves from a then-contemporary edition when the book was rebound by an unknown owner around the year 1700) and a few leaves that appear to have been printer's trials, made before the actual printing run began, are known to survive. In fact the page that would have contained the year number is among those lost, the 1510-11 time frame has been inferred from details of the type used by the printer; other books from Grüninger's shop dated 1510-11 were set from the same lead type (lead type had to be recast fairly frequently since it would be worn down rather quickly in a busy print shop). The 1515 edition is decidedly inferior, missing many of the illustrations of the older edition, and showing signs of careless copying of the text; a third Strassburg edition, of 1519, is better again and is usually used in modern editions to provide the sections that are missing in the surviving 1510-11 copy. In spite of often-repeated suggestions to the effect "that the name 'Eulenspiegel' was used in tales of rogues and liars in Lower Saxony as early as 1400", previous references to a Till Eulenspiegel actually turn out to be surprisingly elusive, Paul Oppenheimer concludes. The author is supposedly Hermann Bote. Recent research has established that it was written in Early High German.

The literal translation of the High German name "Eulenspiegel" gives "owl mirror", two symbols that identify Till Eulenspiegel in popular woodcuts (illustration). Another meaning hypothetically attributed to his name is "wipe the arse". In the eighteenth century, German satirists adopted episodes for social satire, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century versions of the tales are bowdlerized, to render them fit for children, who had come to be considered their chief natural audience, by expurgating their many scatological references. In the current Oppenheimer edition (see above) scatological stories abound, beginning with Till's early childhood (in which he rides behind his father and exposes his rear-end to the townspeople) and persisting until his death bed (where he tricks a priest into soiling his hands with feces).

Current popularity

The book has been translated, often in mutilated versions, into many languages. There are three museums in Germany featuring Till Eulenspiegel. One is located in the town of Schöppenstedt in Lower Saxony, which is nearby his assumed birthplace Kneitlingen. The second is located in the supposed place of his death, the city of Mölln in Schleswig-Holstein, and the third in Bernburg (Saale), Sachsen-Anhalt.

Started in 1971, The Eulenspiegel Society is the oldest and largest BDSM education and support group in New York City, where it is based, and claims to be the oldest group of its kind in the United States.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Till Eulenspiegel" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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