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THE TILL EULENSPIEGEL SERIES : TALE 27
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The twenty-seventh story tells of how Eulenspiegel became a painter for the Landgrave of Hesse and told him that bastards could not see the painting

This story is clearly one of the forerunners, if not the ancestor, of The Emperor's New Clothes and strongly suggests that the concept was invented neither by Hans Christian Andersen nor by Walt Disney's successors. The author brings up the subject of bastardy as a matter of personal embarrassment. Given how much hanky-panky went on on the side in those courts and how illegitimacy could put a major dent in your career, it was always a touchy subject and our friend uses it to his full advantage. One figure that we rarely see in literature is that of a female court jester. This was, at the time, a profession open to women. A note on the term "artist," too. The word "K√ľnstler" in the original has a somewhat broader meaning and can be taken to mean the practitioner of anything that may present itself as an art.

The ruler of Hesse was a Landgrave (Landgraf), a feudal title which has no contemporary equivalent. It is probably best translated as count and that's what I have done here. Unlike others with a similar title, a count with the title of landgrave was not subservient to a noble of higher rank but owed allegiance directly to the Holy Roman Emperor. Landgraves had in their possession the sort of land holdings and sovereignty more commonly found in the hands of dukes and earls. Here was clearly a man not to be trifled with--you'd think. The chronology suggests that the Landgrave in question may be Heinrich (Henry) II "the Iron," future father-in-law of Casimir III, who appeared in episode 24. Their reigns coincided for the last 17 years of Eulenspiegel's life.

There is a definite historical muddle in this story. The first landgrave of Hesse did not, as the story says, descend from the Roman Colonna family but came from the ruling house of neighbouring Thuringia. He could not have had anything to do with Justininan's daughter, the last emperor of that name having died 500 years before there was a landgraviate of Hesse and who would not have called any son of his Adolphus any more than he'd have named him Billy Bob. Nor can I make a connection to Louis the Pious, who was the son of none other than Charlemagne, which would mean that the nonexistent William the Black would negate a coveted Carolingian lineage and makes no sense. I have no explanation for these specious connections and do find it very odd that Eulenspiegel should try to present them to the sort of noble who would have his ancestry memorised unless he was given an "embellished" lineage. Or maybe the authors of this story did not do their homework. I don't know.


Eulenspiegel got into no fewer adventures in the land of Hesse than he did elsewhere. After he had been up and down all of Saxony his notoriety had pretty much put him out of business. So he moved on to Hesse and eventually came to the ruling count's court at Marburg, where His Lordship asked him what sort of adventurer he may be. To which Eulenspiegel replied by saying that he was an artist. This initially pleased the count no little since he thought that this meant a practitioner of the art of alchemy. The count was known to be a fan of alchemy so he asked Eulenspiegel whether he were an alchemist. "No, my Lord," said Eulenspiegel, "I am a painter the likes of who is rare in any land since my work is far superior to that of others."

"Well, let's have a look at it then," said the count." "Yes, my Lord," said Eulenspiegel, and promptly pulled out a bunch of canvases that he'd picked up in Flanders. The count was quite impressed. "My dear Master," he said, "what would you ask of us in order to paint the ancestry of the counts of Hesse for our halls? And show the times when they were friendly with the kings of Hungary, and with other dukes and lords, and how that came to be? And would you spare no expense to do so?" Eulenspiegel, of course, smelled money and, without blinking, told the count that it would cost him all of four hundred guilders. To which the count said, fine, and promised a generous gift on top of it to make it worth his while.

So that's how Eulenspiegel came to accept the commission. He got an advance of one hundred guilders with which to buy paint and hire a few journeymen. As soon as he intended to start work, he made the count promise that no one but Eulenspiegel and his three assistants would be allowed in the room in which they were painting as long as the work was in progress. There were to be no visitors and no distractions. Next, Eulenspiegel took his assistants aside and made a deal with them that they would shut up and let him do as he wished. They had to do no work but would be paid anyway. Indeed, their hardest task was to be a game of draughts. Needless to say, the three journeymen agreed since it suited them quite well that they should be paid for being bone idle.

It was about a month before the count demanded to know what the artist and his companions were up to and if it would be as good as the proofs. So he came to Eulenspiegel and said, "Dear Master, We keenly desire to see your work, to come with you into the room and behold your painting." To which Eulenspiegel said, "Yes, milord, but I must warn your Lordship of one thing: anyone who comes to see the painting with your Lordship and is of illegitimate birth will be unable to see the picture." The count was a bit surprised but declared that to be quite an achievement.

As they were talking, they entered the painting room. Eulenspiegel had draped a large linen cloth over the wall that he was supposed to be painting. He took down a corner of the cloth and began pointing at the wall and chattering. "Here, milord, observe this man. This is the first count of Hesse, one of the Colonnas of Rome. His consort was a Duchess of Bavaria, who was the daughter of the wealthy emperor-to-be Justinian. See, your Lordship, he begat William the Black, who begat Louis the Pious and so on right up to your gracious Lordship. I know for certain that no one could fault my work, for it is artistic and masterful to the utmost and made with beautiful colours."

The count saw nothing but a blank wall and thought, my, I'll be the son of a peasant but I see nothing but a whitewashed wall. Yet, for appearance's sake, he had to agree and said "Dear Master, your work does please us. We do, however, lack the understanding to suitably appreciate it." With this, he left the hall and went to his wife, who began to speak herself: "My Lord, what is that freewheeling painter of yours up to? Now that you've seen it, how do you like his work? I trust him little for he looks like a rascal to me." So she asked to see it for herself, which the count agreed to, provided the painter consented.

The noblewoman sent for Eulenspiegel and asked to see the painting for herself. Eulenspiegel gave her the same story that he'd given the count and told her that no one of illegitimate birth could see the painting. So the countess took eight of her handmaidens as well as her jester and went into the hall. Eulenspiegel again pulled back the cloth and, bit by bit, told the countess the same story about the ancestry of the counts of Hesse. The countess and her handmaidens stood silent and neither praised nor faulted the painting. Each one of them was too afraid to say anything for fear of being illegitimate on either their father's or their mother's side. Finally, the countess's jester harrumphed and spoke: "Dear Master, I'll be the child of a whore for all my life but I see nothing of a painting." Eulenspiegel in turn saw nothing good in her words. Should the fools start speaking the truth, he thought, it might be high time to move on. So he just made light of the jester's words.

While he was doing that, the countess went off to see her lord. He asked her how she liked the painting. To which the countess replied, "My Lord, I like it every bit as much as you do. But our jester is not pleased with it at all. She thinks she sees no painting, and neither do my maids. I fear I smell a scheme." This began to weigh heavily on the count and he began to suspect foul play. Still, he sent word to Eulenspiegel that he should complete the painting and have the entire court look at the work. The count still thought that he could use the painting to get any knights of his who were bastards to give themselves away so he could dismiss them. Eulenspiegel, as soon as he received the order, paid off his assistants and let them go. He then asked for another hundred guilders from the majordomo. No sooner was the money counted out, than he made a hasty departure.

A few days later the count asked about his painter but the painter had been gone for so long that the dust had settled in his tracks. So the count summoned all his courtiers and went into the hall, where he asked them if anyone could see a painting. Not one of them could say that he did so they all remained silent. "Well," said the count, "it seems that we have been had. I never wanted anything to do with Eulenspiegel but it looks like he found us. I won't fret over the two hundred gold pieces. He, however, is a good-for-nothing fraudster and should be careful to avoid our land."

And that's how Eulenspiegel got away from Marburg with a purse full of gold. He also decided to get out of the painting business for good.

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English translation based on text in the public domain and available at Projekt Gutenberg-DE.
Source URI of original: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/bote/eulenspg/eulen27.htm
Commentary preceding story text added and, where applicable, researched by writeup author.

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