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Till Eulenspiegel (German pronunciation: [tɪl ˈʔɔʏlənˌʃpiːɡəl], Low Saxon: Dyl Ulenspegel [dɪl ˈʔuːlnˌspeɪɡl̩]) 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, the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy. He made his main entrance in English-speaking culture late in the nineteenth century as "Owlglass". However, he 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).
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") allows him to be envisaged anywhere and everywhere in 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 a 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 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.
"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."
Rudolf Steiner writes of the philosophical implications of the legend in extenso in a published 1918 lecture. As part of a stream of consciousness put in the mouth of the character Isis, he observes, for example: "What modern humanity should take as the true remedy for its abstract spirit is depicted on a tombstone in Moelln in the Lauenberg district... Scholars — and scholars are indeed very learned today and take everything with extraordinary gravity and significance — have naturally discovered — oh! they have discovered various things, for example, that Homer didn't really exist. The scholars have naturally also discovered that there was never a Till Eulenspiegel. One of the chief reasons why the actual bones of the actual Till Eulenspiegel (who was supposedly merely the representative of his age) are not supposed to lie beneath the tombstone in Lauenberg on which is depicted the owl with the looking glass, was that another tombstone had been found in Belgium upon which there was an owl with a mirror. Now these learned ones naturally have said — for it is logical, isn't it? (and if they are anything it is logical) — how does it go again in Shakespeare? For they are all honorable men, all, all, all! Logical they all are! — anyway, so they said: If the same sign is found in Lauenberg and in Belgium, then naturally Eulenspiegel never existed at all."
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 pages, which were replaced by pages from a then-contemporary edition when the book was rebound by an unknown owner around the year 1700) and a few pages 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 being among those lost, the 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).
The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak, a 1867 novel by Charles De Coster, 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.
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|Wikisource has the text of a 1905 New International Encyclopedia article about Till Eulenspiegel.|